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Icewine from Canada can warm the soul

If you never thought of Ontario as prime wine country, you haven't tasted the vintage that winter calls its own.

By CHRIS SHERMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 7, 2001


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[Times photo]
Fine wine from Canada? If it’s icewine, you’d better believe it. Try this Inniskillin.
For today's lesson on wine geography let us turn our attention north to the lovely vineyards of . . . Canada.

Okay, take a minute and get the MacKenzie brothers out of your system.

"What do a couple of hosers do for a cold one when we run out of brewskis in the middle of winter, eh?"

"We go out and pick the grapes when they're frozen, eh?"

As a matter of fact, they do.

Well, not all Canadian wines, just the best, the gloriously honey-sweet icewine of Ontario, a "cold one" of extravagant price and extreme sophistication. So ditch the jokes.

Icewine grapes are picked during Christmas week or later, when the temperature has been less than 20 degrees long enough to freeze the fruit solid. To make sure they grapes are cold enough, most of the picking is done at night. When the grapes get to the winery, the doors are left open to prevent any wimpy warmth from sneaking in.

That way, when the grapes are pressed, most of the water remains frozen in ice crystals. What comes out is a juice with a high proportion of sugar that will become, over time, world-class dessert wine, in a class with great German wines, including the Eiswein that inspired it.

Canada has grown grapes and made wine for centuries, but it has attracted interest and respect from outsiders only in the past 10 years.

Vineyards in British Columbia, especially the Okanagan Valley, seem a logical extension of the success of Pacific Northwest wineries on the U.S. side of the border. Yet Canada's greatest triumph has been in the vineyard areas of Ontario that line the Great Lakes between Buffalo, N.Y., and Detroit.

Tampa Bay area wine lovers discovered fine wine from Canada at the Einstein on Wine benefit at the Museum of Science and Industry in Tampa, where the icewines of Inniskillin made their local debut last month. (The icewines are slowly being introduced in fine wine stores and upscale restaurants. Inniskillin's pinot noir, chardonnay and other dry wines are not now sold here.)

It's no news to Canadians, but to many U.S. wine drinkers, the discovery is worth a "Eureka!" Inniskillin makes four icewines that taste as if whole treeloads of fruit had been cryogenically frozen and then restored to their ripest. For a Canadian product they are surprisingly tropical; most smell and taste of mangoes, although the sparkler tastes like a Georgia peach that somehow bubbles. Yet the wines also have a crisp acidity that gives them a cool, clean edge.

The best was a 1997 icewine aged in oak that concentrated the honey and vanilla flavors and combined them with melons and apricots, intensely syrupy in taste yet silky cool and elegant in texture.

More remarkable is that Canada's finest icewines are not made from Riesling, the noble grape of Germany's best. They are made from the Vidal grape, a Franco-American hybrid that usually makes dull dry wine in the Midwest and Northeast. Inniskillin's Riesling icewine has plenty of flavor but lacks the richness of its three Vidal ice wines -- regular, sparkling, oak-aged.

Prices range from $50 to $90 for a 375 ml half-bottle of icewine (still less expensive than German Eisweins), and Georg Riedel, the Austrian winemaker, last year created a special diamond-shaped glass solely for tasting and drinking icewine.

While Inniskillin is one of the first Canadian wines seen here, and one of the country's best, it is not the only one. Another two dozen in the Niagara and Lake Erie zones make fine wines, especially icewines from Vidal as well as from Riesling, Cabernet Franc and a few other grapes.

Like winemakers in other neglected areas, Canadians are quick to unroll maps to show doubters they are in the same latitudes as the famous grape regions of France and Germany. Yet even if Ontario's vineyards are arguably closer to Tuscany's (and south of Washington State), it's the cold climate and hard winter chills that make the wine.

Summers are hot and short, so grapes ripen quickly and can be picked as early as September, but for icewine they are deliberately left in the field, covered with netting to protect them from scavenging birds, to wait for a late harvest.

Unlike most late-harvest wines, icewines in Canada and Eiswein in Germany are produced not so much by botrytis, or "noble rot," as by the freezing. Grapes picked in the peak of winter may contain as much as 43 percent sugar at harvest.

Leaving ripe grapes in the field allows birds to feast for months and lets winds rob the vines of their fragile fruit. By the picking time, the vineyard may have only a tenth of the grapes it originally bore, and the fruit is often so fragile it must be picked by hand, which accounts for the extremely high cost.

Icewine is best chilled and served with the same sort of light, simple desserts that one would serve with a Sauterne. Or by itself, as pure and sweet as a Canadian winter can taste in Florida.

Einstein on Wine offered some promising tastes beyond icewine:

1997 ITALIANS: The heralded vintage shows beautifully in reds from the Veneto as well as Piedmont and Tuscany. Dogale '97 amarone tastes like chocolate cake; the '97 ripasso is just as full with cherries on top.

LADY OF SPAIN: Hidalgo's La Gitana, a rare manzanilla sherry, was so delicate and fresh you could taste the salty breeze off the ocean.

CHARDONNAY COMEBACK: If you were bored with chard, try the creamy '99 Columbia Crest Grand Estate from Washington, the smooth '99 Montes Alpha from Chile, or lush '99 Franciscan from California.

RED-BLOODED FUN: Best cabernet sauvignon was the '97 Lake Sonoma, a smoky blend with merlot and petite syrah; good now, better later. Best non-cab was The Zin from Cosentino, a full, rich zinfandel to go with a big steak -- or instead of one.

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