01/17/2012 04:30 EST | Updated 03/17/2012 05:12 EDT

Good To The Last Drop: Freeze And Thaw Can Make For Better Icewine, Vintners Say

HALIFAX - Canada's chilly winters have historically been ideal for making icewine, but some of the country's largest producers say unstable temperatures have changed the way they harvest the sought-after grape.

And although warmer-than-usual temperatures have caused grape growers to shift gears, they say the country's icewine should taste better than ever.

John Warner, owner of Warner Vineyards in Lakeville, N.S., said fluctuating temperatures have been narrowing the window in which he can harvest icewine grapes.

That's not bad news, he said. In fact, it's been making for more interesting juice characteristics.

"The (icewine grapes) need freezes and thaws to enhance the late harvest flavours," Warner said from his farm.

"We actually need those temperatures going up and down to get the real deep flavours."

The grapes must be frozen when harvested and it must be at least -8 C, said Warner.

He said in recent years, it hasn't stayed cold long enough to harvest the fruit by hand. As a result, he has invested in a machine that does the gruelling work much faster.

Warner produced about 25 tonnes of icewine grapes this season and is the only icewine grape grower in the province.

He sells the thick and sweet juices to about nine different wineries in the province. There, the juice is used to make the expensive seasonal wine.

Icewine grape growers and winery operators in Ontario are echoing Warner's sentiments.

Sue-Ann Staff, owner of Sue-Ann Staff Estate Winery in Jordan, Ont., said warm days followed by cold snaps cause the grape's skin to break down, allowing oxygen to flow through the fruit causing full flavours to develop.

"When you have those cold snaps in early December, I think that the flavours are very simple," said Staff, who harvested her entire crop — 50 tonnes of icewine grapes — on Jan. 3.

"They're floral, underdeveloped, and they make lovely wines, but they don't have the flavour and complexity yet."

Icewine grapes are ideally harvested between the end of December and mid-January. After that, the grapes become dehydrated and lose their juice.

In 2010, Canada exported more than $12 million in icewine to other countries, according to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

The bulk of that — about 80 per cent — is produced in Ontario, with British Columbia, Nova Scotia and Quebec producing icewine in smaller quantities.

The Wine Council of Ontario estimates the province sells about $30 million in icewine every year.

While it's also made in countries like Germany, Austria and the United States, Canada is the only wine-producing region in the world with a climate that guarantees an annual production, Agriculture Canada and Agri-Food Canada says.

Icewine was accidentally discovered in Germany in 1794 by farmers trying to save their grape harvest after a sudden frost, according to Wine Country Ontario.

In the 1980s, vintners recognized that Ontario's cold winters would provide the perfect conditions for producing exceptional icewine, the group said.