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Icewine - the Frozen Truth

Gary Pickering

Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute and Department of Biological Sciences, Brock University, Ontario, Canada; email:


Introduction How is Icewine made? Cultivars and Icewine styles Some pre-harvest considerations Regulation, economics and the evolution of the Canadian industry Icewine research at CCOVI

- Composition and quality

- Yeast selection and inoculation

- Managing volatile acidity

- Viticultural and harvest variables

- Faux vs authentic Icewine

Summary and future challenges Acknowledgements Sources, references and suggested readings

Dedication: I would like to dedicate this paper to Karl J. Kaiser, LLD. Dr Kaiser has been a true pioneer of Canadian Icewine in every sense of the word. On behalf of oenophiles the world over; thank you Karl.


Icewine is a late harvest wine produced from the juice of grapes that have been frozen on the vine and pressed while frozen. During pressing, the water is retained as ice crystals, so the resulting juice is highly concentrated in sugar and flavour compounds. It is valued for its rarity, sweetness, intensity of aroma and flavour, and – not least of all – its purity. Its origins are equivocal, but a date often cited as the first ‘genuine’ ice wine harvest is 1794, in Germany (Schreiner, 2001). For most of its history since that date it is likely it was a very irregular occurrence, with one German wine writer referenced in Schreiner calculating that there were only 10 ice wine (Eiswein) vintages between 1875 and 1962.

Production was much more consistent during the last quarter of the 20 th century. Over most of this period, Germany and Austria have been the main producers, with Luxembourg, Croatia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Switzerland and the United States also contributing variable but appreciable production. However, emerging onto the scene in the late 1980s was a new kid on the block, who in very short time has come to dominate the global ice wine scene in terms of both quantity and – arguably – quality. Canada.

The hot summers and cold, dependable winters found in Canada’s main grape growing regions produce the requisite conditions for consistent and reliable production. While many European ice wine producers cannot be assured of sufficiently cold conditions at the correct time and for long enough to harvest the fruit, this is generally not a problem with Canada’s long, cold winters. Most of her viticultural regions produce Icewine, and these are spread across a continent – from the Pacific province of British Columbia, to Nova Scotia, on the Atlantic (Figure 1). It is in Ontario, however, and on the Niagara Peninsula in particular, that the majority (approx 75%) of Icewine is made and where projected growth is greatest (Figure 2). While yields vary greatly from vintage to vintage, Canada’s total Icewine production has increased dramatically over the last decade, and current estimates from the last vintage exceed 1 000 000 L.

The remainder of this paper will provide an overview on the growth, production and regulation of Icewine in Canada, and will consider some of the specific climatic, viticultural and oenological factors that influence its quality. A comprehensive review of the scientific literature on this topic can be found in Pickering and Inglis (2006). The pioneering Icewine research of the Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute (CCOVI) will be featured in the last section of the paper, and I will conclude by discussing some of the challenges that lie ahead for the industry. ‘Icewine’ has been used here to delineate Canadian-produced product (the term is in fact trademarked by Canada’s regulatory oversight body - Vintners Quality Alliance Canada (VQA)) from Eiswein (Germany and Austria) and ice wine (a generic term encompassing both styles and those from other nations). Simulated ice wine – which makes use of artificial means to concentrate the grapes or juice – will not be considered here except for a brief mention on new research initiatives aimed at identifying fraudulent products.

Figure 1- Map of Canada

Figure 1- Map of Canada

Niagara Peninsula

Figure 2 – Map of Ontario showing the Niagara Peninsula

How is Icewine made?


Grapes must be picked and pressed at -8 °C, and regular variations in climate (for instance, El Niño vs La Niña conditions) plus regional differences create variable harvest dates across Canada from year to year. In Ontario, the end of December through to mid January is common and generally considered optimal for the final quality of the wine, although on a rare occasion harvest has been delayed until late March. Anecdotally, it is believed that a number of freeze/thaw events on the vine are necessary prior to harvest in order for the grapes to achieve the complexity of flavour expressed in the best Icewines. In British Columbia, the harvest dates are typically earlier, often in November. Practical limitations affecting the decision on when to harvest include availability of labour and winery capacity. For instance, if it has been a warm December and January, the harvest window later in winter may become very narrow, placing considerable stress on the operation to pick and process the entire crop while the temperature profile in the vineyard is right.

Fruit is both hand and machine-harvested. The traditional method is hand harvesting, where the bird netting is opened from the bottom and the frozen berries fall into harvest bins (Figures 3 and 4). Machine harvesting is possible on flat terrain, and has the considerable advantages of being quicker and able to make use of much smaller harvest windows. While some ‘romance’ – and public relations value – may be attached to the tradition of hand-harvesting, the labour challenges faced by the increased plantings of Icewine grapes in recent years will likely result in machine-harvesting becoming increasingly dominant, particularly in Ontario.

In contrast with grapes intended for table wine, the sugar levels in autumn of grapes destined for Icewine play a minor role in the final juice sugar concentration of the must. Temperatures at harvest and during pressing are the main determinants. The higher the sugar content in the grape, the lower the temperature must be in order to freeze out the water. The sugar concentration itself is influenced by the physiological ripeness of the fruit, but also by prior dehydration from hang-time, weather and botrytis. Harvest temperatures at one Ontario winery have varied between -17ºC and -10ºC over one three year period, producing musts of 55 and 38 ºBrix, respectively (Schreiner, 2001). When

temperatures fall much below -13ºC, it is exceedingly difficult to extract the juice as most of the water component is frozen. Late Harvest, Select Late Harvest and Special Select Late Harvest wines are also produced, and are sweet wine styles that have a lower minimum Brix requirement than that required for Icewine. These may be produced from

2 nd (and subsequent) pressings of Icewine grapes or from fruit harvested earlier in winter at (comparatively!) warmer temperatures.

