The Grapevine – The Iceman Cometh

Making wine each and every vintage can be very difficult.  Winemakers are at the mercy of Mother Nature and never know for sure until harvest time what the bounty of the crop has yielded.

Ice wine is a form of extreme winemaking that takes the excruciating circumstances of Mother Nature to an entirely new level.  Ice-wine or “liquid gold” as it is referred to by wine aficionados is a dessert, or aperitif wine.

The practice of making Eiswein in Germany dates back to the early 1700’s.  But it is in Canada where it has become a modern day art.  Canada is now recognized as the finest Ice-wine producing area in the world.  This is mainly due to the Herculean efforts of one man, Donald Ziraldo.

Ziraldo is known as the “Godfather” of Ice-wine throughout the world.  He is also readily acknowledged as the world’s foremost authority on Ice-wine’s.  Ziraldo is the son of Italian immigrants who settled in the Canadian province of Ontario.  This is just across from Lake Ontario, one of the best known wine regions in the United States, the Finger Lakes region.

The family owned a nursery business in the Niagara Peninsula of Ontario and that was where Ziraldo met Karl Kaiser, an Austrian-born chemist and winemaker.  Kaiser frequented the Ziraldo family nursery, on his quest for grapevines that would grow and produce quality grapes in the northern climatic region of the Niagara Peninsula of Ontario, Canada. This goal eventually brought him together by chance with Ziraldo, and the rest, as it is said, is history.

It was only natural for Ziraldo, who grew up in the family nursery business, to earn his degree in the field of agriculture.  Both men, being of European heritage, grew up with wine being served at their family’s dinner tables.

Kaiser and Ziraldo soon began meeting to taste and discuss wine together in the early 1970’s.  While sitting around a table and tasting wine, Ziraldo and Kaiser concluded there was a sizeable gap in the premium wine market.  It was at his meeting they decided to produce fine wines utilizing the Vitus vinifera European strain of grapes.  By all standards, the Vitus vinifera grapevines are the strain by which all premium wines are produced.

Soon after, the two began sourcing grapes so they could begin making wine. However, the availability of the grapes was very limited.  Necessity being the mother of invention Ziraldo decided to tackle what seemed to be impossible, growing the Vitus vinifera grapes in Ontario, Canada.  With his background in agriculture and his love for wine, Ziraldo knew it would be possible to grow grapes in select areas of the Niagara Peninsula due to the moderating effect that water has on the hillsides and benches that it is surrounded by.

Ziraldo planted Chardonnay, Gamay, and Riesling grapes that became the basis for the master winemaker, Kaiser.  On July 31, 1975, Inniskillin Wines Incorporated was granted the first winery license in Ontario, Canada since prohibition.

Inniskillin Wines today is the most prominent internationally recognized winery in Canada, with vineyards and wineries in both Ontario and the Okanagan Valley, British Columbia (known as the Napa Valley of the North).  The mission statement for Inniskillin Wines said it all for these two pioneers of Canadian wine industry; “Not so much bound by tradition as inspired by it”.

The first Inniskillin winery was not a glamorous Chateau, but a renovated packing shed on the Ziraldo Family nursery grounds.  The wines being produced by Inniskillin began to garner attention from consumers and the wine industry.  In 1984, Kaiser took advantage of the harsh Canadian winter and produced Inninskillin Wines first Ice-wine, a defining point for the winery.

Ice-wine is a winemaking style wherein grapes are naturally frozen on the vine, harvested during the middle of the night and pressed in the extreme cold to separate the juice from the ice crystals.  Ice-wine yields are a mere 10-15% of an average table wine harvest.  The fermentation requires special yeast and many months of time.  This remarkable process concentrates the sugar and acids and intensifies the aroma and flavor of the grapes.  The result is very special wine that expresses aromatic flavors of white and tropical fruits such as mango, peach, and lychee.

Natural Ice-wine by wine regulations requires a hard freeze; in Canada the temperature must drop to -8° C (or 17° F) colder, and in Germany −7° C (or 19° F). This usually occurs months after a typical harvest.  If the freeze does not come soon enough, the entire crop can be lost to rotting and if the freeze is too severe, it can prevent any juice from being extracted when the grapes are pressed.  Animals also love these sweet grapes and left to hang to long enough, grapes will naturally drop from the vine.  This is a very tenuous circumstance waiting for the “perfect” climatic conditions.  Canada and Germany are the world’s largest producers of ice wines, and about 75 percent of ice wine in Canada comes from Ontario.

In 1991 Inniskillin Wines had their big break; the Vidal Ice-wine won a Grand Prix d’Honneur at Vinexpo in Bordeaux.  They maintained the high standards they had set for themselves at Inniskillin by continually producing world acclaimed wines.  Drawing on expertise and an in depth examination of appellations or wine regions from around the world with established wine growing and wine producing regulations, Ziraldo introduced the Vintners Quality Alliance system to Ontario and British Columbia’s wine industry in 1989.  The VQA is a regulatory system that identifies appellations of origin and controls quality within the main wine growing areas of both provinces.

In 2006 both Ziraldo and Kaiser retired from Inniskillin Wines. Kaiser remains on board as a consultant, and Ziraldo has a new wine project with his Equifera Ice Wines.  Ziraldo is currently producing three magnificent Ice wines that I’ll be reviewing on my blog; www.WineGuyMike.wordpress.com

The Equifera Ice Wines are grown and produced in Short Hills, a sub-appellation of the Niagara Peninsula.  Equifera produces a Riesling, Vidal, and red Cabernet Franc Ice-wine that I have reviewed and will be sharing with you on the WineGuyMike blog.  These wines are world class and I can’t wait to share them with you.

Remember good dessert and aperitif wines are sweet but remain balanced due to the natural acidity of the grapes.  The wines produced by Equifera and Inniskillin Wines can be served alone or with foods less sweet than the wine.  Quite often, the wine itself can be a dessert, but bakery sweets can also be a good pairing.

White Dessert or Aperitif wines should be served slightly chilled while the reds should be served at room temperature or ever so slightly chilled.

My recommendation is to enjoy Ice-wine’s with Stilton or Rogue Creamery Blue cheeses, this is a perfect pairing.  From my table to yours.

Liquid Planet, located in the heart of Downtown Missoula, features a selection of wines that I hand select.  Be sure to stop by Liquid Planet and check out the featured WineGuyMike wines or the other great wine selections that they offer.

I’ll see you on the radio Sunday’s at 10:00am MST on the Trail 103.3 FM or U 104.5 FM

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