A version of this story first appeared at TheLabel.in on June 22, 2015
You can’t argue with the sobriquet—Niagara-on-the-lake is indisputably the loveliest town in Canada. Postcard-perfect, it lovingly preserves its 19th-century charms. In 1812, its landmark Fort George was the epicentre of a furious skirmish between British Loyalists (who had settled Canada) and American soldiers. The rest is a sweeter history, much like the icewine for which the region is renowned.
Geography is key to wine quality. The Niagara Escarpment, a 725-km-long ridge, buffers a peninsula bounded by the Niagara River and Lake Ontario. Located right on the peninsula, and warmed by these bodies of water, the wine-growing region maintains a temperate microclimate just right for viticulture. Mineral-rich soils left by retreating Ice Age glaciers years ago add the finishing touch for wine-growing.
Winters in this neck of the woods are brutal, but Donald Ziraldo and Karl Kaiser, the founders of Inniskillin, saw in nature’s severity an opportunity to fashion a premium dessert wine that would become the toast of the world. Inniskillin, the first to be granted an estate winery license in Canada in 1975, began harvesting icewine in 1985.
In general, cool climate viticulture areas produce sweeter wines. The term ‘icewine’ comes from the German eiswein, and it was first made from frozen grapes in Germany and Austria. The Niagara region, as Ziraldo and Kaiser discovered, offered the perfect synthesis of elements necessary for producing icewine of the highest quality.
Grapes ripen on the vine well into the deep winter (as early as December or as late as March), causing flavours to intensify and sugars to concentrate. In the dead of night or at dawn, when the mercury drops eight degrees below freezing, the ice-glazed grapes are harvested. Artificial freezing of grapes is a strict no-no as per guidelines specified by the Vintner’s Quality Alliance.
Harvested grapes are pressed in the numbing cold to extract the nectar. The process also allows frozen water crystals to puncture the grape skins for enhanced flavour. Fermented over months (premium icewines are aged in oaken barrels), it matures into wine.
Inniskillin offers year-round wine tours that culminate in delicious lunches. The denouement is a glass (or more) of premium Vidal, Riesling and Cabernet Franc icewines, best enjoyed in a trademark Riedel icewine glass that delivers the fulsome fruitiness and full-bodied flavours to the right areas of the palate.
It’s every bit worth the price tag.
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