Before researching An Icy Debate, I wasn’t aware of a specific “way” to make Icewine. I assumed that what made Icewine “Icewine” was the fact that the grapes were frozen in winter’s icy tundra – whether they froze on the vines or in nets wasn’t important. My only concern was that the wine in the bottle was the desert wine we’ve all come to know and love.
I was wrong.
The Icewine labelling debate centres on the interpretation of one key phrase – “frozen on the vine”. But is that the biggest difference? Or is something else rejected when the powers-that-be consider the Quebec netting method? Closer to the root of the issue is the fact that humans intervene to take the grapes off the vines prior to freezing. Allowing for human intervention prior to the natural freezing process creates some panic in the industry. Where would it stop?
Instead, we should consider where it started. If we look at the wine world in a broader spectrum, we can see that we impart our rule in the smallest way, through the creation of standards. We all have standards; they help us make decisions on everything from food to clothing to homes and relationships. Standards have governed the wine world since the first appellation was (officially) created in 1713. These guidelines help producers market their product. When producers label their wine, they must include the specific name associated with their production method, grape variety, etc. Once the wine hits the shelves, the prestige and reputation of the region and appellation/label is applied to that wine, giving producers the opportunity to sell more and for a higher price. But these guidelines also deter them from expanding their repertoire. For example, some regions can only produce specific varietals – granted, the varietals have made the region famous and in some cases, are the only ones that would grow… way back when. We will never know if a new varietal can grow in those regions simply because the regulations prevent estates from trying.
Standards have been influential in the wine world for ages. The Icewine labelling debate is a unique opportunity for Canadians to witness the birth of a new standard; for a country where wine is regulated provincially, this would be one of the first nationally observed wine regulations. Once the decision has been made, it will be the final step in meeting international regulations already in place for Icewine. Other internationally recognized producers of Icewine follow the standards outlined in the 2003 Agreement between the EU and Canada and the 2007 World Wine Trade Group (WWTG). At least, that’s what they advertise. But it’s easier for them – they’ve never had a different method to contend with. Canada is the only Icewine producing country to have a unique method of production – netting.
Let’s consider the end product for a moment. Icewine made with the netting method varies in taste only so much as a Merlot from Niagara would vary from a Merlot from BC. Different terroir, harvesting times and winemaking techniques make for a different wine – but it’s still Merlot. In the case of Icewine, the wine is still rich with flavour; it still has the beautiful colour. Canadian Icewine is award winning, regardless of the production method used. And the cost isn’t vastly different; both methods produce wines sold from anywhere between $35 – $150 per bottle (200ml or 375ml) depending on the harvest, year and quality. The netting method can also produce wines with a lower sugar level. Since producers in Quebec have a lower minimum for degrees Brix (the scale that measure sugar content in the New World and Europe), their wine can sometimes be less sweet. Ontario and British Columbia require 35 degrees Brix, whereas Quebec requires only 32. This is because frost hits Quebec vines earlier, stopping the grapes from ripening. A higher Brix requirement could produce a smaller harvest, increasing the cost of the wine. But is that a big enough difference to call it by another name? I don’t really think so – after all, Australian Cabernet Sauvignon and French Cabernet Sauvignon differ in much the same way. There are several pros and cons to both methods, but taste of the wine is still the same. Human intervention, in this case, makes no noticeable difference to the end product. In fact, the netting process doesn’t exist to change the wine, it exists to protect the vines and ensure future harvest.
Ultimately, how Quebec Icewine is labelled is Canada’s decision, one that has to be made correctly so that every Canadian producer benefits. The powers-that-be have to be careful because Canadian Icewine has become a national treasure (that includes Quebec, too). Personally, I’ll sit back with my glass … make that two… and wait to see if both will still be considered Icewine in 2013.