Icewine: Sweet Wines from Canada

ice wine grapes

Whether you call it Icewine or ice wine, this sweet wine is unique. Also known as Eiswein in Germany, it is produced in a hand full of countries but Canada creates the world’s best Icewine. Canadian grape growing regions have the perfect conditions for growing grapes for Icewine. It gets hot enough to produce high quality grapes in the summer, and cold enough in the winter to freeze the grapes on the vine.

History of Icewine

The first real documented Icewine was in Germany in 1830. A harsh winter in 1829 lead to some of the grapes being left on the vine. It was discovered that the must (inside flesh of the grape) was very sweet, so the grapes were pressed and Icewine was produced.  However, in Germany it is called Eiswein and it is one of the official designations of wine.

After its discovery, Eiswein was not consistently made in Germany throughout the 19th century and well into the 20th century. The challenges of harvesting and pressing frozen grapes were great and obviously not considered worthwhile. The invention of the pneumatic bladder press made Eiswein production much more practical and resulted in larger quantities of wine being produced in the second half of the 20th century.

In Canada, the first Icewine production is credited to Walter Hainle from Peachland, British Columbia. In 1973, an early frost froze the grapes but Hainle decided to proceed and created 40 L of Icewine, but it was not sold to the public until 1978. When Hainle Vineyards was established in 1988, they became the first BC winery to sell Icewine commercially.

Meanwhile, in Ontario, a few wineries were attempting to make Icewine on purpose. In 1983, Karl Kaiser of Inniskillin Winery, Hillebrand and Pelee Island all left grapes on the vines with very little success. Inniskillin lost their entire crop to birds, but Hillebrand and Pelee Island were able to harvest very small amounts of grapes. In 1984, Kaiser used netting to protect the Vidal grapes from the hungry birds and was successful at producing Inniskillin’s first ice wine. It was labelled as ‘Eiswein’.

Canada soon became known for Icewine as it started to gain the attention of the international market. In 1991, at the Vinexpo in Bordeaux, Inniskillin’s 1989 Vidal Icewine won the Grand Prix d’Honneur and put Canada, and our Icewine, in the spotlight for the world to take notice. And notice they did.

Canada is now the leading producer of Icewine (or Eiswein) in the world, and depending on the year, is responsible for approximately 2/3 of the world’s production. Ontario and British Columbia are the main provinces for production, although Nova Scotia and Quebec also produce some.

Icewine by the Numbers:

Ontario is Canada’s main producer of Icewine, and according to Wine Country Ontario, 90% of Canadian Icewine is produced in the province, resulting in approximately 850,000 L of wine.

Ontario is also Canada’s largest exporter of Icewine. The value of Ontario Icewine exports in 2014 was $15.6 million followed by British Columbia at $2.4 million.

In 2014, Icewine represented 29% of the total export value ($19.4 million) and 0.4% of export volume (228,500 litres). As you can see from the exports chart below, China is by far the largest importer of Canadian Icewine.

Canadian Icewine










Requirements and Guildelines:

On February 12, 2014, the Government of Canada published its Standard of Identity for Icewine within the Canada Agricultural Products Act (SOR/2014-10). The regulation states, “Only wine that is made exclusively from grapes naturally frozen on the vine is “icewine”, “ice wine” or “ice-wine”.”

Canadian Icewine production is controlled by the Canadian Vintners Association (CVA). The CVA is the legal owner of the Canadian “Icewine” trade-mark and actively protects the integrity and authenticity of Icewine in Canada and in global markets.

There are strict guidelines growers and winemakers must follow in order to qualify to be a Canadian Icewine. These guidelines are enforced at a provincial level by the Vintner’s Quality Alliance (VQA), which is similar to a designation of origin in the EU.

Icewine guidelines

How it is Made:

Making Icewine is challenging. Not only do of all of the guidelines have to be met, the weather has to cooperate and the risk of losing a crop is very real. It is definitely not for the faint of heart.

In the Fall, when the table wine grapes are harvested and crushed, the grapes used for Icewine are left on the vines. They are covered in netting to protect them from hungry birds and deer. A whole crop can be lost very quickly to birds and animals who love the sweet grapes. The grapes must be registered with VQA inspectors and the grape variety, acreage and estimated tonnage is verified.

The grapes continue to develop flavours and the sugar content increases. As the temperature starts to drop, the grapes will start to lose water content and begin to shrivel in size. This concentrates the flavours even further.

frozen grapesOnce the temperatures reach -8 C decisions have to be made about when to harvest. The temperature must be a minimum of -8 C before harvesting can begin, but many producers will wait for the temperatures to reach -10 C to -12 C. These lower temperatures mean less water in the grape (more ice), therefore more concentrated juice. This temperature range will produce very sweet juice with a range of 35 -38 degrees Brix (One degree Brix is 1 gram of sucrose in 100 grams of solution).

The lower temperatures also mean more severe working conditions for the pickers, and more stress on the equipment. There is also the risk the temperature may warm up and once it goes above -8 C they have to stop picking and wait for the temperatures to drop again. Harvest usually happens at night, by hand, which gives the workers a short window of time to get the crop harvested. In mild winters, they may only get 1 chance or it may happen so late into the season that the grapes rot or fall off the vine.

Once the grapes are harvested, they are pressed in hydraulic presses under much higher pressure than grapes harvested for table wine. Only a small amount of concentrated juice is extracted. Most of the mass is ice and is left behind in the press.

Juice yields for Icewine grapes are much lower than for table wines, approximately 15% of the expected yield for grapes harvested for table wines. On average 10 Icewine grapes are needed for 1 ml of Icewine whereas only 1.5 grapes are needed for 1 ml of table wine.

The high sugar content of the juice can make the fermentation process more difficult. Yeast has difficulty surviving in high sugar environments and the fermentation process may stop early resulting in low alcohol levels and high sugar levels in the finished wine.

Serving Icewine:

  • Canadian Icewine has a perfect balance of sweetness with high acidity that keeps it from being cloying.
  • Icewines exhibit rich aromas and flavours of honey, citrus and peach as well as ripe tropical fruits such as lychee, papaya and pineapple.
  • Icewine should be chilled in an ice bucket for 15 minutes or in the refrigerator for a couple of hours before serving.
  • Serve 1.5-2 ounces in a white wine glass or small spirit glass. A larger bowl will releaase more fruit aromas.
  • Once opened, Icewine will keep for a couple of weeks in the refrigerator.
  • Pair white Icewine with desserts that are not as sweet as the wine, foie-gras, blue cheese or spicy cuisine.
  • Pair red Icewine with dark chocolate.


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