Canadians aren’t ones to brag, but when it comes to icewine, we’ve got the world beat. Icewine, like Canada itself, is the sweetness born of warm summers, cold winters and rich agricultural traditions. It’s no wonder we come out on top in quality and quantity.
With notes of honey, caramel and fresh fruit, icewine is a fragrant treat. However, typical Canadian humility may be interfering with the homegrown appreciation of our internationally coveted export.
“When you’re talking about something sweet, people get scared,” says Marco Celio, sommelier and general manager of Toronto’s Ovest. “Generally they want something a little bit more powerful, dry and bitter. But if you know how to pair it, I think icewine is one of the most enjoyable drinks you can have from grapes.”
Legend has it that the first batch of icewine, produced in 18th century Germany, was a lucky accident. Unseasonably cold weather had frozen grapes on the vine before they could be harvested. Struggling to make the best of things, the German vintners pressed the grapes. To their surprise, the resulting wine was so delicious they purposefully let future grapes freeze whenever conditions allowed.
Luckily for Canadian icewine enthusiasts, conditions in Ontario’s Niagara region and British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley almost always allow. Warm summers and cold – but not too cold – winters are the ripe conditions that make Canadian icewines the most consistently delicious.
Ironically, that consistency requires flexibility. True icewine can only be made from grapes frozen on the vine, which are typically handpicked at night to maintain proper temperature. Harvesters wait for the call, and when conditions are optimal, bundle up and get picking for results that are true north and sweet.
True to its name, icewine is typically served chilled. Celio recommends refrigerating your bottle a few hours before pouring into a standard, wide-mouth glass. “The beauty of icewine is that it’s something that really has to be enjoyed from the nose,” he says, “So you don’t want to use a small glass. You want a nice open glass where there is perfect ventilation and all the aroma can come out.”
When including icewine in a tasting, Celio suggests letting it warm a bit, to better release its unique fragrance. Then enjoy it exactly as you would any other wine. “You want to see the colour, because you’re going to have different icewine with white grapes and dark grapes,” says Celio. “You want to understand the nose, because the nose is very different than what you’re tasting – usually it’s much sweeter than what you get on your mouth.” Finally, be sure to serve it alongside complimentary nibbles. “Icewine is something that needs to have a friend,” says Celio.
Pairing icewine requires care, but modern sommeliers are challenging the idea that it’s only fit to serve with dessert. In addition to dark, bitter chocolate and chocolate hazelnut-based desserts, Celio suggests serving icewine with cheese, particularly strong blues for a playful contrast. If you do serve it with dessert, be sure to choose a treat that’s less sweet than the wine itself, to avoid overpowering the food.
Marco Celio is a wine purist, and while he wouldn’t personally dilute icewine’s special flavour with other spirits, he concedes that others might like mixing it with aperol or bitters.
Keep opened bottles of icewine in the fridge. The less frequently they’re opened, the longer they’ll last, says Celio. Regardless, the flavours in most bottles will start changing in about five to six days. If you can’t finish the bottle on the first go, grab some wide glasses and a few friends and enjoy a second round of sweet times.