Niagara is gearing up for the 17th annual Icewine Festival. There are winery events throughout January, but most will be happening between the 13th and 29th. From gala evenings and a cocktail competition in Niagara on the Lake to individual winery events all over the region, January is all about icewine. And wineries will be showcasing it in some unexpected ways - like, not just on its own or with dessert.
Grapes are only harvested once the temperature dips below -8, the point at which almost everything is frozen and only a small drop of liquid – the icewine juice – is left. That’s one reason it’s so much more expensive: it takes 7-10 times as many grapes to yield the same amount of juice as for table wine. Also, with the high sugar levels, it takes much longer to ferment, but winemakers can still keep the alcohol levels low. Sue Ann Staff, who has been making award winning wines in Niagara for over a decade and who now has her own winery explained: “Once you get above 11.5 or 12% some of the lovely tropical fruit flavours start to change. The red icewines can go a little higher – maybe up to 12.5%.”
Icewine is the go-to Canadian gift for many wine-loving tourists, but now food pairings are getting more attention. Staff says there’s increasing interest in both local products and in cooking at home and she’s been promoting icewine with savory dishes. “I encourage people to pull them out at the beginning of the meal. This New Year’s Eve I prepared a duck salad and paired it with icewine and it worked really well, especially as the little salad included some hot wasabi in the dressing, which the icewine calmed down. It was really, really good.”
Savoury Food Pairings
Wine Country Ontario recently held a terrific lunch at Sopra on Davenport, with talks on icewine by both Staff and Peller Estates’ chef Jason Parsons discussing food pairings.
When Parsons is not being a “guest expert” on CityTV’s Cityline, he’s managing arguably the ritziest local-focused spot in Ontario, the Peller Estates Winery Restaurant in Niagara on the Lake. Parsons encourages pairing icewines with savoury foods and recommended an accidental discovery: cabernet franc icewine with spicy venison – the sweetness counterbalancing the spice and the red fruit is a great accompaniment to the denser meat. He likes to cook with icewine too, though he acknowledges that working at a winery means extravagances like poaching lobster in icewine don’t get nixed by management. One of his signatures is icewine infused blue cheese – Parsons takes a large wheel of Quebec blue cheese, scoops out a hole in the centre and fills it with riesling icewine, which is then gradually absorbed into the cheese.
The luncheon’s six savoury and three sweet items showcased the icewine and food pairings beautifully. When I looked at my top three food pairings at the luncheon, I’m realized I must be old-school, leaning toward the common ‘like goes with like’ pairing principle: two of my three favourites were dessert items…
1. Mixed endive salad with cranberry and Quebec Blue Elizabeth Cheese Crumble with Henry of Pelham Riesling Icewine.
2. Icewine poached pear with dulce de latte and mascarpone with Peller Estates 2010 Vidal Icewine.
3. German apple cake with salted icewine caramel and Mountain Road Wine Company’s 1999 Vidal.
Staying on a sweet note, one very fun event that Peller Estates holds throughout January is an icewine marshmallow roast at the winery. Check it out. But, if you can’t make it to Niagara, you can make your own icewine marshmallows.
Selected icewine tasting notes
More than half of all icewine is made using the hardy vidal variety: its thicker skin means many more of the bunches survive the freeze-thaw cycle. But there are icewines made with other grapes too, including a growing number of reds.
PILLITTERI 2008 GEWURZTRAMINER ICEWINE
Fresher nose with a surprising note of fizzy orange, plus lemon and raisin. Super smooth and fresh on the palate, which has peach, apricot and mango notes. Nice finish of lemon drops.
JACKSON-TRIGGS PROPRIETORS’ GRAND RESERVE 2007 GEWURZTRAMINER ICEWINE
More complex nose with spicy and toffee notes over peach and vanilla. Very sweet and smooth on the palate. Good acidity, raisins, sweet pineapple and more spice.
COYOTE’S RUN 2008 RIESLING ICEWINE
Ripe peach and sultana raisins on the nose, apricot and peach on the very sweet palate. Acidity keeps it fresh and it’s smooth and honeyed with a very fresh finish.
SUE-ANN STAFF 2007 RIESLING ICEWINE
Fresh nose with apricot, raisin, honey and even a citrus note. Rich but fresh palate has sweet peach, tangerine and lemon candy notes. This one is very sweet, but acidity is good and there’s a fresh finish.
TAWSE 2009 RIESLING ICEWINE
Light but rich nose of apricot and mango, then fresh and fruity on the palate, with more apricot and tropical notes. Great acidity and good finish.
INNISKILLIN 2008 RIESLING ICEWINE
Fresher nose with lemon, butter tart and tropical fruit. On the palate it’s sweet, with flavours of canned peaches, ripe orange and lemon drops. Good fresh finish.
REIF ESTATE 2005 VIDAL ICEWINE
Rich nose of ripe peach, apricot and raisin. On the palate it’s quite candied with more raisin and some caramel. Not really much sense of age yet. Good acidity and finish.
CAROLINE CELLARS 2007 VIDAL ICEWINE
Fresh but lighter nose of peach and pear fruit. Full on the palate, which is honeyed, with ripe peach and apricot. Acidity doesn’t seem quite as high, but there’s enough to keep it fresh.
STREWN 2008 CABERNET FRANC ICEWINE
Rich red berry fruit on the nose, edging towards an over-ripe note and Christmas cake. Some raisin notes also. Rich on the palate, with a stewed note, and some sweet caramel. Reminded me vaguely of a sweeter port.
VINELAND ESTATES 2008 CABERNET SAUVIGNON ICEWINE
It’s rare to see a cab sauv icewine. This one has lots of ripe red berry fruit on the nose, as well as some cranberry and chocolate notes. Fresh but sweet on the palate, and the fruit even includes a peach note. OK acidity keeps it fresh through the finish.
STRATUS 2010 ICEWINE RED
Very fresh and lighter nose of berries, including cranberry and strawberry. On the palate there’s sweet strawberry jam with a bit of peach and a nice spice note. Good acidity keeps it fresh. This one is a blend of cab franc, cab sauv, syrah and mourvedre – and it’s the only icewine in the world to include the latter.
The other thing to remember about icewine is that it ages well. In my experience the sweet spot (no pun intended) is 10-15 years in many cases. That’s when aged notes become obvious, but there’s still a fresh feel. It’s hard to find older icewines, but some wineries do have small quantities available…like this one:
MOUNTAIN ROAD WINERY 1999 VIDAL ICEWINE
Much darker golden colour on this one with a definite aged notes of ripe white fruit, prune and a hint of spice. On the palate it’s super smooth and sweet, with mainly apricot fruit, and the acidity is still fresh. Great now, but this will still go for years.
Note: a version of this story also appeared on Winefox.
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© 2005, 2016 Alan McGinty