Ice Wines are Single-handedly Putting Canada on the Wine Map

Canada’s wine exports might not compare in prestige or quantity to the Old World giants, but there is one area where it is king.

No country does ice wine better than them, and this unique drink – usually pressed from Riesling, Vidal, or Cabernet Franc – makes up the majority of their sales. A niche product, perhaps, but one they have completely mastered.

Breaking the Ice

SGWV-Blog-Ice-Wines-Body-1Ice WineIce wine is made using grapes naturally frozen in the cold. The industry for this drink, nicknamed “liquid gold”, was born out of necessity; Canadians attempted to import and grow European vines, but these were too fragile for their harsh winters and hot summers. It was only when they attempted to grow ice wine grapes that they found a perfect match for their climate.

Now, Canadian ice wines are internationally respected, highly sought after, and win plenty of awards. In 2014, an ice wine from Ontario province even managed to grab victory at the Decanter World Wine Awards. This was in the highly contested category of best sweet wine over £15 per bottle, proving that Canadian wines are world class products.

A Taste of Hard Grown Luxury

Given the extreme conditions in which the grapes grow, it naturally follows that ice wine has a very unique taste. Enthusiasts praise the complex, intense, and deep flavours. A sip brings to mind tropical fruits, and is quite sweet. However, this sweetness is perfectly balanced by the right amount of acidity, making it a delight on the palate.

Ice wine tends to command high prices, especially in Asia where it is in constant demand. There is a very limited supply because of how difficult it is to grow, along with the very low juice yields – meaning a much larger amount of grapes is required to produce one bottle. On average, ice wine grapes only yield about 15% of what other types give.

That isn’t the only problem that vintners have to deal with either. Harvests occur much later than normal, meaning greater risk of loss to wild animals, storms, or other misfortunes. The timing for picking is crucial, and unusually warm January weather can devastate crop output.

Still, Canada has an undisputable advantage over other ice wine-producing countries like Germany and Austria. Unlike their competitors, Canada’s winters are reliably cold enough that they can produce ice wine every year, and the overall conditions enable superb quality.

Incredible Economic Impact

A 2013 study showed that the Canadian wine and grape industry contributes $6.8 billion to the nation’s economy every year, and creates over 31,000 jobs in many different fields. The wine industry also helps tourism, and the study estimates that it brings in three million visitors every year.

Canada’s winemakers also contribute a fair sum to the government in the form of taxes. Federal and provincial tax revenue, along with liquor board markup, amounted to $1.2 billion. It’s not an exaggeration to say that every bottle of ice wine sold brings significant economic value.

Domestic consumption was also quite impressive, at around 220 million bottles annually. However, there is still plenty of room to grow; Canadian wines represented only 30% of total sales, while the rest was imported.

Winemakers would love to get a bigger local customer base, which would also stimulate the industry’s growth as a whole.

Ontario: The Country’s Top Wine Region

SGWV-Blog-Ice-Wines-Body-2Ontario WinesOver 75% of all Canadian ice wine is from Ontario, as its climate is best for growing the grapes. It has a long and distinguished history, having made ice wine commercially since 1984. The region produces around 900,000 litres of ice wine every year.

There are around 60 wineries, and grapes make up 15% of Ontario’s annual crop. Niagara, in particular, has the largest concentration of growers in the entire province, and its local industry has enjoyed impressive strides in recent years.

Ontario takes ice wine very seriously, and production is regulated under the Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA) Act. Growers must adhere to strict standards for quality; VQA inspectors check for compliance in what grape varieties they use, proper harvest protocol, bottling, and so on. Only those certified by the VQA Ontario can even call their products ice wine.

This diligence has helped contribute to Canadian ice wine’s stellar reputation. Ontario is also the country’s primary exporter of wine, with shipments worth $26.6 million annually. The second highest region, British Columbia, only exports $8.3 million. China and Japan are two of the biggest customers, though many cases also go to Europe and the United States.

Canada has definitely earned its place as the world’s largest and highest quality producer of ice wine. If you haven’t had the pleasure of sampling this national specialty, consider buying some to keep in your wine cellars. You will likely find that the taste lives up to its hype.