Icewine: the most regulated Canadian wine

By / Magazine / June 6th, 2018 / 8

Wine trivia question: What is the most rigorously regulated and monitored of all Canadian wines? The answer: Icewine.

As a region, Ontario is the world’s largest producer of Icewine. Most of the companies are hesitant about revealing numbers but I imagine the biggest producer in the province is the Peller group — Andres, Trius, Thirty Bench and Wayne Gretzky Winery. Arterra Wines Canada (which includes Jackson-Triggs and Inniskillin) sell approximately 20,000 nine-litre cases annually.

The largest single-family estate on the planet producing Icewine is Pillitteri. According to Jamie Slingerland of Pillitteri, in 2016, the winery harvested 25 percent of Ontario’s Icewine crop with 200,000 litres. The last vintage (2017), they harvested over 300,000 litres.

In order to be labelled properly and carry the VQA label on the bottle, there are rules to which both the grower and the winemaker have to scrupulously adhere to.

Wineries must register with the VQA office the acreage of vines they have allocated for Icewine production by mid-November. Written reports for VQA monitors must show the temperature at the time of picking (ideally between -10°C and -13°C to ensure the berries are frozen solid when they enter the press). The tonnage harvested must also be noted.

In ordered to be designated as liquid gold, the Brix reading of the frozen grapes (a measurement of the concentrated sucrose in the marble-hard berries) must be 35 or higher to produce a minimum of 125 grams per litre of residual sugar in the finished wine. (Registered readings I saw for batches arriving at the Falk farm processing barn in Niagara-on-the-Lake in January ranged from 38 Brix to 42 Brix. A wine produced in the region by Peller Estates in 2014 reached an amazing 50 Brix.)

Dates and times of picking and pressing must be logged and the amount of juice extraction logged.

The Icewine harvest this year, according to Peller’s Senior Winemaker, Craig McDonald, was the earliest on record. “We brought in our Cabernet Franc on December 14th and we had Riesling and Vidal in before the Christmas break,” he told me as we toured the Falk barn with Thirty Bench winemaker, Emma Garner.

And what a sight it was: 23 basket presses lined up, each filled with one tonne of frozen berries that looked more like dun-coloured olives than grapes you would want to eat.

In order to drive out the water and produce the trickle of syrupy juice, the basket presses exert a pressure on the frozen mass of 250 bars. This translates as a force of over 5,000 lbs per square inch! To give you some idea of the magnitude of this force, the pressure in the average bus tire is 8 bars. Emma Garner presses her award-winning Riesling table wines at 0.2 bars. So you can imagine what the resulting pomace from a tonne of grapes must look like — a huge brown hockey puck about a foot high.

This hard-pressed residue doesn’t go to waste either: it can either be fed to pigs, distilled into grappa or the oils from the seeds can be extracted for skin care products or for use in the kitchen.

The pressing cycle takes between three and five hours. During the Icewine season, the presses are worked 24 hours around the clock. And it’s a messy business: the Australians call their sweet wines “stickies” for a very good reason. The floor in the Falk barn is the antithesis of a skating rink. You literally stick to the floor with each step.

Trev Falk, the man in charge of the Icewine barn’s operations, says it takes his crew three weeks of washing down the space to return the barn to its summer and fall use: as a venue for weddings and dinners.

So think of all the forethought and work the next time you pour a glass of that golden elixir. It will make it taste all the sweeter.


Tony Aspler, Order of Canada recipient, has been writing about wine since 1975. He is the author of 18 wine books, including The Wine Atlas of Canada and three wine murder mystery novels. The best concert he ever attended was Rush with the Tragically Hip as the opening band. His favourite comfort food is milk chocolate and his cocktail of choice is a Kir Royale. At home, he drinks wine (lots of wine).

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