Despite record-breaking temperatures that were more reminiscent of spring bud break than the frigid -8 to -12˚C required to make great Icewine, the 2013 Niagara Icewine Gala was focused on celebrating the region's most famous export.
The ball room of the Niagara Fallsview Casino Resort was transformed with blue lights, Sandy Vine and the Midnights playing their smooth sound, elaborate ice sculptures (including a throne for the Gala's title Ice Queen), plenty of food and of course many of Niagara's top wineries pouring Icewine.
As he has for the past few years, Fallsview Casino Resort chef Ray Taylor and his team, did a great job of keeping guests happy with a wide array of bites—often cooked to order at the many stations. Highlights for me included: a variety freshly shucked East and West coast oysters, a tender braised short rib and the spanish-inspired tapas. I particularly enjoyed a delicate, moist pincho of chicken skewered together with a super-sweet roasted tomato and watercress. But judging by attendees' plates the jumbo prawns done a la plancha (on the flat top) was the crowd favourite of the evening. Later on many moved to the sweets table which included some gorgeous looking cakes, pops, cupcakes, chocolates and fruit.
Despite it being the Icewine Festival Gala, wineries also showcased a variety of dry table wines. Just like you wouldn't expect to go to a meal and be served nothing but dessert, the wineries are mindful that as delicious as it might seem, it might be a little tiring on the palate to have an evening of nothing but Icewine.
Beamsville producer Malivoire's 2009 Alive Pinot Noir was amongst my favourite dry table wines of the evening. A bit demure at first but very elegant once it opens-up, it's full of wonderful beetroot, black cherry and strawberry notes before finishing with a spicy cinnamon and nutmeg flourish. Its best aspect is its silk-meets-cashmere feel and the beautiful balance between its tannin and fresh acidity. It has the delicacy and brightness to pair with the aforementioned chicken pincho, but still has enough weight and tannic bite to stand-up to the braised short rib.
My favourite wine of the evening came courtesy of Southbrook with its brand new 2011 Triomphe Chardonnay. Balanced and fresh, this Chardonnay draws you into the glass with hints of floral tree fruit and citrus. It delivers notes of Bartlett pear, golden apple, white peach, lemon zest and refreshing hint of cantaloupe on the finish. There's a slightly creamy undertone and hint of spice, but this a wonderful example of the balanced and lively modern style of cool climate Chardonnay Niagara is producing. It certainly went well with one of the creamy Kumamoto oysters I enjoyed that evening.
While Icewine represent the minority of the wines being poured at the gala, it still rightfully remains the star. One of the standouts was the unusual 2008 Creekside Shiraz Icewine. This bottling comes from a single barrel of Syrah that was fermented in new American oak and left to age for 3.5 years. While both barrel fermentation and extended oak aging are common in big reds, they aren't often done with Icewines where the residual sugar tends to naturally provide a full mouthfeel and the bright aromatic fruit flavours are seen as the ideal. In the case of this Creekside, the usual approach results in the fullest and most opulent texture I've ever come across in an Icewine. Just like a great milkshake it's struggle-to-sip-through-the-straw thick. Interestingly though, other than the oak spice the aromatics were surprisingly tight that evening, but a sip gave the full picture. Joining that lavish, creamy texture are flavours of candied cherry and cranberry with a subtle and intriguing smokey and meaty note (one you often get in cool climate Syrah) before returning to wild strawberry on the finish. Although not quite as concentrated as the fruit, there's a bold spice element to the wine with toffee, cinnamon, hazelnut brittle, vanilla and oak spice notes likely owing to that barrel fermentation and extended oak aging. Keeping this thick, plush wine tasting fresh is an equally bold level of acidity, a higher-level of alcohol and a lower-level of residual sugar than you encounter in many Icewines. Although it may not be to everyone's tastes, it's certainly one worth seeking out for its irreverent approach.
Another interesting, but more conventionally-made Icewine came from leading Niagara-on-the-Lake producer Pillitteri. It's 2009 Exclamation Sauvignon Blanc Icewine was made in the usual stainless steel tanks, which really capture the classic honeyed tropical fruit notes that are a hallmark of aromatic white Niagara Icewines like this one. But the grape's thinner skin and winter sensitivity mean you don't encounter a Sauvignon Blanc Icewine very often. That's a shame because this one has beautiful roasted pineapple, honey covered papaya and caramelised mango aromas and flavours with a Key lime pie filling on the finish. There's also an intriguing hint of herbal grass that runs throughout stoping just short of the finish and gives you a welcome savoury contrast. The acidity keeps the sweet tropical flavours shy of cloying, while still allowing the wine to end on an indulgent, sticky honey-like finish. The one unusual aspect of the wine aside from the grape, is the packaging. It's presented for gifting in a display case holding the curvy 750 mL bottle complete with crystal stopper.
The highlight for me was Château des Charmes' 2009 Savagnin Icewine. Savagnin is a obscure white grape best known for producing vin jaune (a funky partially-oxidised style of wine that matures in barrel under layer of yeast much like sherry), in a tiny part of eastern France between Burgundy and Switzerland called Jura. As rare as it is in the world of wine, it's even rarer in Niagara with only a couple of producers growing Savagnin. Château des Charmes had been growing it for 13 years before it took a chance and tried making it into Icewine (a world first) in 2006. The gamble paid-off with an Icewine that was unique and compelling, but this 2009 might be the best vintage yet. It has lush honeyed tree fruit notes of roasted peaches and sugar dusted apricots, as well as refreshing citrus flavours of caramelised white grapefruit, candied orange peel and lemon curd. But what really captivates is the exotic perfumed aspect of this wine with its unique jasmine-meets-honeydew combination. It's also wonderfully balanced with an electric acidity that refreshes the palate between sips—after trying it you'll definitely want to take many.
Indulgence was certainly the theme for the evening as attendees dressed in their best and enjoyed great wine, food and company. In short, it was a fitting way to kick-off a month-long celebration for one of the world's greatest dessert wines.
Malivoire 2009 Alive Pinot Noir
Creekside 2008 Shiraz Icewine
Price: $64.95 for 375 mL
Pillitteri 2009 Exclamation Sauvignon Blanc Icewine
Price: $150.20 for 750 mL bottle
Château des Charmes 2009 Savagnin Icewine
Price: $75.00 for 375 mL