Quebec’s ice wine industry prepares for battle

National vintner unity is at stake

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Will Lew

Will Lew

Charles-Henri de Coussergues is one of an estimated 120 Canadian vintners taking part in the laboured yearly exercise of making ice wine. After the first frost, his three hectares of vidal grapes shrink on the vine. Inside each orb, the liquid becomes thicker and sweeter with each successive frost. De Coussergues needs several freeze-thaw cycles for his grapes to reach the necessary 35 per cent sugar content. The frozen grapes are then put into a press and the resulting syrup is fermented and, eventually, bottled and sold—$29 for 200 ml.

Ice wine is a lucrative business, but the process of making it isn’t without its frustrations. Once frozen, the vidal variety grapes yield as little as one-sixth as much ice wine as they would table wine. The weather is rarely predictable and often treacherous, and the window to harvest the grapes is tiny. Yet de Coussergues’s biggest headache these days is not nature, but the distinct possibility that the federal government might not recognize his bounty as ice wine at all.

Like the vast majority of Quebec’s 21 ice wine producers, de Coussergues uses the so-called “hammock” method, one that he developed at his winery, Orpailleur, the province’s largest. Every year, he strings hammock-like nets over the top of the vines. After the first frost wilts the leaves, his team clips the grapes and places them in this netting, harvesting them once the grapes are sufficiently sweet.

Though that may sound like an innocuous detail, it enrages many Ontario vintners, who say ice wine must be produced as it was first done in 18th-century Europe. That is, keep the grapes on the vine until they are harvested. As such, Ontario is pushing to bar Quebec wine producers from using the “ice wine” term altogether.

The stakes are high: Though ice wine accounts for barely one per cent of Canada’s wine export volume, it generates 45 per cent of the revenue. Figures from the Canadian Vintners Association (CVA) suggest sales of the stuff have doubled over the last three years. The industry is set to grow even faster with the signing of an agreement that eliminates trade barriers for ice wine among eight member countries, including the United States. That will mean Canada will have a countrywide appellation for ice wine. But because most Quebec producers use the hammock method to harvest their grapes, the province may well be shut out of the market entirely.

“They are picking on Quebec,” de Coussergues says of his Ontario competition. “If tomorrow they say we can’t use this method, we simply can’t make ice wine any longer. And if we lose this, Quebec winemakers will go into battle. I’m not a separatist. I’m Canadian, and I hate that we are tearing ourselves up like this.”

Many Quebec winemakers say the region’s weather necessitates the hammock method. The Eastern Townships, where Orpailleur and many other ice wine producers are located, receives an average of nearly 300 cm of snow—more than double that of Ontario’s winemaking region, from which the bulk of Canada’s yearly 222,000 litres of ice wine flows. Quebec’s lower temperatures, meanwhile, mean many wineries must “mound” their vines with dirt. Translation: The grapes would be buried by the time harvesting season rolls around. The only solution, according to de Coussergues, is to clip beforehand.

In the new regulations, scheduled to come into effect in January, the federal government defines ice wine as being “made exclusively from grapes naturally frozen on the vine.” Because the grapes mature in the nets, not on the vine, the CVA claims grapes harvested using the hammock method should be excluded. Quebec wineries using this method “are misleading consumers by calling it ice wine,” says president Dan Paszkowski.

Yet Quebec producers point out their grapes do freeze on the vine. Photosynthesis stops after the first frost. “Once there is a frost, the vine only serves as support,” de Coussergues says. “When there are no leaves, there is no photosynthesis.”

The science would seem to bear him out. Oenologist Matteo Meglioli has analyzed the chemical composition of the fruits harvested through both methods. “If we compare the same type of grape, one left hanging on the vines and the other cut and clipped after the plant is dormant, they are similar,” Meglioli says. Certainly, the netting method hasn’t hindered Orpailleur’s ability to garner awards. The winery has won 30 national and international competitions since it began producing ice wine in 1997.

Science, though, is only part of the story. Much of ice wine’s allure stems not from its chemical composition but from Canada’s humble, cold-weather cliché. As with balsamic vinegar from Italy and champagne from Champagne, the method by which the product is produced is often as romanticized as the product itself.

Care is often taken to produce ice wine’s sweet, syrupy booze in much the same manner as it was developed in 1794. The widely held origin myth has German farmers contending with an early winter and, upon discovering the grapes had gone sweet with the frost, harvesting and pressing them. Though merriment and cheer no doubt ensued, the actual harvest would have been a brutal affair, with snowbound pickers plucking frozen grapes in sub-zero temperatures. Today, those picking conditions are enshrined in Ontario’s regulations. Grapes must be picked “while the air temperature is -8°C or lower and immediately pressed after picking in a continuous process.”

The Quebec method of clipping the grape from the vine, says Paul-André Bosc of Ontario’s Château des Charmes winery, “is like keeping a mother and child from being together. There is a physiological connection between the vine and grape.”

Yet many larger producers, including Ontario’s Inniskillin and Cave Spring, have themselves modified the traditional technique by using mechanized harvesters. “It doesn’t change the taste, but having a guy in a T-shirt inside the heated cab of a tractor does terrible damage to the image,” De Coussergues says. “Part of the reason champagne is so expensive is because people know there is no mechanized harvest of the grapes.”

The solution, according to the Association des Vignerons du Québec, would be for a Quebec-specific appellation that would recognize the province’s distinct harvesting methods. CVA president Paszkowski says this simply won’t happen. “In winemaking, you have to follow the rules. They’ve bent the rules. They are making an exceptional product; they just can’t call it ice wine.” We’ll see.