Figures 3 and 4 – Hand-harvesting of Icewine grapes
Figures 3 and 4 – Hand-harvesting of Icewine grapes

Figures 3 and 4 – Hand-harvesting of Icewine grapes


For some of the larger producers, the harvested fruit is pressed at the vineyard itself in order to process the grapes quickly while still frozen. Smaller producers transport the fruit back to their wineries. In either case, no crushing occurs. Under VQA regulations pressing must be a continuous process, and a low temperature needs to be retained throughout the operation in order to obtain a juice with a minimum of 35 ºBrix. During pressing, much of the water is retained with the grape skins as ice, while a juice highly concentrated in sugars, acids and aroma compounds is extracted. A range of presses can and are used, including basket, bladder and membrane-based designs; the major criteria is that sufficient pressure can be obtained to extract juice from the frozen berries. The ideal press will provide high pressure to reduce pressing time, and yield as clean a juice as possible. Pressing can be an exceedingly lengthy process, taking many hours, particularly so at very low temperatures when the yield is also reduced, and when using low-pressure presses. These considerations can place some challenges on the winemaking team with respect to organization and timing of operations.

The sugar concentration of the pressed juice is dependent on the temperature of the grapes during processing, and has been described by the equation given by Wuerdig


Specific gravity of juice = ((21 + [17 x T]) x 10 -3 ) + 1

where T = 0 ° C minus pressing temperature (in °C).

Conversion from specific gravity to ° Brix or other units of soluble solids concentration is then a simple matter of referring to the many published conversion tables that are available. Using this equation, pressing temperatures of – 7 and – 14 would yield juices of approximately 33 and 55 ºBrix, respectively. During pressing, the juice can be fractionated according to its sugar concentration to enable more than one product to be produced. For instance, juice extracted late in the pressing process may have a soluble solids concentration lower than the 32 ° Brix minimum for an individual Icewine pressing, and this could be used for one of the Late Harvest dessert wine styles mentioned above.

Settling and clarification of the juice is typically slow, and may be improved by centrifugation, although this is typically not an option for smaller producers. Depending on juice composition and winemaker preference, fining and/or suphiting of the juice are sometimes practised. Generally Icewine musts have adequate levels of assimilable Nitrogen, and therefore do not require supplementation with Diammonium Phosphate or other sources of Nitrogen. Typical composition of Vidal Icewine juice from the Niagara Peninsula is given in Table 1. In contrast with table wines, malic acid is the main contributor to the titratable acidity of Icewine juice and wine, as much of the tartaric acid precipitates out in the berry while on the vine, presumably as potassium bitartrate.

Table 1- Composition of Vidal Icewine juice from Niagara 1




Soluble solids




Amino acid nitrogen excluding proline (mg/L)















Average 2

39.3 ± 1.7

3.40 ± 0.16

10.5 ± 1.5

57 ± 19

497 ± 105

1 From Inglis et al. (2006a); reproduced with thanks to Dr Debbie Inglis and Karl Kaiser. 2 Data are mean values ± SD from 297 samples and two vintages.


After settling, the juice is inoculated with yeast and fermentation is typically carried out at 15-17° C. The high sugar and – to a lesser extent – the increasing ethanol concentration, place significant stress on the yeast. As juice soluble solids increase, a negative linear correlation is found with yeast growth and sugar consumption (Pitkin et al., 2002). Thus, it is necessary to use higher inoculum levels than for table wine, and sometimes to inoculate the must several times in order to maintain a healthy and relatively rapid fermentation, particularly with higher Brix juices. Favoured strains include K1-V1116 and EC1118.

It is the osmotic stress created by the extremely high sugar content that most challenges yeast viability and performance. One specific consequence of the ‘hyperosmotic stress response’ of the yeast is increased production of acetic acid – the major constituent of volatile acidity (VA) in wine. VA concentration is regulated, and at elevated levels may detract from overall quality. The mechanisms underlying VA production in Icewine and some winemaking practises to keep this to a minimum are discussed in the second half of the paper. Coupled with the rise in VA is production of glycerol, which reaches levels a little higher than those typically found in table wines.

Fermentation typically takes a few weeks longer to complete than with table wines. ‘Complete’ in the sense of achieving an ethanol concentration of approximately 10 % v/v, where there is still considerable residual sugar present (approx 200 g/L), imparting the sweetness the style is renowned for. Acidulation of the juice or wine with up to 4g/L of acid is permitted in Canada, and while not usually needed for Riesling, other Icewine varieties do sometimes require small additions to improve the sweetness:sourness balance, and to a lesser extent to maintain an acceptable pH.

Bentonite fining to ensure protein stability is common, and Icewines often require higher levels than their table equivalents. Although a significant portion of tartaric acid has

precipitated out in the berry, some remains after fermentation and cold stabilisation is practised. It is, however, more difficult to achieve than with table wine, possibly related

to the higher density of Icewine. Once the wines are stable, sulphur dioxide and often

sorbate are added to prevent malolactic fermentation and to provide sufficient antioxidant and anti-microbial protection. Filtration, followed by early bottling, is encouraged; early bottling is believed to preserve varietal intensity. Most Icewines are filled into 375 mL –

and sometimes smaller – bottles. Decisions on closures, label design and overall packaging are often made to reinforce the message that Icewine is a prestigious and ‘pure’ product, and these components are frequently tailored to the specific marketing needs of export countries.

