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Purely Canadian – Icewine Cocktails on the Streets of Niagara

Margaret Swaine,

Last weekend I had the mostly purely Canadian experience I can imagine. There’s really no where else in the world this type of celebration could occur. I was on Niagara-on-the-Lake’s main street judging icewine cocktails late into the night.
Icewine is an iconic Canadian wine often touted as Canada’s greatest liquid luxury. Our country is the globe’s leading producer – more than any nation, we have the climate down cold to make this wine pressed from frozen grapes.

Icewine’s so challenging to make that Germany, the birthplace of icewine in 1794, and Austria, are the only other producers of note. Authentic icewine is made from grapes naturally frozen on the vine that are harvested and pressed while still frozen. The temperature must be at least -8° Celsius to be cold enough to keep the frozen state throughout the process.

Now in its 17th year, the Annual Niagara Icewine Festival is a uniquely Canadian winter experience. Held over three weekends in January there are gala dinners, icewine tasting menus, icewine marshmallows to roast over open fires and lots of icewine tastings. At the outdoor street festivals in the towns of Niagara-on-the-Lake and Jordan Village visitors can warm up to cozy open fires, take snaps of sparkling ice sculptures, enjoy live entertainment, sample different winery’s icewines and fill their stomachs with food from local restaurants – most with an icewine flavour twist.

With the purchase of a thirty dollar Discovery Pass, visitors can choose any six of the over 30 wine and culinary experiences along the Wine Route (normally $10 each). Galas and special tasting menus cost more. I enjoyed a variety of the regular Discovery Pass experiences and some of the special menus – all which were a delight.

At Colaneri Estate’s grand 31,000 square foot C-shaped winery, I enjoyed a five course dinner by Chef Claudio Mollica while the Trio Crescendo serenaded us with sentimental Italian songs (aren’t they always). The wines, made using the ancient Italian appassimento process of slightly drying the grapes before pressing were full of flavour.

At the ultra modern, LEED certified, environmentally friendly Stratus winery I partook (on a Saturday) in their “horizontal Sundays” – a tasting of four of their icewines all from the 2008 vintage – an excellent one for icewine. Their tasting sheet quoted comments from yours truly on their Stratus Icewine White and Stratus Icewine Red both which I had award 95 points out of 100 in my National Post wine column. Both are blends of various grape varieties and demonstrate the lovely, intense, balance of sweetness and acidity in the best of icewines.

At Inniskillin winery a group of us sampled icewine in different styles of glasses. Inniskillin is Canada’s largest producer of icewine and while not the first in Ontario to make it (that honour goes to the 1983 bottling by Walter Strehn, an Austrian immigrant and former winemaker at Pelee Island), they put Canadian icewine on the map.

Riedel crystal glasses designed especially for Inniskillin for icewine did make a big difference to the taste experience. They are larger and somewhat egg shaped. We also tried a pairing with a tasty warm house made apple tart which was a Discovery Pass experience.

Lunch was on the hoof on the streets of Niagara as I sampled several types of chillies, an icewine infused lamb sausage, a creamy clam chowder, pulled pork, beet and icewine marinated salmon and more at the various stalls lining historic Queen street. Canadian jazz was booming out of loudspeakers and icewine was flowing from 28 wineries pouring their liquid gold.

Then onto Hinterbrook to sample their homemade toffee pudding matched with Hinterbrook’s 2009 Vidal icewine. And finally to Peller estate for more great icewines, this time paired with icewine marshmallows to roast over their open pit fires. The winery was packed. This is such a popular Discovery Pass experience that Chef Jason Parsons told me he prepared 5,000 marshmallows to be ready for the onslaught.

Dinner was at Stone Road Grille where one glutton for punishment in our party ordered the Rest Icewine Menu, an extravaganza of foie gras, confit duck and apple crumble all amply infused with icewine, including the vegetables with the main. The rest of us went for fresh oysters and lighter fare such as their delicious shellfish lasagne.

After such a day, the “Flash and Panache” icewine competition began. Revellers on the street went from booth to booth tasting the cocktails and sampling food pairings created by local restaurants. The judges – three of us of which I was one – sampled the cocktails blind as they were brought to us. Without knowing who made them we tasted and scored.

We picked four finalists out of the nine presented and did a taste off in front of the crowds on the street. My favourite was what turned out to be the Winter Berry by Zee’s Grille. It mixed Chambord, Smirnoff Vanilla Vodka, Hernder Iced Raspberry and Peller Cabernet Franc icewine for a deep rose coloured cocktail with layers of tangy complex tastes.

My number two choice and the two gentlemen judges’ number one pick was the ultimate winner. The “I-Swine-Tini” by Stone Road Grille had the advantage of crispy bacon laid across the top as garnish. Hard to resist this blend of bacon infused scotch with Pillitteri gewürztraminer icewine and a splash of cranberry cocktail mix.

You’d think after all that excitement, the next day would be a let-down. But not in this happening town. I started with a vinotherapy facial at Shaw Spa which used vine and wine products to moisturize and rejuvenate my skin. Then onto Ravine Vineyard for chestnuts roasting on an open fire, icewine cider and their prix fix Icewine Festival lunch menu. In true Canadian style Niagara has made a treat out of winter.

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