Every January, just like clockwork, brave Canadians from around Ontario, northern New York and all points beyond break out the parkas, mittens and wooly hats to spend a little quality time eating drinking and celebrating one of Canada’s greatest treasures — that golden nectar called Icewine.
Everyone is invited to the party, of course, to share a magical few days in a winter wonderland that includes glitzy galas, ice bars, winery tours, outdoor ice carving and lots of icewine and food to match.
The Niagara Icewine Festival is held over three weekends in January, this year from Jan. 14 to 30, in wineries and towns throughout the region.
The weekend kicked off on Friday with 38 Ontario wineries pouring bottles of their best icewine into a specially made four-foot tall wine flute at the Fallsview Casino Resort in Niagara Falls to break a Guinness World Record.
The new record now stands at 27 litres, breaking the old record set three years ago in Italy.
“The record is there, so why can’t we have it, why does it have to be someone else?” said Ed Madronich, chairman of the Wine Council of Ontario.
“For us it’s very symbolic. We make great wine and historically we have always compared ourselves to other wine regions. The fact that we can break a Guinness Book of World Records means that we can be the best here in Ontario.”
The last bottle of icewine was poured by Donald Ziraldo and Karl Kaiser, the founders of Inniskillin Winery, who are considered to be the kings of the icewine industry.
The full video of the record breaking event can be seen here at the Wines Of Ontario website.
Later Friday night, also at the Fallsview Casino, the marquee event, the Xerox Red Hot & Ice Gala, drew a sold out, packed house of revellers all dressed in their best black ties and flowing gowns.
The evening featured more than 30 Ontario wineries, pouring exquisite icewines and matching it to Niagara cuisine prepared by the Fallsview Casinoâ€™s Golden Lotus and 17 Noir restaurants.
It was a classy affair with gorgeous styling in the room, icewine thematics, excellent entertainment and superb pairings of wine and food.
Icewine is a uniquely rare Canadian product that has garnered worldwide recognition. It’s no wonder we celebrate the bounty of this liquid gold for three weekends in the middle of winter.
Itâ€™s a rarity because of the way itâ€™s made â€” a labour intensive product that requires hand picking frozen grapes in the vineyard. The grapes must be picked before 10 a.m. while making sure the temperature doesn’t exceed -8C.
The frozen grapes are pressed, squeezing out the excess water, leaving a highly extracted liquid that is high in acidity and sugar.
The finished wine is like no other â€” super sweet but balanced by high acids, rich aromas of peach, apricot and sweet citrus, thick and viscous and usually low in alcohol.
A variety of grapes are used in the making of icewines including riesling, vidal, gewurztraminer, pinot gris, cabernet franc, chardonnay, merlot and gamay. And new styles are coming to market such as sparkling icewines and Champagne-styled wines with a shot or two of icewine for added sizzle and flavour.
While icewine was the star attraction of events in Niagara Falls on Friday, the region-wide party took on a broader scope by Saturday.
Dubbed the Twenty Valley Winter WineFest, and centred in the quaint village of Jordan, guests could choose from choose from over 90 wines from 33 area wineries, with icewine sharing the stage with some of Ontarioâ€™s best sparkling and premium VQA wines.
The Winter WineFest is always a blast, with heated tents, live music and plenty of food and wine pairings that guests can enjoy simply in the great outdoors of a Canadian snowy day.
Many of Niagara’s top Bench wineries were pouring their best stuff â€” including a selection of over 25 icewines, made from seven different varietals, and a bountiful selection of still and sparking wines. The wines paired beautifully with 11 local culinary stars which served up perfectly paired dishes, from fresh-shucked oysters to five-spice pork-belly (my favourite when matched with a gorgeous Sue-Ann Staff Riesling) and the ever-popular hand-cut frites and roasted chestnuts.
There was also a live band, a winemaker fashion show, a barrel-rolling competition and icewine themed cooking demonstrations.
One of the highlights for me was a tasting (mostly a re-tasting) of some benchmark wines made in the Twenty Valley.
Wine writers had been gathered up for a special tasting in a frozen tent of five now classic wines: Cave Spring Cellars CSV Riesling 2008, Tawse Robyn’s Block Chardonnay 2008, Le Clos Jordanne Le Clos Jordanne Vineyard Pinot Noir 2008, Creekside Estate Broken Press Shiraz 2007 and Hidden Bench La Brunante 2007.
It was exciting to hear the principals (OK, Harald Thiel, missed the tasting because he stopped to help a driver get his car out of a snow-packed ditch â€” how Canadian!) talk so passionately about their wonderful wines â€” even if it was -8C inside the tent and a lot of the sound was drowned out by an exhilarating winemaker barrel race taking place on Jordan’s main drag right outside the tent. We heard from Rob Power, winemaker at Creekside, Le Clos Jordanne winemaker SÃ©bastien Jacquey, Tawse winemaker, Paul Pender, and Len Pennachetti, co-founder of Cave Spring.
Here are reviews of the wines poured:
Hidden Bench La Brunante 2007 ($85, 5 stars, sold out) â€”Â Only two vintages of this extraordinary wine have ever been made. The other was 2005. Only 2,200 bottles were made from the finest Bordeaux grapes grown in the three estate vineyards with fruit cropping at less than a tonne per acre (hence the price). There are a lot of platitudes to heap on this wine, so letâ€™s just start by saying itâ€™s a huge red with a nose that doesnâ€™t quit giving concentrated currants, blackberry, mocha, oak and spice notes. The fruit rages on the palate with tar, leather, velvety texture, ripe tannins and length on the finish all adding to this immense, highly concentrated wine.
Cave Spring CSV Riesling 2008 ($30, 4.5 stars) â€” This is starting to open up, showing exceptional minerality, hints of petrol, grapefruit-citrus, and floral notes. In the mouth it displays white peach, grapefruit, tropical-pineapple fruits that are playfully sweet and tart in the mouth.
Tawse Robyn’s Block Chardonnay 2008 ($42, 4.5 stars) â€”Highly aromatic chardy with ripe pear, tropical fruits and gorgeously subtle oak, spice and cream. The palate reveals a balanced attack of fruit, acid and spice on a nice bed of minerality.
Creekside Broken Press Shiraz 2007 ($40, 4.5-5 stars) â€”The 2007 version of Broken Press is a sensational wine with lifted aromatics that are helped along with a shot of viognier added to the shiraz. Viognier brings a floral element to the rich red berries and spicy core. On the palate, the ripe red fruits are balanced by layers of spice, oak and ripe tannins.
Le Clos Jordanne Le Clos Jordanne Vineyard Pinot Noir 2008 ($40, 4 stars) â€”Still waiting on this pinot to open up a bit more. It is subtle on both the nose and palate with raspberry, smoke, plum, cranberry and soft spices. It’s pleasing in the mouth but hoping for more as it develops.
Yes, the icewine fest is in full gear. Time to find that parka and get our and enjoy the hundreds of events taking place in our own backyard.
Next up is the the Niagara-on-the-Lake Icewine Village from Jan. 22 to 23 â€” The snow-covered streets of Niagara-on-the-Lake sparkle during the main event of the Icewine Festival. Located on historic Queen Street, the 25 Wineries of Niagara-on-the-Lake pour liquid gold all weekend long. Icewine is paired with the swinging sounds of Canadian Jazz and the town’s finest restaurants will be serving up icewine-inspired culinary pairings to delight then palate. Admission is free.
For more information, go to Niagara Icewine Festival