While most of us are dreaming of escaping to a warm Caribbean beach, Canadian Icewine pioneer Donald Ziraldo is craving temperatures below zero. To make his luscious riesling icewines on the Niagara Peninsula he needs frosty frozen grapes on leafless vines.
I’m a huge fan of these expensive elixirs—and so are sweet-toothed Chinese. In 2013 they swallowed more than 42 percent of all Canada’s icewine, about 104,000 liters worth more than $8 million. The rest of Asia—South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Singapore—snapped up another 30 percent.
Demand is so high that fakes, some made from flavored alcohol and water, are a serious, growing problem.
The real stuff is ideal for Chinese New Year gifts, but for me, taste is the big appeal: ripe tropical fruit or caramel apple sweetness contrasted with zingy acidity and a thick, rich texture that coats your tongue like liquid honey. Maybe that’s why imports to the U.S. are finally growing, having tripled since 2011.
Ziraldo, who co-founded Ontario’s Inniskillin winery with Austrian-born winemaker Karl Kaiser and now has his own eponymous boutique estate, is the Johnny Appleseed of Canadian Icewine. He’s been making it since 1984 and has crisscrossed the globe preaching its virtues and stocking duty free shops at Asian airports.
The big break came in 1991 at VinExpo, the world’s biggest wine trade fair, when Kaiser and Ziraldo’s 1989 Inniskillin Vidal Icewine won the top prize and put Canada—and icewine—on the world’s wine map.
Cool Temps, Hot Market
When I reached him by phone last week, Ziraldo wasn’t worried that the temperature on the Niagara peninsula was 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Harvest dates, he reminded me, vary dramatically from year to year. The cold would come. In British Columbia, picking had started early, in November. In Ontario, which produces about 80 percent of Canada’s icewine, he and most others were waiting.
``Each time the grapes freeze, thaw, then refreeze,’’ Ziraldo says, ``the liquid inside the grape becomes sweeter and thicker.’’
It turns out the traditional, labor-intensive winemaking is even more risky and extreme than I realized.
The law states that grapes must be picked while still on the vine after the temperature dips to at least minus 8 degrees Celsius (18 Fahrenheit) for several days. Ziraldo’s harvest sweet spot is minus 10 C (14 F). The water content in the grapes freezes into ice crystals, the sugary juice does not. Regulations dictate the level of sugar for the wine to be labeled ``Icewine’’ (which the country spells as one word).
If the weather is too warm or too cold, the entire crop is doomed. The longer grapes hang on the vines, the greater the chance they’ll rot or be gobbled up by winter-hungry birds—as they were the first year Ziraldo and Kaiser attempted to make icewine. Now everyone drapes the vines with nets.
Picking The Grape-cicles
When the temperature drops, pickers will bundle up in down parkas, thick gloves, heavy boots, and warm hats and head for starlit vineyards as early as 3 a.m., when the temperature is coldest.
They’ll rush clusters of brownish-looking grapes as hard as marbles to the winery and press them in batches before any melting occurs. The process is slow; the icy grapes sometimes break the press. To maintain a sub-zero environment, the winery doors stay open and workers shiver.
The amount of syrupy juice that oozes out is tiny. Each grape yields only a drop or two of nectar, so it takes about eight pounds to make one half-bottle of wine. The same amount of non-frozen grapes could produce six regular-size bottles.
Once you taste this liquid dessert, though, you’ll see why it’s worth the effort.
At $40 to $80 a half-bottle, it almost seems a bargain. The most expensive example so far, a half bottle of 2000 Royal DeMaria Chardonnay Icewine, sold for $30,000 in 2006 to a Saudi prince. DeMaria, who calls himself the Versace of Icewine, wants $250,000 each for the remaining 14. He says a French collector is very interested.
Since the term “Icewine” on a label means big bucks, not everyone was happy last year when Vintner’s Quality Alliance standards used in Ontario and British Columbia went into effect countrywide. But the VQA logo on bottles might help curb counterfeits.
One key requirement is that grapes must be picked while hanging on the vine, as they are in Austria and Germany, where the frozen grape tradition originated 200 years ago.
That eliminates the easy method: cryoextraction, or artifical freezing, which sounds not unlike what Ripley went through in the “Alien” saga (and is just as untoward in the icewine industry).
Mother Nature doesn’t let Austria and Germany produce eiswein every year. A handful of German wineries did harvest frozen grapes in 2014, but Canada has become the world’s largest producer.
That may not last: China’s love affair with icewine has spurred home grown efforts, with help from a Canadian winery. Expensive Changyu Golden Valley Ice Wine bottlings from remote Liaoning province are now available in London at posh merchant Berry Bros & Rudd.
For now Ontario remains the Canadian leader, with about 800,000 liters a year. Its 60 or so wineries use a surprising variety of red and white grapes.
The best are made from either riesling or vidal, a hybrid white grape with a tough skin. Red grape cabernet franc icewine has possibilities, and is pretty killer with chocolate.
All are generally sweeter, more powerful and sensual, and cheaper than their German and Austrian counterparts. Vidal is apple-y, like liquid tarte tatin; riesling is crisper, full of aromas and flavors of mango and peach. The latest idea is sparkling ice wine.
What to Buy
Sadly, Ziraldo Riesling Icewine is nearly impossible to find, but half-bottles can be had in Hong Kong at Milon Wine (HK$550) and in London at The Perfect Cellar (49 pounds). Ziraldo also produced the 2009 Equifera Riesling Icewine ($70), an intense wine that smells like fresh apples and white flowers.
The 2012 Reif Estate Vidal Icewine ($50/375 ml) is deep golden, raisiny, and creamy. The widely available 2012 Inniskillin Riesling Icewine ($80, 375 ml), luscious and very, very sweet, shows notes of pineapple and apricot. The 2010 Megalomaniac Coldhearted Riesling Icewine ($30) tastes like honeyed pears and peaches, while 2013 Mission Hill Riesling Reserve ($68) from British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley is similar but deeper and richer.
Don’t neglect German eisweins, like any vintage of the well-priced Dr. Loosen Riesling Eiswein ($40/375 ml) or the fabulous, floral, concentrated 2011 Donnhoff Oberhauser Brucke Riesling Eiswein ($200/375 ml).
And if all this is not enough, the 20th Niagara Icewine Festival kicks off on Jan 9.