A couple of months ago, Prince Edward County wineries were tipping their cup and toasting to another grape harvest during the 5th annual Wassail. And although most of those wineries were burying their vines, too—a sure sign of the last harvest of the year—a few others had one last trick up their sleeves: Icewine. Harvested between December and February, Icewine grapes make for a sweet (think papaya) but well-balanced drink that goes great with dessert or a savoury meal like beef stew.

But not every winery can call its wintertime brew “Icewine.” Vintners Quality Alliance Ontario (aka VQA Ontario), the agency that regulates the province’s wine industry, only gives that name to wines that follow a strict set of guidelines. Violators can be charged and fined up to $100,000.

Read on to learn more about Icewine, including how it’s made, which Prince Edward County wineries sold it this year and how you can get your hands on it.

How It’s Made

In the fall, farmers net their ripening grapes—which have to be vitis vinifera or a hybrid variety like Vidal Blanc—and then in November they register the grapes with VQA Ontario. Once temperatures drop below -8 degrees Celsius (ideally, -10 to -12) for a sustained period of time they’ll start harvesting the by-now dehydrated and highly concentrated grapes. Because grapes shrink when exposed to the cold, a typical juice yield is only about 500 litres for every acre, or about 15% of what it would be for a table wine.

Grape growers use nets similar to these to protect their crops during the winter (photo courtesy of stefano lubiana wines via Flickr).

Taste

The process of dehydration and concentration gives the grapes their characteristic sweet and complex flavour, which, once made into Icewine, will likely remind you of lychee, papaya or even pineapple. The sweetness is balanced with a strong acidity, though, so don’t worry that it’ll taste too much like fruit juice. VQA Ontario recommends that you try it with dessert or rich, savoury foods like foie gras or aged blue cheeses. It also goes well with sparkling wine and cocktails that need a flavour kick.

Grapes shrink during the winter, giving them a complex and highly concentrated flavour (photo courtesy of stoneboatvineyards via Flickr).

Who Makes It?

This year there were three wineries in Prince Edward County that sold Icewine: Black Prince Winery, Exultet Estates and Hillier Creek Estates. Unfortunately, Black Prince is the only one that’s still selling it—the other two recently sold out. Here’s hoping you know someone that grabbed one or ten of Exultet or Hillier’s popular concoctions.

Black Prince Vidal Icewine 2009 VQA

According to Black Prince’s website, this award-winning Icewine has “a nose of fresh pear/apple with floral and wildflower/lilac overtones. Light bodied, refreshingly sweet with well-balanced acidity and very good length.” Buy at Black Prince’s website.

Exultet Estates 2010 Vidal Icewine

A bronze medal winner at the 2011 Canadian Wine Awards, Exultet’s Icewince “is a brilliant, elegant Vidal Iceweine with a classy nose of yellow pear/apple, vanilla, wildflower and honeycomb waxiness,” according to renowned wine critic David Lawrason. “It’s mid-weight, very fine and tender on the palate with poised sweetness and acidity. Lemon and honey flavours linger to excellent length.” Sold out.

Hillier Creek Estates 2007 Vidal Icewine

The juice for this Icewine came from Niagara on the Lake but the wine was fermented and aged in Hillier Creek’s stainless steel tanks. Well known Canadian wine writer, speaker and judge Natalie McLean says it has “lovely peach and pear preserves with a honeyed richness and layered texture that delivers maximum pleasure. Perfect on its own after dinner or with fruit-based desserts.” Sold out.