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Nectar of the Gods

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Icewine an accidental discovery that’s perfectly suited to B.C.

The hot dry weather that helped to fuel the forest fires in B.C.’s Interior this past summer also helped to produce top quality wine grapes in terms of ripeness and flavour concentration. Last week’s cold snap had Okanagan vineyards scrambling with an earlier than usual harvest of grapes destined to become Icewines. The heat of the summer and early cold this fall combined to make what will become a perfect balance of sugar and acidity in what will be a banner year for Icewine production.

I was fortunate to attend last week’s food and wine Cornucopia celebration. When there are over 80 international and regional wineries offering sips of their select vintages it is best to employ a strategy of tasting, particularly if you choose to swallow rather than spit. I have a particular fondness for dessert wines and since Icewines are usually outside my budget constraints – they usually run at around $50 for a half-sized bottle – I made my way around the newly renovated Telus Conference Centre to sample what many people call the nectar of the Gods.

Although Canada is the world’s leading producer of Icewine, it was first made, most likely by accident, in Germany. Around 1790, an early frost hit the vineyards in Franconia before harvest. Not wanting to waste all the grapes and lose out on wine for that year, the vintners harvested the frozen grapes and were relieved to see a thick syrup squeezed out by the press. The resulting wine was especially sweet and eiswein (Icewine) has been produced ever since.

Icewine is made by harvesting grapes late in the season after they have frozen on the vine. The late harvest usually ensures that the grapes have lost much of their water content through repeated frost and thaws, which concentrates the amount of sugar, acids and extracts in the berries. The frozen grapes are hand picked and, while still frozen and as hard as marbles, they are pressed. The water is pressed from the grapes as ice crystals leaving a highly concentrated juice that is very high in both acid and sugar. The juice is fermented slowly for several months and stops naturally.

The most common grapes used to make Icewine are Vidal and Riesling, although it can be made from other varietals as well. Vidal is a hybrid, usually used in a blend to make other wines but especially suited on its own in the production of Icewine. The skins are thick and tough, helping the grape’s resistance to mould and rot, especially through the wet months of autumn. Vidal grapes are fruity with good sugar content and good acidity. Riesling grapes, usually used for the production of dry, white wines, particularly in Germany and Alsace, produce particularly elegant Icewines.

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