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They look like worthless, wizened raisins on the vine, but when freezing temperatures ready this crop for harvest, the product is pure, liquid gold. Canada’s icewine is a precious commodity, especially popular in the the Asian market. In 2013 China bought 42 per cent of Canadian icewine, around 104,000 litres worth more than $8 million. South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Singapore swallowed another 30 per cent.

With a taste of honeyed tropical fruit backed by a crisp acidity, this winter nectar a lovely dessert wine and is the perfect gift at Tet.

Icewine originated in Germany and Austrial more than 200 years ago but today Canada is one of the world’s leading producers of icewine. British Columbia’s Hainle Vineyards in B.C. first offered it here commercially in 1978, with Inniskillen winery in the Niagara region of southern Ontario following in 1984. Today, 80 per cent of Canada’s yield is from Ontario (800,000 litres annually) and British Columbia produces the rest.

Icewine in Ontario must be made from approved grape varieties; the most popular are Vidal Blanc, Riesling and Cabernet Franc. Occasionally you’ll also see Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.

At between $30-$80 for a 350 ml bottle, icewine is expensive. There’s a good reason. Grapes must be picked (usually by hand) while still on the vine after the temperature dips to at least -8 C for several days. The water content in the grapes freezes into ice crystals leaving a miniscule amount of sweet juice — the yield is only 15 per cent of what you would get from grapes harvested for regular table wine.

Plus, it’s risky. The longer grapes hang on the vines, the greater possibility they’ll rot. Not to mention plundering by foraging birds, which explains why the crops must be netted.

To make sure producers don’t take shortcuts, icewine production is regulated in Ontario under the VQA Act and regulations. Strict standards are monitored by Vintners Quality Association (VQA) inspectors, from vineyard to the bottle. Rules cover grape varieties, harvest procedures, winemaking and testing before the wine is released. No wine may use the term “Icewine” on its label unless it is certified by VQA Ontario.

Tips for Serving

The glass: Since it is sweet and to be treasured, icewine is usually served in smaller glasses, but you can also pour a small amount into a regular wine glass in order to swirl and enjoy the rich aromas.

Temperature: 10 to 12°C. Put it in the fridge an hour or two before serving. Don’t over chill.

When to Serve: After a meal is best. Enjoy it alone or pair it with a dessert that is a bit lighter and less sweet, or with something savory. A good match is fresh fruit and cheese. Red icewines go well with dark chocolate.

After opening: The high sugar content allows icewine to last for three to five days in the refrigerator

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Maureen LittleJohn
Maureen Littlejohn is Culture Magazin's executive editor. She is a Canadian award-winning journalist who has practiced her craft around the world including in the United States, Africa and Vietnam. Currently based in Toronto, she has a keen eye for detail and has a deep appreciation for the “East Meets West” approach of Culture Magazin. Travel is her passion and she is happy to be able to share her adventures on a regular basis with the magazine's readers.