On the Road with the Grape Guy

Report from - Niagara Icewine Festival - January 2007

13 Feb 2007
Fear seemed to grip everyone a little early this year … the fear that icewine season could pass us by, or could be lost all together.  Sounds silly now as we sit here mid-February staring at thermometer readings of minus 10 (for our third week straight), and wind chills that plunge those temps down to between minus 20 and minus 25.  But in early January some winemakers were already starting to ring alarm bells – and later that same month the media caught wind of it and started to freak us all out.  “No Icewine This Year!” they proclaimed from the headlines.  While the Grape Growers Association sent out calming press releases, clear-headed winemakers knew all they had to do was wait – this is Canada afterall.  The truth is that we have harvested icewine (as a province) as late as March.  Sure there is a loss of precious fruit, but the whole of icewinedom was not lost. 

This year in mid-December we had a flash freeze (temps dipped for one night below minus 8), some winemakers made the call to run out to the vineyard deciding that it was time to pick; but all a flash freeze does is harden the outside of the grape, the inside part remains soft and fleshy, not the proper consistency for making icewine; for that the grapes have to been frozen and as hard as marbles.  Those that went out in mid-December will be making some really nice late-harvest wines. 

In late-January we had some freezing rain – which managed to keep the berries hanging even longer; the ice acted as a protective coating for the grapes thus not allowing them to freeze inside.  Once again pickers at that time ended up with mushy over ripe grape juice.  Those who waited an extra week and removed the ice from their grapes, were rewarded with the perfect conditions and temperatures for icewine and they picked, plucked, squeezed and fermented our nationally renowned liquid.

All this preamble leads me into a short review of this year’s icewine festival in Niagara, where wineries congregate in either Jordan (weekend 1) or Niagara-on-the-Lake (weekend 2) to pour their nectar to thirsty and sweet-toothed visitors at real ice bars.  While the throng pay five dollars a sample, I grabbed myself a touring passport to taste the wines in the warmth of a winery, where I can purchase what I like immediately with no worries that my cold-numbed brain will forget those wines that I really liked.  So let’s look at who was pouring what and their pairings (if any).

Starting at the Niagara College Teaching Winery, located just outside of Niagara-on-the-Lake, and just off the QEW – they were serving up icewine-infused creampuffs paired with their 2005 Vidal Icewine.  The dessert was delicious, light and airy and the icewine-infused cream inside really woke up the mouth.  The wine itself was quite lovely, but because they pre-poured many of their samples and they had been left out on a table, the temperature was not where icewine should be served – a tad too warm.  The paring worked well though.

Maleta Winery was giving you a choice between 2 icewines, an ’02 and an ’03, pairing it with an icewine sponge cake, which was truly decadent.  The two wines showed marked differences in flavours and mouth feel … the debate from the patrons assembled at the counter raged as to which one they liked best.  I invite you to go to Maleta and make the same comparison and decide for yourself – I thought they were both delicious with merits for both years.  I found it hard to choose a favourite.

Chateau des Charmes was giving (and selling) a sneak peak of their 2005 Late Harvest Riesling during this “pre-release” event.  Another delicious late harvest from the Chateau, good tropical fruit flavours drenched in honey with melon notes and a stream of crisp acidity carried this wine through the mouth and into the throat nicely – there it hung out for awhile in a long finish.

A quick stop at Hillebrand where local artists using chisels and chainsaws were carving ice sculptures out of big blocks of ice … I also got a sampling of the 2005 Trius Dry Riesling (a full review will appear in an upcoming newsletter).  I also swung by Jackson-Triggs, where I tried the soon-to-be-released 2005 Delaine Vineyard Riesling.  These two Rieslings are just waiting for the spring/summer warm weather and days on the dock - they’ll also pair wonderfully with foods of your choice.  Both reviews will appear in time for springtime purchasing.  But I digress; let’s get back to the icewine festival tour.

Willow Heights was serving icewine Martinis which went down way too smoothly and could become addictive, they were also serving up surly staff members behind the counter which did not add to the enjoyment of the fabulous drink creation.  On the other hand, the staff at Stoney Ridge proved to be much more amiable, as they poured the late harvest Vidal and cabernet Franc that they playfully have named Igluu.  And Vineland, who always seems to be over-staffed (but that is to your benefit), poured Vidal and Riesling icewine alongside chocolate truffles.  I also sampled some of their dry and semi-dry Rieslings, which are always superb, and some of the best Niagara has to offer.  Vineland also had gifts for visitors … the first weekend they gave out bottle stoppers, but demand exceeded supply; so on the second weekend they passed out icewine glasses … a nice touch and great memento of the day.

Last stop Angels Gate Winery, who decided to fly in the face of convention, skipped icewine altogether and poured a flight of Cabernet Sauvignons from the 2002, 2003, and 2004 vintages.  They topped that off with an unfiltered, as-yet-unreleased tasting of a 2006 late harvest Cabernet Sauvignon that they are working on.  Surprisingly the 2003 Cab Sauv was the winner of the flight and a steal at $18.95 … there’s plenty left and it’s drinking well now, but it can still age for a number of years.  2003 was not a particularly good year for reds in Ontario, but there are some gems out there if you look – this is one of them.

Obviously not a comprehensive list of places that were pouring and serving during the festival, but a nice little tour that made for an enjoyable day out on the wine trail.  Many wineries went un-visited and many others had interesting and unique pairings that I just did not have time for.  Next year I would suggest grabbing a passport and checking out the wine route, make a weekend out of it, it’s one of the most delicious and economical ways to enjoy the icewine festival.

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