Icewine: The Ultimate Guide to a Frozen Treasure

We will learn everything about one of the world’s most wonderful, sweet wines called Icewine, or what we like to call here in Niagara, Canada, “Liquid Gold.” 

What is Icewine?

Grapes usually contain about 85% water which is used when making wine, but when some grapes are left on the vine until that water has frozen and turned into ice in the winter, and when the frozen grapes are pressed, they produce very little liquid. It takes 10 Frozen grapes to obtain 1 ml of juice, but that liquid is very concentrated in sugars and flavours, making Icewine literally liquid gold in Canada. That is why most icewines come in half-sized bottles that cost twice as much as regular dry wines. 

Where is Icewine from?

Icewine originally comes from Europe, more specifically from Germany, where it’s labelled “Eiswein,” and the Germans who knew about that started making it here in Canada. 

The most historic commercial producer in Niagara is Inniskillin Winery. Karl Kaiser, its founder, knew about Icewine from Europe and made Icewine here in Ontario, putting Canada on the map as a wine destination by winning the top prize at a world wine competition in France in 1991 with his Vidal Icewine. 

Currently, 90% of the Icewine in the world is produced in the Niagara Region, and 95% of the Icewine in Canada is produced in the Niagara Peninsula. This is because Niagara has the perfect climate for producing Icewine. In addition, a little is made in Germany and Austria on certain years when it is cold enough to do so, a little bit in the Northern United States and a small amount in Quebec and British Columbia in Canada. 

Why is it so difficult to grow grapes for Icewine?

Two factors are needed. First, you need a warm enough climate to fully ripen the grapes during the growing season, and then you have to have a cold enough winter to freeze the grapes before picking them and turning them into Icewine.

Many areas in the world are warm enough to grow grapes but not cold enough to freeze them. Other regions are cold enough to freeze grapes but not warm enough to ripen them to produce the sugars needed to make wine. Hence, the Niagara Peninsula is a unique environmental area that combines the hot summer and the cold winter, a perfect combination to make “liquid gold.”

Icewine: A Canadian trademark

The word “Icewine,” written as one word, is a Canadian trademark, and specific rules must be followed to put that name on the label. In the United States, it is written as two words Ice Wine, where the production is similar, but there are not as many strict rules to follow. The VQA or Vintners Quality Alliance is the governing body In Ontario that controls the production and quality of wines, and to put their seal on the label, many rules must be followed.

How is Icewine made?

First, the grapes must be naturally frozen on the vine, and they are left on the vine until winter and picked when the temperature reaches at least eight degrees Celsius below zero. The harvest can begin as soon as the temperature is between Minus 8 and Minus 14 degrees Celsius. Not colder than that because the juice would be completely frozen, and nothing could be extracted from the grapes, and there are examples of wineries breaking their presses trying to press grapes that were frozen solid. 

Harvesting temperature

Before the harvest, we verify the temperature in the field, record it, and let the VQA know that the temperature has reached -8 C, and they give us the go-ahead to pick. Most quality Icewine grapes are picked by hand and harvested at night. 

Harvesting at night

Why at night? Because during the day, the sunshine hits the grapes, melting and freezing them several times, and since they must be picked while frozen, they are usually harvested at night. 

It is not a very fun job kneeling in the snow with the lights of a tractor from the evening until the early morning hours with little plastic gloves picking bunches of frozen grapes and putting them in small baskets to take back to the winery.

Hand harvesting naturally frozen grapes in Niagara-on-the-Lake Ontario
Hand harvesting naturally frozen grapes in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario

 The following rule is that the grapes must be pressed within an hour of being picked while they are still frozen, and this process must also be documented. In addition, the grapes must be weighed and then pressed, and the amount of juice received from those pressed grapes must also be recorded.

Sugar concentration

 Another rule is that there must be a certain level of sugar concentration in the grapes to be called Icewine, so first, we measure the grape sugar in the field by a term called Brix. 

To make a typical dry wine, we need about 20 to 22 Brix, which is a very sweet juice which will produce about a 12 or 13% alcohol wine, but to put Icewine on the label, the grapes have to measure a minimum of 35 brix at harvest, almost double the average concentration of sugar in regular wine. 

Icewine is usually bottled in smaller 375 ml or even 200 mL bottles. For example, if it takes ten frozen grapes to get 1 ml of juice, it takes about 3,750 Frozen grapes to make one 375 ml bottle of Icewine. That is why they are more expensive than regular wines; they use much more product and produce much less wine. 

The excellent news about Icewine is because of the high sugar content, once you open a bottle, you don’t have to drink it right away like a regular table wine, it can last for several weeks in your refrigerator, and you can enjoy it little by little. 

Icewine being so sweet, is usually served in small quantities, so a 12 oz. bottle will give you six 2 oz. servings of Icewine.

What does Icewine pair with?

Icewine is often paired with dessert. The rule with food pairing and wine is that the wine should be sweeter than the dessert. So, for example, if you’re having a piece of cake with a dry red wine, the cake is much sweeter than the wine, and the wine will taste bitter. But if you’re having that piece of cake with Icewine, the wine is sweeter than the cake, and it will make a great match.

Another good option with Icewine is pairing it with something salty, where the salt contrasts the sweetness of the wine, making a great match. One of my favourite pairings with Icewine is blue cheese. Blue cheese is a very strong salty cheese which overpowers most dry wines, but because of the high sugar content in Icewine, the strong salty component in the blue cheese makes a perfect balance when paired together. 

What grape varieties are used to make Icewine?

In Ontario, Canada, Vidal Blanc, a hybrid grape, is the most planted variety in the province, mainly used for Icewine since it is a very winter hardy grape. Other grapes used to make Icewine are Riesling, another cool climate grape, and Cabernet Franc, a cool climate red grape, but almost any grape can be used to make Icewine. In addition, many wineries make Icewine out of Cabernet Sauvignon, Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay, and other wine varieties.

What does Icewine taste like?

It often tastes like ripe fruit, such as apricots or peaches, with honey and marmalade notes. However, depending on the grape, there are varied levels of acidity as well, so Icewine is not just syrupy sugar; it also retains a lot of acidity from the grape juice, which makes a perfect balance with lots of complexity on the palate. 

Ice Wine in the U.S.A. 

There are a few wineries in the United States that make Ice Wine. I visited two of them along the south shore of Lake Erie in New York state. They also use the Vidal Blanc grape to make Ice Wine, and one of them used an American Hybrid grape or red grape called Chamboursin, which gave a very concentrated flavour to the Ice Wine. 

21 Brix Winery

The tasting bar inside 21 Brix winery in New York State
The tasting bar inside 21 Brix winery in New York State
A sample of Vidal Blanc Ice Wine
A sample of Vidal Blanc Ice Wine

Johnson Estate Winery

Why should you buy Icewine?

Because it is mainly available in the Niagara region, it makes a fantastic gift if you travel to other countries to bring back the best of Canada. Tourists who visit Niagara from other countries always buy Icewine as well because they can’t get it back home.

I encourage you to try Icewine, share it with your friends, tell them about the story of how it is made, and drink it with pride as one of the world’s most delicious dessert wines.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *