Icewine Revelations

Niagara on the Lakes Icewine Street Festival

With the Niagara Icewine Festival in full swing in Niagara through Sunday, January 29, three WineAlign critics shed light on the uses of Ontario’s great under-appreciated treasure.  Some will surprise you! 

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Savour this! More than Dessert Wine

By John Szabo MS

If your main use for icewine is as an impressive gift for visiting relatives, or to fill the bottom, dust-filled rungs of your wine cellar until that ‘special occasion’ arises, here’s a thought: try it with dinner tonight. Even if you don’t normally have dessert. In fact, especially if you don’t normally have dessert. I’m talking about serving it with the savory courses, not the sweet.

I’m not crazy; most of us have just forgotten how and when to enjoy sweet wines; they’re not just for dessert, you know. Visit a top châteaux in Bordeaux’s famed Sauternes region, or Tokaj or Germany, and you’ll be served sweet, golden wines alongside everything from fresh oysters to roast chicken to pork tenderloin to blue cheese to, of course, desserts.

The general reticence to pull out sweet wines for anything other than the sweet course, if at all, means we’re losing out on an array of simply amazing food and wine pairing experiences. Sweet wines can be marvelous matches for an astonishing array of dishes, the residual sugar a perfect foil for many savory and spicy elements, especially when purposefully crafted by the chef to work.

Ontario's Iced Treasure

The Wine Council of Ontario recently set out to re-prove just that, showcasing Icewine and the talents of Jason Parsons, the highly experienced executive chef of Peller Estates. The starting point for success, according to Parsons, is to consider the Icewine as a complementary element: “Don’t try to balance the dish in the kitchen – let the wine add the finishing touch.” In other words, let the wine will take the place of the glaze, the garnish, the vinaigrette, whatever that final element that would bring everything on the plate together. “It’s about balance, balance, balance”, he says.

Nine tapas-sized courses were served over lunch with multiple wines and the illuminating combinations were numerous. The mixed endive salad with blue cheese crumble and frisée salad with candied salmon and French beans with bacon and almond dressing were both studies in bitter-sweet, literally. The distinctively bitter tinge of both frisée and endive works brilliantly with sweet wine, which takes the place of the customary sweet vinaigrette served with such salads.

Blue cheese and sweet is another classic match: intense, salty flavours tamed by the sweet and acid taste of the wine. Also intriguing was the way in which the candied salmon seemed less sweet after a sip of wine, the two counterbalancing each other and allowing the intrinsic flavours of both to shine.

Other winning combinations revolved around spice. As addicts know, the only way to tame the heat of capsaicin – the active piquant component of innumerable types of chili peppers – is with sweetness. So, duck confit with curried squash purée and mostarda, slow cooked Iberico pork cheek with chili-apple braised radish and spiced apple-celery salad, and seared scallop with chili butter honey glaze provided perfect canvasses for Icewine. Not only did sweetness take the sting out of the chilies, but also allowed the flavours of the spices to come to the fore. Cinnamon, turmeric, cumin, 5-spice, star anise, clove, peppercorn and all the nuances of the various types of peppers themselves emerged on the palate with greater clarity and precision.

Rich, fatty cuts of beef, sweet and sour dishes (think Chinese-style sweet and sour chicken/pork), implicitly sweet scallops and lobster, liver patés and foie gras… the savory food possiblities with icewine are broader than you might think.

And while admittedly a full menu served entirely with sweet wine is a little over the top, try experimenting with just one savoury dish-Icewine pairing on your next menu, and I bet you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

John’s Picks:

Sue-Ann Staff Estate Winery 2007 Riesling Icewine $50/375ml

Jackson-Triggs 2007 Grand Reserve Gewürztraminer Icewine $39.95/375ml

Château des Charmes 2009 Riesling Icewine Paul Bosc Estate Vineyard St. David’s Bench $65/375ml

Vineland Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 Icewine, Niagara Escarpment,  $41.90/375ml

2008 Strewn Cabernet Franc Icewine, Niagara-on-the-Lake $59.95 /375ml (with gift box)

Sara d'Amato

Sara d'Amato

Icewine with Dessert? No Piece of Cake

By Sara D’Amato

Admittedly, I am an Icewine hoarder. I don’t mean to be but I cannot help myself. Over the years I have received numerous gifts of Icewine as well as amassed some myself after many a persuasive tasting in our local wine country. This is not such a terrible to position to be in and a very first world type of problem, I know. However, like many of you with bottles of this delectable treat to spare, it is hard to fit it in to your daily life. With such a luxurious repute, opening a bottle seems almost unconscionable unless a celebration is at hand. Consider it a New Year’s resolution, therefore, that Icewine need not be stashed away, forgotten, for a rainy day, as its relationship with food is incredibly versatile.

