THE STORY OF CANADA’S ICEWINE
Vitis vinifera vine and icewine (Canadian spelling) were, up to recent years alien terms in Canada.
Vitis vinifera vines suitable for making dry wines were first planted early 1960’s by stubborn European immigrants in the Niagara Peninsula, ignoring the advice of scientists who firmly believed that the severe winters of the region were too cold for delicate Vitis vinifera vines to survive. Well, they were wrong!
The Free Trade Agreement signed in 1988 between Canada and the U S A presented a unique opportunity to produce better wines, as it forced wineries to compete with much less expensive American wines that threatened to flood all provincial markets.
Meanwhile, Walter Hainle, a German immigrant from Stuttgart had started making wine at home in B C’s Okanagan Valley to enjoy more palatable wines as he could not get used to the alien smell of Vitis labrusca or even hybrid grape wines. He then remembered a delicacy in Germany when the harvest warranted it, and always in extremely small quantities. These extremely aromatic and sweet wines, called in German eiswein, had always intrigued him.
In 1973, Walter Hainle produced an eiswein (40 litres in all) from a batch of grapes that froze before harvesting. He thought the wine was similar to the ones he remembered tasting in his youth in German. Soon this type of wine gained wide recognition in British Columbia’s wine circles, and the news reached Ontario shortly after. (Note from Tilman Hainle, Walter’s son: He had to convince Summerland grape grower Ludwig Littau to leave the grapes on the vine for the first frost. It was probably only 20 litres, and was an experimental batch, never released. Canada's (and North America's) oldest commercially released Icewine was the 1978 vintage, of which there were 156 375mL bottles (58.5 L). My father and I made this wine jointly.)
Meanwhile T.G Bright’s (since absorbed into the Vincor conglomerate) had planted experimental plots of vinifera and hybrid grapes under the auspices of the company’s French winemaker Adhemar de Chaunac.
Among the hybrid grapes, there was one variety with a thick skin and of relatively pleasant flavour, Adhemar de Chaunac asked the vineyard manager to leave a few rows of grapes to freeze on the vine before harvesting. He then experimented to produce an icewine with the help of John Paroshy who had obtained his doctorate in oenology at Geisenheimdoctorate in Germany.
John Paroshy recalls producing a small quantity of fine icewine by 1979. The production of approximately 100 cases of icewine was never advertised widely, or marketed, extensively but sold to corporate clients and a few selected individuals.
Meanwhile Walter and his son Tilman Hainle in B C were producing icewine annually from a variety called Okanagan Riesling that has no resemblance to the true Riesling, but can yield passable wines.
In 1988 when Walter and his son Tilman Hainle opened their own winery, he planted the true Riesling, which in time yielded very fine Germanic style icewines. A few years before, in 1982 Peter Gamble, a young winemaker of Hillebrand Estates tried to make icewine for his personal use, but an unfortunate accident spoiled the experiment. A year later icewine caught the attention of Donald Ziraldo, the cofounder of Inniskillin Wines, coincidentally also in the Vincor stable now, and Karl Kaiser, his winemaker and business partner. Karl Kaiser set aside a few rows of Vidal for late harvesting, but he did not know how to or forgot to protect them. Ravenous birds ate all the grapes. Hillebrand’s first icewine was successfully offered to the public in 1983, and ever since the winery produces a certain amount of this aromatic and sweet wine. Over time, Hillebrand’s icewine making techniques evolved. Now the winery produces one that is barrel-fermented and barrel aged.
Walter Strehn, the first winemakers of Pelee Island Winery attempted to make icewine in 1983, but took the precaution to net the vines to protect the fruit from ravenous birds. Unfortunately, a few birds were caught in the nets and he had severe problems with the officials of the Ministry of Natural resources. They wanted to charge him for trapping birds out of season. In the end, the charges were dropped but the winery lost $ 25,000.- worth of fruit. Luckily, Walter Strehn had saved enough frozen Vidal grapes to make an icewine of which the LCBO bought 100 cases, but could not sell the wine. The shipment was subsequently returned, but luckily Pelee Island Winery was successful in selling the returned wine to Americans at six times the price L C B O had paid.
Ewald Reif, a grower and winemaker next to Inniskillin, founded his winery late 1970’s but it was Klaus Reif, a graduate of Geisehenheim School of Oenolgy, in Germany, who made Reif’s first icewine in 1987.
He was ecstatic about the aromatics and high sugar of the Vidal. Icewine, however precious and good it was, consumers were reluctant to buy it mid-1980’s for $ 20.- ( 375 ml).
In 1989, Reif shipped a bottle to Robert parker Jr, the influential lawyer turned wine critic, and once he wrote it up in his bi-monthly tasting notes, sales skyrocketed. Suddenly, Inniskillin , Hillebrand, Reif and Pelee Island had ration their icewine production. Some even presold it at ($ 25. a half bottle) in 1990. (I remember buying one!)
Konzelmann, started his winery in 1986, and immediately made icewine for Riesling he had planted on his vineyards along the Lake Ontario. Up to that time, winemakers preferred Vidal for its ability to resist shattering when frozen. This variety has a thick skin, whereas Riesling’s thin skin is too delicate to resist the forces of expansion when frozen.
Today, practically all Ontario wineries and a good number of B C establishments produce icewine because of internal and external high demand. There are strict VQA regulations that stipulate picking up at – 8 C and 32 Brix. The grapes must be frozen for a minimum of 48 hours before picking. A VQA icewine must contain a minimum of 7.5 percent alcohol and not exceed 14.9 and a minimum of 125 grams of residual sugar per litre.
The huge success came when a 1989 vintage Innisskillin icewine was awarded double gold during the biannual Vinexpo Expostion in Brodeaux in 1991. Donald Ziraldo and Karl Kaiser at the time the owners of Inniskillin, made sure to receive country wine free publicity with this prestigious award.
Today, at least one winery, Royal de Maria produces exclusively icewine from a number of vitis vinifera varieties including Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. Of course Vidal is ever present and represents the largest icewine production in Ontario. The largest producer of icvewine in Ontario is Pillitteri (30,000 litres) and much of it goes to Pacific Rim countries. Ironically, there are now Canadian (unidentified) and European wineries that sell fake icewine to unsuspecting Oriental importers. Canadian wineries spend considerable efforts and funds to catch the culprits but thus far unsuccessfully.
In the early days of icewine production, a few small wineries invited Torontonian wine aficionados to pick icewine grapes for fun. They would call volunteers at midnight and ask them to come for harvesting at 4 a m before sunrise in the bitter cold. Enough volunteers could be found then for the camaraderie, the hearty breakfast at about 9 a m, and the promise of one bottle of icewine. Today, Vietnamese and Sikhs pick frozen grapes.
Along with sales successes, prices have increased disproportionately, and today for most wine consumers of moderate means icewine is unaffordable.
In 2002 the federal government signed an agreement with the EU for export, and if successful prices may still jump. Meanwhile in 2003, there was still icewine in thanks form the 1999 vintage. The 2003 vintage was very small and hopefully the inventory on hand can be reduces somewhat in 2004.
The icewine segment of the markets is still evolving; making and marketing in Canada is still very much a work in progress.
Article contributed by Hrayr Berberoglu, a Professor Emeritus of Hospitality and Tourism Management specializing in Food and Beverage. Books by H. Berberoglu