Inspiration / Lifestyle & Opinion

Andrew Jefford: The Beauty of Icewine in a Deathly Canadian Winter


Andrew Jefford Andrew Jefford / 20 November 2019

The View From Here: Keep Walking

It wasn't Christmas, but shortly afterwards: my first visit to winter Ontario. I remember mansions of grey in the skies, either salvaged from or collapsing towards night; I remember the thick curds of ice in the Niagara river, and the piercing wind off the great lake. I took a morning walk in the grey gloom, seeing folk cleaning last night's snow from their cars and liberating their driveways anew; they stared at me as if I was King Lear, out on the heath in the storm. This was no season for pedestrians. Later I took a dusk walk in the grey gloom along the river – and realised that I couldn't stop walking. Death politely loitered in wait for those who stopped walking at -12°C (and dropping). But there were birds out there, geese and waterfowl, and they were going to be out there all night, neither flying nor waddling. Feathers, down, bare skin. How would they survive?

I remember the thick curds of ice in the Niagara river, and the piercing wind off the great lake
'I remember the thick curds of ice in the Niagara river, and the piercing wind off the great lake'

Once inside, everything was cheerier: a fire of logs in the hotel foyer, and flame-effect fires in every room. It was still holiday time, and winery tasting rooms were open, with welcoming braziers sending sparks skywards in the snowy paths outside, and more open fires inside. ('Smoke' featured with mysterious regularity in the tasting notes.) And, of course, it was icewine season. 'Ok everyone, we're going to be doing some icewine grape-picking this morning,' boomed Greg Berti of icewine producer Andrew Peller as he clambered in his parka and woolly hat on to our tour bus. 'It's the most fun you'll ever have.' Greg paused, looking around at the innocent, expectant faces. 'For ten minutes.'

We barely managed that, since picking frozen grapes is a near-stationary activity and (as I mentioned) death is always on the lookout for those who don't move in the winter in Canada. Fortunately, most icewine picking is done by machine; it's hard to damage a frozen grape. The biggest challenge, in fact, is getting all those tons of little frozen bullets pressed afterwards. Sizeable Canadian icewine producers may only have five or six tanks of juice, but they'll have thirty presses at work on the grapes to try to extract that juice.

Picking frozen grapes for icewine is both painful and painstaking – no wonder most of it is done by machine!
Picking frozen grapes for icewine is both painful and painstaking – no wonder most of it is done by machine!
2016 Peller family's Signature series icewine

2016 Peller family's Signature series icewine

We have managed to secure a small parcel of the 2016 Peller family's Signature series icewine made from the vidal grape which is bursting with rich tropical fruit flavours of passionfruit, tangerine and candied citrus peel, summoning up images of sunny climes in stark contrast with the conditions in which it is made! With a touch of honey and spice on the long fresh finish, it would be perfect at the end of a meal with fruit-based desserts, crème brûlée or mature cheddar.

Much Canadian icewine is made of vidal grapes (a hardy hybrid) and they are terrific fun: tarte tatin, toffee apple, treacle fudge. The best, though, are made from riesling, and have a much bigger and finer spectrum of fruit flavours. Don't think Canadian wine ends with the chill succulence of icewine, though. Dry riesling can be fine and sculpted, chardonnay willowy and graceful, pinot poised and lyrical, cabernet franc chunky and convincing: those are the Canadian wines, in truth, I'd rather own. There's lots of finesse there.

The next time I returned to Ontario it was September, and the scene was different. There were red grapes on the vines and chardonnay in picking trays; winery visitors were soaking up the late-summer vibe. This was, though, still Canada; the skies were still grey. Westcott Vineyards had an open-air tasting room with decking and tables outside. And, by the door, a big pile of blankets.

The Little Farm Winery in the Similkameen Valley in British Columbia

Frozen grapes destined for icewine in Niagara

Try some 'sculpted, fine riesling' and 'willowy chardonnay' from The Little Farm Winery in the Similkameen Valley in British Columbia (refs N-CA171, £19, 12.5% and N-CA161, £20, 12.5%). Both wines come from organic grapes grown by husband-and-wife team Alishan Driediger and Rhys Pender MW on their tiny four-acre Mulberry Tree Vineyard. Both show the trademark racy character and lovely balance of wines from this part of the world.

Browse our wines from Canada

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