Cultivars and Icewine styles

Winter hardiness is the prime prerequisite for a variety destined for Icewine production. High natural acidity, late ripening, tough skins and stems and reasonable resistance to disease have been specifically noted as the most desirable characteristics (Karl Kaiser, cited in Schneider, 2001). A wide range of cultivars are used, including Vidal, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Erhenfelser, Kerner, and less commonly, blends of these. However, single varietal wines from Vidal or Riesling account for over 90% of Icewine produced. The tough skins of Riesling and Vidal offer some protection from disease and the physical and mechanical stress of the freeze/thaw cycle, and they impart desirable fruit intensity and – particularly with Riesling - acid balance to the finished wines. Vidal is a French-American hybrid (Ugni Blanc x Seibel 4986) common

in many areas of eastern North America where cultivation of Vitis vinifera is difficult.

The Vidal berries have thick skins and loose bunches, affording them superior resistance

to rot, and table wines are also made from the variety. It is much more prevalent in

Ontario, while the white varieties most used for Icewine in British Columbia are Riesling,

Pinot Blanc, Ehrenfelser and Kerner.

A number of producers are also making oak-aged Vidal Icewines, which add further

complexity to the style, including an accentuation of caramel, oak and walnut notes and

an increase in colour intensity (Nurgel et al., 2004a). Icewine from red-skinned varieties

has been a relatively recent trend, with Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon in particular producing some outstanding wines. Only low levels of pigments are extracted compared to red table wine, as the grapes are not crushed and the skins are not present during fermentation. Colour may sometimes be supplemented by the addition of small amounts of teinteurier (red-juiced) varieties, such as Dornfelder.

Further extending the range of styles is a new innovation - sparkling Icewine. While production is currently limited to a small number of producers, the quality can be quite extraordinary. By regulation the ‘sparkle’ cannot be derived from direct carbonation, and instead is usually achieved using a variation on the Méthode Cuve Close. The Icewine juice is fermented in a Charmat tank with an open lid for most of the fermentation.

Toward the end the lid is closed, and the evolving carbon dioxide is trapped in the wine.

A short period of lees ageing precedes final processing and bottling. The carbon dioxide

enhances the acidity, producing a more refreshing and perhaps better-balanced wine. Extra complexity is also achieved from the mouthfeel sensations elicited from the fine mousse.

Some pre-harvest considerations

Specific climatic conditions must prevail in order to produce Icewine regularly. Sufficient sun and heat during summer and autumn are needed to mature grape flavours, accumulate sugar, and maintain healthy fruit, while reliably cold temperatures during late fall and winter to freeze the fruit and concentrate their contents are required. The majority of Icewine comes from Ontario (~75 %) and British Columbia (~ 25 %). In Ontario, the principal wine regions are the Niagara Peninsula, Pelee Island and Lake Erie North Shore

in southern Ontario, while in British Columbia the Okanagan and Similkameen Valleys

are the main producers. A long growing season and high heat units are the two most important characteristics distinguishing these areas from the other wine regions of Canada. In the Okanagan Valley, irrigation is required due to its arid, desert-like growing conditions. Lake Ontario and Lake Erie are two large bodies of fresh water that moderate growing conditions in Ontario’s main viticultural regions, where the climate would otherwise be continental and unsuitable for growing grapes. Some regional differences in

Icewine composition and quality are thought to exist, and are discussed later.

As with table wine, sound, ripe grapes are needed to produce quality Icewine. If late summer and autumn are warm and wet – conditions more common in Ontario than British Columbia - the risk of powdery mildew and botrytis developing will equally affect those grapes intended for Icewine production. This may be further confounded if the winter is unusually warm, as a delay in harvest into February or March increases the risk of rain-related rots and other disease, particularly in those varieties with thinner skins. Cropping levels can also be expected to influence final Icewine quality, although less so than with table wines because of the dominant influence of temperature during harvest and pressing on juice composition. Dr Karl Kaiser, Inniskillin Wines, believes that an ideal Icewine juice yield (as estimated in October) is approximately 150 L per tonne for Vidal and 125 L per tonne for Riesling. In the vineyard, this translates to not more than 7 tonnes/acre for Vidal and 5 tonnes/acre for Riesling (as calculated in October) (Kaiser, 2006).

In contrast with many other dessert wines, Noble rot is not a welcome visitor for grapes

intended for Icewine. The dehydration caused by significant infection from Botrytis cinerea concentrates the sugars to the extent that yields would be miniscule by the time further concentration occurs during the winter harvest. Depending on the extent of infection, freezing may not even be possible due to the high sugar content obtained from this double concentration. In addition, the integrity of the stems is sometimes compromised by botrytis, which may add to the early lose of fruit from the vine. Also,

many producers argue that botrytis characters detract from the purity of fruit-flavours found in Icewines derived from ‘clean’ grapes (Kaiser, 2006).

The potential for loss of crop from bird predation is considerable given the extended hang-time of Icewine grapes and the concurrent loss of other food sources for these avian pests. Starlings are a particular problem, and may devastate a vineyard in hours, particularly later in winter when numbers can be high and alternate food-sources more limited when the ground is covered in snow. Thus, bird netting is an absolute necessity (Figure 5). For Icewine grapes that are to be machine-harvested, a netting mesh size of approx. 2.5 cm 2 is about ideal; small enough to prevent bird damage yet large enough to allow for berries to fall through the mesh during harvest. Bird-bangers and other devices designed to scare off birds are also employed, but generally seem to be less effective in winter. Adding to the burden of protecting the crop until the late harvest, deer, racoon, cattle, coyotes and even bears (in British Columbia) can be significant grape pests as they hunt for alternate food during the meagre offerings of winter (Schreiner, 2001, 2004).

the meagre offerings of winter (Schreiner, 2001, 2004). Figure 5 – Bird netting in a Riesling

Figure 5 – Bird netting in a Riesling Icewine vineyard on the Niagara Peninsula

Regulation, economics and the evolution of the Canadian industry

The evolution of the Canadian Icewine industry

The question of when, where and by whom was the first ice wine produced in Canada is contentious, and this paper will not fuel the provincial and individual rivalries that flavour that particular debate. Suffice to say, that the answers probably vary depending on whether we are considering hobby, commercial or research wine, whether authentic or artificial freezing of the grapes was used, and whether the wines were vinifera or non- vinifera-based. Thus, the egos and pride associated (rightly so!) with the origins of one of the world’s most exquisite wine styles.

