Vidal grapes hanging in nets at Inniskillin
I'm riding in the back of a car, heading down a country road, looking out the window on a gray, overcast afternoon. I've just landed in Buffalo, NY, and am speeding toward the famed Niagara Peninsula, home to one of Canada's premier wine-growing regions, and site of this week's annual Ice Wine Festival. The scenery reminds me of a distant field near Kenosha; flat fields are pockmarked with chunks of snow. Farmhouses and corrugated metal sheds dot the landscape.‚ There's an old wooden barn and a Donut Diner off to the side of the road. Signs bekon tourists with tastings and dinners at places like Hillebrand and Jackson-Triggs.‚ But the big difference here is that instead of fallow fields highlighted by dusty corn and soybeans, the farmland is instead covered with vines. Grape vines.
Two bottles of Inniskillin ice wine
You would think the term "wine country" would imply rolling hills, a la Napa Valley, but in fact, the geographic position of the Peninsula makes it ideally suited to growing wine, and yet there are no mountains or massive valleys. We are just East of Lake Erie, adjacent to the Niagara River and a shade South of Lake Ontario.‚ Talk about "lake effect" weather. The Peninsula is already a prodigious fruit producer in the summertime.‚ But in 1975, winemakers at Inniskillin Vineyards here also began planting vidal grapes - the primary varietal used to produce ice wine - and the region hasn't been the same since. Locals will tell you that there are also plenty of great dry wines here - pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay - but ever since Inniskillin started winning awards for its ice wine, the rest of the region has also begun to rapidly plant and harvest their own versions. Looked at from a global perspective, this region is to ice wine what Chicago is to deep dish.
What is ice wine?‚ Essentially, it's when growers leave the grapes on the vines well past the usual harvest. Typically, the grapes are harvested from late November through late February. But they don't just go outside to pick when they feel like it. The temperature must hover around 14 degrees for two nights in a row before they'll pick, and when they do, it has to happen at night, when the temperature is coldest. Why do they wait this long? Because by the time December and January roll around, the grapes have not only frozen on the vine, but they've also concentrated their flavors. The result of a cold press at this time of the year means an intensely sweet, yet balanced acidity; a complex wine without making you cringe.
A glass of the oak-aged, '07 vidal ice wine from Inniskillin
While vidal is the main player here in the ice wine category, I've also seen riesling, cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon and even gewurtztraminer ice wines, most of which, incidentally, are aged in stainless steel.‚ One of the reasons the wine is so expensive is both its low-yield (grapes shrivel, fall to the ground or dehydrate) and also because it's incredibly labor-intensive: the vines must be wrapped in netting to protect them from the ravenous birds, and then must be uncovered and hand-picked at 2 or 3 a.m.
The wines are perfectly-suited to complement dessert, much as French sauternes or Hungarian tokajis do.‚ At the Inniskillin vineyard, I tasted a sublime '07 vidal ice wine that had been aged in French oak, smelled like tropical fruit and tasted as if liquid apricots and pineapples were dancing on my tongue and down my throat.‚ Oh, if I only had a handful of sweet madeleines or an apricot charlotte or an autumnal fruit tart to taste along with it!‚ These wines are fine to sip by themselves - although one of the rieslings I tasted from the Konzelmann vineyards came off as almost cloyingly sweet, too overpowering; I would prefer sipping them with either a suitable dessert, a cheese course or even some slightly spicy Thai food.
Enjoying some ice wine at the Ice Wine Festival
In Chicago, here's what I found for labels and prices:
Inniskillin in 375 ml (half bottles)
Cabernet Franc (red grape) - $89.99
Vidal Grape (white grape) - $49.99
Riesling (white grape) - $69.99
Jackson-Triggs (187 ml bottles)
Vidal Grape - $19.99
Mission Hill (currently out of stock)
Chardonnay - $23.99
SLC (Select Lot Collection) Riesling - $24.99
Wine Discount Center (Only Barrington location has ice wines in stock)
Inniskillin (375 ml) riesling - $67.99