Buyer’s Guide to VINTAGES January 21 Release

John Szabo’s VINTAGES Preview January 21: Top California, As Voted by You; Icewine at the Table, Best 2018 Brunellos, Refreshing Aussie Reds and How to Prune a Grapevine

By John Szabo, MS, with notes from David Lawrason, Michael Godel, Sara d’Amato and Megha Jandhyala

We’ve got plenty of coverage for you in this report, featuring the January 21 VINTAGES release and its California theme. And on California, while we don’t really have much to get excited enough about in this release to recommend, I thought you might be interested to know which Sunshine State wines are the most popular in Ontario. Read on to see if any of your favorites are others’ favorites as well, though note that these are not necessarily WineAlign recommendations.


Niagara Icewine Festival

Fireworks in the Niagara Gorge under the Horseshoe Falls during the “Cool as Ice” Gala soiree at the newly refurbished (decommissioned) Niagara Power Station ©John Szabo

And speaking of truly out-of-the-closet sweet wines, January is Icewine month in Ontario wine country, even if this winter so far has not felt particularly icy. Stratus winemaker Dean Stoyka reports having picked two acres of riesling for Icewine during the freakish blizzard that hit parts of the province on December 23. “It was very worth it considering the yield we were able to achieve before the three-week thaw after that,” he said.

That’s certainly dedication to Canada’s most unique wine style, and with the Weather Network forecasting the “warmest winter on record” for eastern Canada — Toronto may average above zero for the first time ever — that may have turned out to be a prescient move. Yet on January 14, fittingly the night of the Icewine gala, temperatures dropped again to -10°C, allowing winemakers who weren’t at the event to pick Icewine grapes.

Icewine harvest 2022 at Stratus. Credit: Dean Stoyka

By law, the temperature must be -8°C or lower to pick icewine grapes, though most wineries wait for even colder temperatures. In their frozen state, the minute amount of juice that can be squeezed out of the grapes easily achieves the minimum required sugar content, also set by VQA laws, and in the end, most Icewines finish with around 9 to 10 percent alcohol, and often over 200 grams of residual sugar per liter (20 percent sugar). But the freezing also concentrates acids, which, in the best examples, serves to balance the sweetness, and lend a tangy, acidulated profile that almost makes them seem dry on the finish. It also makes Icewine more versatile at the table than you might think, and as the WinerAlign Crü was recently reminded.

Last weekend on that icy night, the Crü was invited down for the “Cool as Ice” gala, held this year for the first time at the newly refurbished Niagara Parks Power Station, now operated as a museum and a rather cool event space. Built in 1905, the station decommissioned in 1999. In the afternoon before the event, we sat down at the Hare Wine Co. near Niagara-on-the-Lake to taste 18 Icewines alongside three “flights” of food, trilogies of mini savoury, spicy and sweet dishes, prepared by Niagara chef Tim Mackiddie of Smoke and Barrel.

Not Only For Dessert

The main take away was that Icewine is not only for dessert, though it can of course complement many sweets beautifully, as evinced with chef’s twist on lemon meringue pie and a dark chocolate crèpe, the latter especially with a lovely cabernet sauvignon Icewine from Redstone. But savoury foods are also on the table when it comes to serving Icewine. Blue cheese is the textbook sweet-savoury pairing, the intense flavour and saltiness of the cheese coaxing every last drop of fruit out of the Icewine. But don’t limit yourself to only that experience. I was struck by the sweet-sour-spicy harmony and textural contrast between a dish of Korean fried chicken with icewine kimchi and a classic vidal Icewine, an elevated French Onion soup with a cabernet Icewine, and a delightfully minimalist pairing of east coast oysters in mignonette with riesling Icewine that brought me that much closer to the briny sea.

See the buyer’s guide below for the Crü’s picks of favorite Icewine and food pairings.

While you very likely may not wish to sip sweet wine throughout an entire meal, it’s worth experimenting with icewine alongside a dish or two during your next multi-course affair. You may be happily surprised.

In the meantime, get your inspiration from the pros: the Icewine Festival runs through the weekend of January 27–29. A “Discovery Pass” gets you six Icewine and culinary experiences designed by winemakers and chefs to celebrate Icewine in its multifaceted versatility, redeemable at more than 30 participating wineries across Niagara-on-the-Lake and Niagara Benchlands.