What is less contentious is that the beginnings of commercial Icewine production, both in Ontario and British Columbia, owe much to the enterprise of European immigrants, who successfully transplanted their experiences in Germany and Austria to the Canadian situation. Production was restricted to only a few wineries during the early-mid 1980’s, and the volume produced was relatively small. A significant catalyst for the rapid growth in Icewine production witnessed in the 1990’s was the award of the Grand Prix d’Honneur at Vinexpo in 1991 to Inniskillin’s 1989 Vidal Icewine. Considered by many as the most coveted award in the international wine show circuit, it helped to put Canada on the international wine map, as well as give a valuable boost to domestic sales.

Asia in particular began to show a strong interest in this rare, sweet wine, and astute marketing and good business strategy has enabled Canada to maintain Asia as its most important market, despite the economic volatility of the region over the last few years (Figure 6). Key countries for Icewine sales in this region include Japan, Taiwan, Singapore and China. The added attraction of Icewine for many of these nations is likely linked to their custom of gift giving. Icewine is certainly marketed (and priced) as a high- end, super-premium wine with very attractive presentation and packaging. In addition, the high residual sweetness may be particularly appealing to Asian palates. Over the last five years, the United States, and increasingly Europe, have also become significant markets.

As mentioned above, the majority of Icewine production occurs in Ontario, almost exclusively in Niagara and south-western Ontario (Figure 2). The Okanagan Valley in British Columbia is a smaller (by volume) but still significant Icewine-producing region. East of Ontario, the francophone province of Quebec has a small number of Icewine (Vin de Glace) producers, although the extreme cold in winter poses severe challenges for vine survival. Further east, the Atlantic provinces and territories have scattered plantings of Icewine grapes, with Jost Vineyards in Nova Scotia (Figure 1) one of the pioneers in this region, having made Icewine there since 1985 (Schreiner, 2004). However, the overall volume of Icewine produced in these eastern regions remains tiny, and it is in Niagara

and south-western Ontario that the greatest growth in the industry is expected to come, with large plantings of grapes earmarked for Icewine occurring over the last 2-3 years.

Between 2000 and 2004, 79% of Icewine exports were from Ontario, and 18% from British Columbia (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, 2004). In Ontario, approximately 80% of domestic Icewine sales are through winery retail stores, and 30% through the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) – the provincial body that controls the sale and distribution of alcohol and enjoys a near-monopoly on the retailing of the commodity in the province. Multiple government taxes and the LCBO mark-up lead to far greater profits being retained by wineries through winery-based retail stores and sales to restaurants. This has led to many innovative approaches to increase direct sales to customers, including an annual Icewine festival in Niagara, which attracts over 10 000 oenophiles, and multi-lingual promotional materials and programmes aimed at attracting visitors to wineries.

From a modest 32 000 L of Icewine produced in 1993, Ontario has witnessed a 12-fold increase to arrive at a total volume of VQA-approved Icewine in 2004 of 385 000 L. Evidence that recent investment in new plantings are starting to come on-line can be seen in the estimate of Icewine juice pressed during the 2004 vintage: over 900 000 L (VQA 2005 Annual Report). Vidal (79%) and Riesling (12%) make up most of the production in Ontario (Table 2). Hard data has been difficult to obtain for the industry in British Columbia, but Icewine production there is believed to have been approximately 100 000 L in 2004 – approximately 25% of Ontario’s total and 10% lower than 2000 levels in the province. Riesling, Ehrenfelser, Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc are the major varieties used in British Columbia for Icewine.

Figure 6 – Major exporting countries (by volume) for Icewine in 2004 (only data for

Figure 6 – Major exporting countries (by volume) for Icewine in 2004 (only data for first half of 2004 available and displayed)

(data source: Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada)

Table 2 - Summary statistics showing Icewines approved by VQA in Ontario for 2003 and 2004

statistics showing Icewines approved by VQA in Ontario for 2003 and 2004 Reproduced with permission from

Reproduced with permission from VQA-Ontario


‘Icewine’ is a proprietary name owned by VQA, and its use is strictly regulated by the institution. VQA was designated as Ontario's wine authority under the Vintners Quality Alliance Act, 1999. The Act sets the framework by which standards for the production of VQA wine – including Icewine - and appellations for wine growing regions are established. VQA-Ontario establishes, monitors and enforces an appellation of origin system in accordance with the Act and controls the use of specified terms, descriptions and designations associated with the VQA appellation system.

The specific regulations concerning the viticultural and oenological requirements for Icewine are covered by Ontario Regulation 406/00 (and later amendments), and the more salient points are summarised below:

The wine must be a late harvested wine.

The wine must be produced entirely from one or more grape variety naturally frozen on the vine, picked while the air temperature is minus 8°C or lower and immediately pressed after picking in a continuous process.

