Icewine’s Moment in the Sun (and Rain and Snow)

The Niagara Icewine Festival and the Quebec Icewine Controversy
By David Lawrason

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

For almost 20 years the Niagara Wine Festivals organization has been running a January Icewine Festival. The synchronicity of this notion is too good not to exploit; and the Festival has grown to become a massive three-weekend event attracting local and international visitors. I attended the swish but rather low energy gala this year at the Fallsview Casino in Niagara Falls (complete with stunning sweets display), then on a soggy Saturday afternoon I joined hundreds under the tents on the main street of Jordan to sample the icewine wares of wineries on “The Bench”.

This Saturday and Sunday the wineries of Niagara-on-the-Lake get their turn when the main street of their town will be turned into an outdoor grazing and sipping ground. The weather forecast as I write this is minus six with snow. Perfect! If you want to purchase tickets to this in advance or buy a passport to countless winery events go to The Festival wraps up after Winter Fest in the Square in St. Catharines on January 25, and a charity winemaker’s hockey game.

Niagara Icewine FestivalAs a bit of a purist focused on what’s in the bottle and glass, I was troubled by some aspects of the Festival, including lack of spittoons for guests who might want to sample and not drink. But my main complaint was that there wasn’t enough emphasis on the star of the show, the frozen raisin d’etre (as it were) – icewine. All but a couple of the wineries poured icewine, but only one icewine apiece, while three or four other table wines took up space and attention.

Is the idea here to cater to the fancy of every guest (fashion shows, blues bands, cooking demos) or is it to actually get more people appreciating icewine? Because everywhere I go – at least in Canada – people are saying they don’t drink it. Too sweet, too expensive, too much the same – you name it.  And the refrain has been thus for years, despite festivals, media tastings and pairing dinners.

Maybe this festival needs to become an international sweet wine event – as has happened for chardonnay with the International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration. Invite sweet wine producers from France, Germany, Austria, Hungary, South Africa and wherever to a Canadian SweetFest, and provide some context for how good our icewines can be and where they fit in the world. The rest of the world seems to know this, but here at home we don’t.

Niagara Icewine FestivalOn Saturday afternoon in Jordan I did what I would have thought was expected of most guests – I tasted every icewine in the place. And I had fun doing so. After the palate adjusts to sweetness (after two or three sips) sugar disappears as the focus, and you can hone in on the nuances of each wine. This is where things get fascinating; and where I gained some insights into the state of icewine nation. (In this kind of setting I do not attempt to make review quality notes, thus the wines I mention do not have my reviews on WineAlign, but I’ve provided the links so that you can still shop for them).

The first observation was the huge diversity in styles on displays – young and old, red and white, from at least five different grape varieties. Clearly not all icewines are the same, and maybe producers need to begin talking up those differences. As I tasted a very delicate, fresh Calamus 2011 Cabernet Franc Icewine ($32.10/200 mL) the young man pouring it made the point that Calamus is intentionally trying to make a less powerful style. I am delighted to see some stylistic consideration being undertaken.

The overall presence of red icewines – six out of 21 poured – was another notable feature. I found the quality a bit more variable, with some of them being simple, jammy and low acid affairs. But one or two rose to the top – especially the very precisely nuanced Tawse 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon ($35/200 mL) that had very good varietal character.  This, plus the Foreign Affair 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon ($34.95/200 mL) showed more acid verve than any of the cabernet franc icewines.

Niagara Icewine FestivalThree wineries at the Jordan event poured gewürztraminer icewine, a more difficult variety to convert to successful icewine because its natural acidity is lower. Malivoire 2012 Gewurztraminer ($29.95/200 mL) was the best of the three; quite soft but genteel while maintaining some freshness and a touch of spice. Freezing the berries and transforming them to wine through long, slow fermentation does reduce the varietal character of most grapes.

Several wineries were pouring older icewines, which I found fascinating. It was difficult to tell whether they were simply trying to move slow-selling back vintages, or genuinely trying to display agedness; but I found this group to be the most interesting of all. And by the way, the cooler higher acid vintages like 2008 and 2006 were very good icewine vintages for the acidity they provided.

I admired the more complex honey, marmalade and waxy character in most older examples, led by the riveting, intense, good value Angels Gate 2008 Riesling ($29.95/375 mL).  It was neck in neck with the excellent, refined and pure Cave Spring 2008 Riesling that cost $20 more ($49/375 mL).  DeSousa 2006 Vidal (on sale at $17.95/375 mL) was a bit of a wild thing but it had almost excruciating acidity and bitterness mindful of Hungarian Tokaji.

I also found that the vidal versus riesling icewine differences generally held up, with vidals tending to be more powerful and less refined than riesling. There were excellent examples of both on display. Henry of Pelham 2012 Riesling ($50/375 mL) was linear and precise if not yet showing much complexity. Its closest competition in young vidal was the Vieni 2011 Vidal ($39.95/375 mL), a powerful, thick less elegant but riveting wine. When you want sheer impact, vidal is it!

The Quebec Icewine Debate

The January 13 issue of Maclean’s magazine has a well-written double-page article entitled “They are Picking on Quebec: New Rules Touch off a war over icewine. National vintner unity is at stake”. Despite Maclean’s common use of hyperbole, this piece rightly inflames a long-standing sore spot preventing the establishment of national wine standards in Canada. And in my view it is the intransigence and almost sanctimonious stance of Ontario’s VQA establishment that is holding things back.

In Quebec, icewine producers pick their grapes after the first autumn frost halts photosynthesis and further vine-fed development of the grapes. They put those grapes into net “hammocks” strung across the top of the vines, and they leave them there until they freeze. They do this because the deep snows of Quebec would bury and desiccate the grapes if left hanging on the vine.

Ontario dictates under its VQA regulations that the grapes must be left hanging on the vine, as is  also standard practice in other ice wine producing regions like Germany and Austria. And Ontario is not willing to allow Quebec to make an exception to this practice if it joins a national icewine standards program.

Rightly, the stipulation was made early on in the 1988 drafting of VQA regulation to prevent wineries picking healthy grapes and putting them into freezers that could crank out huge volumes of icewine of questionable quality and provenance.

But Ontario did not account for Quebec’s practice, which may or may not have actually been used in 1988.

To me it would seem a matter to be decided by pure science, and Quebec argues that putting the grapes into hammocks strung in the vineyard weathers them just like grapes hanging on the vine, and creates no physiological or quality differences. Ontario disagrees, with one Ontario vintner claiming that removing the grapes from the vine breaks “a psychological connection, like keeping a mother and child from being together”.

To Ontario I would say – prove that. Or get out of the way and behave like Canadians, recognizing that different parts of the country have different geographical features and challenges, and that we need national regulations that recognize this in order to take our place as a wine exporting nation playing on the global stage – which will be good for all.

Ontario’s VQA regulations were devised during an era of youthful insecurity to be as stringent (and Euro-like) as possible. The past 25 years have proven Canada has a much broader wine potential than first envisioned by a small group of Niagara vintners. It’s time to bend – and re-examine some of the VQA precepts.

Photos courtesy of Niagara Wine Festival