You can also stroll down Niagara-on-the-Lake’s historic Queen Street and take part in the celebrations, enjoying yet more culinary creations, music, shopping and sparkling ice sculptures. And don’t forget to try one of the many Icewine cocktails, yet another way to enjoy Canada’s most unique contribution to the world wine landscape.

Get more information and tickets.

Icewine & Food Pairing Masterclass at the Hare Wine Co., Niagara
©John Szabo

2018 Brunello di Montalcino Report & Buyer’s Guide:
Joyful, Fruity, Silky Wines for Immediate Pleasure

Vineyards, Castello di Romitorio ©John Szabo

After tasting close to 150 Brunellos from the 2018 vintage last November in Montalcino, arriving in markets now, the overarching conclusions are that the vintage will provide plenty of drinking pleasure over the near and mid-term. It’s not generally a year that needs decades in the cellar.

Read the full report.


The Art of Vine Pruning: Getting Schooled in Lake County, California

John Szabo pruning cabernet sauvignon in the Beckstoffer Crimson Ridge Vineyard, Lake County, under the watchful eyes of Jacopo Miolo of Simonit & Sirch. Credit: Nathan DeHart for Lake County Winegrape Commission

The most critical vineyard action takes place in the dormant season: pruning. Get it wrong, and your production drops, at best. At worst, you shorten the life of a vine and compromise wine quality, while also causing yourself more work in the summer. This past December I took a trip down to Lake County, California, to attend a two-day course on pruning, hosted by the Lake County Winegrape Commission and run by Simonit & Sirch, an Italian duo of “vine master pruners,” to get a first-hand look at how to properly prune a vine.

Read Why Proper Pruning is So Essential


Wine Thieves Podcast S3E1: Australia’s Refreshing Reds

The first episode of season three of our podcast features a look at one of the hottest wine trends down under: cool and fresh red wines from Australia. Once famous and still well-known for robust full-bodied, sunshine-filled jammy reds, today in Australia there’s serious momentum gathering for lighter styles of red wines with lower alcohol and fresher, less oaky flavours — ergo, higher drinkability. So, what is driving this trend? What should we be looking for and where?

The Thieves speak with Mac Forbes of Mac Forbes Wines in the Yarra Valley (his pinot noirs and chardonnays are especially sought-after) and Sam Berketa, head winemaker of the irreverent Alpha Box & Dice based in the McLaren Vale, with their alphabet soup of weird and wonderful, mostly Mediterranean, varieties.

Listen to the full episode.


Icewine Buyer’s Guide with Food Pairings

Cave Spring Riesling Icewine 2019

Cave Spring Riesling Icewine 2019, Niagara Peninsula, Ontario
$40.95/375 ml
David Lawrason – Great flavour intensity, riveting acidity and maxed sweetness are a given with Cave Spring’s exemplary riesling icewine. But layers with peach/mango fruit, orange notes, spice and some caramel add intrigue. Works well with spicy dishes, soothing heat while elevating flavours.  
Sara d’Amato – I would never have considered putting these two together but it’s so simple that I’ll be trying it next time I’m struck with urge to shuck. A counterintuitive match (the best kind), as Icewine should (in theory) be too viscous, sweet, and intense to pair with the delicate briny flavours of a raw oyster. Yet, because Cave Spring’s riesling Icewine is so nervy and extraordinarily high in acid (a reported 15.3 g/L total acidity), and the oyster gets a little dash of Icewine and yuzu in its salt water, the pairing is a notable success.
John Szabo – Gently maturing at this stage, lightly caramelized, inviting and complex, this is sweet but even more sour, with a fully acidulated finish that comes off almost like an off-dry table riesling. This makes it a surprisingly great foil for Malpeque oysters with Icewine and citrus mignonette, a shining example of salty-briny tastes harmonizing with sweet and sour. 245 g sugar, 9 percent alcohol. And a whopping 15.3 grams/l acid.
Michael Godel – Stars and acids through the proverbial roof with thanks to a November 14th harvest, earliest on record by what must be a long-shot. As unctuous and full-throttle expressive an Icewine from riesling that could ever be.

