The icewine harvest for the 2011 vintage wrapped up in February, much to the relief of grape growers, who offloaded their precious goods onto winemakers, who then faced the task of continuing the sterling reputation of the region’s international icewine fame. For the winemakers, the process is slow and painful, with sluggish ferments, sticky messes, and stylistic choices that can severely impact the financial viability of their wineries.
Icewine is expensive for a reason, though looking at the tiny 375mL bottles and the big ole price tag attached to them can be baffling for the average consumer. I try to explain it to people starting at the vineyard. Icewine grapes are a very high risk venture for growers. They stay on the vine approximately 4 months longer than their non-dessert siblings and as such, incur greater costs of management. Careful attention to rot, to weather, and to sugar levels means constant monitoring by both grower and the winery vineyard specialist, and this labour must be compensated for above and beyond the normal harvest processes. Icewine juice then, comes at a premium. The cost per litre easily outstrips other winery intakes, and the ponderous nature of icewine production means a lot of extra man hours and a lot of extra stress. These factors (along with marketing, and in some cases, greed) combine to mean higher prices for fans of this style of dessert wine.
You may recall that back in January, Michelle and I had the opportunity to work at the Niagara Icewine Festival, pouring Mike Weir Estate Winery’s first icewine, a 2005 Vidal. Through that experience I was able to get a completely different perspective on the regional treat, by answering questions and interacting with interested members of the general public, some of whom had never tried any, others who had driven hundreds of miles to get their fix at the festival. I learned some very valuable lessons in those two days, some heartbreaking, others just plain curious, and in the end I have a better understanding of the challenges faced by the marketing teams trying to highlight their products for the sea of faceless consumers.
- No matter how sweet you make it, people will always want it sweeter. I’m sorry to break it to you winemakers, but balance means nothing to some people. You could offer the sickliest, flabbiest excuse for an icewine, one that makes your teeth hurt even thinking about it, and more than one person is bound to tsk quietly and say “I thought icewine was supposed to be sweet“. Oddly enough, this seemed to happen most often with American icewine lovers who made the journey up to enjoy the festival. I have no idea what they’ve been drinking that could have possibly been sweeter than some of this stuff…
- No matter how dry you make it, people will always want it drier. This is the counter camp to the first point, and generally applies to people who don’t typically like icewine, or dessert drinks in general. Even icewines with high balancing acidity (Rieslings come to mind), or higher alcohol (more sugar consumed), will still be too sweet for some people. They will ask you for your “least sweet wine”, to which one of my compatriots behind the tasting bar declared, exasperated, “they’re icewines, they’re all sweet”. I really have to tip my hat to the folks that tried icewine despite the fact that they were petrified of the sugar content. We had some brave soldiers, some of whom were surprised to actually find one to their liking, which made the whole event worthwhile.
- If it ain’t red, it ain’t cool. There was one red icewine at the Niagara Icewine Festival, a Cabernet Franc from Mountain Road Wine Company. Despite resorting to tactics approaching debaucherous, the rest of the ice bar couldn’t drag visitors away from the bloody red stuff. Every third person that approached the bar would ask “I hear there’s a red icewine, where is it?”, in which case we’d point dejectedly, again, down the bar. The line at one point threatened to swallow the entire tent, and swirled into the frosty outdoors. No other wine managed a line-up deeper than three people. Red icewine is the big fad in Niagara right now. Love it or hate it, it’s what the people want, and heaven help you if you can’t deliver. It doesn’t have to be well-crafted, it doesn’t even have to have a big name brand behind it, it just has to be red.
- If it’s white, it better not be Vidal. Again, sorry winemakers, but Niagara’s stalwart icewine grape, the hearty Vidal, doesn’t seem to be cutting it for people anymore. It doesn’t matter if you barrel ferment it, if you oak age it, if you dress it up with fancy packaging or a clever name…after trying one Vidal, people assume they’re all the same and want variety. Although there may be enough diversity in a single varietal to pack dozens of tents, that’s not the common perception and thus being the eighth Vidal in a row full of Vidals makes you almost invisible. At one point I found myself stuck between the dreaded Cab Franc and a pair of perky whites made from Riesling and Gewurztraminer. Despite imploring people to give the Vidal a try while they waited in the enormous red line, or claiming that Mike Weir’s wines were guaranteed to improve your golf game, it was very difficult to get people to try the unfairly labelled ‘plain Jane’ of the bar.
Those were my main take-away points from the weekend’s festivitiies. The mixed crowd of fans and skeptics, newbies and connoisseurs, made for a decent cross-section of consumers. I do wonder whether marketing departments pay enough attention to ’simple’ interaction situations such as these when they’re trying to read trends and attract new demographics. The one-on-one feedback and offhand comments were invaluable in altering my conceptions of how people perceived icewine as a stylistic entity.