I still remember it as if it was yesterday. The date was September 16th, 1996. The event was my first day on the job at a Niagara-on-the Lake winery. Wet behind the ears, and eager to learn all things vinous, I was expecting glamorous tastings, tonnes of leisurely strolls in the lush vineyards and a plethora of discussions with wine lovers. Ah, youthful naiveté!
Not even five minutes on the job, and the first tourist bus pulled up. My boss whispered in my ear, “Watch this.” And out came 50 Japanese tourists on a whirlwind tour of Canada. They stepped up to the tasting bar and proceeded to purchase Icewine, by the case, at $500 a pop! Fifteen minutes later the tornado left and restocking began. My exact words to him, after returning from my proverbial Kansas were, “What the hell just happened?” He told me that ever since Inniskillin had won the Grand Prix d’Honneur at Vinexpo for its Icewine, Japanese consumers, seeking the best in all things libation, have been knocking on Canada’s viticultural door. Making it even more attractive for them was price — $45 a bottle at the winery, versus $300 back home. By the end of the day, another eight buses had pulled in and out, with the same results.
I asked Debi Pratt, director of Public Relations at Inniskillin, if the same conditions still exist today. “Gone are those good old days,” was her response. “At that time, we had groups of large buses with, for the most part, Japanese tourists. In fact, we had up to 30,000 per year, about 10% of our visitation. However, in early 2000, the Japanese economy started to decline, and then with 9/11 and SARS, the number of Japanese tourists declined as well. So now, we not only see smaller buses being used, with capacities of 15 to 20 people, but our clientele also includes Chinese and Korean visitors.”
Looking at the global picture, Daniel Speck, co-owner of the family-run winery, Henry of Pelham, had this to say: “Premium luxury products all over the world are off by anywhere from 14 to 18 per cent in most categories, sometimes higher, from handbags to hooch. For example, leading Champagne brands in Ontario are seeing similar dips in sales, some even worse. Icewine, as a category, has held on better than most but is still down around 6% in Ontario.”
To remain competitive, many of the producers I talked with have adjusted their prices accordingly. Others are working with new packaging or bundling Icewine to offer greater value. Also, many stated that they would be tweaking production downward in 2009.
With this in mind, I asked both if they felt the market had become fatigued with the liquid ice. Their answer, a resounding “No!”
“Any softness in the marketplace is directly attributable to the global financial issues — causing people to be a little bit slower to spend. Consumers are learning to use it in different ways (martinis) and with exciting non-traditional food pairings,” says Pratt. Speck added, “The market isn’t fatigued so much as it is uninformed as to how one should consume Icewine. Do you drink it before a meal? (I say yes, with savoury foods.) After? (As long as it’s with cheese, on its own or, if you must, with desserts that aren’t very sweet.) Or should it be mixed or sipped? (Depends on the variety/quality).
Regardless of the current state of affairs, producers are very enthused with the two most recent vintages — 2007 and 2008. Stylistically, both show excellent fruit character, with the 2007s being more opulent and intense due to the incredible heat that year. The 2008s are more elegant with higher acid levels, giving focus to the wines. Whatever your preference, quality is present, which means good times — and bottles — are ahead.
92 Inniskillin Riesling Icewine 2007 ($69.95)
This is certainly the top Riesling of the tasting! A very explosive nose of fruit salad, petrol, lemon zest, cinnamon and flowers leads into a full-bodied feeling in the mouth. It is weighty, with peach, apple, mango and honey on the very long finish. This is a perfect partner for a fresh fruit tart. A job well done!
90 Henry of Pelham Riesling Icewine 2007 ($49.95)
Without a doubt, HOP has crafted another excellent Riesling Ice experience. This version, having profited from the heat of 2007, inundates the senses with peach jam, honeycomb, flowers and dried apricots. The palate is explosive and rich, but with enough acid to keep it from becoming cloying. Excellent length.
90 Jackson Triggs Proprietor’s Reserve Vidal Icewine 2007 ($45.95)
This is the best Vidal of the tasting. The 250 grams of sugar make an impact on the taste buds as does the honey, dried apricot, lychee, mango and pear. Full bodied, with good viscosity, but not cloying thanks to the acidity and superb length.
