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I never need to manufacture a reason to make the one-hour drive around the lake to Niagara wine country, but if you don’t get there on a regular basis, why not use the January Icewine Festival as an excuse to go? On Saturday and Sunday, January 14-15, 2012, the main public event was the Twenty Valley Winter Winefest held on Main Street in JordanVillage. Niagara-on-the-Lake hosts the Icewine Festivities for the weekend of January 21-22.

The main tastings at the Jordan Winefest were located in three large tents with Icewine, table wine and sparkling wine from 29 wineries, along with food stations from eight local restaurants. Five local food trucks were also parked within the festival area, and there was lots of live music. The Jordan Village event is sponsored by TwentyValley Tourism Association and participating wineries came from wine counties west of St. Catharines including Jordan,Vineland and Beamsville.

It’s fun to be outdoors for a few hours (with the shelter of tents and a little bit of piped-in heat), the food is tasty, and the wine is varied. A one-ounce pour of Icewine or a two-ounce pour of table wine will cost you one $3.00 ticket, and most of the food was two or three tickets.

While I usually focus on table wines here, this year I decided to taste Icewine exclusively. With more than twenty examples of Icewine alone (among the 90 or so wines on offer), it was a good chance to survey a part of the Ontario wine industry that I don’t always pay attention to.

Grapes on a frozen vine

Consider how Icewine is made: grapes stay on the vine through the fall until they are picked frozen. On the one hand they receive the maximum chance to ripen in a given year, but on the other hand that ripeness implies that much of the natural acidity in the grape has been lost as sugars continue to rise until the vine shuts down in the cold. Freezing temperatures turn most of the water in the grape to ice, which is removed when the grapes are crushed. This concentrates the sugars, flavours and remaining acidity into a very small volume of juice. For me the question is always whether the Icewine has maintained enough acidity to balance the extremely high sugar levels. High sugar with low acidity can be syrupy and dull, and it may even overpower delicate fruit flavours. That being said, when it works, Icewine can be a real delight.

Icewine can be made from any grape that remains undamaged on the vine until freezing, and the traditional grape in Niagara has been the hybrid Vidal. While Vidal is still the mainstay in terms of volume produced, I tend to find more interest in Icewines made from vinefera grapes, the varieties that we usually find in still wines, such as the whites Riesling and Gewürztraminer, and the reds Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. I look for complexity in aromas and flavours, a clear focus that follows the wine from the beginning to the end of the tasting, and ideally a flavour and aroma profile that matches the characteristics of the variety. I think that Riesling and Gewürztraminer often provide this, and my personal favourites were from these two varieties.

One highlight was the Sue-Ann Staff Estate Winery 2007 Riesling Icewine ($50.00 for 375ml from the winery). The enticing nose has modest petrol notes, with aromas of mango, peach and tropical fruit salad. The wine is full-bodied, has great acidity that balances the sugar and enhances the long, satisfying finish. This is a very good price for a very fine wine.

In my “interesting and intriguing” category I placed the 2007 Riesling Icewine from Thirty Bench Winemakers ($75.00 for 375ml at the winery). The warm and dry summer of 2007 was particularly hard on Riesling, and the heat and drought may have advanced the process that causes the petrol notes on the wine, to the point that I noticed it on some newly bottled ’07 still Rieslings. While the Staff Riesling Icewine showed some petrol, in the Thirty Bench it was very strong, and in addition there were notes of oxidation and burnt rubber that (at least in the cold), together subsumed most of the fruit-derived flavours and aromas except for a honeyed note. It’s possible that this was a bottle-specific issue, and I’d like to try this wine at closer to normal serving temperature to see whether there is more fruit and if the wine is really as evolved as it seemed to be at this tasting. As I said, this wine was interesting and intriguing, and certainly was not for everyone.

The Malivoire 2009 Riesling Icewine ($29.95 for 200ml at the winery) is a very pretty alternative. There is no petrol at all on this young wine from a fine Riesling vintage, and if you find the petrol notes in the previous two wines unattractive, then this might be the wine for you. It has flowers, peaches and honey on the nose, with a nice lift in the middle of the palate. There is good acidity and very controlled sweetness.

Gewürztraminer can also make very interesting and complex Icewine, and the only one I found at the event was another highlight. This is the Stoney Ridge Estates Winery 2009 Excellence Barrel Fermented Gewürztraminer Icewine ($70.00 for 375ml at the winery). This has an attractive “Gewürz” nose with floral, peach and honey notes. On the palate add in a “Thrills gum” note that I sometimes find with this variety—for me it can be over the top for table wine, but I think it works here with the sweetness.

There were quite a number of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc Icewines to try. While they can show nice red fruit aromas and flavours, I tend to be disappointed because I miss some of the varietal character that is almost impossible to capture with the extremely ripe fruit. But two very different but pleasant examples that I noted were both from 2008, a cooler year that perhaps allowed more of the varietal character to remain.

The Foreign Affair Winery 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon Icewine ($32.95 for 200ml from the winery). The wine was brick red, with aromas of prunes and plums. The fruit dominates the attack with the sweetness neatly constrained underneath. The wine is full bodied, and has a long finish.

Ridgepoint 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon Icewine ($27.50 for 200ml from the winery). This wine had good fruit concentration but was lighter coloured and lighter bodied than the previous wine. Fruit aromas and flavours were fresher, from the strawberry and rhubarb spectrum, with more acidity.

Sensational

While I often struggle with Vidal Icewine, there was an excellent example from the Mountain Road Wine Company: 1999 Vidal Icewine($39.95 for 375ml from the winery). It was a real treat to try this older vintage wine. It was a deep gold colour, and the nose had a hint of the plastic note I associate with the grape. The cold may have subdued the fruit, for I was overwhelmed by a strong sponge-toffee aroma that also dominated the palate. There was enough acidity to keep the finish fresh. This is an excellent value for this older vintage, and it is a fine example of Vidal Icewine.

Remember  that even if you can’t make the big Icewine Festival events, wineries remain open all winter, and many have individual Icewine-specific features throughout January.

 

Learn more about Tim Appelt at his website: Wine Discovery

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