This week we consider the virtues of icewine, a rival to sauternes for the title of the world’s best dessert wine. Both drinks are super sweet and well suited to Chinese food, though icewine is not as well known in this country as the French delight.
Icewine is winter’s gift to wine lovers. That is because winter plays a major role in the wine’s production. Most icewine comes from northern hemisphere nations, with Canada the best-known producer.
Grapes ripen on the vine in October. But they are left untouched until Canada’s full winter some months later. Winter sucks water from the grapes and concentrates the flavors.
At minus 10C the grapes freeze solid. When harvested – by hand and usually at night – the yield is perhaps 10 per cent of normal. Most of the water is left behind as crystals during the pressing.
Canada’s quality control board, the Vintner’s Quality Alliance or VQA, regulates production of icewine. Artificial freezing of the grapes is prohibited.
Inniskillin was the first winery licensed in Ontario in Canada since prohibition in the 1920s when alcohol sales were banned. The two key people behind Inniskillin were Karl Kaiser, an Austrian-born chemist, and Donald Ziraldo, an Italian Canadian agriculture graduate.
While tasting Ontario wines in the early 1970s they saw a gap in the premium market. To ensure they had the best grapes for icewine – including riesling, chardonnay and gamay – they planted around the Niagara region.
Kaiser produced his first icewine in 1984. Seven years later Inniskillin’s Vidal icewine won a grand prize at Vinexpo in Bordeaux, one of the world’s best wine shows. The winery has been famous since.
This month I tried the 2004 Inniskillin. It is delicious, with intense aromas and flavors of apricots and oranges, and long-lasting sweetness in the mouth. The length is extreme: Flavors seemed to stay in the mouth for ages, like the memory of one’s first passionate kiss.
During the ageing process, the wine’s naturally concentrated acidity helps to maintain the wine’s structure and balance. Sweetness without acidity is boring. The two attributes need to work together for great wine. This is a great wine, to rival sauternes from the Bordeaux region.
As they age, icewines tend to develop complexity and depth, and offer a wider range of aromatics. Icewines also darken to a deep yellow/honey as they age. The 2004 edition is drinking perfectly now, but it will also last for another decade.
The wine comes in 375 ml bottles and it requires extreme self-control not to consume the entire bottle. Such is the concentration of flavors that one small bottle will serve eight to nine people.
If handled and stored correctly, icewines will also increase in value. It should be carefully combined with the right food. Icewines should not be paired with food that is sweeter than the wine. It is one of the few wines that pairs well with chocolate. It is also relatively low in alcohol (10 per cent), making it a good way to finish a meal.
Inniskillin is a world leader in icewine production. It is sold in more than 59 countries and it can be purchased in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou or via the ASC web site: http://www.asc-wines.com/
* “A winter gift for those who love wine” in China Daily, 22 October 2011, page 12. Find a link here.