The list of grape varieties permitted for Icewine is regulated, and shown in Table 3. Note that all are vitis vinifera, with the exception of the hybrid, Vidal.

The final alcohol content of the wine must be between 7.0% and 14.9% by volume.

The wine must be produced as a varietal wine in accordance with the requirements for varietal wines given elsewhere in the regulations.

100% of the grapes must be grown in a designated viticultural area, of which at least 85% must be grown in the named viticultural area shown on the label. The pressing must also take place within the viticultural area where the grapes were grown.

Grapes, juice or grape must intended for the production of Icewine may be artificially refrigerated to a temperature of not less than minus 4°C.

No freeze concentration of juice, grape must or wine is permitted.

The brix level of the juice after each pressing shall be at least 32° when measured after transfer to the fermentation vessel.

The finished wine must be produced from a must that achieves a computed average of not less than 35° brix.

The residual sugar at bottling must result exclusively from the natural sugar of the grapes, and must not be less than 125 g/L.

The actual alcohol must come exclusively from the natural sugar of the grapes.

Subject to subsection 6 (2), sweet reserve may be added if the minimum brix level of the grapes used in the sweet reserve was 32 degrees brix at harvest.

In British Columbia, requirements governing Icewine standards are similar to those in Ontario, although it is unclear to what extent they are voluntary rather than mandated (Laurie MacDonald, VQA-Ontario, pers. com., 24/10/05).

Many of these VQA regulations set the minimum standards for safeguarding Icewine quality. Typically, in regard to soluble solids content at harvest for instance, actual practise far exceeds these requirements. A guiding principle when these rules were established was to set standards higher than those in place in Europe, and this generally remains true today. An added feature of the approval process before a wine may be granted VQA-approval is that an independent tasting panel must first evaluate and approve it. This provides added credibility to the process, and the VQA overall has been one of the most important factors in elevating consumer perception of Canadian wines, including Icewine. These regulations, if coupled with rigorous enforcement, will continue to protect the consumer and guarantee the high quality of the product that has come to be expected.

Table 3 - Permitted grape varieties for VQA-Ontario Icewine



Riesling x Traminer








Melon de Bourgogne


Cabernet Franc*



Cabernet Sauvignon*

Morio Muscat

Sauvignon Blanc


Muscat Blanc

Sauvignon Vert

Chardonnay Musqué




Muscat Ottonel


Chenin Blanc








Sereksia Chornaya






St. Laurent


Perle of Csaba


Gamay Noir

Petit Verdot


Gamay de Chaudenay

Petite Sirah






Pinot Blanc*


Grüner Veltliner

Pinot Gris



Pinot Meunier



Pinot Noir*


Madeleine Angevine



Madeleine Sylvaner



* Vidal and Riesling are the principal varieties used for Icewine; varieties indicated with an asterisk constitute over 99%, by volume, of all Icewine produced in Canada.

The economics of production

The average retail price in Canada for a 375 mL bottle of Icewine is $51 (NZD), and a question frequently asked is “why so much?”. Part of the answer may lie in consideration of some of the costs and other economic factors that pertain to producing and marketing Icewine:

- Yield loss. Yields are typically 15-20% of that expected for table wine, largely because of loss of volume from freezing and dehydration. This becomes significantly lower if pests or poor weather further reduce the crop; the risk of this increases with hang-time. Allied with this, there is a realistic risk of no Icewine whatsoever in some years should the required weather conditions during later autumn and winter not occur.

- Growing and harvesting costs. The crop and vineyard must be monitored and maintained for 3-5 months longer than for table wines. The purchase of bird

netting is mandatory, and the operation of other bird-protection devices for an extended period incurs additional cost. Much of Icewine is hand-harvested by paid pickers. The labour rates are significantly higher than for table wine grapes, and the sometimes-torturous conditions in winter can extend the time otherwise needed to bring in the crop.

- Winemaking costs. General winemaking costs/L are higher because of the relatively small quantities produced (for most wineries) compared with table wines and the long periods required for pressing and fermentation. In addition, damage/wear on some equipment is greater; particularly press components such as membranes and bladders.

- Marketing costs. Domestic consumption of Canadian wines is low and relatively static. An increasing proportion of the rising production of Icewine has to be exported, with the concurrent costs associated with establishing new international markets as well as servicing and growing existing ones. Coupled with this, increased educational and promotional activity are now required to counter the rise in fraudulent products that are successfully competing with Icewine in Asia, and supporting initiatives aimed at enforcing international trade and copyright laws.

In this context, and with a view to a comparable wine style, perhaps such as Chateau d’Yquem (NZD 200), some have argued that Icewine may be significantly undervalued

Icewine research at CCOVI

The Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute was established in 1997 at Brock University in St Catharines, in the middle of Niagara’s wine region (Figure 2). As a partnership between industry, government and academia, a major part of its mandate is to develop both applied and basic research programmes of particular relevance to the demands of cool climate grape growing and wine making. One of its strengths has been its integration of research across the value chain, literally from the grape to the consumer, and it’s multidisciplinary approach to the needs of local industry. Icewine has been one of the major foci of the institute since its inception, and a sampling of some of the recent Icewine work that illuminates the areas discussed in this paper is given below. This research can be loosely categorized into five programmes: composition and quality, yeast selection and inoculation, managing volatile acidity, viticultural and harvest variables, and faux vs authentic Icewine.

