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An Icewine primer: how to chill out in Niagara

January 10, 2020

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By Erin Henderson

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, winter is my favourite time to visit Niagara wine country. The busy summer crowds are long gone, streets are decorated like they’re straight out of a Dicken’s novel, and the already laid-back wine country gets even more chill.

And January is quite likely the chill-est month of the year, for this is when the annual Icewine Festival comes back around.

Picture it: the town of Niagara on the Lake as well as Jordan Village are strewn with glittering ice sculptures, quaint wine tasting huts, and roaring fire pits surrounded by comfy Muskoka chairs so weary wine lovers can take a load off and sip their Icewine whist warming their tender tootsies.

And it’s not just the towns getting into the spirit of the Icewine season. Wineries also celebrate in the most delicious ways: we’re talking cheese fondue at Henry of Pelham, Szechuan shrimp at Kacaba, Icewine shortbread at Megalomaniac, Spit-roast Porchetta at Reif, and of course, those killer, line-up around the block, Icewine marshmallows from Peller that you can roast yourself over an open fire. And that’s just the tip of the ice(berg): 36 wineries across Niagara will be offering expertly paired dishes to their own Icewines. Get your Discovery Pass and info here.

The month-long party kicks of tonight with a gala filled to the brim with sparkle and shine, ballgowns and suits. But starting tomorrow, it’s parkas and boots and mittens as you celebrate Icewine, wine country style.

Here are a few cold, hard facts about Icewine:

  • The production of Icewine began in Germany centuries ago (where it’s known as Eiswein) but Ontario has arguably become a world leader in its production.
  • Ontario’s climate of hot summers and brisk winters is perfect for growing Icewine grapes – not even Germany can make Icewine every year.
  • The wine is highly regulated in this country. Grape growers and winemakers must be registered with VQA (Vintners Quality Alliance) to use the term.
  • “Icewine” – capitalized and spelled as one word – is trademarked in Canada.
  • Icewine is predominately made from Riesling, Vidal or Cabernet Franc — though other grapes are gaining popularity.
  • Grapes must be naturally frozen, and cannot be picked until the temperature hits at least -8 degrees Celsius, though temperature between -10 and -12 are preferable.
  • Most years, this means grapes are left on the vines until about December and usually allowed to thaw and refreeze several times to allow for more concentration of flavour and complexity in the wine.
  • Icewine grapes must have a minimum of 35 Brix (sugar level in the grapes).
  • By comparison, table wines are typically around 21 to 25 Brix.
  • Grapes are crushed while still frozen: the water within the grapes remains in ice crystals while a few tiny drops of sweet juice are squeezed from each shrivelled grape.
  • Because they are so concentrated, grapes for Icewine yield only about 15% of their potential (versus their yield if they were made into regular still wine).