Sweet and Intense

The wine that made Ontario famous

One Christmas I visited friends in Eltville, a town along the Rhine near Frankfurt known for its sweet and sparkling white wines—the kind that can be made in cool, damp climates. Like nearly everyone else in town, the family made a bit of wine as an expensive hobby. With nine children and their friends swirling in daily constellations, my friends inevitably fell behind on various chores. Still, I was surprised to see grapes hanging on the few trellised vines—not merely forgotten stalks but big bunches that had turned brown with the cold. Why waste the better part of a year's work?, I wondered. Winemaking equipment was sitting outside, barely protected. "We're going to make ice wine," one of the children told me. "After New Year's. Once it gets really cold."

When, a few years later, I became a devoted follower of sweet wines, I learned that ice wine offers the sweetest, most intense concentration of grape flavor available in a bottle. It is one of the most peculiar, troublesome wines in the world to make. It also occupies a niche where the New World can successfully compete with the Old, by capitalizing on local climates and native grapes instead of fighting them.

Efforts to make drinkable wine in America were vexed from the start. Thomas Jefferson famously failed to coax European grapes into thriving at Monticello. Early explorers of the Americas took many fruits and vegetables to Europe, with such success that centuries later settlers imported them back (think of the tomato and the potato), but grapes were different. Jefferson and others who hoped to make wine in the Colonies dismissed as "foxy" the musty scent of native varieties such as Concord and Catawba, familiar to schoolchildren as the flavor of grape jelly and to teenagers sneaking Manischewitz and Cold Duck. The English authority Jancis Robinson likens it to "a wet, cheap fur coat."

Only after the turn of the twentieth century, when Italian immigrants recognized that European wine grapes could thrive in the Mediterranean-like climate of northern California, and only after their descendants decided to go head-to-head with the great winemakers of France and Italy, did the wine world take the New World seriously. A few decades later another group of immigrants—Germans and Austrians in Ontario—saw that they, too, could turn a climate similar to the one they had left behind to their advantage.

Canada has lately taken to ice wine the way Napa and Sonoma did to cabernet, and for the same reason—ice wine has brought international prizes and big increases in sales to the Canadian wine industry, which labored for decades with little recognition. Canadian winemakers have re-animated a wine that had practically disappeared in its Northern European birthplace—and without denaturing it, as attempts to re-create foods and wines far from their homes often do.

I wish I'd been able to see my German friends make ice wine. Picking and crushing the grapes are activities as reminiscent of a folk tale as the Christmas traditions the family lovingly observes. The grapes must be picked on several of the coldest nights of the year, preferably by moonlight, and pressed outdoors before the rising sun can begin to melt them.

The Niagara Peninsula, which runs along Lake Ontario a few miles north of the U.S. border, is suited to cool-climate grapes. The lake stores summer heat and releases it into the cooling autumn air, permitting long ripening. It was in this area that a series of French hybrid grapes—so called because French viticulturists crossed Southern European varieties with native American ones that could withstand disease and the cold—were developed at the turn of the century. White grapes proved more successful than red, and the most highly adaptable variety was Vidal, a cross including the popular wine grape known in Italy as Trebbiano and in France as Ugni blanc. Vidal grapes are relatively high in acidity, a characteristic of most cool-climate white grapes and a quality needed to balance the sweetness of ice wine. They also have extremely tough skins—another necessity, to survive the cycle of freezing and thawing that grapes for ice wine must undergo.

Several winemakers on the peninsula, each with a German or an Austrian background, decided in the early 1980s that they were growing the right grapes and working in just the right conditions to produce ice wine. Maybe they could make a product to rival that of their homelands. Maybe they could make a better one. For a while they talked about the possibility, almost as a joke—something to do if the seemingly endless work in their young wineries ever left them with any time. Then, in 1983, they decided to leave a few rows of Vidal and Riesling vines unpicked in each of their vineyards and see them through several hard frosts. The harvest was over by late October, as usual, and the first hard frosts were due in early December—mild Novembers and suddenly cold Decembers are typical of the peninsula, and a good augury for ice wine. Then, on December 1, one of the winemakers lost his entire crop to starlings.

"I was in Rochester, at a wine conference," Karl Kaiser told me when I visited the peninsula last winter. "I got back at two, and there were no grapes. I asked our vineyard fellow, 'What happened? Did you guys pick it?'" Lesson One, then, was to net the vines soon after the October harvest.

Nine years earlier Kaiser, a big, balding, moustachioed man with a kindly, intelligent face, had joined forces with Donald Ziraldo to open the Inniskillin Winery. Kaiser, who was exposed to winemaking as a high school student in a Cistercian monastery boarding school in rural Austria, would be the winemaker; Ziraldo, born in Canada to immigrants from the Italian region of Friuli, would oversee the business and promotion. They bought a farm for the winery near Niagara-on-the-Lake, a picturesque town eight miles north of Niagara Falls, and started making and selling several kinds of table wine. Ice wine began to seem like a good way to catch the attention of a world that remained uninterested in a newly ambitious industry.

