People often ask "What is Icewine?" The origin Icewine has its cherished myths. Some say, at the end of the 18th century, German farmers accidentally discovered Icewine after trying to save their frozen grapes. Folklore has it that a small German village was surrounded by the enemy and could not pick their crops. When the troops left because of the cold winter weather, the villagers picked and pressed their grapes and called the delicious nectar “Eiswien”. Today, making Icewine is a Canadian game for the Wineries Niagara region. We may not have invented Icewine, but we have perfected it. Canada's Icewine Niagara region has the long, warm summers and freezing cold winters that create the ideal conditions for Icewine.

The 4 Critical Seasons of MAKING ICEWINE NIAGARA 

Season One - The Ideal Grape Growing Season for Making Icewine Niagara: April to September

    • Niagara has a large lake bed of sandy soil that can be up to 30 feet deep
    • Our hemisphere is similar to grape growing areas of California and France

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Season Two - The Mystery Dormancy Season of Making Icewine Niagara: October to November

Mother Nature creates the mystery of complexity to the grapes and her cool “refridgerature” temperature protects the grapes from rotting. Canopy netting is put over the vines to protect ripe Icewine grapes from birds. Vidal Grapes hang on the vine the longest and tend not to rot (like Baco Noir and Riesling)

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Season Three - The Concentration Season of Making Icewine Niagara: Grape Flavours Intensify from November onwards

    • Objective guidelines: Legislature for Icewine must be – 8 degrees C and have a composite of at least 35% sugar
    • Subjective guideline: Jamie must decide on the flavour profile optimization. He looks for the development of fresh fruit flavours as opposed to raisin type qualities or jammy fruit notes

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Season Four - The Freezing & Harvesting Season when temperatures hit -8° C

    • During harvest, heavy pressure is applied to the grapes to melt the ice. Pressure and sugar brix is measured.
    • The first pressing is 54 brix sugar, Northern Ice is a composite of 40 to 38 Brix. By law Icewine must be 35 Brix
    • Northern Ice is a more intense Icewine with a higher level of concentration, it is fermented to a higher level of alcohol and sugar which increases the acidity
    • Higher acid Vidal and Riesling are first pressed out at 42 Brix and have a longer fermentation time
    • 1 kilo of grapes produces 750 ml of table wine, 1 kilo of grapes will produce from 0 to 280 ml of Icewine
    • Fermentation can take up to 6 months using a feathering fermentation process
    • From February to April, winter pruning is done on the vines

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A good year for MAKING Icewine NIAGARA!

The question is often asked. “Will this be a good year for wine” or “was that a good year for Ice wine?” The question “will this be a good year?” can never be answered until the grapes arrive in the receiving hoppers after their final and accepting analysis. That is, the proof is in the pudding. Mother Nature defines most of what gets classified as a good year for wine. The grape season is long and varied. Was there any winterkill; any frost damage; early bud break; water shortage; too much water; disease pressure; harvest date etc. etc.? A strong start and a weak finish or visa versa  disturb the sleep patterns of both the Grower and the Winemaker. We do know that the period from veraison (the onset of ripening) to harvest is the most important influence on quality.

“Was that a good year for wine?” now includes the sensory performance of the wine in a particular vineyard, micro-climate, area or country. Here the proof is in the tasting.

In table wine production there is much effort to get the grapes to their optimal ripeness considering that year’s climate and the designed wine profile. This can present a problem for Icewine. As I have talked about the four seasons of Icewine, I define the third season as the grapes hanging past table wine harvest time on the dormant vine. That is: the month of November and into early December. This is the period of Icewines’ magical flavour transformation. So imagine entering November with fruit bursting of full ripeness needing to handle the temperature swings of the next 4 – 12 months waiting for the big freeze. A lesser man would go grey.

So what may seem counter intuitive for premium table wine production, I like to enter the 3rd season slightly less than perfect ripeness – a stronger, hardier grape. So now you wonder what about a too short growing season for grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon (our red Icewine variety). Under ripe Cab produces table wine with a pronounced bell pepper, green, grassy, stemy note. So why encourage this you ask yourself. These flavours are attributed to a compound called pyrazine. Pyrazine is photo-degenerative. The flavours change in the presence of UV light. (This is most apparent in Sauvignon Blanc table wine and it’s distinctive bell pepper profile vs the red gapefruit / lychee style).

