By JACK KOHANE -- Special to Sun Media
Why would an estimated 50,000 oenophiles attempt the onerous trudge across snow-covered farm fields in the frigid depth of winter? They want to be the first to sample the latest vintage of Niagara's celebrated liquid treasure -- icewine. For aficionados, the colder the temperatures, the sweeter the taste.
Sipping world-class wine out of long-stemmed crystal goblets is one of the glass hoisting highlights that will attract thousands to brave the cold for the 11th annual Niagara Icewine Festival taking place Jan. 13-22.
"It's our premier event of the year dedicated to icewine," says Gerry Ginsberg, general manager of the Niagara Grape and Wine Festival. "From gala evenings, ornate ice bars and icewine dinners, to helping out in the icewine grape harvest, the Festival offers something for every taste."
Ginsberg recommends visitors pre-purchase the Niagara Icewine Touring Passport ($25 per person) to ensure they experience the best of the nine-day event, which features complimentary and discounted activities such as winery tours and veritable tankards of taste testings.
"On each weekend of the festival, an Icewine Bar will be constructed in two Niagara locations," adds Ginsberg. "A 9-metre decorative block of ice will be the cornerstone of the outdoor icewine activities, which includes ice carving demonstrations, carriage rides, Niagara cuisine and entertainment."
On the Festival's first weekend (Jan. 14-15), Main St. in Jordan, Ont., nestled in West Niagara at the foot of the escarpment, hosts the Icewine Bar, perfectly pairing foods and frosty Vidals, Rieslings and Chardonnays from noon to 5 p.m. (admission free).
On Weekend Two (Jan. 20-22) the Icewine Classic Weekend Experience, offering wine appreciation seminars ($45), grand tastings ($75), and winemakers' dinners ($175), takes place around Niagara-on-the-Lake. Weekend Passes are available for $575.
"The Festival is an excellent way for the region's winemakers to showcase the fruit of their labours," smiles Charlie Pillitteri, owner of award-winning Pillitteri Estates Winery, (their Vidal Icewine 2002 garnered Gold at the Concours Mondial 2004 in Brussels, Belgium, and the Vinitaly 2004 competition in Verona, Italy).
"At this year's Festival, we'll be launching two new icewines -- a Merlot and a Shiraz."
The Shiraz grape is difficult to grow in Canada, Pillitteri says, but adds that his winemaster, Sue-Ann Staff, has successfully created the world's first Shiraz icewine.
"We're very proud of it, and Festival guests will have the first opportunity to try it," says Pillitteri.
Inniskillin Wines (Gold medalist for its 2002 Vidal Icewine at the Citadelles du Vin, Vinexpo 2004 in Bordeaux, France) is setting its tables to treat connoisseurs to vintage oak-aged Vidals, Rieslings and Cabernet Francs served in unique stemware, specially made for the winery by Austria's Riedel (rhymes with 'needle') Crystal, the world's premier manufacturer of wine glasses.
"This series of glassware is designed and shaped for the peak of icewine enjoyment," states Inniskillin co-founder, Don Ziraldo. Each style of glass is crafted to accentuate the strengths of a particular spirit -- done through changes in the size and shape of the bowl, the diameter of the opening and the cut. The polished lip directs the wine towards a specific area of the tongue.
"Small wonder Riedel stems are preferred by sommeliers and oenophiles worldwide for their ability to transform the perception of a wine," notes Ziraldo.
Uncorking the Festival is the Xerox "Images of Winter" icewine evening at the Sheraton on the Falls Hotel in Niagara Falls on Jan. 13 from 8 p.m.-11 p.m. ($150).
The event presents wines from 32 of Ontario's premier wineries and features Canada's largest tasting of acclaimed icewines and other premium wines from the 2004 Vintage of Excellence.
Icewine originated in Europe two centuries ago when farmers in Germany were hit by a sudden and unexpected winter frost. Instead of discarding their frozen grapes, the farmers went ahead and made wine. The result was a small quantity of honey-sweet liquid with balancing acidity unlike anything they had ever produced.
"Producing a superb icewine in Canada today depends on many factors," says Ziraldo.
The key element is the temperature, which must fall below -8C, the ideal temperature for harvesting icewine. This temperature, or below, allows the grapes to freeze sufficiently on the vine, and to be harvested (by hand, one bunch at a time, in the middle of the night before the sun can warm up the grapes) and pressed while still frozen. The pressing process is continuous in order to allow the concentrated flavours of the mellowed grapes to release their juices without being diluted by melting ice crystals.
Then there are the predators -- hungry birds and rodents attracted to the sweet nectar of the hanging grapes.
"We protect the crop by draping netting over the vines," Ziraldo says. "Starlings are the biggest problem. They don't migrate to warmer climates during the winter -- and the sky turns black as they flock over our fields. In our business, we depend on nature to help create memorable wine vintages. And Mother Nature does have her peculiarities."
For Icewine Festival tickets and details of Niagara Icewine Passport Events, visit niagarawinefestival.com or call the Festival office at 905-688-0212.
The Wine Council of Ontario publishes its annual The Official Guide to the Wineries of Ontario and the Wine Route Map listing more than 60 Ontario wineries. For a complimentary copy of the guide, call 1-800-263-2988. Another information resource is the industry's website, winesofontario.ca. Most wineries organize special events, tours and wine tastings throughout the year.
This story was posted on Mon, January 9, 2006
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