Whoever said that wine is the nectar of the gods must have been talking about icewine. As British Columbians, we are fortunate to have local access in the Okanagan to some of the best icewines in the world.
The first commercial “eiswein” was made in Germany about 200 years ago. Canada jumped on board in the ’70s and, due to regular cold winters in wine-growing regions, has been able to consistently produce “icewine” (this spelling is a Canadian trademark), making Canada the current leader in icewine production.
The stunning backdrop of the Okanagan Lake in the Okanagan is more than just a pretty picture, as the lake is an integral part of the wine “terroir” (the natural environment that affects the taste of the wine), and keeps the ambient temperature regulated throughout the seasons.
The Okanagan Valley is ideal for viticulture with its high-lime glacial soils low in nutrients. The area is the far north end of the Sonoran Desert eco-zone, making it Canada’s only desert, and is on the leeside of the coastal mountain range, so the rain shadow effect keeps things drier.
“We have more hours of summer sunshine here than in the Napa Valley,” says Ezra Cipes, CEO for Summerhill winery in Kelowna, “but our growing season is shorter.”
According to Walter Gehringer, co-owner of Gehringer Bros. Estate Winery, further down the lake in Oliver, “A cool, moderate growing season enhances fruitiness but, more importantly, the photo period influences what plants, in general, produce. Being this far north, our ration of daylight hours to darkness is significantly different to most of the grape-growing regions of the world. The same grape varieties grown in southern climates will have less flavour in the mature grape, and synthetically freezing them will not produce as good an icewine, since there is not as much flavour to start with to concentrate.”
At Summerhill vineyard in the late fall, most vines are bare. Cipes takes us on a tour of a neighbouring vineyard that grows for Summerhill, where grapes for icewine remain hanging. He leads us through row after row of deep purple bunches of Zweigelt grapes, a red varietal from Austria, and explains that the vines have been trained and pruned into a vertical shoot position, which makes for easy sun and wind exposure, easy picking at harvest and easy netting. For icewine, especially, netting is essential as birds love the sweet delicacies. Even then, the per-acre yield is only 10-15 per cent of regular wines.
“The end of November is the ideal harvest time, as about 25 per cent per month is lost when grapes are still hanging, due to desiccation and birds. In recent years, deer have also become an issue,” says Cipes, “and we lost a whole crop of Zweigelt a few years ago, before we completely fenced the property.”
The growers watch for a forecast where the temperature drops to -8C or colder, and then pickers who are on stand-by are called in. According to Gehringer, “normally when the first arctic air-flow southwards happens, most people huddle inside, but we vintners are running around outside staging equipment, getting ready for the frozen grapes. We are up all night monitoring when the grapes are frozen and planning the start of picking, usually in the early hours of the morning. Once picked, the process of pressing these berries before the thaw begins is also an around-the-clock process. We subsequently suffer a lack of sleep, but also an adrenaline high. The reward is a dimension of taste extending past all boundaries – a true natural gift from the heavens!”
The freeze, like all things in nature, however, comes when it wants – not when it’s most convenient. For Summerhill, in 2015, the freeze happened on New Year’s Eve. “This created a scramble to find enough pickers to get the crop harvested,” says Cipes.
The freeze intensifies the sugar level and flavour profile of the grape because the sugars do not freeze, but the water does. “Because icewine is the only dessert wine without noble rot (a fungus that changes the flavour), “the varietal character of the grape is what you get,” says Cipes. “For example, with Riesling, you get citrus, apple, stone fruits – and these notes stay in the icewine.”
Despite its high-sugar content, icewine is not cloyingly sweet, but rather refreshing, due to the high acidity. Alcohol is generally between eight and 13 per cent and body is full, which allows for a long-lingering finish.
“Icewine can be compared to a liqueur, except that it is lower in alcohol, eliminating the burning sensation that a 40 per cent alcohol would give,” says Gehringer. “It’s amazing how just the extended hang time and freezing of the grapes creates an added flavour dimension. Once experienced, you will be hooked forever.”
Due to these labour-intensive variables, icewine is a costly purchase, but according to Tibor Erdelyi, winemaker at Kalala vineyards in West Kelowna, it keeps very well – up to four to six weeks after opening.
As for how to best serve it, Erdelyi says, “My philosophy is that, by far, the best pairing with a glass of icewine is another glass of icewine but, apart from that, some nice sharp cheeses (like Stilton or Roquefort) can pair well. Also, icewine will caramelize famously, so prawns sautéed with a bit of Zweigelt icewine are to die for!”
I sidle up to the tasting bar at Summerhill to sample their icewines from sweetest to driest: Chardonnay, Semillon, Merlot and Zweigelt. I declare my favourite the Semillon (a white grape from Bordeaux that Sauterne is made from). It truly does look like golden nectar, and with its honey-like sweetness and fruity flavour, I have to admit, I’m hooked on Okanagan icewines.