Only the Thick-skinned Need Apply: Making Ice Wine in Niagara

“To make ice wine, you need a thick skin”, observed Dave Gimbel with a ghost of a smile. Gimbel, who represented Vineland Estates at last year’s annual Niagara Icewine festival, was 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 was referring to the grape variety best equipped to withstand the intense cold needed to make this singular, highly concentrated, intensely sweet wine.

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The intense cold of Niagara (photographed from beneath the falls) is just what’s needed to make ice wine

Vidal, a hybrid vine bred specially for icy conditions, is ideal, explained Gimbel. 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.

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Inniskillin winery’s famed ice wine, made with Vidal grapes

The practice of making naturally sweet wine from frozen grapes originated in Germany and Austria, where it goes by the name of Eiswein. Nowadays, perhaps due to the changing climate, both these European 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 vineyard. The pickers (or mechanical harvesters) swing into action beneath floodlights at 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 left to ferment gently through to spring.

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Frozen Vidal grapes harvested in the Inniskillin vineyards

At Inniskillin winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake, some grapes were still hanging on the vine when I visited, enabling me to experience harvesting firsthand. With numbed fingers I plucked bunches of frostbitten fruit from beneath the nets – essential protection against flocks of winter-starved starlings – and dropped them one by one into shallow crates. In order for the wine to be made, explained Debi Pratt, Inniskillin’s honorary Icewine ambassador, the outside temperature must hold steady at minus 8C (better still, minus 10C) for several days so the grapes are frozen solid, like little pinkish marbles.

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Frozen grapes hanging on the vine

Over the course of my three-day visit, I sipped 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 were the ruby red versions made with Cabernet Franc or Cabernet Sauvignon. Some ice wines sparkle; most are still; all are delectable.

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A sparkling ice wine

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), of 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 came at Inniskillin with the pairing of oysters Rockefeller with sparkling Vidal. “Those tiny bubbles lift the wine and delude you into thinking there’s less sweetness – perfect for oysters”, explained Inniskillin’s senior winemaker Bruce Nicholson. Outside the winery by a roaring fire, in-house chef Tim MacKiddie had prepared maple-glazed duck breast and Portobello mushrooms on the barbecue-smoker, wonderful with a lick of Cabernet Franc.

At Jackson Triggs winery I sampled empanada-sized wraps of chicken in mole topped with tiny dice of crunchy rhubarb, another great match with their Cabernet Franc, while over at neighbouring Pilliteri, they’d partnered a pork belly taco and avocado salsa with Riesling. Trius’s take on the sweet-spicy theme was beef chili with Vidal while Kacaba offered a singular taste of Gewurztraminer with toasted panini filled with brie, shredded apple and pear. Another rarity is Vineland’s Cabernet Sauvignon which they partnered with cassoulet of braised short ribs with a blob of Icewine-infused crème fraiche.

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The final surprising – and deliciously democratic – combination consisted of s’mores, the classic Girl Scout snack consisting of a pair of cookies sandwiched with marshmallows, toasted on the embers of the roaring fire outside the winery and paired with Inniskillin’s rare, sparkling Cabernet Franc ice wine.

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The only combo I drew the line at – though the opportunity did, fleetingly, present itself at a lively street festival where food trucks stood shoulder to shoulder with wine stands – was ice wine with Canada’s now infamous poutine, those rubbery cheese curds that squeak beneath your teeth, which come doused with brown gravy and served with fries. That would surely be heresy, requiring a very thick skin.
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For your nearest suppliers of ice wine, consult www.winesearcher.com or the LCBO website.
A version of this article was first published on Zester Daily.

With thanks to Ontario Tourism www.ontariotravel.net, who hosted me in Niagara

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