An Icewine Vintage for the record books
By John Schreiner
November 29, 2006
The sharp blast of cold weather across British Columbia this week has delivered what will surely be one of this province’s greatest icewine vintages.
According to the British Columbia Wine Institute, 21 wineries registered their intent to make icewine. For most, the harvest started on Monday, November 27. Unusual for the Okanagan, the necessary deep freeze lasted for several days, giving wineries the “luxury” of picking during the day, avoiding the brutal misery of night picking. It is much easier to recruit pickers for daytime harvests and the pick is much more efficient.
Photo courtesy of the BC Wine Institute
Under the VQA regulations, grapes for icewine cannot be picked and pressed unless the temperature is -8°C. This is a minimum, sufficient to yield juice, when pressed, with 35 percent sugar.
Ideally, winemakers want a sharper freeze so that the juice for icewine has 45 percent (give or take several percentage points) of sugar when it drips from the press. The finished wine will be richer and more intense.
This year’s temperatures were ideal. St. Hubertus Estate Winery picked with temperatures around -12°C while Jackson-Triggs picked at -11.5°C. One of the owners of St. Hubertus was quoted as saying some of the juice was coming in as high as 59 percent sugar.
In practical terms, that is too high to ferment because the high concentration of sugar in the juice dehydrates the yeast cells, killing them before fermentation proceeds. In such situations, winemakers let the frozen grapes thaw a bit in the press so that enough water is pressed along with sugar to allow the wine to ferment.
The vintage conditions were ideal in other ways as well. Late November is relatively early for a good icewine freeze. Typically, Okanagan icewines harvests occur between mid-December and the end of January.
The early harvest of 2006 has several advantages that lead to great wines:
* The grapes were very sound when frozen. There have been no significant mild cycles of freezing and thawing that can change the flavour of the juice, not necessarily for the better. This year’s cold weather almost flash froze the grapes when they were still fresh and full of juice.
* An early harvest means better yields. The grapes did not shrivel or fall to the ground or be eaten by birds, bears and other predators.
* A larger array of grape varieties are being made into icewine. Some varieties hang tenaciously to their vines but others, such as Merlot, start dropping if the picking is delayed. The early 2006 vintage is yielding lots of Merlot and Chardonnay, along with the more conventional icewine varieties, such as Riesling, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir.
The bottom line is that the 2006 icewines should be stunning because the wineries started with healthy grapes and got such a sharp freeze. Look for wines that begin with fresh, powerful aromas. The flavours will be bursting with pure fruit. And while the wines will be quite sweet, the natural acid of the superb 2006 vintage will provide a fine balance.
This should be a great vintage for aging, given the intensity of the flavours, the high sugars and the acidity.
If you insist on aging icewine. In my view, the appeal of icewine is the explosion of fruit flavours on your palate that icewines deliver during their first two or three years. I can hardly wait to taste the 2006 vintage.