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ICEWINES FROM NIAGARA WINERIES
FOR ICEWINE FESTIVAL

Story and photos by

We're in Niagara-on-the-Lake, just an hour west of Toronto, at Inniskillin Wines. It's January, during the annual Niagara Icewine Festival (2018 dates: Jan. 13-15, 20-22 and 27-29). At the three-weekend event, participants sample award-winning Icewines at wineries, gala dinners and outdoor bars and café tables, carved entirely from ice.

Donald Ziraldo picks frozen Vidal Icewine grapes at Inniskillin Wines.
Donald Ziraldo picks frozen Vidal Icewine grapes at Inniskillin Wines.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

A snow-topped sign, Inniskillin Ice Wine Grapes, marks the end of a row of brown vines. With gloved hands, we detach clusters of frozen bronze grapes, capped with icy crowns. They rattle like marbles as we toss them into plastic crates. It's so cold our breath creates clouds of steam as we speak. Our fingers feel like frozen French fries.

But there's a problem. It's only -6 degrees Celsius. Our pickings won't be used to make Icewine. "According to regulations, Icewine grapes can only be harvested when temperatures dip below -8 degrees Celsius," says Donald Ziraldo. "Artificial freezing is prohibited."

He ought to know. With Austrian-born winemaker, Karl Kaiser, he founded Inniskillin Wines in 1975. The wine world was shocked in 1991, when Inniskillin's 1989 Vidal Icewine won the Grand Prix d'Honneur at Vinexpo, in Bordeaux. Only 19 out of 4,100 products earned this coveted trophy.

The same year, all 12 Ontario Icewines entered in the Intervin international wine competition in New York, won gold medals. This was the largest number of gold medals for a wine from anywhere in the world. No Icewines from other countries won gold. Since then, Ontario Icewines continue to win global competitions.

Icewine, not ice wine

Canada's wine industry trademarked the name Icewine after phoney imitations appeared in other countries. (The correct spelling is Icewine, not ice wine or icewine.)

Donald Ziraldo and Deborah Pratt dump Vidal Icewine grapes into basket press.
Donald Ziraldo and Deborah Pratt dump Vidal Icewine grapes into basket press.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Although Eiswein originated in Germany, only Ontario has a climate cold enough to guarantee production every year.

The prizes are hard-earned. Icewine is a gamblers' wine. Wind can strip the grapes from vines. Rain can cause bunch rot. Hungry birds devour them, as Inniskillin discovered in 1983, after losing their entire 1983 crop. Since then, they've protected the vines with black nets.

Growers must contend with the whims of weather. Temperatures must remain below -8 degrees Celsius during both harvest and pressing. The wait can last from December to February. Picking often takes place at night, when it's colder.

"Regular wine presses freeze up, so vitners have to use old-fashioned barrel presses that they can unjam," explains Ziraldo, who left Inniskillin in 2006, but still grows Icewine grapes on his family farm. After pickers empty the crates into the wooden slat press, we watch the circular pressure plate squeeze the grapes like a vice.

Grapes contain about 80 per cent water. Pressing them frozen leaves the water as shards of ice, so only tiny amounts of concentrated juice trickle out after two to three hours. It's rich in sugar, acids and flavour. But yields are low — only five to 10 per cent the volume of regular wines.

Vidal Icewine bottle rests on snow-topped grapes on the vine.
Vidal Icewine bottle rests on snow-topped grapes on the vine.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Ziraldo collects the honey-hued nectar in a pitcher. "Taste it," he says. The essence of lychees explodes in a burst of sweetness over our tongues.

"Winemakers add yeast to convert the sugar to alcohol," says Ziraldo. After fermentation in stainless steel tanks, the alcohol content is about 10 per cent and the previous year's vintage is released around November. Sold in half-bottles (or smaller), the fragrant nectar is the colour of liquid gold, and nearly as pricey.

Indoors, we sample the finished products. To our surprise, there's more than one. White Vidal and Riesling varieties are the most common. "Vidal grapes have thicker skins, so they cling to the vines longer," explains Ziraldo. We sip the Vidal Icewine. It's opulent and full-bodied, with flavours of candied mango, lychee and tropical fruits. It has the fragrance of orange blossoms. We're addicted.

Ziraldo describes the taste of Riesling Icewine as "more austere, with pear and pineapple overtones." The acidity creates a lingering honey-tangerine finish on our palates.

An Oak-Aged Vidal Icewine adds hints of apricot and ginger. Sparkling Vidal Icewine is best enjoyed young, but the others can be cellared for at least 10 years.

Our biggest surprise is an Icewine made from red Cabernet Franc grapes. "Canadian vintners created it to address the Chinese market," says Ziraldo. "Chinese are well aware of the health aspects of red wine. Red is also their lucky colour." Because most of the crimson stays in the frozen skins, the Cabernet Franc Icewine is a blushing amber. Its flavour is an intense medley of sweet strawberries, raspberries and cranberries.

Food and wine pairings

Experts recommend that you serve Icewine in 30 mL (or one once) portions, after chilling the bottle for one or two hours. A bottle of Icewine serves six to eight people.

Inniskillin Icewine chocolates
Inniskillin Icewine chocolates
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

What foods pair best with Icewine? Traditionally, Vidal Icewine complements poached pears, apple pie and blue-veined cheeses. Oak-Aged Vidal is exquisite with crème brûlée and carrot cake. Inniskillin sells chocolates made with their Icewines. It's a marriage made in heaven.

At the annual Icewine Festival, visitors to Niagara wineries can sample Icewines paired with Swiss fondue, tapas, fire-roasted chestnuts, artisan cheeses and Belgian chocolate. A gala dinner matches it with foie gras.

Nectar of the Gods. Ontario's liquid gold. Winter's gift to wine lovers. Icewine has been called many things. Joe Will, owner and winemaker at Niagara's Strewn Winery, summarised it best:

“I never met an Icewine I didn't like.”

TRAVEL INFORMATION

Ontario Wine Country: Wine Country Ontario

More things to see and do in Niagara:

Niagara Falls Helicopter Tours

Niagara Falls Honeymoon and Romantic Getaway

Niagara Wine Festival Parade, Tastings, Touring Passport