So there we sit; all November; a dormant vine; no leaves – completely exposed to the sun’s transforming rays. I think this 3rd season of Icewine has a somewhat of a mitigating factor on the nuances of what makes a good (table wine) year. So what makes a good(Icewine) year is more when than why as in when does Mother Nature allow us to pick for Making Icewine Niagara. The quality (taste) hurdles over and a consistent Icewine sensory profile established, when defines quantity. When is it -8 Celsius defines a good year. You decide if it’s a good wine.

MAKING ICewine NIagara & Mother Nature

Making Icewine with Mother Nature is a collaborative effort.  As the winemaker at The Ice House, my role is to take her concentrated Icewine grape nectar through the fermentation process and enhance the complex fruit flavours that develop while the grapes are on the vine. My goal is to capture that burst of fresh fruit delivery rarely have seen in other fine wines.

Making Ice wine  Making Icewine Niagara Depends on Ideal Grape Growing SeasonsAt The Ice House winery, visitors learn how this luscious elixir is made to create one of the most elegant and luxurious of wines. After 30 years of making Icewine, I have learned that Mother Nature is the true Wizard of Ice wine. I am here to follow her lead and value her secrets. She is in control; a lesser man would turn grey.

What are the vines used to make Northern Ice? Hybrid vs Vitis Vinifera

  • Vidal blanc cross of ugni blanc (Trebbiano) x. Seibel 4986
  • Cabernet Sauvignon vitis Vinifera

Are the vines planted in any special way?

  • Rootstalk and scion graph:
  • Leaf petiole and blade and Shoot growth
  • VSP canopy management: Vertical Shoot Positioning = more sun exposure and easier quality management

What is so special about the climate for growing Icewine Niagara grapes?

  • Niagara is considered a cool climate appellation; high shifts in day to night temperature generates a high complexity of flavors in the grapes
  • The circulation of off-shore wind between Lake Ontario & the Niagara escarpment generate what is referred to as the "lake effect" where the circulation of air profoundly moderates seasonal temperatures across the Niagara appellation. The moderation of temperature extends the growing season well into the fall.
  • Our sub appellation is "Niagara River"; soils are generally stratified fine sands, which create natural drainage
  • The large fast flowing river generates convectional currents that draw cooler air into the gorge which pulls warm
  • air from above to moderate temperatures in the vineyards

Northern Ice Premium Icewine Grapes Year in Review:

  • April / May - Canes are tied down and trellis system chosen
  • May /June - Bud breaks & flowers- grapes ripen approximately 100 days from flowering
  • July - Summer pruning/hedging and bunch thinning for better air circulation & sun light
  • August /September - Small green berries begin to change color and develop more sugar
  • September /October - Harvest of table wines
  • October / November - Canopy netting protects ripe Icewine grapes from birds
  • November / February - Icewine and Late harvest is harvested
  • February / April - Winter pruning is done

Polar Vortex Effects MAKING Icewine NIAGARA

When making Icewine cold is good but extreme cold is bad. The Polar Vortex has taken us down to some potentially dangerous temperatures for Making Icewine Niagara in the vineyards. The first problem is primary bud damage. If you remember grade 11 Biology there is a primary bud, a secondary and a tertiary. If all goes well the primary will be the bud “to break” in the spring and start a normal growth cycle. Primary bud activity will inhibit growth of the other two, but if the primary is damaged (frozen) the secondary will take over with a 30% to 50% crop load. If the tertiary – the hardiest - is forced out all growth will be vegetative i.e. no fruit that year. Growers are cutting into the buds with razor blades to examine the buds and assess the damage. This may lead to delayed and selective pruning.

A bigger and worse problem is trunk damage or “winter kill”. This is where the xylem and the phloem are damaged. Remembering grade 9 Biology, the xylem and the phloem are the pipelines between the roots, vegetative growth and the fruiting zone flowing through the trunk or wood. Excessive cold or severe temperature fluctuations can lead to a rapid freezing (and deadly expansion) of the liquid in the system “exploding” the walls of the tubes. (If this bursting happens in our brains we call this a stroke). Not good!

Unfortunately the existence or extent of winter kill cannot be quantified until well after bud break as there is enough “fuel” in the canes to initiate bud break without yet depending on the roots. So things could appear normal until the new shoot withers and dies. Yikes! In this instance and perhaps this year growers may decide when pruning to bring up a “sucker” as a potential new trunk. If the old trunk is sound  the sucker will be pruned away. If the trunk is damaged, the old will be removed and the new trunk will be established through the sucker. Good news – a live plant. Bad news – no fruit and therefore no Icewine. Making Icewine Niagara is a complicated process and without Mother Nature's blessings it just doesn't happen.

If you are down in Niagara this spring, watch the vineyard management and you might see some of Mother Nature's challenges in play, but hopefully NOT!