In spite of the headphones clamped tightly around my ears, the noise of the choppers above my head is deafening. Below – not at all far below – millions of gallons of matt-grey icy water are thundering over Niagara Falls. The helicopter banks sharply, straightens and clatters off northwards, following the ice-edged Niagara River which forms the border with upstate New York. Within minutes we spot the Inniskillin winery, set amongst silent, serried ranks of snow-dusted vines. We circle, hover and put down gently.
The temperature out in the vineyards is billed at minus 10C but thanks to the icy blast, it feels more like minus 20C. No-one at the winery is complaining – in fact if it were any warmer there would be long faces. This kind of Siberian freeze is an essential component for making a singular, highly concentrated wine whose intense natural sweetness is balanced by rapier-sharp acidity.
I’m here with a small group from the UK for the annual Niagara Icewine Festival, held over three January weekends. It’s an opportunity for the Niagara wine producers to remind the public that even in the depths of winter – and those depths are cavernous hereabouts – they are open for business. Cellar doors are thrown open, fires are lit outside the winery and the public is initiated into the delights of Icewine paired with a range of creative winter nibbles.
Our group’s initiation starts – as does Icewine – in the vineyard. With numbed fingers we pluck bunches of frostbitten grapes from beneath the nets – essential protection against flocks of winter-starved starlings – and drop them one by one into shallow crates. In order for the wine to be made, explains Debi Pratt, PR spokesperson and honorary Icewine ambassador of Inniskillin, the outside temperature must remain at a steady minus 8C for several days so the grapes are frozen solid, like little marbles.
The pickers (or mechanical harvesters) swing into action beneath floodlights at dead of night, picking the grapes and speeding them to the waiting presses out in the yard, where tiny quantities of juice are painstakingly squeezed from the whole berries. The intensely aromatic juice will ferment through to spring. The new year’s vintage is underway.
While German winemakers long ago pioneered the making of the liquid treasure that is Eiswein, Canada is now the world’s most significant producer of what they have christened Icewine (capitalised and all one word, following the German model). It was a logical step for Canadian winemakers, blessed – some might say – each year with the reliably frigid winters that provide the right conditions for coaxing tiny quantities of a sweet elixir from frozen grapes. Meanwhile, thanks almost certainly to climate change, Germany increasingly struggles to muster the necessary temperatures required to produce a reliable harvest.
Over the course of the weekend, opportunities to taste proliferate. All along the route we bump into fellow enthusiasts brandishing the Icewine Discovery Pass, which gives access to around 40 different participating wineries. They are a mix of locals (including folks from Buffalo and towns along the US border), a handful of overseas visitors and plenty of Torontonians here for the weekend, bent on beating the January blues. We sip golden nectars made from Vidal, Riesling or Gewurztraminer, and ruby red versions from Cabernet Franc or Cabernet Sauvignon. Some of it sparkles; most is still; all is delectable.
The idea that both winemakers and chefs are keen to bury at the outset is that Icewine is strictly for dessert. The texture of the wine, its complex aromas and flavours plus the famed balance of sweetness and acidity equips it for most food challenges – and for none, as we discover when tasting Inniskillin’s sparkling Vidal all on its own, as an aperitif. Straw-gold and barely bubbly, with legs that start somewhere up by its armpits and slither alluringly down the inside of the glass, it’s practically a meal in itself.
Each winery featured in the Discovery Pass comes up with its own Icewine-food combination, which is designed to show off both to best effect. At Jackson Triggs, a bite-sized wrap of chicken in mole topped with tinily diced rhubarb comes with Cabernet Franc, while over at Pilliteri they partner a pork belly taco with avocado salsa with Riesling. Trius’s take on the sweet-spicy theme is beef chili with Vidal while Kacaba offers a singular taste of Gewurz with toasted panini filled with brie, shredded apple and pear. Another speciality is Vineland’s Cabernet Sauvignon which they partner with a braised short rib cassoulet and a blob of Icewine-infused crème fraiche.
We finish outside again by a roaring fire in the snow with a delightfully democratic combination of marshmallows toasted on the embers clamped inside a pair of dark chocolate cookies, paired with Inniskillin’s rare, sparkling Cabernet Franc Icewine.
[This piece appeared originally in FT Weekend as Postcard from Ontario. The trip was hosted by Ontario Tourism, www.ontariotravel.net]