It’s a bright Canadian summer morning as I make my way down the vineyards of Chateau des Charmes in Niagara-on-the-lake, a charming, old-world town of just 14000 residents in Ontario state. It’s not harvesting season yet, so the vines are bare, the grapes a mere potential of a sweet future. The winery’s tour operator Anastasia shows us through the process of wine-making before we reach our final destination – the tasting counter. Here, an exhaustive menu confronts me – there are reds, whites and specialty wines. But the one name on the list that draws me is a 2007 Cabernet Franc Icewine, a rich, ruby-coloured estate-bottled wine with aromas of cassis and cedar, with cranberry and strawberry notes. One whiff and sip into it, I am sure wine is never going to taste the same again.
Ice wine finds its origin about two hundred years ago in the valleys of Germany where the winter frost was harsh enough to freeze the grapes still on their vines. It became a lucrative business about fifty years ago, and finally hit mainstream wine menus across the world in the 1980s when Canadian winery Inniskillin got into the action. With its chilly, frosty winters working to its advantage, Canada quickly grew in this domain and is now the largest producer of ice wines in the world. Ontario, where we sampled the local ice wine, contributes 75 per cent of Canada’s ice wine production.
Legend goes that this delicacy was discovered by accident when some farmers left the grape harvest on the vine to use as animal fodder because of harsh weather conditions. Later when the grapes were pressed, they produced a very sweet must. Further experimentation, processing and technological advances led to this wine being coveted as the second highest priced of all wines available in the world.
The ingredients account for most of the end result of any produce, and ice wine ingredients too come from a distinguished lineage of grapes. The most often used are Riesling (a German specialty), Vidal (popular in Canada), and the red grape Cabernet Franc that we sampled. Many other varieties are being experimented with at present, such as the white Seyval Blanc and Chardonnay, and the red Merlot and Pinot Noir, in countries as far and wide as Australia, Austria, Croatia, Czech Republic, France, Hong Kong, Hungary, even Israel.
But while the pedigree is important, the timing has to be perfect, as do the climatic conditions. The temperature needs to go down to –8°C or colder after the grapes are ripe, which means that grapes need to hang on the vines for months after a regular harvest. If the weather freezes too early in the year, the grapes wouldn’t have ripened enough to pick. If the freeze comes too late, the grapes may rot, drop, or be eaten by animals. Similarly, if the freeze is too severe, the juice of the grapes cannot be extracted. There are stories of wineries having broken their pneumatic presses while pressing extra-frozen, rock-hard grapes in the extreme cold.
The next challenge lies in the collection. Harvest necessarily happens in peak winters. Pickers often have to work at night or early morning, harvesting the grapes within a few hours of freezing over, as the fruit needs to be pressed while still frozen. Cellar workers, too, have to work in unheated rooms for the same reason. The handpicked grapes are then pressed throughout the night without de-stemming or crushing. An ambient temperature of –10°C or colder has to be maintained throughout the process.
This technique yields only a fraction of the normal yield (approximately 10 to 20 per cent) as most of the natural water portion of the juice remains in the press in the form of ice crystals. When these crystals are strained, what emerge are a few precious drops of silky, sweet, unadulterated liquid. This is further put through a process of arduous fermentation at just the right temperatures using a special form of yeast. The high sugar level leads to a slower-than-normal rate of fermentation and it can take months to complete the process, as against days or weeks for regular wines.
In countries that have perfected the art of natural thawing, such as Austria, Germany and Canada, the grapes must freeze naturally to be called ice wine as per local and international laws. In other countries, there are some winemakers who use a process of mechanical freezing to simulate a frost without having to leave the grapes to hang for extended periods. These wines, made using cryoextraction, are sometimes called ‘icebox wines’. White ice wines tend to be pale yellow or light gold in colour; reds are light burgundy or light pink. Served chilled as dessert wines, they are usually refreshing and sweet to taste, with a medium to full body and a long, lingering finish. The alcohol content in ice wines is lower than in regular wines – it usually varies from 6 per cent in German Rieslings to almost 13 per cent in their Canadian counterparts.
Due to the high risk-factor in the business, lower yield of grape musts and its longer and more difficult fermentation process, ice wines are significantly more expensive than table wines. They are often sold in smaller bottles (200 ml or sometimes 375 ml) and need careful preservation. Royal DeMaria introduced five cases of Chardonnay ice wine in 2006 with a half-bottle price set at approximately Rs 14 lakh, making it the world’s most expensively priced wine. The ageing of this wine is highly subjective to taste: while some like it old, others feel ageing takes away it acidic pungent flavour. As a relatively new wine on the block, this debate is perhaps part of the growing process.
“Ice wine is like amrit (elixir); it is truly ambrosial! Each one must enjoy the joys of ice wine both as a dessert and with a dessert,” opines Subhash Arora, president of the Delhi Wine Club and an Inniskillin loyalist. The brand has plans to retail in India soon. Get set for a heady rush of luxurious sweetness.
(With inputs by Kuhu Kochar)