Pairing: Malpeque Oyster with icewine and Citrus Mignonette

Inniskillin Niagara Vidal Icewine 2019

Inniskillin Niagara Vidal Icewine 2019, Niagara Peninsula, Ontario
$49.95/375 ml
David Lawrason – One of Ontario’s most ubiquitous ice wines is also one of the best, with a certain brightness and purity in the lovely ripe pear, lemon and vanilla flavours. It is well rounded, balanced and fresh, and works best with simple fresh fruit-based desserts, especially those with lemon as a base.
Michael Godel – Utter classicism in vidal for Icewine of exotic character and true to form apple custard creaminess. Hard to beat as far as vidal is concerned when purposed to this category.
John Szabo – This Ontario original classic delivers impressively high concentration of fruit and sugars in 2019, also lovely, zesty acids which dry out and hold up the back end. Against the odds, it was an eerily good match with spicy Korean fried chicken and Icewine kimchi, the heat melted away by the sugars, the exotic spice mirrored and amplified by the wine. 270 grams per liter of residual sugar, 9.5 percent, 10.5 TA.

Pairing: Nashville Hot Chicken Sandwich with Bread and Butter Pickles

Queenston Mile 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon Icewine, Niagara Peninsula, Ontario
$65/375 ml
David Lawrason – Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon make less sweet, more savoury ice wines in Ontario, an ace in the hole when it comes to pairing with less sweet desserts, dark chocolate, and savoury non-sweet dishes. This pale, curranty, herbal, not to sweet example was a great match with dry rub chicken wings that harbored some cayenne pepper.

Vineland Estates Vidal Icewine 2017

Vineland Estates 2017 Vidal icewine, Niagara Peninsula
$48/375 ml
Sara d’Amato – Caramelized onion and sweet vidal is one of my favourite discoveries of this Icewine pairing masterclass. An inspired and complementary match, the sweet and savouriness of the onion as well as the sharpness of the cheddar amplify the caramel and bruléed peach in this unctuous icewine.

Pairing: French Onion Soup with Aged Cheddar and Sourdough Crouton

Lakeview Cellars Gewürztraminer Icewine 2019

Lakeview Wine Co. 2019 Gewürztraminer Icewine, Niagara Peninsula
$34.95/375 ml
Sara d’Amato – Generally, I opt away from pairing gewürztraminer with spicy foods as it is typically high in alcohol and enhances the heat of spice, yet this gewürztraminer is so high in sweetness, with surprisingly well-balanced acidity that it provides a great contrast to the heat in the food. The grape’s naturally generous floral aromatic component matches the intensity of the flavours memorably.

Pairing: Pulled Pork Jalapeño Popper with Cream Cheese and Corn Chip Crumb

Redstone Cabernet Sauvignon Icewine 2019

Redstone Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Icewine 2019, Niagara Peninsula, Ontario
$36.05/375 ml
John Szabo – With its intense nose and lively, fruity, strawberry-raspberry purée and hibiscus flower flavours and high sapidity, this is an excellent “red” Icewine and amazingly versatile with food. It was indeed one of my favorite matches with several dishes, including the savoury french onion soup, with aged cheddar-sour dough crouton for an umami + umami = more umami experience, and the more classic, sweet dark chocolate crepe filled with bavarois and topped with espresso crunch – who doesn’t love dark chocolate with raspberries? 225 grams per liter of residual sugar, 9.5 percent alcohol. 10.2 TA.

Peller Estates Niagara Signature Series Riesling Icewine 2019, Niagara-on-the Lake
$95.90/375 ml
Michael Godel– Densely concentrated and it takes but one sip for the icewine to become one with your palate. Special dedication and technique here to be sure.

Pairing: Pairing: South Asian Pepper Chicken

Icewine grapes at Stratus. Credit: Dean Stoyka


There are 12 other VINTAGES Release recommendations this week that are currently only available to our premium members. This complete article will be free and visible to all members 30 days after publication. We invite you to subscribe today to unlock our top picks and other Premium benefits

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That’s all for this report. See you around the next bottle.

John Szabo, MS


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Szabo’s Smart Buys
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Michael’s Mix
Sara’s Selections
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