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waters on wine

The Niagara-on-the-Lake sub-appellation ranking as the world’s largest producer of icewine.Handout

Unable to host guests for Niagara-on-the-Lake’s annual Icewine Festival and scheduled events in January, organizers are inviting wine lovers around the world to join in the festivities by opening a bottle. Participants are asked to post their icewine toast along with #IcewineDay on social media to spread the word.

Only a few wine producing countries in the world have the right conditions to be able to produce wines made from grapes naturally frozen on the vine, with the Niagara-on-the-Lake sub-appellation ranking as the world’s largest producer each year.

What’s more, icewine could use a party. Its success has long been tied to tourism and the export market, particularly Asian markets.

Five years ago, a reported 250,000 visitors took part in Icewine Festival events across the region. The Niagara Wine Festival and Jordan Village collaborate to put on winter wine activities each weekend, with participating wineries offering tours and sampling opportunities as enticements throughout January. (This is the second year that the pandemic has put a damper on the events.)

Meanwhile, the taste for the sweet wine continues to diminish around the world. There’s been a steady decline in exports of Canadian icewine, from 336,395 litres in 2016 to 137,422 litres in 2020.

Canadian wine lovers aren’t likely to help. While everyone is aware of icewine’s award-winning reputation thanks to the steady stream of international gold medals from notable competitions each year, the consensus is the dessert style wine is too sweet and expensive. Without seeing how enjoyable icewine can be – on its own, with a meal or as an ingredient for cooking or in a cocktail – those beliefs will continue unchallenged.

From a critic’s perspective, the decline in sales has helped to reduce the number of icewine producers down to ones who are truly serious about quality. Icewines that are simple and cloyingly sweet are rare to find following the 2016 harvest. Wineries that focus on single vineyard or estate grown selections, particularly icewines made from riesling and cabernet franc grapes, are ones to watch.

This weekend, if you have a bottle of icewine on hand, why not open it? You can enjoy a small pour on its own, knowing that an open bottle will keep in the refrigerator for up to two weeks. That gives you an opportunity to experiment with the growing selection of menu suggestions and cocktail recipes available online at winecountryontario.ca.

The Niagara Icewine Festival plans to move forward with the Discovery Pass, which allows for special tasting opportunities at select wineries Jan. 14-16, 21-23 and 28-30. Each winery has a different experience planned, including some outdoor tastings and activities. Details are available online from niagarawinefestival.com.

This week’s recommendations include a trio of remarkable sweet wines from Canadian producers, and just in time for Hogmanay, three impressive whiskies to sip and savour.

Cave Spring Riesling Icewine Estate Grown 2017 (Canada), $49.95

Rating:95 /100

Cave Spring earmarked riesling vines it tends in Myers Vineyard on the south shore of Lake Ontario as the source for this succulent and satisfying icewine from the 2017 vintage. The resulting dessert wine is vibrant and flavourful with an enticing mix of marmalade, raisin, honey, pear and apricot notes. The brightness of the acidity nicely balances the concentrated sweetness of this remarkable wine. Drink now-2030. Available in Ontario at the above price ($39.95/375 mL until Jan. 2, 2022) or direct through cavespring.ca.

Deanston Virgin Oak Highland Single Malt (Scotland), $49.95

Rating:91 /100

Deanston operates out of an old cotton mill that was transformed into a distillery in 1966. Its location on the River Teith provides ample pure water and generates power from an on-site hydro-energy facility. Virgin Oak is made with young whisky, which is aged in old bourbon casks before being finished in new American oak barrels, to produce a lighter spirit with prominent oak spice and smoke notes mingling with citrus and toffee flavours. Available in Ontario at the above price, $53.99 in British Columbia, various prices in Alberta, $50 in New Brunswick.

Inniskillin Riesling Icewine 2019 (Canada), $79.95

Rating:93 /100

This lusciously sweet dessert wine shows the brilliance of the riesling grape, with its rich peach, apricot and citrus fruit flavours alongside caramel and honey notes. The mark of a great icewine is the finish. The surge of lemon on the finish cleanses your palate and keeps things from being too syrupy. Drink now to 2039. Available in Ontario at the above price or direct through winerack.com, $79.96 in Manitoba, $75.75 in Quebec, $45.99/200 mL in Prince Edward Island.

Hester Creek Old Vine Late Harvest Pinot Blanc 2019 (Canada), $16.99

Rating:90 /100

Produced from a block of pinot blanc vines planted on Hester Creek’s estate in 1968, this sweet white was harvested on Nov. 11. This is intensely fruity with juicy peach, apple and pear flavours rounded out by floral and spice notes. The honeyed texture carries through to a refreshing finish, which makes for a good match for fruit based desserts, Danish blue cheese or gorgonzola. Drink now to 2025. Available direct through hestercreek.com.

Johnnie Walker Blue Label Scotch Whisky (Scotland), $309.95

Rating:94 /100

Hailed as a blend of Johnnie Walker’s rarest whiskies, rich and mellow Blue Label has a texture that’s beyond smooth. It’s soft and round, with layers of complex flavours suggesting honey, smoke, chocolate, citrus and raisin notes that carry through to the lingering smoky finish. Available in Ontario at the above price, $309.99 in British Columbia, various prices in Alberta, $317.99 in Saskatchewan, $299.99 in Manitoba and New Brunswick, $284 in Quebec, $359.99 in Nova Scotia, $310.19 in Prince Edward Island, $304.98 in Newfoundland.

Lagavulin 8 Year Old Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky (Scotland), $91.95

Rating:92 /100

Lagavulin 8 Year Old offers a light, smooth, and smoky character that shows distinctive Islay peat along with nutty, spicy and caramel notes. Adding water brings out some of the citrus notes to balance that classic rich and fragrant Lagavulin style. Available in Ontario at the above price, $89.99 in British Columbia, $85.49 in Saskatoon, $94.99 in Manitoba, $101 in Quebec, $90.19 in Prince Edward Island, $99.99 in Newfoundland.

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