Icewine: Gold is made in the cold

Blogger Kim Bannister of WeeWelcome interviewed our Savvy Sommelier – Debbie Trenholm – about her experience picking frozen grapes during the icewine harvest in Niagara at Malivoire Winery.

 Inside Icewine

The cold weather brings one tasty treat – Icewine. To learn more about this delicious drink, I talked with wine expert Debbie Trenholm of Savvy Company.


How does Icewine differ from other wines?
Throughout the growing season, winemakers decide which grapes to leave on the vines long after the regular harvest is complete and wait for Mother Nature to turn them into gold – icewine grapes that is. The magic number is the air needs to hit -8 degrees Celsius or colder. At this point, the frenzy begins! The frozen grapes can be picked (by law it must reach -8 degrees in order to be classified as an Icewine). Some wineries leave the grapes on longer (such as -10 degrees). The trick with Icewine is that winemakers never know when during the winter -8 degrees will come.

This year -8 degrees came to Niagara in early January.  Winemakers also need a long period of time at that cold temperature to pick (some wineries have many acres of vineyards with frozen grapes) and crush the grapes.

In 2001 I was called on to pick in an Icewine harvest. While staying in Niagara doing some consulting work, I received a phone call at 11:30 one night from Ann Sperling – Winemaker at the time at Malivoire. What an opportunity!  I bundled up and headed out!

When you think of a vineyard often thoughts of lush green comes to mind. But in January, the reality is that many grapes had fallen off (these are no good), and the bare dead vines set against the stark whiteness of the snow was very dramatic. Shadows of people were cast from the head lamps of the tractor going up and down the rows of grapes being picked by people with ski gloves.

The grapes look like almost like raisins – brown & shrivelled. Mother Nature has attacked them – hitting them several times by frost. I had to snap the bunches off the vine (remember with ski gloves) and they were hard as marbels. Clunk they go into my bucket.

The winemaker’s job is to press them – they press these little pellets and patiently wait until the first juice comes out. The juice looks like apple juice concentrate that you get at the grocery story  – as  thick and the same caramel colour.

Once the grapes are crushed outdoors (they too have to maintain -8 degrees Celsius during this part of the winemaking process) they can bring the juice into the cellar to start to ferment it. As you can imagine, the juice in each grape is highly concentrated because the water content of the grapes is frozen. What is extracted from the grapes is pure nectar – this is why Icewine is deliciously sweet.

For my Icewine harvest experience, the team of pickers (all family & friends) were out for about 6 hours, until sunrise. We had to stop because the sun was rising and the temperature began to rise above the magic number -8C.

What foods go well with Icewine?
When I serve Icewine I follow a simple rule of thumb – make sure that the food is not sweeter than the Icewine – it will make your Icewine seem sweeter. Good accompaniments include dark chocolate, roasted nuts, and fresh fruit. Icewine can be served before or after dinner or as a dessert all on its own.

How much does a bottle of Icewine cost, on average?
Because of all that work that goes into making a bottle, and because, like maple syrup, it takes a lot of grapes to make one bottle – most Icewine cost between $45 and $85. I know of some Icewines that have a price tag of $1000 plus!

An interesting note: at the recent Nobel Peace Prize dinner President Obama was served an Icewine by Niagara winery Inniskillin (click here for more info). This same wine was recently featured in Oprah Magazine.

Why is the Icewine experience one to try?
People are really starting to recognize the beauty of this type of wine. Bottom line, it is uniquely Canadian. There is so much love and care that goes into making the wine that it is magical! Everything has to come together to make this type of wine: -8 degrees and a team of patient pickers.

If someone wanted a good ice wine to start with, can you suggest a few types/brands?
In Niagara, winemakers started with Vidal as the main grape variety to create Icewine. it is hardy grape to grow with its thick skin, so it weathers well while waiting for the magic -8 degrees. But with the curiousity and experimentation of many winemakers, you can get almost any grape variety in this sweet rendition. I have enjoyed icewines made with Chardonnay and Reisling as well as red icewines made with Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc grapes. It is neat to see how the same grape can taste so different. There are also sparkling Icewines.

My favourite sparkling wine is made by Pillitteri Estates Winery.  Be sure to try the classic Inniskillin Vidal Icewine VQA, served at the Nobel Peace Prize dinner.  And if you want to indulge in a red Icewine, try Malivoire’s Cabernet Franc Icewine VQA ….and those are just for starters! 

An event not to be missed!  Check out the Niagara Icewine Festival on now until January 31st. A delicious getaway with tastings and winemakers dinners.

Shopping Cart