Frozen nectar of the gods

Happy New Year one and all! I trust the holidays were great and you managed to sip a glass or two of some interesting vino.

Now that winter is officially upon us, my thoughts turn to icewine. This fascinating nectar of the gods is created from grapes that are naturally frozen on the vine in the dead of winter, picked by hand and crushed outside. Extremely labour-intensive, it is Ontario’s claim to fame on the vinous world stage.

We all know that icewine is sweet and rich, but the key to what makes a good one is the balancing acidity (sourness). Without enough of the sour component to counterbalance the rich sweetness, the wine is simply cloying. Ontario icewine certainly doesn’t lack in acid as we consistently have enough sub-zero temperatures to provide it.

As it is extremely sweet, most folks consider icewine a dessert or a match to sweet delectables. Straight up, after a meal, it’s fabulous. Because icewine is abundant in tropical fruit notes, it’s especially good matched with fruit-based desserts such as pies, tortes, flans and tarts. Pour some over fresh fruit cocktail, let it sit for a while and then indulge. Yummy! Drizzled over ice cream, it’s nirvana. With cookies and cakes, it sings. It’s one of the few wines that even holds up to chocolate. Older icewines, as they oxidize, become caramel-like with dried fruit and toffee nuances, so caramel-based flavours in dishes meld nicely. Just remember when matching icewine to dessert that the wine must be overall as sweet or preferably sweeter than the dish.

As great as it is with dessert, it’s actually much more versatile. Surprisingly, icewine works well with savoury dishes (salty, herbaceous or rich, not sweet). So examples like chicken liver paté with an onion marmalade on toast; a mixed endive salad with cranberry and blue cheese; and a chicory salad with candied salmon and French beans with a bacon and almond dressing are quite delightful with it. Try it with veiny, stinky cheese alone for a real taste sensation. The cheese will taste less salty and the wine less sweet, resulting in a third ethereal flavour that’s simply to die for.

Another food style it meshes well with is spicy or exotic cuisine. Somehow, the sweetness of the wine tames the heat, and as icewine often possesses exotic fruit notes, it pulls together with exotic flavours in food.

So icewine makes an admirable partner to such selections as confit duck with mostarda (Italian condiment made of candied fruit and a mustard flavoured syrup) with curried squash puree, cabbage leaves and roast onions; slow cooked pork shoulder with chili apple braised radish and spiced apple celery salad; and seared scallop with chili butter honey glaze with chestnuts and carrot puree. Check it out with Thai, Indian, Hakka Chinese and Mexican dishes for some wild flavour compatibility.One of the best ways in general to ensure that wine and food mesh is to use some of the wine that you are going to sip with the dish in the food preparation, thus pulling flavours together. In most cases, wine is reduced through cooking, eliminating alcohol and adding just a touch of its character. As icewine is low in alcohol, many chefs, however, try to add it somewhere along the food prep line so it isn’t cooked out.

As surprisingly versatile as icewine is, there is one major drawback. One does not usually consume more than a small glass of it at any one time, like one would when sipping a dry red or white with a meal. It’s simply too sweet and rich. So if you are planning on showcasing icewine’s versatility and food-friendliness, very small taste portions of both wine and food are preferable. Remember, the key here is to demonstrate wine/food compatibility, not send folks into sugar/cholesterol shock. Try some of these suggestions or something similar and shed some new light on this iconic Canadian wine’s versatility. Enjoy!

Edward Finstein, a.k.a. The Wine Doctor, is a wine writer, educator, judge &  consultant

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