There’s a richness in our Niagara soil and a warmth in the air that produces some of the finest grapes in the world – and some of the best wines. Sharing the same latitude with the wine-growing regions of France, Italy, Germany and Northern California, Niagara is home to more than 80 wineries – and they’re all eager to throw open their doors to visitors wanting to tour and sample.
Reisling, Chardonnay, Shiraz, Baco Noir…Niagara produces wonderful wines of every variety but is best known around the world for one that has become synonymous with our region – ice wine.
To produce this pricey delicacy, grapes are left to linger on the vines long after the rest of the harvest has been completed. Covered with fine netting to ward off marauding birds and animals, the fruit repeatedly freezes and thaws, becoming dehydrated. This process concentrates the acids and sugars and greatly adds to the complexity of the wine they will become. Ice wine grapes are picked entirely by hand, after the temperature has settled between 10C-13C below, and are pressed immediately. Because the grapes are pressed while still frozen, the water in the fruit remains in the form of ice crystals in the skins. Only a tiny, highly concentrated drop of juice is actually squeezed out to become ice wine – approximately one-fifth of the juice a normal grape would produce. While a vine of grapes is normally enough to produce a whole bottle of wine, you’ll get just a single glass from the same number of ice wine grapes.
Although there’s some evidence that the Romans sipped a wine made from frozen grapes, the ice wine tradition began in earnest in Franconia, Germany in the late 1700’s when the sudden onset of a cold winter froze grapes on the vine, forcing the startled winemakers to work with what nature had produced or lose the harvest altogether. That happy cold snap produced wine so delicious that as years passed, winemakers made sure to leave some grapes to freeze. Today, Germany and Canada are the largest producers of ice wine in the world, with 75 percent of Canada’s contributions coming from Ontario.
According to the experts, the best ice wine should be intensely sweet with hints of mango, peach and tropical fruits, but with a clean, dry finish and a nose that suggests lychee nuts. Typically made from Vidal Blanc, Seyval Blanc, and Reisling grapes, ice wine can also be created using Cabernet Franc, which produces a light pink colour, like a Rosé wine.
If you’d like to sample the chilly fruits of the frozen vine, there’s no better time than during the Niagara Ice wine Festival, which runs this year from January 13-29, with events in both Jordan and Niagara-on-the-Lake. At this time of year, it’s the only way that ice is nice! Visit www.icewinefestival.com for the sweet details.