Some Niagara icewines from the 2012-15 vintages

Icewine Niagara

I’ve never been much of a fan of icewine. A tiny sip is enough, such that a 375mL bottle would last me a year or more. It’s luxuriously sweet in taste and texture, and I can see why many people like it or love it, as it fits into a wide portfolio of foods and drinks that are on the sweet-to-very-sweet spectrum. 

Historically, icewine came onto the market at the same time as sugar became popular in Europe. From the 1600s, when the sugar plantations of the Caribbean came on-stream, Europeans started to put sugar in everything, including new drinks such as tea, coffee, and chocolate, which had been consumed in their bitter state in their places of origin. Wine was no exception. An English observer noted in 1617, “Gentlemen carouse only with wine, with which many mix sugar… And because the taste of the English is thus delighted with sweetness, the wines in taverns… are commonly mixed [with sugar] at the filling thereof, to make them pleasant.” 

So sweet wine has a long historic pedigree, but if I’ve met plenty of people who love icewine, I’ve met as many who don’t. I can never sell it at a dinner party. (Asking, “Who would like some icewine?” seems to be the equivalent of “Can I call anyone a taxi?”) I know it’s popular in some foreign markets, where it’s a sort of Canadian icon (and where it’s counterfeited, the ultimate compliment), but I suspect that even there it’s primarily a gift and re-gifting commodity. It’s just as well icewine keeps for years.

Until surprisingly recently, most non-Canadians thought only of icewine when you mentioned Canadian wine, and even now – when so many wineries produce icewine – the one brand that non-Canadians (including many wine professionals) consistently know is Inniskillin. There’s no doubt that Inniskillin has done a superb marketing job and is largely responsible for the identification of Canada with icewine.

But in a way, icewine was the perfect entry wine for Canada because ever since Voltaire described Canada as “quelques arpents de neige” (“a few acres of snow”), many non-Canadians continue to think of Canada as a land of year-round snow and ice. When I first came to Canada I was regaled by stories of stupid Americans coming to Canada in July, with skis strapped to the roofs of their cars. So what’s more natural than a permafrost Canada producing icewine – unless it occurs to you that the grapes have to grow and ripen first.

In Vinopolis, the (now closed) wine museum in London , the sole representation of Canadian wine was a very large photograph of the icewine harvest. The vineyard was snow-covered and the vines were pathetically spindly and bare of all but a few straggly bunches of shrivelled brown grapes. The beard and eyebrows of the harvester were ice-encrusted and he seemed to have difficulty cutting the bunches because he couldn’t grasp the shears properly with his icy mitts. It looked like a scene from the Soviet gulag.

But icewine is a luxury wine and it’s identified more with Canada than with other and earlier producers, such as Germany and Austria. The success of icewine probably made it more difficult to convince foreign consumers that Canada could produce table wine, but that hurdle has been cleared. I was recently commissioned to write a book on Canadian wine for a wine book series in the UK, and the publisher’s advisory board made it clear that the focus should be on table wines, not icewines.

All that said, and despite my personal reservations about icewine, there are some superior examples and also some interesting variations from riesling and vidal, the varieties used to make most icewine.  Many other varieties (red and white) are now used, and there are sparkling as well as infused icewines. At least one Ontario producer of sparkling wine uses icewine in the dosage.  

Although icewine is quintessentially sweet (in Ontario it must have a minimum 125 grams of residual sugar per litre, but most are higher than 200), I find too many icewines dominated by sugar at the expense of fruit. As with table wines, the key is balance, and the balance in icewine involves sugar, fruit, and acid. Get these sorted, and you have a very drinkable icewine.  Flabby, fruity icewines and icewines that are little more than sweet syrup don’t make the cut.  I find icewines made from some of the off-beat varieties (such as cabernet franc and gewürztraminer) are often interesting and attractive, but icewine made from a minority variety doesn’t, in itself, produce quality. 

Here are a few icewines that arrived on my desk recently:

Henry of Pelham Riesing Icewine 2015
VQA Niagara Peninsula $49.95/375mL 9.5% alc.

This is a very balanced icewine in a sort of classic Niagara style. The texture is lightly viscous, the fruit is concentrated and complex, and the acidity is prominent and showing some attractive bite. It’s sweet, to be sure, but the acid keeps the wine clean, fresh, and above all drinkable. 

Henry of Pelham Vidal Icewine 2015
VQA Niagara Peninsula $24.95/200mL 9.5% alc
. (available from the winery only)
The positive and fresh fruit shows well through the residual sugar, and it’s backed by clean, bright acid. It doesn’t have the acidity of riesling but there’s plenty here to keep the icewine honest.

Château des Charmes Vidal Icewine 2015
VQA Niagara-on-the-Lake $45.95/375mL 9.5% alc.

This is a rich style of icewine, with the fruit having a distinct brûlé character on the nose and palate. There’s good depth of flavour, an opulent viscosity to the texture, and just enough acidity to carry the richer style off. The sweetness (238g/L residual sugar) is definitely there, but it’s far from the cloying sweetness of some icewines.

Inniskillin ‘Canadian Oak’ Chardonnay Icewine 2015
VQA Niagara Peninsula $79.95/375mL 9.5% alc. 

The palate shows the oak-aged chardonnay pedigree of this icewine clearly, and that has to be a good thing as it shows that the varietal character isn’t obliterated by the sugar (230g/L). There’s good acid backing to the fruit, and generally good balance among all the components.

Lakeview Cellars Gewürztraminer Icewine 2014
VQA Niagara Peninsula $XX/200mL 11% alc.

Identifiably gewürztraminer in flavour, this also has a dose of the bitterness that you often find in the back palate of the variety.  The bitterness here is a nice counterpoint to the sweetness (about 200g/L of residual sugar), which is also moderated by the clean acidity. Overall it’s an interesting and nicely balanced icewine.

Lakeview Cellars Cabernet Franc Icewine 2013
VQA Niagara Peninsula $29.95/200mL 11% alc.

The fruit is clean and fresh and shows its varietal provenance clearly through the residual sugar (201g/L). It’s backed by clean acidity and has a lightly viscous texture that finishes fresh rather than sweet.

Lakeview Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon Icewine 2015
VQA Niagara Peninsula $39.95/200mL 11.5% alc.

 There’s good depth to the flavours here, and the fruit complements the residual sugar (224g/L) effectively. The acid is clean and fresh, and is well balanced to the fruit. Overall it’s a very drinkable icewine, but lacks some of the varietal definition.

Inniskillin Sparkling Cabernet Franc Icewine 2012
VQA Niagara Peninsula $79.95/375mL 9% alc.

Combining cabernet franc and bubbles, this is an interesting take on icewine that generally succeeds well. The fruit is nicely defined and quite readily identifiable as cabernet franc – which tells you the sugar is in balance – and the gas (bubbles) cuts through the sweetness even more. The essential sweetness that’s needed in icewine is still there, of course (it has a whopping 326 grams of residual sugar per litre), but it seems to play a role that’s secondary to the fruit and bubbles.