You may have noticed that I write colour, flavour, neighbour with ‘U’s. I have something to admit: I’m Canadian. Due to popular demand, I am going to talk about Canadian wine, which is great, because French wine terrifies me but is traditionally spoken about first. But we laugh at the sight of rules, right? So I am going to privilege myself and talk about Canadian wine. I’m the writer here, I can do as I please! Besides, I am thinking that maybe those south-of-the-border would be interested in trying wines that aren’t from Napa!
Canada is relatively unknown in the world of wine, since we are all tuque-wearing beer-guzzling, hockey-playing Canucks. Or something. Actually, Canada produces some great wines in Ontario’s Niagara region and all the way on the other side in British-Columbia in the Okanagan region. I am most familiar with Okanagan wines since I have both visited this region and have drunk more of the wine since I worked in Alberta (the neighbouring province) and so that is what we will talk about today!
So as you can see on the map, our wine regions have two things in common: they are at opposite ends of the country and they are really close to the American border, for obvious regions. Canada is known for a few types of grapes in particular. Naturally, it is really difficult to grow wine in most of Canada because of the extreme weather. The Okanagan has grown grapes since the 1860s, mostly for sacramental wine, but it was in the 1990s when this region really began to produce some excellent wines.
The Okanagan at the 50th parallel is one of the most northerly wine regions, along with the Mosel region of Germany, so naturally hardier grapes that like the cooler weather are certainly in order. White grape varietals are typically the best, with some notable exceptions. Riesling, Pinot Gris, and Chardonnay are consistently good from this area. Red varietals such as vidal blanc, Baco noir, Marechal Foch and other strange French-American hybrids are also found in this region.
What Canadian wines are known for is Icewine (Eiswein auf Deutsch!). The name icewine really gives away the entire process. This is an expensive process for even a half bottle (think at least $50 for a good half-bottle). Since Canada has reliably cold winters, it is a leading producer of ice wines in the world. The grapes are picked at the dead of night in the middle of a frost and are crushed while they are still frozen. Since the water is frozen, a sugary and high acidity juice is released from the grapes.
The ice is thrown away, and as that water is normally kept for typical wine making, it makes a very small quantity relative to the number of grapes crushed. Since it is harvested so late in the year, the grapes have to survive rot and animals before the harvest even begins.
Icewine has a sweet flavour and it is most certainly a dessert wine; dark chocolate is an excellent accompaniment. Canadian ice wines are elegant studies in counterpuntal notes of sweetness and acidity. See what I did there? You can just throw ridiculous words out to sound like you know what you are talking about. Basically, what is so special about Canadian ice wines is that the Okanagan climate makes grapes with a nice, high level of acidity which balances the sweetness of the frozen grapes. This means the wine tastes elegant and has many layers of flavours and notes instead of just being cloyingly sweet. Think about how a strawberry rhubarb pie has the tartness that offsets the sweetness of the strawberries, versus a pecan pie which is just sweet (though delicious).
Recently, I drank an icewine and it was horrible. It was a 2004 Summerhill Pyramid Winery Estate Reserve Chardonnay. It had a gorgeous yellow-gold colour, but tasted like sickly sweet grapes with a hint of nuts. There was no acid to balance the sweetness so it was about as elegantly structured as banana-flavoured penicillin. The body was about the same too, come to think of it. It was really too bad. Although chardonnay can be made into an icewine, I am not so sure that it SHOULD be made into an icewine. Rieslings and vidal blanc are more common options. For a good reason, they have the body to handle the sweetness of this form of wine.
I found an excellent article about some great ice wines to try in a variety of price ranges if you are interested. NK’MIP (pronouced Nick-meep) is a great option for a lower priced bottle, as is Jackson-Triggs, although I am not particularly wild about this particular winery (also it is a Niagara wine). Some icewines from Canada that are common outside of the country include Inniskillin (both Okanagan and Niagara regions), Tinhorn Creek and Burrowing Owl.
So there you have it! A quick guide to the Okanagan and their ice wine! I will talk about a wine that has a very personal story attached to it next time.