The delicious nectar by the name of icewine was brought into the world as an accident that had the wine-making world spinning on its head. In the late 1700s, when a crop of grapes in Germany froze due to some unexpected winter weather, German vintners took the situation in stride by turning the icy grapes into liquid gold. European countries like France, Austria, and Poland caught wind of the marvel and went on to emulate “eiswein” in their unique styles.
Canada, on the other hand, had a late start to the game. The first documented icewine wasn’t made until the 1970s, and yet, in the last 50 years, Canada has grown to be the world’s largest producer of icewine (impressive, right?). Here’s how it happened!
The story of Canada’s first icewine begins in a lovely lakeside town called Peachland, nestled in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, where Walter Hainle immigrated to from Germany in 1970. Hainle’s devotion to wine-making inspired him to establish his estate winery in 1972, and he started to produce small amounts of wine for friends and family.
Two years later, Hainle thought back to the old German tradition, and used a small crop of Riesling grapes to make 40 litres of North America’s very first icewine!
Despite finding success in icewine so early, Hainle didn’t offer his icewine for public sale until Hainle Vineyards Estate Winery officially opened in 1988; 256 bottles of a 1978 Riesling icewine being the first to hit the shelf. We have Hainle to thank for starting the icewine trend in the Okanagan, but soon the craze grew bigger than the valley itself.
Although Canadian icewine’s journey started on the west coast, it was the east coast that propelled Canada into the international spotlight. In the ’70s and ’80s, Inniskillin, Pelee Island Winery, Reif Estate Winery, and others in the Niagara Peninsula area were experimenting with icewine production, but they didn’t expect to find that birds would be the biggest obstacle standing blocking their road to glory.
Just as the grapes become sweet enough for icewine, a flock would swoop in to have a sweet treat. And although the birds surely enjoyed their feast, this caused the wine-makers in Ontario a lot of grief as all of their vine nurturing was rendered fruitless (pun not intended).
Thanks to Karl Kaiser, one of Inniskillin’s co-owners, the solution was found when he stopped birds from doing their damage by covering his grapevines with nets. Kaiser’s discovery led to the creation of the first of many Ontario icewines: an Inniskillin 1984 Vidal icewine – or “eiswein” as the label claimed.
Throughout the late ’80s, Canadian wineries started collecting more and more awards for their icewines as their production skills were perfected and yet, it wasn’t until the 90’s that icewine became Canada’s claim to fame.
At the Bordeaux 1991 Vinexpo wine competition, a 1989 vintage of Inniskillin Vidal icewine won the competition’s highest accolade, Le Grand Prix d’Honneur. The big win was what earned Canada the long-awaited and well-deserved attention for its contribution to the wine industry. Wine reviewers and wine enthusiasts developed an interest in the illustrious Canadian icewine, coaxing wineries all over the country to keep producing.
And of course, since then, Canada has not slowed its roll. Wineries through British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec, and Nova Scotia have won prizes for icewines of many varieties: Riesling, Vidal, Sauvignon-Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and so many more.
Had it not been for pioneers of Canadian icewine like Karl Kaiser and Walter Hainle, Canada may not have earned the internationally renowned wine scene that we have today. Now, people come from all over the world to taste critically acclaimed icewine from the world’s largest and most consistent icewine producer.
To learn more about icewine, take a peek at (link last post) or come visit us at Grizzli Winery for a tour and tasting of our four delicious icewines.