North American Sugar: Icewines

by Jim Clarke
February 2009

Recommended Wines

Niagara Peninsula:
Inniskillin (Riesling, Vidal Blanc, Cabernet Franc)
Henry of Pelham (Riesling, Vidal Blanc)
Peller Estates (Riesling, Vidal Blanc, Cabernet Franc)
Hillebrand (Vidal Blanc, Cabernet Franc)
Cave Spring (Riesling)

Okanagan Valley:
Mission Hill (Riesling, Vidal Blanc)
Sumac Ridge (Gewurztraminer, Pinot Blanc)
Summerhill Pyramid (Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Zweigelt)

Finger Lakes:
Hunt Country (Vidal Blanc)
Sheldrake Point (Riesling, Cabernet Franc)
Heron Hill (Riesling)

Kiona Vineyards & Winery (Chenin Blanc)
Columbia Crest (Semillon)

Dessert wine, as a category, by and large remains dominated by the Old World. While California, South Africa, and Australia have a smattering of dessert wine specialists, when it comes to the greats, we tend to think of Europe’s SGNs and Vendange Tardive wines of Alsace, Tokaji, Port, Sauternes, and so forth. But one category—one very popular category—of dessert wine has found a home in North America: Icewine. Canada, in particular, has become famous for their icewines, and Washington and New York have also made some noticeable contributions to the style.

Germany and Austria are the big European producers, but they’re really at a disadvantage. It doesn’t get cold enough to make icewine each year, and research suggests that global warming is making those cold winters even rarer. In Germany, many of the vineyards are also on steep slopes, making an already difficult harvest even trickier and sometimes dangerous. Most of the North American vineyards producing icewine are fairly flat and get cold very reliably each vintage; they’re also generally warmer during the growing season, resulting in richer, higher alcohol icewines than most of their forebears in Europe.

The grapes stay on the vine well into winter, and are harvested at temperatures between 9° and 14° F, often in pre-dawn darkness. When pressed, the frozen water particles fall away, leaving a concentrated almost-syrup of sugar, flavor components, and acidity. An icewine harvest can occur as early as November or as late as January. That means there can be two different vintages from the same year, since law requires that the vintage on the label be the year that the grapes were harvested. Sheldrake Point Vineyards, in the Finger Lakes, for example, harvested their Riesling icewine in January 2006 and then again in December that same year.

All that extra time in the vineyards need extra care and netting to protect against rot and birds. (Even botrytis, the rot so favored for making dessert wines in Sauternes and elsewhere, is undesirable in a vineyard destined for icewine.) And you get less actual wine for all that work. Freezing the grapes on the vine means each acre produces about one-seventh the amount of wine than it would making a conventional table wine. Thomas Laszlo, winemaker at New York’s Heron Hill, says that whereas a ton of fresh grapes yields about 160 gallons of juice, a ton of frozen grapes nets you 25 or 30 gallons at the most.

Canada’s Niagara Peninsula, west of Buffalo, is icewine’s adopted home, even though Walter Hainle made some tiny amounts in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley as early as 1972. A handful of Niagara wineries began making icewine in the 1980s; one of them, Inniskillin, is today largely credited for making Canadian icewine an international phenomenon with their Riesling, Vidal Blanc, and Cabernet Franc varieties. Winemaker Bruce Nicholson says that the two white grapes do very well because of their natural high acidity, and praises icewines generally as being one of the only style of dessert wines that doesn’t add outside flavors to the wine (for example, the botrytis in noble rot wines or the alcohol in fortified wines), so it’s all about fresh fruit character. Inniskillin’s Riesling tends to be racier, with lots of citrus; the Vidal Blanc is more tropical and melon-like; and the Cabernet Franc has some caramel notes alongside plum and cherry fruit. The Niagara Peninsula is now the world’s largest producer of icewine, with producers like Henry of Pelham, Peller Estates, Hillebrand, and Cave Spring leading the way.

The Okanagan Valley also gets plenty of cold, but Ingo Grady, Director of Wine Education at Mission Hill, one of the regions’s top producers, says conditions are less predictable, so icewine is not the cash cow it can be for Ontario’s wineries. Riesling dominates icewine production there, since most of the area’s Vidal Blanc and other hybrids were ripped out in the 1980s. Mission Hill is the best represented on the U.S. market, but keep an eye out for icewines from Sumac Ridge and Summerhill Pyramid.

If you’re staying domestic, New York’s Finger Lakes also produce some notable icewines, largely following the model of their neighbors across the Niagara Falls. Hunt Country has been making Vidal Blanc icewines for over twenty years; also look for Heron Hill and Sheldrake Point’s Riesling icewines.

Washington state is remarkable for some of the grape varieties in their icewines. For example, Kiona makes a Chenin Blanc, and Columbia Crest makes a Semillon—both grapes more associated with noble rot wines. Scot Williams of Kiona says that the former was mostly a matter of opportunity: one small vineyard was planted with Chenin, but was proving less-than-ideal for making a dry wine from the grape there… winter brought new opportunities. As in the Okanagan Valley, the window of opportunity for harvesting the frozen grapes can be rather small, but they managed to make an icewine almost every vintage since they started back in 1987.

I could parse the pH issue in more detail, but you’re probably starting to feel like you now need a chemistry degree just to enjoy a glass of Riesling. Don’t sweat the details. Some of us wine geeks like knowing how this stuff works, but it’s not necessary. It’s more than enough to know that this scale is intended to reflect how sweet the wine does or doesn’t taste, period. And that’s what’s important to most wine drinkers, right?

Icewines generally don’t profit from aging; some say it takes away from the fresh fruit and acidity that are the style’s biggest virtues. Like many dessert wines, they work well as a stand-alone wine at the end of a meal, but can also pair with a number of desserts, especially blue cheeses, fruit-based sweets, or custards. On one point almost everyone agrees: never pair icewines with chocolate. Ingo Grady has also found some savory items that pair well: foie gras, lobster, or cream sauces, because of their richness, or even some salty items like Parma prosciutto.