What exactly is ice wine?
These balmy temperatures make us want to crack out a bottle of the cool Canadian export. Here's a brief look at its past, present and future
Those without a sweet tooth may want to switch off now: ice wine is a gorgeous type of dessert wine made in winter from the delicious nectar extracted from grapes allowed to freeze on the vine before fermentation. Exposing them to the coldest temperatures allows for a more concentrated grape juice to develop, as while the sugars contained within each fruity orb don’t freeze, the water content does. This makes for a small juice yield when it comes to pressing – usually just a drop of juice per grape – and that's why buying the lovely stuff can hit the old pocket hard.
It's also a risky business and that contributes to the high price point – the frost may not come before the grapes rot and producers need a decent sized gang of grape pickers ready to spring into action as soon as a cold enough morning comes, to ensure the whole lot can be harvested in the small time-frame they have.
Certain clues suggest that frozen grapes were used to make wine during Roman times, and throughout the 19th century the odd 'Eiswein' harvests took place in Germany but it really became a thing, especially in systematic, commercial terms, thanks to the Canadians.
Saying that, it was a German immigrant, Walter Hainle, who first produced it in Canada – over in British Columbia in 1972 – due to an unexpected early frost. He didn't intend to sell the 40 litres that he was able to make from it, but six years later, he did. Canada was and is regularly blessed with the fresh, frosty, subzero conditions that guaranteed a decent season of ice wine making each year so they could corner the market to become the world's largest ice wine producer.
Inniskillin in Niagara was the first winery in Canada to produce ice wine for commercial purposes – a top place to take a tour if you ever get the chance. These days the industry is celebrated with the annual Niagara-on-the-Lake Icewine Festival which takes place over two weekends in January – with elaborate ice sculptures, ice wine cocktails and cuisine, and tastings, treats and experiences galore – in the heritage district also home to Niagara Falls.
But there are worries about the future of ice wine, relating to climate change, and scientific studies have given credence to these concerns. Sadly in Germany – the second largest ice wine producer – good ice wine vintages have tailed off a little since the early 2000s, compared to the fruitful harvests of the 1980s and 1990s. Indeed, 2020 saw its ice wine harvest fail for the first time after a warm winter.