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Chilling Out

Published in Foodservice and Hospitality, January, 2008



For all the great Niagara rieslings and fine meritage blends from Okanagan, there’s only one type of Canadian wine that has a serious profile internationally: icewine. In the case of big producer Inniskillin, with operations in both Niagara and Okanagan, fully two thirds of their icewine is exported according to Debbie Pratt, Public Relations Manager.

In 1984, Karl Kaiser, from Austria originally and a winemaker at Inniskillin, launched the first icewine in Canada – the label even read “eiswein,” reflecting the German origins of the style. It was soon changed to “ice wine”, then the Vintner’s Quality Alliance (VQA) put the two words together and registered the name “icewine”. The cold Canadian winter was finally working in winemakers’ favour.

Icewine is made from grapes frozen on the vine and picked only once the temperature has fallen below –8C. The grape pickers often harvest in the middle of the night because daytime temperatures are usually warmer. –8 to –13 is the ideal range as each grape yields just a tiny drop of concentrated, sweet juice because all the water in the pulp is frozen. This is why icewine is so expensive: compared to table wines it’s not only technically more difficult to make, you have to crush ten times as many grapes to get a bottle’s worth.

Perhaps you think any winemaker could just stick grapes in a freezer and control the temperature – California producer Bonnie Doon tried this for a few years and called in Vin Glaciere – but it’s just not the same. In Niagara, the mercury starts to dip below freezing in November and then rises and falls for weeks until it’s cold enough (usually by mid-December). In BC, the process starts a little earlier and goes on a bit longer. This teasing freeze-thaw cycle followed by a big freeze is what adds extra levels of complexity.

The Taste
There’s no arguing with a superior Sauternes from Bordeaux, but Canadian icewine takes those rich Old World flavours and freshens them up with more fruitiness and hits with an acid kick that balances the bolder, sweeter flavours and stops it from leaving a cloying aftertaste. Award-winning winemaker Sue Ann Staff, who worked at big icewine producer Pillitteri Vineyards for ten years and is now with Niagara Vintners, says "the concentration of flavours can be just as high as a Sauternes, but the flavours are different. Icewine is just a fresh fruit bomb – every tropical fruit you’ve ever known, you’ll find in icewine, particularly vidal. The aged characteristics appear fairly quickly in vidal, and will transition to more dried fruit flavours. The small bottles help speed up the process."

The Grapes
Vidal grapes awaiting harvest at Inniskillin in December: they are netted to stop the birds from eating them.

The most popular icewine grape is a hybrid called vidal. It works well because of its thick skin, which stands up to the freeze/thaw cycle that can damage thinner-skinned varieties. While vidal is considered an “aromatic”, it usually yields a light and simple table wine. However it really shines in icewine, giving sweet, rich and concentrated flavours. About 75% of Niagara’s icewines are made from vidal, which also tends to be the least expensive of the icewines. Probably the finest icewines are made from riesling. A "noble" variety, riesling is a very important table wine in Ontario. According to Debbie Pratt of Inniskillin, the simplest way to define the taste profile of the two main white icewines is this: riesling is "elegant" and vidal is "luscious".

There are also icewines made from different grapes like shiraz or cabernet sauvignon. Inniskillin uses only vidal, riesling and cabernet franc for icewine, and Debbie says trying different grapes is "interesting, but at some point we have to realize that certain grapes are better than others for icewine." That said, check the winner of this year’s Canadian Wine Awards' top icewine.

Serving Icewine
At the end of a meal, icewine can take the place of dessert and leave diners satisfied because it's so rich and sweet. However it's also great to pair with a whole range of desserts and cheeses, including dark chocolate and Roquefort. Chefs are also starting to cook with icewine – adding it to sauces, marinades and dressings for meats and salads.

From a sommelier perspective, it's an opportunity to introduce customers to something they wouldn’t normally try, and it's important to offer it by the glass. That’s why Inniskillin partnered with ultimate crystal wineglass maker Riedel to produce an icewine glass. "We also encouraged servers to present it well," says Donald Ziraldo, founder of Inniskillin. "Serve it on a silver tray, with the bottle of icewine and two glasses. The customers love it, and often diners at nearby tables will be intrigued and want to try it."


Renowned glassmaker Riedel created the Riedel/Inniskillin Vinum Extreme Icewine Glass in 2001 after conducting workshops to determine the shape best suited to showcase the rich aromas of icewine.


What some restaurants are doing is adding a separate dessert menu, presented after the meal. At Bern’s Steak House in Tampa, Florida, icewine was offered on a silver platter "and over the Christmas period," says Ziraldo, "they sold 90 cases of icewine."

Quality Control and Fakes
Not only do wineries have to follow stringent regulations about type of grape, "brix" counts (a sweetness measure), and labelling, they are audited on the harvest. Laurie Macdonald, executive director of VQA Ontario, says that all vines earmarked for icewine must be registered in advance so the VQA can ensure the total amount of juice produced matches, and the date and time of harvest is also checked against records – "we have stations throughout Niagara that record the temperature every 15 minutes, and we check to make sure it was cold enough when they harvested."

A growing volume of icewine is being sold in Japan, China and South Korea – and its success has attracted counterfeiters. "It’s a positive, as imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but it's difficult because they’re making some horrible stuff and calling it Canadian or even VQA Icewine," says Macdonald. How horrible? Well, they sometimes don't even bother getting a cheap wine and adding sugar, "just wine kit grape concentrate with sugar and alcohol and sometimes other fruit juices added, as well as artificial dyes." Most surprisingly, the counterfeiters are not charging ten bucks like they might for a fake Rolex – Inniskillin sells for $100 a bottle in China, and the fakes are selling for $65 or $70, says Macdonald. "If someone drinks that and thinks that's what Canadian icewine tastes like, that’s a bad thing." She acknowledged that the VQA does not have the resources to tackle the problem and worries that icewine's image may be damaged.

