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The ice harvest 

Production of Icewine is a freak, and delight, of nature

Eiswein is an accidental German discovery, ostensibly made when an unexpectedly early, brutal snowstorm raced through the villages in Franconia. Grape pickers were used to picking late harvest grapes concentrated by the fall weather into shriveled, intense dessert grapes. What these folks were unprepared for was frozen-to-the-core pellets. What to do?

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Rather than abandon this ice cube encapsulated fruit, they took a shot at picking and fermenting it. Thus the glory and brilliance of Eiswein was "discovered." Two hundred years later, the process has been further scrutinized and perfected by choosing grape varieties that will survive fall temperatures intact on the vine and shrivel yet stay put, finally allowing themselves to be collected at the perfect moment, assuring totally frozen, "insulated" grapes.

The laws for producing today's Icewine in Canada are strict and precise, overseen by the Vintners Quality Alliance. No artificial freezing is allowed; a certain level of ripeness and residual sugar must be achieved, and only natural sugars, innate to the frozen grapes, can be used. (No bumping up sweetness levels with the addition of raw sugar is allowed.) Harvest can begin no sooner than Nov. 15, even though mid-December to late February seems the more normal time frame. These laws have enhanced the rarity and the exceptional quality that has emerged from Canadian Icewine over the past two decades.

Grapes must be monitored constantly by a meticulous staff throughout the fall so as to keep birds and mammals from having a pre-vernal snack. (Netting is a partial solution.) By the time the grapes are picked, a single vine full of icy grapes, looking more like marbles, will probably produce merely a single bottle of wine--and a 375 ml bottle at that! Adding in extensive, intensive harvest costs, Icewine is never an inexpensive proposition.

The name "Icewine" is restricted to the real stuff in Canada and respected as such on our side of the border. The states of Michigan, Washington and New York have had success making Icewine, but not with the regularity of those produced north of the border. Averages are two to three times a decade compared to Canada's eight out of 10 years. Cheaper "artificial" Icewines can also be very good; witness Bonny Doon's "Vin de Glaciere"--produced straight from a commercial freezer. But the rarity plus the intangible exquisiteness of the "vine frozen" varieties makes Icewine a commercially viable venture and treasure, despite cost.

InnisKillin and Mission Hill are two wineries that laugh in the face of adversity and, although separated by 2,000 miles (Ontario to British Columbia), share similar climates able to produce an Icewine practically every year. Inniskillin Winery puts the Vintners Quality Alliance certification on all their labels. Mission Hill, although not displaying the symbol, plays by the same exacting rules. The warm summers are usually capable of producing alcohol levels of 12-1/2 to 13 percent, yet the persistently cold winters that follow give our neighbors that perfect, rare climate that can produce these gems.

Here's an added hardship that I hadn't considered. It can actually be too cold to harvest the grapes at certain times. You want the grapes to be frozen solidly enough so that when they are crushed the fruit nectar, which doesn't freeze as easily as water, stays liquid and runs off to be fermented while the ice chunks remain. If the ice is too cold, the grapes within may be frozen too! So, tiny windows of opportunity, usually around 8-12 degrees Fahrenheit, are eagerly awaited and sought. When these occur it's a blur of activity. Night harvest begins and the picking of grapes from sundown to sunup eagerly ensues.

2004 Vidal, Proprietors Reserve, Jackson-Triggs $20 (187 ml. 1/4 bottle)

Actually, grapes from the 2003 harvest were used. Apricot notes on a fleeting, somewhat undistinguished bouquet. A light yet rich nasal impact with a hint of botrytis. Not terribly focused. Bold and delectable with decent acidity yet ultimately a bit cloying. 87

2003 Vidal, Inniskillin $52 (1/2 bottle)

Wonderfully honeyed, languorous, thick and generous nose of stone fruit. A slight oloroso sherry quality on the nose (in the finest sense of the word). Brilliant explosive flavors are quite sweet with just enough acid to hold you up. A bit cloying. 90

2004 Riesling, "Five Vineyards," Mission Hill Family Estate $20 (1/4 bottle)

Finely tuned, rich and "buttery" nose with overtones of diesel fuel (and that's a normal and good thing!). Penetrating, floral, refined riesling with tropical fruit overtones. Rock solid bouquet. Sweetly delectable and lovely texture; substantial and "breathtaking" in its force. "Earthbound" styling that delivers directly. 91

2004 Riesling Reserve, Mission Hill $60 (1/2 bottle)

Light, ephemeral, less earthy than the previous "Five Vineyards" bottling. Apple and citrus fruit dominate the penetrating nose. An elixir that caresses rather than rubs in its gentle sweetness. Clean, lively, and "darting" on the palate. A touch of leanness on the finish. Dreamy, fascinating style. 92

2004 Cabernet Franc, Inniskillin $100 (1/2 bottle)

Quite the novel experience! A red grape Icewine--what a challenge to grow and what a unique flavor sensation. Warm cherry and raspberry scents draw you in. A spray of red berry compote pleases the palate. Very sweet and concentrated. I'd love to try dark chocolate concoctions with this. Rare, expensive and special. Kudos. 93

2003 Vidal, oak aged, Inniskillin $80 (375 ml. 1/2 bottle)

Freshness aligned with substance. Liqueur-like nose of peaches, dried apricots and a whiff of petrol. Ample honey and nuttiness straddle the oak on the exceptionally satisfying bouquet. Lemony acids sit upon a layer of cottony sweetness in the mouth. A clean, long finish makes this a wine to ponder by. 95

2004 Riesling, S.L.C., Mission Hill $85 (1/2 bottle)

Light, subtle nose of light apricot and penetrating sweetness. It's high toned, fleeting just like a whisper as you take in the harmonious fragrances. Sweet flavors but nicely angular with good edges that offset the sugar rush. Great, long finish that you could so easily sip into the wee hours. Exquisite. 96

Many foods would grace the presence of these nectars. Some I'd recommend are: Stilton and other "blue" cheeses, fruit tarts or custards (neither one of them too sweet) and soft fleshy fruit. Make sure the wine is the focus.


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