Niagara Ice Wine Martini
Last week I was at an offsite meeting in Niagara-on-the-Lake, which is famous for being Ontario’s primary wine country. Although Ontario has several wine producing regions such as Prince Edward County and Essex County, Niagara is where most of the big dogs play. Mass producing wineries like Inniskillin, Hillebrand, Jackson-Triggs, Peller Estates and Château des Charmes come to mind first as some of the main players. The area is full of weeping willows and lush gardens in the summer time, and in addition to scads of wineries the scenic little village is full of quaint independent shoppes (yes, it’s the kind of place which has ‘shoppes’ and not ‘stores’), lovely B&Bs, and fabulous local cuisine.
And yet, despite my marked affinity for wine tours and small rural villages, I rarely go to Niagara-on-the-Lake. I find that the atmosphere, although beautiful, tends to be a bit hoity-toity and far too snooty for this kid. When the region started to gain popularity and notice back in the 90’s, up went the prices and down went the authenticity of the Niagara wine tasting experience. Frankly, I fail to see any appeal in having a 20 year old punk condescending to explain to me that “Gah-WURTZ-tra-meen-er” is a type of white wine, first discovered in Germany. Huh. Thanks for the tip, kid. What’s this one over here, this Charred-own-nay? And are you even old enough to be serving this to me? Pfft. To hell with that, I say.
Nevertheless, despite my general distaste for factory-style wineries that try to pawn themselves off as modest local players (complete with their mass produced goods), there are times when I am quite delighted to visit Niagara-on-the-Lake…and that would be when the trip is free. Oh yes, my friends, the only thing better than a good trip is a free trip – and a free trip which includes wine tasting and menu sampling is even better!
So enough of my complaining, because truth be told I had a wonderful couple of days. The quality of Ontario wines has improved remarkably over the last 15 years, and murmurs from the Canadian wineorati (technical term, of course) suggest that 2008 was one of the best years that our Niagara vintners have seen in aeons. If you feel like investing in some Ontario whites and delicate reds, well, this is the time to do it.
The 2007/2008 ice wines that were produced in the region are also just stellar. Are you familiar with ice wine? If not, here’s a crash course. Icewine (or Eiswein as those crazy Germans call it) is distilled from grapes which have been harvested after the frost. In Canada, natural ice wines have to undergo a ‘hard freeze’, which means that the ripe grapes hang on the vine for weeks – or months- after the usual harvest, and the vintners pace and wait until the weather reaches -8ºC (I think that’s about 16ºF, but don’t quote me on that). When the natural water in the grape has frozen, pressing will yield a (shockingly) tiny little drop of concentrated, super sweet juice which the ice wine will be fermented from. The most common varietals used to make ice wine are Riesling, Vidal, and Gewurtraminer – although modern ice wine makers are also starting to experiment with red grapes, such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Franc.
Ice wine is rather finicky to make, and being a bit of a bleeding heart I think I buy it out of respectful sympathy for the poor wine makers. There are just so many things that can go horribly wrong when you’re waiting for the climate to do you a gooder. When the ripened grapes are left to hang on the vine after the usual harvest, the chances of fruit falling off and onto the ground (or being scavenged by hungry animals) increases dramatically. And then, remember, we’re in Ontario. Our weather systems don’t make sense to even the most seasoned of Meteorologists. Last week I was walking around outside in a tee, and yesterday morning we had snow flurries. In April. Huh. So if the weather feels like being inclement? Well, as a vintner you’ve already lost the chance for a late harvest vintage, and now Mother Nature is pumping the rump a little bit.
Oh, OH, and then can we talk about how labor intensive the process is? I’m the kind of person who drives past farmer’s fields and gets all misty eyed about migrant workers, so please just bear with me for a minute here. The window of opportunity for harvesting and processing ice wine is so narrow that when the wine makers finally get the right conditions they need to work STAT ON THE ASAP to get things done. The Pickers work late at night or incredibly early in the morning to reap the harvest in a relatively narrow time frame of several hours. The processors then step up and have to press the fruit in unheated cellars in the same short time span. I feel for them, truly. I guess there’s no such thing as The Hangover Excuse during ice wine season…..
