Ice ice baby

Niagara icewine grapes ready to be harvested. (Photo: Getty images)

Imagine getting hauled out of your comfy chair at 11pm on a mid-winter night to hand-pick frozen grapes in temperatures of -10 to -13°C. Not a lot of fun, but this is how one of the world’s rarest, finest and most expensive sweet wines is made. It’s the icewine of Canada’s famed Niagara Peninsula, which retails for about AUD $100. That’s per half-bottle!

It takes six times as many grapes to produce an icewine as it does a normal wine. That’s because most of the juice is discarded.

The wines themselves, made from three grapes – riesling, cabernet franc and a French hybrid named vidal – are superb, nectar-like ‘stickies’, that stand tall beside the best sweet wines in the world. But why so expensive?

It takes six times as many grapes to produce an icewine as it does a normal wine. That’s because most of the juice is discarded. About 90% of the water inside the frozen grapes is in the form of ice crystals, which are left behind in the press when the grapes are squeezed. The tremendously sweet juice, that never freezes, trickles out and is captured, to be fermented to make icewine. The fermentation is stopped early, leaving a very sweet wine. The concentrating effect produces a juice that’s also intensely perfumed and flavoured, which is why icewine is so good.

Canada’s Niagara Peninsula, right beside Lake Ontario, has become a specialist at this kind of wine, and Inniskillin is the most famous producer. This region, just downstream from Niagara Falls in Ontario Province, is arguably the world’s leading icewine producer these days, but it certainly wasn’t the first. That honour is said to go to some peasants in Germany’s Franconia region way back in 1794, when grapes harvested after an unexpected frost led to the first eiswein, to use the German spelling (which Canadians sensitively avoid).

But Germany’s freezes are sporadic, whereas Niagara has the right conditions every year. Indeed, it has a unique meso-climate: most of Canada is too cold to ripen table-wine grapes: it’s because of two natural advantages that they can ripen chardonnay, riesling and pinot noir for table wines. One is the efficient cold-air drainage the Niagara River gives to a narrow escarpment of land beside the river; the other is the temperature-moderating effect of the two huge lakes, Eyrie and Ontario.

Inniskillin’s co-founder Donald Ziraldo visited Australia a few years ago to launch his wines here.

The icewines available here are the riesling (quoted on Dan Murphy’s website at AUD $105), vidal, cabernet franc and sparkling icewine, all in half-bottles. All are very good, although the sparkling version appealed less than the still wines.

At my most recent tasting, the 2018 Six Nations Wine Challenge, the 2017 riesling was my pick, a superb wine with honey and cumquat aromas and a scintillating, racy palate in which the famous sugar-acid balance is as thrilling as you’d find in a Mosel Valley beerenauslese riesling. The vidal is usually the sweetest, very rich and powerful, broader on the palate and with oak character pushing it more toward a Sauternes style (but without the botrytis). Last time I tasted the cabernet franc it had a beautiful pale pink-purple colour, and wonderful balance and delicacy on the palate. The 2017 Lakeview in Six Nations was very like this, very sweet and syrupy with a lovely rose petal aroma.

My favourite at Six Nations was the Inniskillin Riesling, followed by the Magnotta Winery Vidal: this was deep golden/amber coloured with toffee and barley-sugar aromas, very luscious and complex.

When I met Ziraldo in Sydney, he was keen to show the wines off with savoury foods, rather than sweet desserts – the more usual accompaniment. He served the sparkling wine with crostini of marinated salmon, smoked caviar, herbs and lime; the vidal with cured pork neck, celeriac, mustard, pickled cabbage and gherkins; and the riesling with seared foie gras, white polenta, Jerusalem artichokes and rhubarb. Finally, the cabernet franc with a dessert of tamarillos poached in the same wine and vanilla, served with mascarpone cream. The chef hadn’t played it safe: rhubarb, artichokes and pickles are all supposed to be among the least friendly things to have with wine. However, all the matches were very successful and we could have mixed up the combinations without any problems.

In this year’s Six Nations Wine Challenge, judged in Sydney in August, Canada fielded no fewer than eight wines in the sweet wine class, all icewines, winning five medals: two double gold and three single gold. It was a very strong performance – at least on my scoresheet – as the wines impressed me and I rated them highly.

All but one were from the Niagara Peninsula. The wines were:

Double Golds

Golds

Also selected:

Wine event

Thinkers & Drinkers, the Six Nations Wine Challenge trophy wine cruise, sets out at 7pm on Sydney Harbour on Wednesday, November 28th. Tickets are selling now. The boat is Sydney Glass Island. Cost is AUD $200 a head, or AUD $150 for advance booking with discount code. Click here for more information and bookings.

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