Makers of sweet wines must concentrate the sugars and other flavor-giving substances in grapes. The ways of concentration are many, and the traditional ones rely on weather. In cool climates sun and warm air won't do the job. Instead vintners hope that insects (or birds, hail, or mildew) will bore tiny holes in the grape skins, to allow the entry of the fungus botrytis cinerea, called noble rot when vintners want it and bunch rot when they don't. If conditions are just right, the botrytis will concentrate the sugars while leaving the acid intact, resulting in honeyed tropical-fruit flavors. Waiting for the right rot is a big gamble, though, and one that frequently fails to pay off. That's why German late-harvest Rieslings, with their endless names (Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese), and Sauternes (of which Château d'Yquem is the ne plus ultra) are rare and costly.

The requirements for ice wine are much simpler: a couple of cold spells after a long ripening. Freeze-thaw cycles produce some of the same complexity that noble rot does—especially the overtones of peach and apricot and of tropical fruits such as mango and litchi (although not the honeyed quality, which is unique to botrytis). They also result in enormous concentration: a great deal of water is lost to the cold, dry air, and most of what remains is trapped in crystals when the grapes are picked.

The bunches go straight into the press, stems and all. What comes out is drops of syrup—the part of the grape highest in sugar and other flavors. Great force is necessary to extract these viscous drops: even today's powerful hydraulic presses, which typically press tons of grapes in an hour, take many hours to press a ton of frozen grapes. The yield is just one fifth of the juice that normally harvested grapes would provide.

In the first years of their experiments the Niagara Peninsula winemakers more or less guessed which night to pick the grapes. Then they became slightly more scientific. "I have a digital display thermometer in my bedroom," Klaus Reif, of the Reif Estate Winery, told me during an ice-wine festival in a fancy hotel beside the Niagara Falls casino. "When it's cold enough, we call everyone. We don't do it night after night, because that's too hard on people." At first winery workers drawn by the novelty volunteered for the night harvests. Then ice wine caught on. Every peninsula winery began producing one, and vintners had to find a core of workers who could do a full night's work on no notice and who were prepared to dress extremely warmly, down to their (usually bare) fingertips.

The allure of moonlight on snow-covered vines proved strong, and wineries are now in the unexpected position of fending off civilian volunteers. Klaus Reif sees why. "You start at midnight and work until eight," he told me. "It's ten to fourteen degrees, and with the wind chill it feels like thirty below. But it's amazing. People don't talk. They work along, quiet and peaceful. Some nights there's a snow layer and a full moon, and you hardly need any light. It's an awesome feeling."

The turning point for Canadian ice wine—and, it could be argued, for the Canadian wine industry—was a grand prize given in 1991 to a 1989 Inniskillin ice wine at Vinexpo, in Bordeaux, the largest annual trade show. No Canadian wine had ever before received anything like it. Inniskillin has gone from producing sixty-six cases in 1984, its first year, to 12,000 cases last year. In 1998 Ontario sold double the number of cases that Germany did.

Wineries south of the border have shown surprisingly little inclination to duplicate Canada's success. Although the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York has conditions very like Ontario's, Kaiser told me that he has encountered just one New York ice wine, and it was made from grapes harvested in October and stuck in the freezer. (This would not be allowed under the strict Canadian regulations that recently won Canada entry into the European market.) By far the most popular ice wine made in this country is made the same way, in California: the eccentric and erudite Randall Grahm's Vin de Glaciere. Grahm puts several kinds of Muscat grapes straight into the freezer before pressing them. Santa Cruz, where he makes wine, is not known for magic moonlight on snow-dusted vineyards.

Although Grahm's wine is not made by authentic methods ("glaciere" means "ice box"; Grahm changed the name from Vin de Glace, or "Ice Wine," after the U.S. government pointed out that he was cheating), it does have a welcome balance of sweetness and acidity. The many tastes I had of Vidal ice wines, by far the most popular kind, did not. They seemed monochromatic and too sweet. I longed for the delicacy and acid notes of late-harvest Riesling, or the sheer deliciousness and pear overtones of my favorite sweet wine, the lightly effervescent Moscato d'Asti.

I found some of these qualities when Kaiser took me through a tasting of several recent Inniskillin ice-wine vintages—after a while, that is. There were a few innovations best discarded—for example, oak-aged Vidal, which tasted weirdly smoky (botrytis wines benefit from wood aging, but frozen grapes don't). There were experiments with varieties I did not find congenial, among them ice wine made from red Cabernet franc grapes: Kaiser spoke proudly of the "pure fruit," but it tasted to me like mildly alcoholic grape syrup. And I never came to love Vidal ice wine, even though it is the flagship Niagara Peninsula wine and wins competition after competition. "I say that it has lipstick," Kaiser told me, half in apology. "The acidity in Riesling is much pointier."

Happily, many Niagara wineries do make Riesling ice wine, which, unlike Germanic late-harvest Rieslings, does not require botrytis (notable makers include Konzelmann, Reif, and Malivoire). Kaiser poured me a few of his, and then came to the revelation: sparkling ice wine. The sparkle is natural, he explained. The wine is fermented in steel tanks, not bottles, much like Moscato d'Asti. The flavor was bright and refreshing. This is by far the nicest way to drink a next-to-native grape, and a way to persuade even the sugar-averse that ice wine is something to treasure.