Composition and quality

Managed out of the author’s lab, this programme has focused on defining Icewine from a chemical and sensory perspective, and trying to better understand the role that individual flavour components play in overall quality. Some of this work is presented in Nurgel et al. (2004a). Table 3 presents some average values for select components of Icewine based on a large sampling of commercial wines. As is evident, Icewine is unique amongst the world’s wine styles with respect to its high residual sugar concentration, which averages 215 g/L and with values over 300 g/L in some instances. The only comparable wine with levels as high as this is Tokayi. Fortunately for the requisite sweetness:sourness balance of the best examples, titratable acidity (TA) is also elevated during berry dehydration, with final levels in the wine of around 11 g/L.

In contrast with table wine, however, approx 20% of the TA is due to the high acetic acid concentration (Inglis et al., 2006b). The acetic acid component of Icewine is particularly important, as limits are regulated in wine and high levels are generally associated with spoilage. Icewine averages 1.3 g/L, but some have been recorded as high as 2.3 g/L (Nurgel et al. 2004a). The biochemical mechanisms responsible for the elevated acetic acid production and practices to minimize the concentration in Icewines are discussed elsewhere in this paper. Ethyl acetate is the main ester in wine, and may contribute complexity when present at low levels or detract from quality at higher concentrations. In Icewine, average values of 240 mg/L have been reported (Nurgel et al., 2004a), higher than those found in table wines and above the sensory threshold of 198 mg/L (Cliff and Pickering, 2006).

The other major constituent of Icewine shown in this work is glycerol, which displays a wide range of concentration in commercial samples, with an average value of 12.4 g/L (Table 3). By comparison, table wines typically contain 1.4 – 10.6 g/L. As alluded to earlier, the higher concentration in Icewine is a response to the osmotic stress imposed

from the concentrated solutes in Icewine juice (Pigeau and Inglis, 2005). However, even at these elevated levels, there is no evidence that glycerol contributes to the mouthfeel of the wine (Nurgel and Pickering, 2005), contrary to some anecdotal comment from industry.

Table 3 – Composition of Canadian Icewine 1 Titratable pH Total Ethanol Acetic acid Glycerol
Table 3 – Composition of Canadian Icewine 1
Acetic acid
residual sugar
(%) v/v
(g/L) 2
10.2 3.38
212.2 10.2
1.2 12.1
British Columbia
3.48 223.8
10.0 1.6
± 0.4
3.21 219.9
10.0 1.2
9.9 3.47
1.3 11.4
Overall 3
10.7 3.40
214.8 10.2

1 Data based on Nurgel et al. (2004a); 2 glucose + fructose; 3 Average of 51 wines from 26 wineries. Varietal representation was: Vidal (27), Riesling (14), Gewürztraminer (3), Chardonnay (2), Pinot Blanc (2), Erhenfelser (1) Erhenfelser-Vidal-Riesling (1) and Kerner (1). Two wines were from the 1995 vintage, 5 from 1996, 10 from 1997, 17 from 1998, 11 from 1999, and seven wines were from 2000.

Icewines are also characterized by the complexity of sensory sensations they elicit (Table 4); Pickering et al. (2004) used 16 aroma and flavour terms to fully describe them, and 31 descriptive terms were required to describe the aroma and flavour of experimental Riesling and Vidal Icewines (Pickering et al., 2005).

Table 4 – The complexity of Icewine: select descriptive terms used to profile appearance, aroma and flavour


Ortho-nasal aroma


















Dried fruit










Orange peel








Dried fruit




Tropical fruit










Orange peel

Ethyl acetate


Data from Nurgel et al. (2004a) and Pickering et al. (2005). The latter study involved experimental wines, some of which were harvested at temperatures >-8˚C and would therefore not qualify as Icewine under VQA regulations.

The dominant aromas and flavours are those of intense fruitiness, particularly in younger wines. High fruit intensity is still a characteristic of older wines, but nuisances of nutty, caramel and toffee notes add further complexity and the wines develop a more amber hue. While ready to be consumed immediately after release, the better examples – particularly Riesling and those with low pH and high acidity - may age gracefully for decades, perhaps comparing favourably with other international dessert wine benchmarks, such as Sauternes and Tokaj. Of course, comments on ageability are largely speculative, given the relatively sort time that Icewines have been available in commercial quantities that would allow long-term cellaring.

We have also begun to look at whether there are verifiable differences in quality and composition between Icewine grape varieties. Nurgel at al. (2004a) found that Riesling Icewines had higher titratable acidity and glucose, and lower pH and A 420 values compare to Vidal. They also tended to receive higher sensory scores for floral and fresh fruit intensity. Pinot Blanc and Kerner Icewine were also included in the study, and they were rated as relatively neutral wines, consistent with the table wine versions of these two varieties. Chardonnay, Erhenfelser and mixed-variety wines were also included in the evaluation, but the number of samples was too low to allow for a meaningful comparison of their chemical and sensory properties.

Yeast selection and inoculation

This programme has been running since the inception of CCOVI under the management of Dr Debbie Inglis, who has pioneered research into the effects of yeast strain and inoculation procedures on Icewine quality, as well as elucidation of some of the underlying molecular and cellular mechanisms at work in the yeast during Icewine fermentation.

Selection of yeast strain can be expected to impact on final Icewine quality as it does in table wines, perhaps more so given the generally more challenging properties of the must. Inoculation with commercial yeast strains – rather than allowing a ‘natural’ fermentation - is the norm in Canada because of the low counts of natural Saccharomyces yeast on Icewine grapes, the risk of undesirable off-flavors from opportunistic flora, and the commercial availability of strains perhaps better suited to the challenging physico- chemical environment of Icewine must. However, some of the yeast research from this lab has identified species indigenous to Vidal Icewine musts, including Kloeckera apiculata, Candida colliculosa, Rhodatorula glutinis Candida pulcherrima and Saccharomyces cerevisiae (Nurgel et al., 2004b).

