Laila North likes to call icewine a happy accident. As the legend goes, it’s a nod to some German monks who harvested grapes more than 200 years ago.
One year, the abbot didn’t give permission to pick the grapes and they stayed on the vines until winter. When he realized, he told the monks to harvest the frozen grapes. “And lo and behold, it was icewine,” says North, owner and operator of Uncork Nova Scotia, a wine tour company that runs from May to November out of Halifax, Windsor, and Wolfville. There’s also some evidence wines made in the style of icewines were also made in ancient Roman times.
Fast forward to today and Canada is the global icewine leader, both in quantity and quality, says the Canadian Vintners Association website. Qualifying as an icewine means meeting some stringent production requirements: it must be made from grapes naturally frozen on the vine, picked when the air temperature is -8°C or colder, and pressed while the grapes are still frozen. Additionally, icewine must have an alcohol content between 7 and 14%.
Made at about a half-dozen vineyards in Nova Scotia, icewine isn’t easily found at other Atlantic Canadian vineyards because it’s hard to make.
Gilliane Nadeau, the owner of Uncorked Tours, which does wine, food, and beer tours in Saint John and southern New Brunswick, says there are a few reasons why icewines aren’t common. “You need to have a lot of grapes on the vine to really attempt making icewine,” she says. The quantity of juice extracted from a frozen grape is far less than non-frozen.
Large tracts of land mean higher production costs, and the winter picking creates additional complications. “You’re risking what you know is guaranteed production for freezing a bunch of grapes in a field and hoping the animals don’t get to them and the birds don’t get to them,” says Nadeau. “Everybody’s hungry in December.”
Another option is what is known as a late harvest wine, which is like an icewine, but workers pick and process the grapes sooner, resulting in a wine that isn’t as sweet.
A great Atlantic Canadian icewine is Borealis by Benjamin Bridge in Gaspereau, N.S. It’s made with the Vidal grape, a common grape used in Nova Scotia and Ontario, and aged for at least four years after fermenting.
“It’s got high sugar, for sure, but it also has really nice acidity to it, so you’re always looking for a balance of sweetness and acidity,” says Susan Downey Lim, tour director for Grape Escapes Nova Scotia Wine Tours. The company offers daily tours from Halifax to the Annapolis Valley. Tasting notes from Benjamin Bridge suggest ripe peaches, dried apricots, and citrus rind undertones.
Another option is Domaine de Grand Pré’s Muscat Icewine. The Grand Pré, N.S., vineyard sells the wine onsite, and at NSLC’s The Port store on Clyde Street in Halifax. North says it’s fruity and has burnt apricot flavours. Where it’s fermented in an oak barrel, you’ll also get some complexity, weight, and flavours from that. The use of the Muscat grape compared to Vidal results in “more fruity notes and aromatics on it,” says North.
For late-harvest wines, Nadeau recommends one made by Gillis and Belleisle, a winery in Springfield, N.B. “It lends itself very nicely to being that end-of-meal sweet finish to a nice dinner,” she says. Made from a blend of Osceola Muscat and l’Acadie Blanc grapes, you’ll likely taste stone fruits or tropical fruit. The Late Harvest wine is only available at the vineyard.
Vineyard owner Alan Gillis says his original plan was to make an icewine, but grape-devouring wildlife forced his hand. “Whether it was the raccoons or the birds that were getting at the grapes, we had to get them out of the vineyard,” he says, thus creating a happy accident that turned into a late-harvest wine.
BOREALIS, BENJAMIN BRIDGE: Downey Lim suggests a strong cheese like Roquefort, aged cheddar, or Asiago. The sweetness and acidity in the wine will work to make the cheese not taste as strong and lessen the sweetness of the icewine.
MUSCAT ICEWINE, DOMAINE DE GRAND PRÉ: North recommends drinking this with a chocolate fondue. She says you don’t have to get fancy; just melt a Toblerone bar in a saucepan over low heat and dip cut fruit, pretzels, or squares of cake.
LATE HARVEST ICE WINE, GILLIS OF BELLEISLE: Nadeau recommends pairing it with blue cheese or goat cheese like Blue Harbour Cheese in Halifax or goat cheese from Fromagerie au Fond des Bois in Rexton, N.B.