Meet the maker: the Canadian winemaker producing award-winning icewine

Battling the elements in Ontario, Sue-Ann Staff can sometimes spend 24 hours pressing frozen grapes to produce her award-winning icewine.

By Alicia Miller
Published 3 May 2022, 15:00 BST
Award-winning winemaker Sue-Ann Staff tends to her crop.

Award-winning winemaker Sue-Ann Staff tends to her crop.

Photograph by Bentley Miller

Along a winding country road in the Ontario village of Jordan, in a clapboard farmhouse that’s been in her family for five generations, award-winning winemaker Sue-Ann Staff is pouring samples. “We think we have the oldest continually planted vineyard in Canada,” she says. Before Canada was even a unified country, Sue-Ann’s ancestors were farming the surrounding fields and — for the past 124 years — growing grapes. But she’s the first of the Staffs to make wine itself, including icewine, one of the Niagara region’s specialities, at what’s now the Sue-Ann Staff Estate Winery. 

Rather than being harvested in autumn, grapes for icewine are left on the vine until winter to freeze. When pressed, their water content (now ice) is discarded and the remaining sugars are vinified to produce sweet wine. The extreme conditions and tiny yields — about 10% of what would be expected from an autumn harvest — make it one of the hardest wines to produce. 

“It’s winemaking as an extreme sport,” laughs Sue-Ann. Her vidal grapes, a variety chosen for its voluminous, thick-skinned berries, must be picked, according to Canadian regulations, at -8C or colder to qualify as icewine. As a result, harvests often take place in darkness, between 4am and 6am. 

Frozen grapes on snow-covered vines.

Photograph by Alamy

But harvesting is only the start of the process. Once the grapes are collected, they should immediately be crushed before they thaw — it’s a race against the weather. Fuelled by hot coffee, Sue-Ann might find herself pressing the sticky, icy grapes for 24 hours non-stop before she can rest. The resulting liquid is so sweet that fermentation provides its own challenges. Yeasts are easily killed off by the natural sugar, so the process can be painstakingly slow. Some of Sue-Ann’s vintages have taken as long as nine months to ferment; by comparison, most dry wines take just a couple of weeks. But when the icewine is finally finished, the result is a luscious, peachy pour.

Part of the reward for Sue-Ann is knowing she’s helping to keep the tradition of an iconic Canadian product alive. “It’s something few wine regions in the world can do,” she says. “We have the luxury of these unique conditions in Niagara — warm enough in summer, cold enough in winter — to make icewine. We need to champion it.” Sue-Anne’s icewine can be bought from the estate’s tasting room.

Three more foodie finds in Ontario 

Butter tarts: Within a flaky pastry case, these tarts have a sticky, wobbly centre of brown sugar, butter and corn syrup. Variations might also feature raisins, pecans or walnuts.

Sweetcorn: Sold in their husks from roadside farm shops during August and September, Ontario’s corn cobs have sweet, plump, yellow kernels.

Peameal bacon: This unsmoked, wet-cured back bacon gets its characteristic golden crust from the cornmeal in which it’s rolled. Try it in a fluffy roll at Carousel Bakery at Toronto’s St Lawrence Market.

Published in Issue 15 (spring 2022) of Food by National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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