Although S. cerevisiae eventually dominates the fermentation, the indigenous yeast species were present for the first 15 days. The rate of fermentation and final ethanol concentration were typical of commercial Icewine. In Riesling musts, Kl. apiculata, C. dattilla, Rh. Glutinis and C. pulcherrima have been identified. In contrast with Vidal, Kl. apiculata and C. dattilla dominated the spontaneous fermentation and were still present after 30 days. In addition, S.cerevisiae was not identified, and the ethanol concentration had only reached 6.52 % v/v at the end of 30 days. Work is ongoing to establish the significance of these differences in yeast composition and dynamics to final wine quality.

The question of the optimum dose rate and inoculation procedure to use to counter the notoriously sluggish Icewine fermentations has also been examined by this group. Kontkanen et al. (2004) investigated the effects of two yeast inoculation rates (20 g dry weight/hL and 50 g dry weight/hL) and compared the fermentation kinetics of inoculating at these levels directly into the Icewine juice or conditioning the cells first using a step- wise acclimatization procedure. Yeast inoculated at 20 g/hL stopped fermenting before the required ethanol level was achieved regardless of the inoculation procedure, producing only 7.8% v/v and 8.1% v/v ethanol for the direct and step-wise acclimatized inoculations, respectively. At the higher inoculation rate, the step-wise acclimatized cells fermented the most sugar, producing 12.0% v/v ethanol, whereas the direct inoculum produced 10.5% v/v ethanol.

The addition of yeast micronutrients at the start of fermentation has also been shown to modify final wine quality (Kontkanen et al., 2005). For instance, Vidal Icewines produced by direct inoculation produced with GO-FERM® are characterised by higher intensities of sweetness and honey and orange flavours compared with those without GO- FERM® , while those produced by step-wise acclimatization with GO-FERM® show higher intensities of pineapple and alcohol aromas, and alcohol and honey flavours. Significant differences in fermentation kinetics and yeast metabolite production were also found in this study, indicating that step-wise acclimatization reduces the stress on yeast during fermentation.

Managing volatile acidity

Most of the work in this programme has also come from the lab of Dr Debbie Inglis. As previously mentioned, 1-2 g/L of acetic acid are typically produced during Icewine fermentation. In many instances, this is desirable in helping to balance an otherwise cloying style, and the sensory threshold for acetic acid may in fact be significantly higher than in table wine (Cliff and Pickering, 2005). However, excessive VA does detract from wine quality, and its concentration is regulated; the maximum limit set by the OIV is 2.1 g/L (expressed as acetic acid). Thus, practical strategies for minimizing VA production are very important for Icewine-makers along with gaining a better understanding of the basic biochemical processes leading to its formation. This lab has concentrated its efforts on both of these issues.

The molecular mechanisms underlying the elevated VA production have only recently begun to be elucidated. In Icewine, yeast produce higher amounts of acetic acid as part of the process of maintaining redox balance in response to the osmotic stress imposed by the concentrated juice solutes (Pigeau and Inglis, 2005). Metabolic resources normally dedicated to yeast growth are diverted to the hyperosmotic glycerol (HOG) response during fermentation. This response causes the yeast to produce glycerol to balance the external osmotic stress. The process is dependent on the expression of glycerol-3- phosphate dehydrogenase, with the GPD1 isoform of this enzyme correlated with the increase in glycerol production. NADH is required for glycerol synthesis and the reaction catalyzed by aldehyde dehydrogenases (ALDs) can regenerate this cofactor. Specifically, upregulation of NAD + -dependent ALD3 is implicated and its expression correlates with the increased acetate found in Icewine fermentations (Pigeau and Inglis, 2005).

Curiously, and in contrast with table wine, there is some evidence that spontaneous or ‘natural’ fermentations may yield lower VA than those carried out through inoculation of juices (Nurgel et al., 2004b). Use of yeast nutrients may also assist in minimising VA production; addition of GO-FERMto Icewine juice prior to inoculation has been shown to reduce acetic acid levels under some conditions (Inglis et al., 2004). SO 2 concentration in Icewine juice has also been shown to impact on VA concentration in the finished wines. The acetic acid concentration in finished Icewines decreases with increasing SO 2 levels in the starting juice (across the range of 25 – 100 mg/L SO 2 ), but was a function of decreased cell growth (Hein and Inglis, 2001).

Viticultural and harvest variables

A number of initiatives from the labs of Dr Andy Reynolds and the author have sort to examine the influence of regional, viticultural and harvest factors on Icewine quality.

In the study of Nurgel et al. (2004a), the influence of region was investigated in a preliminary study. 51 Icewines from Ontario and British Columbia were evaluated chemically and 20 were further evaluated sensorially. Wines from British Columbia had higher titratable acidity and glucose concentration and higher acetic acid concentration. Ontario Icewines had higher A 420 values and ethyl acetate content. They were also more deeply coloured, and had higher intensities of apricot, raisin, honey and oak aromas, while Icewines from British Columbia had higher intensities of pineapple and oxidized aromas. Further research is now needed to elucidate the effect of region-of-origin on Icewine, particularly in light of the creation of new sub-appellations in 2006 for the Niagara region.

Vintage is universally regarded as a major source of variation in wine composition and quality across styles and grape growing regions of the world. Because the final composition of Icewine juice is so strongly dictated by the freezing and concentration of grapes in winter – which occur regardless of seasonal conditions during the growing and ripening period – vintage may play a lesser role in final wine quality than is the case with table wines. However, only one scientific study has specifically considered the influence

of vintage. Nurgel at el. (2004a) showed that vintage had a significantly effect on pH, colour at A 420 , glucose, fructose, ethanol and ethyl acetate in a select sample of Ontario and British Columbia Icewines from the 1995-2000 vintages. A 420 values were higher in older vintages; an age-related phenomena consistent with the gradual formation of brown pigments also witnessed in table wines. The 1996 and 1997 vintages had lower fructose content than other years, likely related to different temperature profiles during harvest. As expected, residual sugar concentration also showed variation with vintage.

