Thursday, November 21, 2013

A record year for BC Icewine

 Photo: The Icewine harvest at Summerhill Pyramid Winery

Here’s hoping that consumers still have a taste for something sweet: British Columbia’s winemakers are likely to produce about 300,000 litres of Icewine this, or double the 2012 production.

Some 29 producers have registered to turn 1,000 tons of grapes into Icewine this year. The harvest began November 20-21, the third earliest Icewine harvest in British Columbia. The earliest harvests were November 3, 2003 and November 19, 2011.

One winery, Little Straw Vineyards in West Kelowna, was able to pick some grapes early on the morning of November 20, stopping when the temperature rose during the day, and finishing that night.

Several consecutive days of frigid weather in the Okanagan and Similkameen Valleys have given producers a generous window for the harvest.

The jump in production this year is due primarily to the fact that the necessary harvest conditions occurred early, when a lot of fruit was still hanging on the vine and when the berries were plump and healthy.

“To make superb Icewine, the first thing you need is perfect grapes,” says Ezra Cipes, the chief executive at Summerhill Pyramid Winery. “We had a growing season that produced perfect grapes [and] we had temperatures that froze our grapes on the vine to produce this delicious nectar.”

The difference between an early Icewine harvest and a late one is major. In the 2012 vintage, 142,800 litres of Icewine were produced from a harvest of 476 tons by 27 producers. In that vintage, a little Icewine was picked on January 1, 2012 and most was picked between January 11 and January 15.

Derek Kontkanen, one of the winemakers at Jackson-Triggs, estimates that vines can lose as much as 25% of their fruit in each additional month that the Icewine harvest is delayed. The berries are eaten by birds and bears, or knocked from the vines by wind. They also lose weight by shrivelling on the vine; and there is always a risk of rot if winter turns wet.

The regulations for making Icewine are quite specific. Grapes for Icewine must be frozen to at least -8ºC before being picked and they must be crushed at that temperature as well.

That is the minimum. Most winemakers prefer the grapes to be frozen to between -10ºC and -12ºC.  The colder temperatures freeze more of the water fraction in the grapes and the juice squeezed from the press is sweeter. At -12ºC, Jackson-Triggs and Inniskillin Okanagan were getting juice that measured 45 brix – effectively 45% sugar.

The freezing not only concentrates the sugar; it also concentrates acidity and flavours. In the best Icewines, the piquant acidity balances the sweetness so that the flavours are clean and appealing.

Few winemakers want the temperatures to be much colder. If the brix reading gets above 50, it is difficult to get a healthy ferment because the high sugar content kills the yeast cells.

The volumes of Icewine produced each vintage vary greatly, usually depending on weather conditions. However, the small production in 2009 probably had more to do with industry pessimism about the demand for expensive wines after the 2008 recession. The following table is provided by the BC Wine Institute.

Tons left for Icewine
Estimated litres

In 2001, I wrote the world’s first book on Icewine, called Icewine: The Complete Story. Now out of print, it shows up used on Amazon. I also produced a 12,000-woes monograph for the International Wine and Food Society which is the basic primer on Icewine. The text remains on my computer and I would be happy to send it to anyone who requests it. Email me at

The photo below is of Riesling grapes for Jackson-Triggs Icewine.

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