Finally, as if adding insult to injury, because of the concentrated sugars in the pressed juice from ice wine it ferments at a much slower pace than regular wines. Table wines are generally fermented in a couple of weeks, but ice wine takes several months to fully ferment. Talk about a time suck, I’m telling you.
When you think about the ease of manufacturing ice wine, the incredibly low yield per volume of grape, and the intense efforts that need to be put forth by the vintners, is it any surprise that a bottle of ice wine costs $35 – $70 CAD? Nope. I would pay that amount just to assuage my New World guilt about the backbreaking labors of our tradesmen, who toil night and day so that I can guzzle a bottle of cheap Pinot on the patio. Sigh.
I think I went a little bit off track there…my apologies. Back to Niagara-on-the-Lake. Pretentious though they might be, there are some things that they do remarkably well. One of them is creating modern fusion fare using locally grown ingredients, and the other is finding novel re-purposing for all things related to the wine making process. I ate the most delicious semi-firm cheese which was aged in the must (grape pulp) of a certain winery’s Pinot Noir. Good god, I think I started drooling just now at the very though. My other favorites were a roast duck ravioli served in blackened tomato sauce and paired with a peppery dry Merlot, juniper spiced venison chops with a delightfully complex Cabernet Franc, and coconut mango biscotti served with frosty cold ice wine martinis. Be still my heart…and liver.
If you’re like me and you generally find ice wine to be:
a) too expensive to buy on a regular basis
b) too sweet and cloying to be enjoyed in anything other than tiny amounts
c) a bourgeoise and totally unremarkable hostess gift for any given occasion
….well, let me tell you, in martini form? Divine.
Niagara Ice Wine Martini
- 2 parts ice wine
- 1 part vodka
- frozen grape skewer
Choose a lovely golden or amber hued ice wine distilled from a white varietal, such as the Riesling, Gewurtztraminer or Vidal.
In terms of the vodka, if you’re going to use several ounces of a premium ice wine to make cocktails, well, don’t skimp on the vodka. Russian Prince has no part to play in this act.
I love muscado grapes for their syrupy sweet and intoxicatingly complex flavor, and the way that the colors echo a manzanilla olive. However, since they’re hard to find you can use any round grape that you like. Gather up a few grapes and string several of them along a long toothpick. Tuck it into the freezer until it firms up. An added advantage of the grape-skewer is that it will work to mitigate how quickly your drink warms down to room temperature.
Thoroughly shake the ice wine and vodka over several cubes of ice.
Strain the cocktail into a martini glass and garnish with a frozen grape skewer.
Enjoy a little bit of our beautiful Niagara peninsula from the comfort of your home. The ice wine is sweet, heady, and surprisingly complex – making it the perfect pairing with that irascible vodka, which doesn’t mind letting other people shine as long as he gets to sneak up and wobble some knees before the day is done.
Oh, one more thing! All this talk about wine, sunshine and cocktails has reminded me that Mike and I have finally booked our vacation! WOOOOOT!!!! It’s been two (2!!!) years since the last time that we flew anywhere together, and I am absolutely agog with excitement. We’ll be going to France, and our tentative itinerary includes:
Have you been to France before? If so, do you have any tips for us soon-to-be travelers? We’ve booked in accommodation, but not much else. If you’ve been to France, or if you’ve had the questionable fortune of having a friend who has been to France and ‘allowed’ you to look at their 4500 photos, what would you consider to be the must-go sights & attractions, regions, and (particularly) places to eat and drink? Anything? Anyone? Please? We’ll hit up the regular tourist traps such as the Louvre, Eiffel tower, Mont St. Martre, Catacombs (wheeeeeee!!!!!) and Versaille, but after that all that we have is The Lonely Planet guide and a ripe itinerary. Anything that you want to suggest will be gratefully considered!