Wine Thoughts Blog:

The Challenge of Icewine

Posted January 14, 2011

I always find icewine challenging. I tend to shy away from sweet wines at the best of times, although I love port, and know that botrytis-affected Riesling, Sauternes and Tokaji can be magnificent. But I tend to have this image of icewines as being overly sweet, without much depth or complexity, even though I know that I've tasted many icewines that I've quite liked. With Niagara's Icewine Festival around the corner, I've been trying to understand icewine a little better, or at least my reaction to it.

A few days ago I was part of a small group that was privileged to taste through current and several back vintages of icewines at Riverview Cellars in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Led by winemaker Angela Kasimos and winery manager Michael Pillitteri, we tasted some thought-provoking wines:

  • 2009 Cabernet Icewine ($59.95 for 375 ml: mostly Cabernet Franc with 19% Cabernet Sauvignon)
  • 2009 Riesling Icewine ($54.95 for 375 ml)
  • 2007 Buona Notte Cabernet Sauvignon Icewine (no longer for sale)
  • 2008 Buona Notte Cabernet Sauvignon Icewine ($99.95 also has 10.5% Cabernet Franc)
  • 2009 Buona Notte Cabernet Franc Icewine ($100)
bottlesBuona Notte 2009, 2008, 2007

There are several interesting points about this list of wines. First, the wines we tasted are all vinifera varieties: Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Riesling. By contrast, by far the most common grape used in Niagara icewine is the hybrid Vidal, and while Riverview makes a Vidal icewine, we didn't taste it here.

I like the fact that the Riesling has an identifiable varietal character. Despite having ripened thoroughly, there is some citrus on the nose, along with riper fruits, and just the slightest hint of petrol—it smelled right! There is nice acidity on the palate to balance the sweetness. Interestingly, I had the chance to try 2007 Riesling Icewine from Chateau des Charmes later in the day, and the petrol notes were stunning and exciting (for those of us who like that sort of thing).

poursBuona Notte 2007, 2008, 2009

A second point of interest was that the three Buona Notte wines are all barrel aged. The 2007 was aged for six months in stainless steel, and then for another ten months in new, water-treated French oak. The result is that the ultra-ripe red fruit flavours from the Cabernet Sauvignon are complemented by cream, caramel, and dried fruit. Nobody concurred when I suggested an attractive hint of oxidation, so maybe that was my imagination!

The 2009 was much younger, but partly because of the vintage and partly because of the variety (100% Cabernet Franc), the oak-induced flavours were accompanied by higher acidity.

You can see the direction I'm heading. By using vinifera grapes, and experimenting with winemaking techniques, a much more complex and (in my opinion) more satisfying aroma and flavour profile can emerge.

But don't get me wrong: I'm not a "vinefera snob." I'm not sure that Vidal Icewine couldn't be made more interesting, and I know for sure that there are lots of vinefera-based icewines that I don't find interesting at all. The reds are often so sweet that the varietal flavours are masked, and I just had a Chardonnay icewine that to me only showed cloying sweetness. On the other hand I still have memories of a stunningly good Gewürztraminer icewine that perfectly showcased delicate floral nuances in a relatively light frame.

However, I also think that there may be the beginning of a trend towards more constrained sweetness and a better acidity balance, especially when prized vinifera grapes are used. I raised my " Icewine is too sweet" complaint to winemaker Brian Schmidt at Vineland Estates, and he volunteered that he has been trying to produce icewines at more restrained sweetness levels for several years. I think that's a good trend: more acidity, better balance, and a chance for more flavours and aromas to surface.

It turns out that this all comes at a cost. Michael and Angela of Riverview told us that unlike the cold-hardy, thick-skinned and late-ripening hybrid Vidal, the vinifera vines are traumatized by being forced to hold their fruit into winter, and then having it picked at below -8C. The vines don't have a chance to gracefully fall into winter dormancy, and recovery will require at least one harvest to be missed, if not two. This is a high cost for producing icewine, and for many growers will only occur when early frosts prevent normal ripening for use in table wine.

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Further reading:

  • For a comprehsive review of the Riverview tasting, see Rick Vansickle's article in WinesinNiagara
  • For a background story by Michael DiCaro and video by Suresh Doss, see Spotlight Toronto