“To make ice wine, you need a thick skin,” Dave Gimbel says with a ghost of a smile.
Gimbel, who is representing Vineland Estates at Canada’s annual Niagara Icewine Festival, is not talking about the resilience required of any winemaker willing to embark on this demanding and highly risky enterprise — though that certainly helps. Instead, he is referring to the grape variety best equipped to withstand the intense cold needed to make this singular, highly concentrated, intensely sweet wine.
Producing ice wine a risky endeavor
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Vidal, a hybrid vine bred specially for icy conditions, is ideal, Gimbel explains. Thanks to their thick skins, the grapes borne by this hardy variety can survive intact on the vine right through to January or February, when midwinter temperatures in the Niagara vineyards dip to the regulation minus 8 degrees C (17.6 degrees F) for several consecutive days and nights. The risks — which include anything from rot to hungry birds — are outweighed by the potential rewards; ice wine is a premium product that sells at a premium price.
The practice of producing naturally sweet wine from frozen grapes originated in Germany and Austria, where it is known as Eiswein. Nowadays, perhaps due to the changing climate, both countries struggle to muster low enough winter temperatures for a reliable harvest. Canadian winemakers, on the other hand, can count every year on the kind of freezing conditions needed to make ice wine, and the country has long since overtaken Germany and Austria as the world’s most significant producer.
As with any wine, the story starts in the vineyards. The pickers (or mechanical harvesters) swing into action beneath floodlights in the dead of night, when temperatures are at their lowest, picking the grapes and speeding them to the waiting presses out in the yard. Throughout the night, tiny quantities of juice are painstakingly squeezed from the whole berries, and the intensely aromatic juice is then left to ferment gently through to spring.
At Inniskillin winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake, some grapes are still hanging on the vine when I visit in January, which enables me to experience harvesting firsthand. With numbed fingers, I pluck bunches of frostbitten fruit from beneath the nets — essential protection against flocks of winter-starved starlings — and drop them one by one into shallow crates. For the wine to be made, explains Debi Pratt, Inniskillin’s honorary ice wine ambassador, the outside temperature must hold steady at minus 8 C (better still, minus 10 C) for several days so the grapes are frozen solid, like little pinkish marbles.
Over the course of my three-day visit for the festival, I sip golden nectars made by several different Niagara wineries and from a whole range of grapes — the thick-skinned Vidal, of course, but also Riesling, the classic German and Austrian Eiswein grape, and even some made from Gewurztraminer. Truly exciting and distinctive are the ruby-red versions made with Cabernet Franc or Cabernet Sauvignon. Some ice wines sparkle, but most are still; all are delectable.
The idea that both winemakers and chefs are keen to counter is that ice wine is strictly for dessert. There’s much talk of “the texture of the wine” (the mouthfeel is indeed remarkable and satisfying), its complex array of aromas and flavors and its intense natural sweetness balanced by rapier-sharp acidity, which equips it for most food challenges.
My first “aha!” moment comes at Inniskillin with the pairing of oysters Rockefeller and sparkling Vidal. “Those tiny bubbles lift the wine and delude you into thinking there’s less sweetness — perfect for oysters,” explains Bruce Nicholson, Inniskillin’s senior winemaker. Outside the winery, by a roaring fire, in-house chef Tim MacKiddie has prepared maple-glazed duck breast and portobello mushrooms on the barbecue smoker, wonderful with a lick of Cabernet Franc.
At Jackson-Triggs Winery I sample empanada-sized wraps of chicken in mole topped with tiny dice of crunchy rhubarb, another great match with Cabernet Franc, while over at Pilliteri Estates Winery they partner a pork belly taco and avocado salsa with Riesling. Trius Winery’s take on the sweet-spicy theme is beef chili with Vidal, whereas Kacaba Vineyards & Winery offers a singular taste of Gewurztraminer with toasted panini filled with brie, shredded apple and pear. Another rarity is Vineland Estates Winery’s Cabernet Sauvignon, which they partner with cassoulet of braised short ribs with a blob of ice-wine-infused crème fraiche.
The final surprising — and deliciously democratic — combination consists of s’mores toasted on the embers of the roaring fire outside the winery, paired with Inniskillin’s rare, sparkling Cabernet Franc ice wine. The only combo I draw the line at — though the opportunity does, fleetingly, present itself at a lively street festival where food trucks stand shoulder to shoulder with wine stands — is ice wine with Canada’s now infamous poutine, those rubbery cheese curds that squeak beneath your teeth, doused with brown gravy and served with fries. That would surely be heresy, requiring a very thick skin.
Zester Daily contributor Sue Style attended the Niagara Icewine Festival as a guest of Ontario Tourism.
Main photo: A crate of frozen grapes harvested for ice wine. Credit: Sue Style