New work has also commenced in Dr Reynold’s lab investigating the influence of harvest date on the final composition and quality of Icewine. Anecdotally, it has been suggested that grapes need to go through a number of freeze/thaw cycles on the vine to achieve the flavour complexity that is seen in the best Icewines, and this hypothesis will be tested as part of the project.

Faux vs authentic Icewine

Because of the significant success of Icewine on the international stage, it perhaps shouldn’t be surprising that there has been a rapid growth in producers who seek to either simulate the style through artificial means or fraudulently misrepresent their wine as genuine Icewine. In the case of the former, techniques other than natural freezing of the grape on the vine are used to concentrate the sugars and flavours. This most commonly involves cryoextraction, where freeing and partial thawing of the fruit or juice occurs artificially after harvest, mainly through use of commercial freezers. Most international wine conventions and countries do not allow the labelling of these products as ice wine (regrettably, New Zealand is one exception). Because cryoextraction assumes almost none of the risks associated with Icewine production (e.g. the grapes do not need to remain on the vine for months after the normal table wine harvest), the pricing can and normally does serious undercut that of the authentic product. However, an even greater threat is posed by counterfeiting.

Counterfeiting in this context means the deliberate imitation of Canadian Icewine, and Taiwan and China are the main culprits (Schreiner, 2004). Labels, bottles and other components of the Icewine package are dutifully reproduced to imitate those of specific Canadian producers or to convey the impression that the wine is from Canada through use of iconic imagery on the bottle or label (maple leaf, Canadian goose, beaver, etc). The content of these counterfeit bottles is, at very best, sweetened table wine, but is sold as genuine Icewine at a fraction of the cost of the authentic product.

Both of these issues have been identified as a serious threat to the Icewine industry, and CCOVI is in the midst of a major, multidisciplinary research initiative under the lead of Dr Reynolds to identify chemical and sensory markers that will help regulators and enforcement agencies to differentiate the real from the faux.

Summary and future challenges

Icewine has been largely responsible for driving the – albeit embryonic - success of the Canadian wine industry in the international market, somewhat analogous to what Sauvignon Blanc did for general recognition of New Zealand wines. In the space of a decade, production has increased from moderate levels to a volume that is now much larger than any other ice wine producing nation. Concurrent with this is a widely held belief that the quality is second to none (Jones, 2004).

Perhaps five factors can be identified as most responsible for this success.

(1) Reliably cold winters. (2) The predominance of the Vidal grape in Ontario, the physiological properties of which are close to perfection for making quality Icewine. (3) The combination of technical competence and entrepreneurial flair amongst the early Icewine producers. (4) Sound and innovative business and marketing strategies. (5) The establishment of regulations under VQA aimed at maintaining high standards of quality.

While significant further growth for the Icewine industry is expected over the next few years, as predicted from sizeable new grape plantings and recently gained access to European markets, there are a number of challenges that must be addressed for this growth to be realised.

The threat posed by counterfeit Icewines is one significant concern, and research initiatives aimed at detecting fraudulent wines is in progress. However, in contrast with much of the winemaking world, Canada does not yet have a federal national standard for wine. Such legislated standards only exist at the provincial level. The absence of enforceable national standards – which in itself should be an embarrassment for all involved in the industry - makes it more difficult to protect against fraudulent Icewines, and addressing this situation should be a priority. How much Icewine the global market can absorb is unknown, as is the effect on pricing and industry profitability as supply increases. More market research is suggested to address these questions.

At the more technical level, further experimentation is encouraged into the use of teinturier grape varieties for red Icewines, particularly given the high value placed on this colour in some Asian markets and the possible advantages in introducing further novelty into the style. Finally, the impact of climate change, and global warming in particular, on the future suitability of Canada’s Icewine-growing regions is largely unknown and warrants serious and perhaps urgent consideration.


Dr Debbie Inglis, Dr Karl Kaiser, John Schreiner and Laurie Macdonald have helped greatly - both directly and indirectly - in the development of this paper. Thank you to Dr Glen Creasy for patience well beyond the call of duty; this manuscript was horribly late but was still able to be included in these proceedings thanks to Glen’s great efforts.

I would also like to acknowledge and thank all of my former and current colleagues at CCOVI for the opportunity to collaborate on our various Icewine projects – Dr Canan Nurgel, Dr Debbie Inglis, Dr Andy Reynolds, Dr Ian Brindle, Dr Carolyn Ross, Dr Jordi Ballister, Dr Margaret Cliff, Mrs Lynda van Zuiden, Mrs Amanda Kontkanen, Ms Amy Bowen, Mr Gary Pigeau and Mr Derek Kontkanen. What a privilege to be able to study such a unique and rewarding wine – one of the many sweet gifts of the Canadian winter.

Sources, references and suggested readings

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Erasmus, D.J., Cliff, M., and H.J.J. van Vuuren. 2004. Impact of yeast strain on the production of acetic acid, glycerol and the sensory attributes of icewine. American Journal of Enology and Viticulture 55(4): 371-378.

Hein, N. and D.L. Inglis. 2002. The effect of SO 2 concentration in Icewine juice on acetic acid production by S. cerevisiae V1116 during Icewine fermentation. American Journal of Enology and Viticulture 53, 236A.

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