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Canada Wines: Ice, Ice Baby

Written by Jennifer Jordan
Filed Under: Wine Regions

I think a lot about wine: Pinot Noir is on my mind whenever dinnertime rolls around, Beaujolais is in my thoughts as the holidays approach, Merlot and Cabernet share time on my brain when I attend a local happy hour. Sometimes wine is even in my dreams: bottles of White Zinfandel, knowing I am not a fan, chase me into dark and desolate alleys. But then, of course, there are the times when I don't think of wine at all; one of these times is when I think of Canada. In my thoughts, the words "Canada" and "Wine" are rarely side by side.

However, my thoughts are wrong (my thoughts, mind you, not me). Canada and wine are two things that actually do go together. Up and coming, Canada is one nation hell bent on climbing the grapevine of the wine industry. Look out drinkers, the Canadians bacon, I mean, beckon.

Now, Canada is certainly not a wine region as well known as the Napa Valley or Italy - Canadian grapes can easily mix with the public without being bothered by paparazzi - but their subtleness is due mainly to the fact that Canadian wineries are some of the newest in the world: they are just getting started.

This is not to say that the idea of growing wine is a new concept to Canadians - wine can hardly be a new concept to any country that once had areas owned by France - it's just that wine, until recently, has been unable to flourish in Canada. This was mainly due to the economic restraints placed on vineyards: owning a winery simply didn't pay and potential growers were forced to chose between making wine and making money. In the 1990's, however, the government monopolies that controlled the production and sale of alcohol changed and producing wine in Canada became a much more profitable endeavor.

Ontario and British Columbia shot out of the gates to lead the country in wine production, a lead they still maintain today. Ontario accounts for 75 percent of wine sold, wine that is grown in a unique environment: with a close proximity to the Great Lakes, the vineyards of Ontario undergo a bit of a warming affect, just enough to stop arctic winds and make growing grapes feasible.

British Columbia produces the majority of the remaining wine. One of the most northern vineyards in the world, the climate in British Columbia is ironic: it is not as arctic as one might assume. The valleys of the region are tucked away behind mountain ranges, allowing the temperatures to be warm, sunny, and usually dry.

The vineyards of Canada contain mostly white grapes. Riesling, Chardonnay, and Pinot Gris are frequently planted. Red wines, however, are showing some potential and grape growers have been able to find success with Cabernet, Gamay, Merlot and Pinot Noir. That aside, moving Merlot over and telling Riesling to give it a rest, the true wine belonging to Canada is ice wine.

Ice wine is a type of dessert wine that is made from grapes frozen while they are still on the vine. The sugars in these grapes don't freeze, but the water inside them does. This results in a wine that is very sweet tasting. But, because the freezing happens before fermentation takes place, the wine also keeps its acidity. The end result is a wine known for being both sweet and acidic, a rare combination for any concoction.

While ice wine is made in a variety of places - Germany, the US, Austria, France, and Australia to name a few - the best ice wines, and the most expensive, come from Canada. This honor is likely two fold: first of all, Canada contains wine regions with climates unique to most other places in the world; second of all, Canada takes their ice wine very seriously. By law, the grapes used in Canadian ice wine must weigh less than 35 brix, with a brix being a unit that measures the ratio of sucrose to water. The grapes must also be picked when the temperature is no higher than 17 degrees Fahrenheit. Lastly, the grapes must freeze naturally.

Canadian ice wines are often made using Vidal, Riesling, and - although ice wines from Canada are usually white - Cabernet Franc grapes. As for characteristics, ice wines are known to be quite refreshing with a medium to full body of flavor. The flavors are dictated by the type of grape used but are often described as tasting of peach, apricot, pear, apples, and even honey and caramel. Canadian ice wines typically have a alcohol content between 8 and 13 percent.

The past decades have seen other types of wine - table wines, sparkling wines, even boxed wines - fill the glasses of drinkers, but ice wines are slowing leaving their mark on the viniculture world. As Canada becomes a more prominent player in the wine industry, ice wines will increase in popularity and soon everyone will know that this type of wine is so much more than just adding a cube of frozen water to a glass of bubbly.