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Jefford on Monday: Ice Station Niagara

"Picking icewine is the most fun you'll ever have," Greg Berti confidently assured us, as we trooped dutifully out of the bus and into the bitter wind. "For ten minutes," he added.

Ice wine vineyard Canada

Niagara winter vineyards, Andrew Jefford ©

He was exaggerating. It took just three or four to convince me that I’d be better off peeling potatoes, cleaning toilets or scrubbing ovens -- provided there were four walls and a roof separating me from the implacable Canadian winter.  

The problem is that so little movement is required in cutting bunches from vines. I took a dusk walk along the high left bank of the Niagara river a day or two later. At a brisk semi-jog, the snow-blown path through bare, shrieking trees felt almost comfortable. Stop, though, to gaze at the curds of ice scudding along the great grey river, and you’ll soon begin to sense the mortuary attendants tugging you gently by the sleeve.

Berti is Vice President of one of Ontario’s two biggest icewine producers, Andrew Peller. Our harvest effort was, in fact, more ritual than real: it was only -4°C (“bikini weather for icewine” according to grower Trevor Falk), and anyway almost everything had been picked in December this year. Falk did four hours on Christmas morning. A temperature of -8°C is the legal minimum for icewine harvesting, and -10°C is ideal. (The ‘polar vortex’ conditions of early January -- -22°C  on the Niagara peninsula and colder still in Ontario’s other regions – would deliver un-pressable bullets.)  Happiest news of all for near-hairless harvesting mammals is that most of the Canadian icewine harvest is now done by machine. An almost frozen berry in the dead heart of winter is much more difficult to damage, in fact, than a tenderly ripe one in late summer warmth.

“The best ever vintage for icewine? We just had it,” said Charlie Pillitteri, whose family company is a leading producer on the Niagara Peninsula (Canada can, in some vintages, make 80 per cent of the world’s icewine, the vast majority of it in Niagara). “I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and we’ve never had an icewine vintage to match 2013.  Early cold, good fruit, lovely acidity, alcohol in perfect balance; we haven’t closed our doors for three weeks. We’ve been pressing a lot of juice.” Pressing, in fact, is the pinch point in the whole process, as it can’t be rushed. I’ve never stood in a winery reception area surrounded by 19 small basket presses before, as I did at Trevor Falk’s – and each press has two baskets, to avoid wasting time in evacuating the marc.

Something else which went well this year was the gradual descent to the requisite temperatures – a series of repeated minor freezes and thaws helps with the concentration process. Courting botrytis on the humid Niagara Peninsula, though, is risky; most try to avoid it. “Ours is bad botrytis, mushy botrytis,” pointed out winemaker Angelo Pavan at Cave Spring Cellars. “It can drag the wine down very quickly.” In any case, around 80 per cent of the fruit left on the vines to make icewine in Ontario is Vidal (a complex hybrid, one parent of which is Trebbiano/Ugni Blanc), and Vidal has skins as thick as any politician’s, so it’s not botrytis-prone.

How good is Canada’s icewine? Much of the question hinges around how you feel about Vidal. I didn’t try a single icewine in Canada which was less than delicious, but those whose palates are attuned to Riesling might find the toffee-apple, tarte tatin, brandy-snap, treacle fudge or ice-cream sundae exuberance of Vidal a little laid-back and cruisy. Wine debutants love it.  

The acid balance in German Riesling eiswein, of course, means that sipping them can sometimes feel like sword-swallowing. Vidal will never ask you to perform this trick, even though producers often add up to 4 g/l tartaric acid to stiffen the wines’ spines. Instead, enjoy its adaptability – oak-aged versions can taste like a soft-hearted Tokaji-Sauternes cross (Peller has a good one), while the sparkling icewine produced by Inniskillen is improbably good, too. The best all-out icewine I tasted in five cold days was, for the record, Cave Spring’s magnificent 2008 Riesling: deep, concentrated and authoritative, freighted with fruit allusions from mango and pineapple all the way to green apple and quince, yet layered with cream, too. Less electrically jolting than a Mosel classic, but perhaps richer in pure sensual allure.

There’s more to Ontario than icewine, by the way, as I’ll be describing here and in Decanter magazine over the next few months: unfrozen Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc can all, nowadays, be impressive – in a discreetly understated and thoroughly gastronomic manner. Canadian marketing ingenuity with icewine knows few bounds, and almost every variety is used by someone or other in this way (Pillitteri made icewine from nine different varieties in 2013). The meteorological setbacks, though, are manifold. No sooner had Ontarians harvested their outstanding icewine crop than along comes the polar vortex to kill off up to 40 per cent of the buds for 2014, and perhaps vines themselves in the worst-affected zones. As Ontarian sommelier Peter Boyd told me, “we live and die from vintage to vintage here.”
    

Jefford on Monday

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Award-winning writer Andrew Jefford's Monday column on Decanter.com

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