More than 75 percent of all the ice wine in Canada comes from Ontario. (The remainder is made in regions like southern Quebec and the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia.) Unlike more temperate parts of the world, Canada has consistently cold winters, which guarantee an annual crop of frozen grapes. Still, ice wine represents just a small percentage of wine being produced here. It’s expensive to make: a ton of grapes yields only one-sixth the amount of ice wine as table wine — hence its nickname, liquid gold — and its prices start at $50 for a half-bottle. Leaving grapes on the vine long past normal fall harvest also is risky.
“There are all kinds of hazards,” said Norman D. Beal, a former oil trader who in 2000 turned a decrepit barn into an opulent tasting room at his Peninsula Ridge Estates Winery on a hill in Beamsville. “There are the birds, mildew, all kinds of diseases.” That’s in addition to the vagaries of the weather, including rain, hail, ice storms and midwinter thaws.
Extreme wine making, as some call ice-wine production, calls for extreme wine touring. In winter that means lots of layers, and maybe a face mask with an opening big enough for sipping. The trade-offs: there’s plenty of room to belly up to the tasting bars, and it’s easier to get a table at one of the region’s many fine restaurants.
Each tasting inevitably leads to a game of identifying classic ice-wine flavors: lychee nut, caramel, toffee, strawberry jam, crème brûlée, burnt orange, citrus, tropical fruit. Then what follows is a discussion of the improbable alchemy that goes into producing a drink that is said to have been created by mistake in a German vineyard in 1794.