I have not coveted my neighbor’s wife since the eighties, when Prime Minister Trudeau’s young bride Maggie—that vamping, voluptuous Vancouver vixen who, upon publishing her third book in 2010, became the only person in Canada to have written more books than she’d read—was photographed sans underwear.
Since then, I’ve restricted myself to coveting my neighbor’s wine, since as far as I know, my overbearing and super-bossy God has no strictures against that.
Here in Michigan, we produce some pretty killer ice wines ourselves—riesling-based A Capella from Black Star, Lawton Ridge’s Vidal Blanc Ice Wine, another vidal from Mackinaw Trail and Chateau Chantal’s version, made from a proprietary blend of estate-frozen grapes—but, I must confess, though each comes close, none are quite (yet) on a par with the nectar they’re extracting in Ontario.
And that’s as it should be. Those benumbed, benighted frost-backs in the Great White North haven’t invented much—canola oil, calcium carbide, the Wonder Bra and Canada Dry Ginger Ale pretty much sums it up—but we must give them their props when it comes to ice wine. Though not technically invented in Canada (that’s a German distinction dating to 1830), the first bottle of ice wine to be made in North America came from Working Horse Winery in Okanagan, British Columbia in 1974.
And, for reasons known only to this refrigerated race of 34 million near-mortals—who manage to drink $18 billion worth of booze annually—the bottle still exists, unopened.
As a reminder to those who have forgotten how ice wine is made, a select number of grapes are allowed to remain on the vine beyond the normal harvest, and there they stay until there’s one or more hard-freezes—legally-mandated temperature requirements vary from country to country. It’s a risky proposition, since too long a hang-time prior to freeze may cause the berries to rot, and too severe a freeze can (and does) result in breaking the pneumatic press equipment.
But in ideal vintages, when everything comes up Goldilocks’ porridge, the grapes dehydrate, and the little water that remains is crystallized as ice. Grapes are hand-picked at the coldest part of the day—normally, the middle of the night—and pressed while still frozen. The ice remains behind, and a minute ration of precious, super-concentrated juice is extracted—approximately one drop per grape. To put it another way, a vine which may normally produce a bottle of ordinary wine will make but a single glass of ice wine.
There’s another, utterly abhorrent method for making ‘ice wine’ which I mention only through journalistic integrity—a term I once heard a college professor use. Cryoextraction is the process of mechanically freezing grapes in order to simulate the frost effect—a modus operandi that strikes me as non-green (freezers suck energy), crass (the process sucks the wind from a vineyard’s natural process), and in a word, wrong (cryoextractionists just plain suck). It cheapens the category and denigrates the prowess of those frostbitten winemakers willing to do it the right way. Based on this bamboozle, you can now legally make ice wine in Spain’s Penedès, though it’s the only EU appellation that allows it. Bonny Doon’s been at it for years with Vin de Glacière, and recently, Decanter Magazine awarded a trophy to a cryoextracted ice wine from New Zealand. Shame on the lot of chiseling, cheating charlatans!
So, how cold does it need to be to make real ice wine?
Well, at temperatures which would have Buckeyes evacuating Columbus and at which even Swedish cars won’t start, Canadian Girl Scouts are just heading out to sell cookies: And it’s not nearly cold enough to make ice wine. At temperatures where polar bears start complaining and atomic motion has dwindled to a snail’s pace, Canadians are still driving with their windows down: And it’s not nearly cold enough to make ice wine. No, to make ice wine, you need to wait until the mercury drops to the level at which microbial life cannot survive on earth and even Manitobans stop licking flag poles—then, and only then, can you pick your grapes.
Canada is the world’s largest exporter of ice wine, and Inniskillin is Canada’s largest ice wine producer for that market. Located in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, the winery has a second location in operates a winery in Okanagan, British Columbia. Although ice wine makes up only 10% of their total output, that’s the style with which the winery is best known—probably because it’s their only truly world-class wine.
They’ve been tweaking the ice wine vines—primarily riesling and vidal, though they also make a cabernet franc ice wine—since 1984. Further tweakage in the form of what Maria Moessner, Inniskillin’s Estate Sommelier refers to as ‘arduous fermentation’ results in a wine that is thick, honey-rich and perfectly balanced with a shivery undertow of acid.
Now they’ve even tweaked that, using the still wine as a cuvée to produce a product more rare than the already rare ice wine:
A sparkling version.
According to Moessner, “This very unique sparkling wine has been produced in the Charmat Method. During fermentation, the naturally occurring carbon dioxide is trapped in the stainless steel tank, and dissolves into the wine.”
I’m too nice of a guy to point out to Ms. Moessner that there is no such thing as ‘very’ unique—unique is a word without qualifiers. Instead, I will concur with her tasting notes:
‘Fine elegant bubbles with pure focused northern fruit aromas, of fresh apricot, nectarine and peach.’
…And add a few of my own:
Inniskillin, Sparkling Ice Wine, Niagara Peninsula VQA, about $70 (375 ml.): Vanilla pastry on the nose with spuming, fine-grained effervescence, this labor-intensive wine is as luscious as it is lavish. In Greek mythology, ambrosia was the drink of the gods, said to confer eternal youth on whoever consumed it. Figure that if you could pick some up over-the-counter, it would probably be priced about like this. The wine is redolent with honeysuckle, caramel and brioche; the flavors mingle and show the same, with some candied lime, unctuous marmalade and—unless it’s psychosomatic—some maple syrup.
Maria Moessner recommends pairing the wine with pan-seared foie gras or spicy Asian cuisine, but me, I will go out on a limb (no pun) and suggest that you serve it with:
Fried Canadian Beaver
1 small beaver (20 lbs.), cleaned and skinned, cut into serving pieces, strips or cubes
6 slices bacon
1 tsp. hickory-smoked seasoning salt
Remove fat from beaver and soak overnight in cold water. Drain. Cook in small amount of water until tender, then fry with bacon and hickory-smoked seasoning salt.