Asian counterfeiters aside, icewine's reputation continues to grow as more people try it. Considering the price and richness of the flavour, it's not the kind of wine to serve by the bottle, but after a nice meal, or even with certain nice meals, a small glass of icewine delivers a unique, powerful taste sensation.

Tasting Notes
It’s not just Inniskillin making great icewine now – the competition to be on top has a lot of producers giving it their best.

Cave Spring Icewine Riesling 2004. $59.95 (375ml)
Pronounced nose of raisins with tropical fruit underneath. Full bodied palate with baked apple, raisins and lots of tropical fruit flavours. Very complex and really great acidity levels. Nice finish. (Gold award winner, 2006 Canadian Wine Awards.)

Fielding Riesling Reserve Icewine 2006. $36 (375ml)
Bright yellow-gold colour. Clean fresh nose with honey and raisin, though less aromatic than a vidal. Burst of fresher fruit on the palate, including lichee and some mango. Nice complexity. Excellent balance of acidity and a nice segue into a long raisin finish. (Bronze award winner, 2007 Canadian Wine Awards.)

Coyote’s Run Vidal Icewine 2004. $40 (375ml)
Medium nose of raisins, with more raisins and some honey on the palate. Not overly complex, but there’s some fresh tropical fruit in there too and it’s very smooth with a nice finish. (Best of Show, Sweet Wine $30 and Over. Toronto Star Wine & Cheese Show, April 2007)


2007 Canadian Wine Awards Winners – Icewine Category
Gold Medallists:
- Konzelmann 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Icewine
- Mission Hill 2006 Family Reserve Riesling
- Chateau des Charmes 2006 Vidal Icewine
- Jackson-Triggs Niagara Proprietor’s Reserve 2006 Vidal Icewine.


Icewine Recipes
Here are two recipes – one savoury and one sweet – from Izabela Kalabis-Sacco (1963-2006), who was Inniskillin’s resident chef for many years.

Icewine-Marinated Pork Medallions with Corn-Crusted Onion Rings

6 dried red chilies
3 tbsp (45ml) hot water
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp (5ml) dried sage
4 tbsp (60ml) vidal icewine
4 tbsp (60ml) extra virgin olive oil
1 10-ounce (250g) pork tenderloin
½ cup (125ml) whole milk
1 egg, beaten
1 onion, sliced into rings
½ cup (125 ml) coarse cornmeal
1 tsp (5ml) red chili flakes, dried
1 tsp (5ml) dried parsley
salt and freshly cracked black pepper
canola oil for deep frying.

Searing and roasting concentrates the flavours of the pork where the icewine marinade has penetrated, giving a sweet caramelized taste to the crusty surface. The hot and spicy flavours play off the sweet, caramelized icewine.

Place the chilies in a bowl, cover with hot water, and let soak for 20 to 30 minutes. Reserving the water, drain. Using a food processor, process the chilies into a paste with the garlic, sage, icewine and oil. Rub the chili paste all over the pork tenderloin (add a little reserved soaking water if needed) and let marinate overnight.

Whisk the milk and egg together. Separate the onion into rings and soak in the milk mixture for 30 minutes.

Heat oven to 350F (160C) . Heat a cast-iron grill pan. Season the tenrloin with salta nd pepper and sear it on the stove for about 2 minutes on each side. Transfer pan to oven and bake for 20 minutes for medium, adapting time for rare or well-done pork. Remove from oven and let stand for 5 minutes.

Meanwhile mix the cornmeal, chili and parsley together, and season with salt and pepper. Heat the canola oil to 325-350F (150-180C).

Remove a few onion rings from the milk mixture and dip each into the cornmeal mixture, coating thoroughly. Fry in batches for 2 – 4 minutes, or until lightly browned and crisp. Do not overcrowd the pan. Remove the onion rings from the pan with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.

To serve, slice tenderloin on a diagonal into 12 equal slices. Place 3 on each of 4 individual dinner plates and top with onion rings.

Serve with chilled oak-aged vidal or riesling icewine.


Vanilla-Infused Icewine Frenched Toast

1 egg, lightly beaten
2 egg whites
3 tbsp (45ml) vidal icewine
1 tbsp (15ml) sugar
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
½ cup (125ml) whole milk
1 tbsp (15ml) unsalted butter
8 thick slices baguette, cut on a diagonal
1 cup (250ml) pure maple syrup
½ cup (125ml) vidal icewine
icing sugar for dusting

Icewine’s tropical flavours and honey-like essence add a lovely decadence to a favourite lazy-morning breakfast. The bread’s toasted flavour opens the door for an oak-aged icewine.

Place the egg, egg whites, icewine and sugar in a bowl and whisk to combine. Using the tip of a sharp knife, scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean into the egg mixture. Add milk and whisk until frothy.

Heat a large skillet over medium heat and melt butter. Dip a few pieces of bread into the egg mixture, soaking both sides well, and place in the skillet. Cook for 2 minutes on each side or until lightly golden. Repeat with the remaining bread.

Mix the maple syrup and icewine. Serve French toast dusted with icing sugar and drizzled with the maple/Icewine mixture.

Serve with chilled oak-aged vidal or sparkling icewine.


Recipes and photos from "Icewine: Extreme Winemaking". Donald Ziraldo and Karl Kaiser, Key Porter Books, Toronto, 2007. ISBN 978-1-55263-926-9. $50


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