Icewines…well thawed out


One way to cool down on a warm day is to treat yourself to a delicious sip of icewine.  In fact…I was treated to a sampling of 15 different icewines at this year’s Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival offered for those of us who have a sweet tooth.  Rows and rows of glasses were readied as winemakers from Ontario, British Columbia, Washington and Germany shared with us stories about each sweet creation, their experiments, and tales of harvest in frigid temperatures (grapes need to be picked when -8C or colder to be labeled as icewine and command the high price point).  This seminar made my teeth sing as I sipped the sweet nectar. 


Celebrated wine author, John Schreiner explained that while researching his book, Icewine: The Wine of Winter, the Germans laid claim to making the first wine with naturally frozen grapes.  The Austrians perfected this art.  The idea grew to make icewine in Ontario in the early 1980’s when a group of Austrians grape growers and winemakers were involved in pioneering the Ontario wine industry. 


“After a number of years of experimenting, Ontario icewine was put on the map when Don Ziraldo, founder of Inniskillin took a bottle of icewine (made by winemaker Karl Kaiser) to a wine competition in Bordeaux, France in 1990.  Don casually served this novel wine to his peers to get their impression”, tells John Schreiner.  Encouraged by the impressive feedback, Ziraldo entered a bottle into the competition the following year and won top award in the sweet wine category. 


That was the legendary beginning spotlighting Canada on the world wine stage.


In 2008, Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA) reports that 130 plus icewines were produced in Canada – mainly using Vidal grapes.  Paul Bosc, owner of Chateau des Charmes Winery explained, “Vidal has thick skins and strong stems that withstand the harsh weather while waiting for the magic temperature of -8 degrees to be harvested“.  Other grape varieties successfully used for icewine include Riesling and Cabernet Franc.  Recent experiments include icewine made with Viognier, Tempranillo, Shiraz and Pinot Noir grapes.



Savvy Sommelier tasting notes on icewines featured in this seminar:

Jackson Triggs Okanagan Grand Reserve Riesling Sparkling Icewine 2007 VQA, Okanagan, British Columbia

Sitting at my table on my immediate left was Derek Kontkanen, Jackson Trigg’s newest winemaker.  This wine is one of three sparkling icewines made in the world. Double fermented to create the elegant bubbles that seem to lighten the typical cloying texture of icewine.  Honey, mango & pineapple with a refreshing acidity – this wine is simply heaven in my glass!


Chateau des Charmes Vidal Icewine 2006 VQA, Niagara, Ontario

A classic – golden nectar that oozes aromas and tastes of a freshly cut sweet pineapple with flavours of dried apricots intermingled.  Smooth texture allows the wine to glide over your tongue with a finish that lingers long after your first sip.


Peninsula Ridge Riesling Icewine VQA 2006, Niagara, Ontario

Founder Norman Beal told the story how over the years, his winemaker originally from Chablis, France, Jean-Pierre Colas, had never made icewine. “After I enticed him to move his family to Niagara and all of the contracts were signed, I slipped the comment ‘…and you will have to make icewine… Jean Pierre, just looked at me true to his French character, he shook his head at the ludicrous idea.  After several attempts, he has now warmed up to the idea and is making impressive icewines.”  This Riesling is butterscotch in colour with pear and marmalade aromas and tastes, this wine is refreshing with a long finish.  Perfect with blue veined cheeses or a slice of rustic tarte aux pommes.


Mission Hill Riesling Icewine VQA 2006, Okanagan, British Columbia

“Icewine harvest came unusually early in 2006”, recalled winemaker John Simes.  Picked on Nov 28 & 29th (a month early than previous years), the wine was all about caramel, butterscotch and toffee. Delicious!


Then the Germans showed their talent…

Erbacher Michelmark Riesling Eiswein 2001, Germany

Hard to believe that this is 8 years old, this elegant, light wine impressed us all.  “Smells and tastes like lemon drop candies – you know the hard ones dusted with icing sugar’, commented one of the participants. Refreshing with notes of lemongrass, chamomile flowers this wine showcased that there are many styles of icewines.


St Urbans-Hof Ockfener Bockstein 1998, Germany

Vintner Nik Weis, explained that the biggest challenge of making this wine is keeping the deer from eating the frozen grapes before they are picked.  Very different from the other icewines, this one had delicate floral aromas reminding me of elderflower, lilac and rose with a mineral undertone.


We were then treated to an icewine made 25 years ago…

Hainle 1984 Riesling Icewine, British Columbia

Jaws dropped as we savoured the toffee coloured icewine that was pulled out of the winery’s library.  I have never had anything like this.  Reminiscent of Cognac aromas and taste, this wine was made with Canada’s first certified organic grapes.  “This was a classic case of roaming through the vineyards one wintery day only to discover – Oh my god, we forgot to pick this row of grapes,” recounted Tilman Hainle whose father was the original owner of the winery at the time (the current owners are the Huber family)


For something different…

Working Horse Pinot Noir 2007 Okanagan, British Columbia

 Tilman Hainle continued his presentation as he poured this interesting icewine made with Pinot Noir grapes.  Canada’s first organic winemaker and well known in Okanagan, was establishing his second winery – Working Horse Winery.  “A grape grower called me late one evening saying that he had organic icewine grapes available….what he meant was that they were available right there and then! This opportunity does not happen often. My winery was not built yet nor did I have any equipment.  After phoning around and calling in favours, I was thrilled to be able to make this icewine.” 


Summerhill Pyramid Winery Organic Pinot Noir Icewine 2003 VQA, Okanagan, British Columbia

I carefully sipped on this icewine appreciating that the grapes were grown only a few kilometers away from the devastating forest fires of 2003.  Looking like wild strawberry jam in my glass, there were delicate aromas of roasted coffee mixed with tastes of homemade strawberry jam.  A beautiful wine, “…one that I enjoy dunking a biscotti into my glass”, suggested winemaker Eric vonKrosigk


Inniskillin Tempranillo Icewine 2007 VQA, Okanagan, British Columbia

Sitting on my right was winemaker Sandor Mayer who immigrated from Hungary for the opportunity to work at Inniskillin in the Okanagan.  Sandor has been experimenting with small plantings of different grape varieties to see what will grow in Okanagan. His small section of Tempranillo grapes were left on the vine until frozen (on January 1st!) then crushed to make this novel icewine.  Garnet colour with cherry aromas with tastes of raspberries and red candied apples that you find in a country fair, every sip was both sweet and refreshing with lively acidity.  A neat treat.


The finish line…

Pillitteri Estates Shiraz Icewine 2006 VQA, Niagara, Ontario

 “A real prize”, states winery president, Charlie Pillitteri, whose winery claims that they are the world’s largest producer of estate icewine. Not only is Charlie proud of this unique wine, this delicious wine was ranked the 2nd top Syrah in the world at the Syrah du Mondes competition in France last year.  It had an interesting aroma and taste that I could not identify until Charlie suggested ‘a good German made black forest cake’.  Exactly – both the dry dark chocolate cake and the sweet red cherries were captured in my glass.  Outstanding.


My sweet tooth was royally treated in this tasting.  It was an impressive experience to hear from each of the winemakers and winery owners whose devotion to craft icewine despite the challenges of cold temperatures.  Their passion encouraged us all to showcase icewine to more wine lovers.  “We should not wait until after dinner to serve it,” remarked Charlie Pillitteri, “at this point we are often too full.  Why not open a bottle of icewine before a meal?”


I will certainly try this at my next dinner party with friends.




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