Thursday, March 31, 2005

The Curse of Ice Wine: the Frozen Outlaw.

There's no denying the runaway success of Canadian ice wine made here in B.C. and in Ontario.

The conditions for it are perfect. Both regions experience the kind of temperatures that are required to freeze the grapes on the vine before they're picked. A period of time at -8 C is the warmest they can be. The result: a cordial-like sweet dessert wine that displays intense flavours and aroma. Balanced with enough acid, the wines somehow avoid being cloying.

For the wine maker and the winery, the success can be a curse.

The natural rhythm of the winery means that after the autumn crush the ferments slowly dwindle and the cellars begin the long, stable aging processes. Everything gets a thorough cleaning (or should) and sanitized surfaces help prevent the spread of microbiotic spoilage.

And then in December, or January or February (!) a big load of sticky, half-rotten grapes arrives to start filling the air with yeasts and whatever else. The whole procedure of warming tanks and fermenting starts again. Icewine just happens to be one of the slowest fermenters in the business. It's not unheard of for ferments to last up to six months.

Talk about inconvenient. It's a good thing it's sold for about $50 CDN for a 375 ml. portion. For a small winery it can be a nice cash flow crop. But it can also potentially disrupt the production of everything else in the cellar.

Large wineries have less to be concerned about. Their resources allow specialized facilities that are dedicated to ice wine production, keeping their other wines safely segregated.

Once you start fermenting products "out of season" the winery passes from a function of the harvest to a kind of factory where wine can be made year round.

The decision to make ice wine is more than a financial risk, it's also a lifestyle change. Forget about booking that great deal to Cuba at the end of January. You may have to be a the beck and call of Mother Nature, waiting for the big freeze.

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