‘I don’t really have a sweet tooth so I don’t usually have a drink with dessert and even when I do indulge it’s just too sweet.’ In his years behind the tasting bar Reif Sommelier and Wine Club Manager Archie Hood has heard many dismiss Icewine as one dimensional and too sweet.
But he and the staff at Reif are out to change misconceptions with an event called the Icewine Experience. Behind the busy tasting bar that greets visitors when they enter Reif’s tasting room is an area they call the Sensory Tasting bar. There you can grab a seat and have a personalised tasting where Hood or another one of Reif’s expert staff will lead you through a flight of their wines. On all weekends in January the feature flight is four Icewines paired with food but it isn’t just your usual sweet pairings. The tasting is eye opener moving from savoury with a butternut squash soup and ending on sweet with a strawberry truffle.
Reif was established in 1977 when German immigrant Ewald Reif from Neustadt planted vines in Niagara and chose to open-up the winery on that site six years later. The winery was amongst those who experimented with early commercial Icewines in the region when Reif agreed to set aside some grapes for Austrian Karl Kaiser of neighbouring Inniskillin. That winery brought world wide attention to Niagara Icewine when it won the best wine at the 1991 Bordeaux Vinexpo for its 1989 Vidal Icewine. Since 1987 Ewald Reif’s nephew Klaus W. Reif, an Oenology and Viticulture graduate from the Geisenheim Institute, has guided the winery on a path that aims to make great wines by growing the best grapes possible. Reif believes with temperatures warm enough to ripen grapes but cold enough to freeze and thaw those left on the vines multiple times a season, Niagara has the perfect climate to consistently make the best Icewines in the world. This tasting experience is a great way to show its versatility as a pairing with a range foods.
As Hood explains the key to getting the maximum enjoyment out for your Icewine is move it around your mouth for at least 4-6 seconds before swallowing. That allows the little tasting papillae on your tongue to wiggle registering the pH change which will in turn get the silva glands to produce and eventually neutralise the pH. Without this your tongue may only be able to register the sweetness from the Icewine’s residual sugar and not the balancing acidity—the result is something dismissed as cloying. Moving the wine around in your mouth also allows for the different flavours and the texture of the wine to be better appreciated.
The first pairing in Reif’s Icewine Experience is the 2008 Riesling Icewine with a butternut squash soup from local restaurant the Pie Plate in Virgil. The Riesling, from a block of 28 year-old-vines that are among the estate’s oldest, has flavours of honeyed apricots. As Hood points out the thick soup is a near perfect match for silky weight of the wine on the palate. Matching textures is half the battle in finding a perfect pairing according to the sommelier. Another thing that separates a good paring from a great one is when the wine and food combine to bring out something that is deeply hidden or simply not in either the food or the wine when they are tasted by themselves, he says. In the case of the Riesling and the soup there’s a nutmeg element that comes out. But the stainless steel aged wine has no spicy barrel influence from oak nor does the soup have any nutmeg.
The next pairing is the 2008 Vidal with a duck terrine also from the Pie Plate. Compared to the Riesling the Vidal, harvested from 26-year-old vines, is much richer in both texture and flavour bursting with honey, apricot and tropical fruit. With more sugar and less acid the wine has a full and rich velvety texture that matches well with the creamy duck terrine. As a match the wine brings out a gaminess deepening the flavour of it. The 2005 Vidal is a completely different wine with three years of additional aging the amber colour is beginning to darken. The fresher aromas of the 2008 have developed into crème brûlée, fig and toffee. Those aromas are joined on the palate with the rich flavours of maple syrup and a long caramel finish. For those who wonder whether Icewine ages or what an older example tastes like this is a great opportunity to learn. It is paired with Ermite a blue cow’s milk cheese made by Benedictine monks from Quebec. If blue cheese is a little too strong for your palate this pairing tones down its sometimes astringent character while making it a little creamier and enhancing the savoury and salty notes in the cheese. For those that find Icewine too sweet the cheese pairing notably brings down the perception of sugar. The last pairing is a 2008 Cabernet Franc Icewine which smells like the filling from freshly baked strawberry rhubarb pie. Paired with a white chocolate strawberry truffle from Willow Cakes & Pastries. The wine’s candied strawberry flavours are enhanced by the truffle and vice versa.
There you have, it from soup to the dessert course all with Icewine as the pairing. So if you consider Icewine too sweet or believe it’s only appropriate for dessert I recommend joining the passionate and entertaining Hood or one of Reif’s other expert staff for this tasting at the Sensory Bar. At worst you end-up with a tasty snack and good story to tell friends and best you end-up with a changed mind.
Although it isn’t necessary it is recommend that you contact the winery before arriving for the Icewine Experience which will allow staff to prepare a setting for your arrival. The tasting is $30 per person and runs all weekends throughout January.
Reif Estate Winery
15608 Niagara Parkway, Niagara-on-the-Lake (Map)
Written by Mike Di Caro
Michael Di Caro covers all things vinous at Spotlight. His lover affair with Ontario wine began over a decade ago and he’s been in front of tasting bars trying to sweet talk staff into pouring a taste of a library wine or the latest unreleased bottle ever since. Since good wine can’t be made without great grapes, you can also catch him amongst the vines trying to persuade the winemaker into revealing his/her next big thing for you on Spotlight. His epicurean tendencies don’t just stop in the glass either. During the rest of his free time you can find him searching for the perfect bowl of Dan Dan noodles, exploring the city’s best tasting menus or baking cookies and mucking about in the kitchen.