Ice, ice baby

Ice, ice baby

Josh Sims explores the wonderful world of ice wine – and finds out how these very rare drinks are now having an influence on the whisky industry too.

Think of wine and the sunnier climes of Southern France, California or Australia may spring to mind. The rather colder climes of the Niagara Peninsular, in Canada, probably won’t. And yet this corner of the world – best known for its waterfalls – is one of the country’s premier wine-growing regions, with several dozen wineries. Indeed, it’s the world’s leading maker of ice wine: it makes close on 90% of global production.

If ice wine is not a drink you’re familiar with – even if you pride yourself on being a bit of a bon viveur – you are not alone.

“Ice wine is tricky and expensive to make, which is why most winemakers steer clear of it,” explains straight-talking Aussie Craig McDonald, the winemaker at Peller Estates, arguably maker of the best ice wines. “It’s a luxury item – most if it is consumed by the domestic market, so not a lot gets exported, so it doesn’t have the name that might be expected. It’s a real ‘no compromise’ product to make. And then we’re at the mercy of the weather to make it happen in the first place.”

Indeed, the harvesting of grapes for ice wine only happens each winter if the estate gets a sustained period of very cold weather – at least four days of minus eight degrees centigrade, but not, ideally, colder than minus 10. Then a team of hardy pickers dash to the vines – often at very short notice, and in very long johns – and enjoy endless working days with frozen fingers.

Why harvest in such brutal conditions? Because it’s then that the water content in each grape is effectively forced out to leave just the tiniest drop of what in the trade they call “nectar”. The colder it is, the more water freezes as a percentage of sugar. It’s the resulting super-concentrate that is used to make ice wine.

Yes, ice wine is typically sweet, akin to dessert wine but not as cloying – in part thanks to spending between six and 10 months in French oak barrels. “It’s this that gives it an edge,” says McDonald. “It’s not just syrupy sweet.” There’s a greater range of flavours and, its fans say, applications – as suitable an accompaniment to savoury dishes, for example, as a table wine.

Not that ice wine goes as far. Only around one millilitre of liquid is achievable from around 10 grapes, which is why the same number of grapes that would give you a bottle of ice wine – you need around three kilograms worth – would give you something closer to seven bottles of more conventional table wine. That goes some way to explaining why a small bottle of ice wine – 375ml – is likely to set you back upwards of £40.

IcewineThose with an appreciation for severe weather will also now understand why ice wine is a rarity: there are not many places on the planet that are hot enough in the summer to grow the grapes in the first place, but also cold enough come winter to make ice wine feasible. Thanks to cold fronts coming down from the Arctic, and hot ones rising from the Gulf of Mexico, Niagara has just that unusual micro-climate: “We’re dealing with two massive weather systems here – and with a variability that keeps us on our toes,” notes McDonald. “The seasonal shifts here in Niagara are like nothing I’ve ever experienced.”

Demand for ice wine is on the up – such that Peller Estates has had to tackle the problem of Chinese counterfeits; most likely full of cheap dessert wine. There are other places, Peller Estates points out, that say they make ice wine – notably wineries in Austria and Germany – but some of these are produced artificially, by freezing the grapes mechanically, resulting in a less full-bodied, less intense, less aromatic version that your oenophile would identify as unmistakably “other”.

“It just tastes sweet,” says McDonald. “But sweetness is only one measure of a real ice wine – it’s that slow process of freezing on the vine that makes all the difference.”

Indeed, ice wine – or at least “icewine”, as it’s been branded – has an appellation regulation that stipulates it must be frozen on the vine. “And the icewine police are big on imposing rigid controls to allow you to have that icewine status,” McDonald adds.

Scotch whisky, of course, is similarly tightly controlled by the Scotch Whisky Association, which brooks no great deviation from its definitions before it will stop a brand from calling its product “Scotch”, widely perceived as essential for appealing to certain markets internationally. Yet it’s thanks to a new experimental whisky from Glenfiddich – in collaboration with Peller Estates – that ice wine might get the recognition it at last deserves. Winter Storm, as the whisky has been called, is made using the barrels ice wine is made in.

“And no, I’d never heard of ice wine either,” admits Brian Kinsman, Glenfiddich’s “malt master”, the man who designs the company’s whiskies. The two drinks aren’t blended – rather the oak becomes the medium for transferring flavours from the ice wine into the whisky.

“We went into the process fully accepting that it might not work at all,” adds Kinsman, and all the more so given that, since ice wine production is a small-scale business, Glenfiddich could only get hold of fewer than 100 barrels – for all production – which meant there was little room for trialling. “But, at the end of the two-year process, I think it has worked well.”

“And, for us as winemakers, the idea of using the ice wine process to make a whisky was an exciting one,” McDonald adds. “We just thought, ‘let’s try it, let’s see what the hell happens’.

“There’s already been a real halo effect. But there’s more of a local acknowledgement that we have a world-class product with our ice wine coming on too.

“For a while, we’ve had a hard time putting it up on a pedestal – that’s just part of the Canadian psyche. But now we’re taking a more confident approach.”