Iced Over in the Vineyards of Ontario Icewine Country

Inniskillin WinerySnow was falling from the ash-grey sky over Ontario as I tromped down into the vineyard on a freezing Saturday morning in January. It was the heart of winter in Niagara-on-the-Lake: the kind of day where you stay indoors and don’t come out until tomorrow. At the Inniskillin Winery, however, these were ideal conditions for experiencing a close–not exact, but close–approximation of what it’s like harvesting icewine grapes in Canadian wine country.

Really, though, we had it easy compared to the real thing. It was probably in the mid-20s, and the wind was only blowing in sporadic fits and bursts; cold doesn’t especially bother me. Plus, once the wind died down, the accumulating snowfall turned rather romantic, delicately slow dancing out of the sky like flakes of white plastic in a shook-up snowglobe.

I tugged on the protective netting that canvassed the vines, and as it snapped open bunches of frozen grapes dropped into my yellow bin like golden coins gushing from a casino slot machine. My nose was red and running, my face was numb, and though the long, black rubber boots kept my feet dry, my toes felt like ice cubes… but I wasn’t stopping until my bin was full. In fact, I would have gladly filled two bins.

Lay of the Land

Inniskillin was co-founded in the mid-1970s by Donald Ziraldo and Karl Kaiser, but their first successful harvest of icewine grapes didn’t occur until 1984 (’83’s crop was devoured by flocks of ravenous birds, which prompted the now-standard practice of covering the grapes in nets as early as October). Just seven years later, Ziraldo, Kaiser, and Inniskillin made a name for themselves by winning the coveted Grand Prix d’Honneur at France’s Vin Expo for their 1989 icewine.

About those icewine grapes: due to strict regulations set by the Vinters Quality Alliance (VQA) in Ontario and British Columbia, they can’t be harvested until temperatures drop to between 17 and 7 degrees Fahrenheit for a sustained period of time (usually 3 days or so). Once that happens, wineries can legally make the call for harvesting, which often takes place in the dead of night on short notice. At Inniskillin, they’ve picked as early as December 2 and as late as March 15; this year they tackled their Riesling, Vidal, and Cabernet Franc vines on December 12.

The grapes are immediately pressed (usually within 3 hours), the resulting juice is injected with yeast cultures from a local farm, and it’s whisked off to stainless steel tanks to ferment for up to four months. The result is a sweet, aromatic, highly acidic, and surprisingly complex product with a naturally occuring alcohol content between 10 – 12%. It’s certainly not the kind of wine you can drink all night–I’d stop at just one small glass or two– but given its premium price tag ($49.95 and up for 375ml bottle), this isn’t your average, everyday table wine anyway. I wouldn’t say it’s a wine to be exclusively poured for special occasions, but it’s close.

Wishful Thinking

We were told the grapes we picked that morning would be used in this year’s vintage, but given what we knew about the precise timing and temperatures required to produce icewine I knew we were merely being humored… or, perhaps, being given added incentive to go through with it during this classic Canadian clipper.

Brian Spencer at Inniskillin Winery

I can’t speak for the others in the group, but I didn’t need any added incentive. I would have bundled up and picked those grapes in conditions far worse than they were that morning; actually, I privately longed to experience this first stage of what many call “extreme winemaking” as the actual pickers do.

Just once, I want to be sent into the vineyards at 1 o’clock in the morning, rip into those nets, and snap those bunches of grapes not just from one small patch of vines, but from an entire row of grapes; hell, from three rows. Wine harvests in France, Italy, Spain, and other warmer climates might have more panache, but there was a certain wintery romance in this process I found strangely appealing.

Of course, I was only out there for half an hour or so: a four- or five-hour session might have me wishing otherwise, so if there are any Ontario icewinemakers reading this, please don’t go signing me up for next year’s harvest just yet.

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As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with a complimentary tour, tastings, and other experiences such as this for the purpose of reviewing and learning more about those services. While it has not influenced this article, both the writer and Perceptive Travel believe in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.

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