89 Coyote’s Run Riesling Icewine 2007 ($55)
A seductive Icewine that beguiles the taster, it’s flush with golden raisins macerated in honey, apricots and marmalade. Sweet, rich, ripe, it has a solid backbone of acidity and excellent length. It is ready to drink now until 2015.
89 Stratus Icewine White 2008 ($39.95/200 ml)
Stratus’ first white assemblage, Icewine is a blend of Riesling and Semillon. The colour is medium yellow with a hint of green. A bouquet of pineapple, honeysuckle, flowers and grapefruit is built on a medium bodied frame. The acid is lively and the finish is lengthy, reverberating with spice and rosewater.
89 Stratus Riesling Icewine 2008 ($39.95/200 ml)
Another winter wonder winner from winemaker J. L. Groulx. With loads of green apples, lime, pear, flowers and grapefruit to be found, this sweetie also delivers zesty acid and a lengthy finish. Key lime or lemon meringue pie are the right choices for this wine.
89 Peller Estates Andrew Peller Signature Series Riesling Icewine 2006 ($38/200 ml)
Maturing aromas of dried apricots/peaches and caramel combine with pineapple, white pepper and grapefruit. It is rather oily when it hits the palate, even though there is sound acid. This will be absolute perfection with seared foie gras.
88 Jackson Triggs Proprietor’s Grand Reserve Gewürztraminer Icewine 2006 ($63.95)
Its amber hues come from age. Cotton candy, violets, rose, pineapple, honey are all present. With 204 grams of sugar, it is a full-bodied offering, with an oily texture and a long spicy finish.
88 Birchwood Gewürztraminer Riesling Icewine 2006 ($56.75)
A great discovery! This stickie serves up lots of floral (honeysuckle, acacia) qualities on top of peach, spice and buttered popcorn. Medium body, it is balanced with a honeyed finish.
88 Lakeview Riesling Icewine 2006 ($49.95)
Somewhat reserved, this wine currently delivers pear, lime and grapefruit aromas. In the mouth, it is sweet with good acid and medium length.
87 Reif Vidal Icewine 2006 ($46.95)
An elegant Icewine with green apple, grapefruit, honey and the aroma of flowers greet the taster. On the taste buds, it is medium bodied with fresh acid, with very good length.
87 Wayne Gretzky Vidal Icewine 2005 ($44.95)
A bouquet of pineapple, grapefruit, caramel, nuts and toast combines with marmalade on the palate. Medium to full body, there is a distinct lingering finish.
87 Colio Estate Vidal Icewine 2007 ($39.55)
This gold medal winner at Les Citadelles du Vin competition in Bordeaux possesses only 160 grams of sugar, making it less sweet than its brethren. Combined with a personality of toasted cinnamon raisin bread, butter and dried apricots, it makes for an irresistible tasting experience. Don’t miss it.
87 Peller Estates Vidal Icewine 2008 ($55)
This Icewine gains points for complexity with peach, apricot, papaya, passion fruit and flowers. Loads of acid and a touch less sweetness than other Icewines, it is indeed a refined offering. Pair it with a passion fruit mousse or grapefruit granita.
92 The Foreign Affair Cabernet Sauvignon Icewine 2007 ($34.95/200 ml)
A very rich Cabernet Sauvignon Icewine, it benefits from the intense heat of 2007 vintage. Stacked with guava, raspberry, strawberry and plum jam, and lighter accents of thyme honey, the finish remains on the taste buds for a long time. Chocolate fondue would be a mind-blowing experience with this stickie.
91 Pillitteri Estate Sticky Beak Red Icewine 2007 ($60/200 ml)
In Aussie parlance, a “Sticky Beak” is someone who finds pleasure in sticking their nose into other people’s business. In this case, it is highly recommended that you make this wine a part of your affairs. It is a unique blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Franc, Shiraz and Sangiovese that serves up strawberry rhubarb, cocoa, red pepper and spices. The finish is long and sweet.
89 Inniskillin Cabernet Franc Icewine 2007 ($110)
Deep pink colour with wall to wall strawberry, raspberry, plum and blackberry jam flavours and aromas, this full-bodied experience has a long finish and some light tannins on the finale. Pair it with a cheesecake topped by a berry coulis.
All wines were tasted blind by Ara Kafafian and Evan Saviolidis. All bottles are 375 ml unless otherwise indicated.