At the Wine Country Ontario tasting, we were all treated to a seemingly decadent pairing which focused on three possible avenues of food matching with Icewine: Savory, Spicy and Sweet. As John had mentioned, the most surprising matches were those contrasting savory and spicy courses. Contrasting food and wine matches are easily the most challenging ones to perform but are undeniably the most rewarding. Next time you are at your favorite restaurant, I dare you to ask the sommelier to pair your meal with Icewine. The sommelier will no doubt be thrilled for the challenge and you will certainly be rewarded for your intrepidity.

As I have discovered over the years, in the hands of many a well-intentioned professional and novice alike, Icewine tends to find its way to the end of a meal. This gravitation is due to a simple and transparent connection between sweet and the conclusion of a meal. Sweet wine with sweet food is natural and easily comprehended, at least, much more so than the synergy of spicy and sweet which is more difficult to get your head around. Counter-intuitively, however, sweet with sweet can be very difficult to get right. The sweet of the dish competes with, and can take away from, the natural sweetness of the Icewine. The result can yield surprisingly jarring matches.

I recall very vividly an incident where an irreproachable pastry Chef decided to add a garnish of candied mint to a dessert I had paired with Icewine; that single sweet flourish was so unfortunately destructive to the wine pairing that we were forced to pick every sugary piece off the plates as they were whisked into the dining room. After several such failed matches, I have tended to stay away from the Icewine and dessert combinations and rather focused on the more rewarding, savory option.

To my great delight, however, the Chef De Cuisine of Sopra Derek VonRaesfeld took the sweet-on-sweet challenge head-on, and laid out three perfectly matched desserts for our Icewine flight: German Apple Cake with Salted Icewine Caramel, French Toast style Panettone with Vanilla Roasted Pineapple and Crème Fraiche and Icewine poached Pear with Dulce de Latte & Mascarpone. These most surprising matches cured me of my sweet-on-sweet trepidations and re-focused my attention on such possibilities.

A few tips to take away from this experience: firstly, the addition of savory notes such as salted caramel in a dessert can not only balance the dish better but also give the pairing with Icewine a much-needed element of tension.  Secondly, the addition of a fatty, creamy element such as Mascarpone or Crème Fraiche gives the Icewine further grip on the dish and mercifully tempers the sweetness of combination. Finally, roasted or otherwise cooked fruit such as the poached pear and roasted pineapple caramelize the sweetness in the fruit and seems to enhance the sensuality of the Icewine and creates a delectable mouthfeel.

Sara’s Picks

Mountain Road Wine Company 1999 Vidal Icewine, Niagara Peninsula, $39.95/375ml

Tawse Riesling 2009 Icewine, Niagara Peninsula  $34.95/375ml

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

Sipping Icewine Solo
by David Lawrason

I was as impressed and surprised as John and Sara by the icewine food pairings carried off at the Wine Council event at Sopra.  Over three flights of three wines and three dishes we had the opportunity to try 27 different pairings!  And that was after another nine icewines without food.

It was this part of the tasting that most captivated me – the amazing diversity in the glass; the sheer elegance of the majority of the wines, and the accompanying commentary by winemaker Sue-Ann Staff. When she introduced herself as the Ice Queen we knew we were in for an interesting time. She now makes her own icewine at Sue Anne Staff winery, but as the winemaker who put Pillitteri on the map in the 90s as the world’s largest family owned icewine producer she has had considerable experience in this sticky field.

The first revelation of the tasting was that I quickly forgot all about the sweetness. Other elements like balance, complexity and depth of flavour grabbed my intention and drew me deep into glass after glass. As with any wine style, it is these more measurable elements that define quality. Ontario icewine, when well rendered, is very high quality wine folks; and very often deserving of those 90+ scores that you see. In fact, I think that many local critics under-score Ontario icewine because they don’t want to appear to be biased in its favour.  I left this tasting thrilled by the tasting experience.

Sue-Ann Staff rolls out the barrel at icewine festivities

I also carried away a new appreciation of the difficulty of producing icewine. Without repeating the entire winemaking process, it was intriguing to hear Sue-Ann discuss problems of harvesting and pressing in a continuous process (the grapes can’t be allowed to thaw, and the pressure to render juice from the frozen grapes is three times the pressure in a car tire). Then there is the difficulty of the very long fermentation averaging three to six months, and as long as nine months.  You can imagine those gucked up filter pads after straining a fluid that is about 30% sugar.  And how about those tall, skinny bottles that tip over and domino on the bottling line? (By the way, I think it’s time Ontario considered a standardized, modernized icewine bottle that becomes a logo for the entire industry, and is much easier to handle and store).

I leave you with a reminder that Ontario is the world’s largest producer of icewine, and that it is much more widely appreciated abroad than it is at home.  We have, in a way only spoiled Canadians can, become blasé about a national treasure. So whether sitting down to a winter meal, unwrapping some wonderful, characterful cheese, creating a fine dessert, or simply sipping by the fire – it’s January, and time to give icewine another try.

David’s Picks

Stratus 2010 Red Icewine,  Niagara Peninsula  $39.95/200ml

Cave Spring 2008 Riesling Icewine, Niagara Peninsula  $49.95/375ml