The uses of icewine

Sue-Ann Staff unexpectedly attacked by a wine barrel

To Sopra for a lunchtime tasting of 18 icewines and a sort of live seminar of food-and-icewine matching organized by the Wine Council of Ontario for “Wine Country Ontario.” It turned out to be a fascinating few hours for the food-writing brigade and for the wine-writing fleet, who rarely get invited to the same event. Being neither fish nor fowl myself (I’ve always preferred to forage in the tidal areas where food and drink overlap) I know both groups. It was heartening to see how well they all got along, thanks, perhaps, to the charm and engagingly easy manner of our two hosts, Sue-Ann Staff, winemaker and proprietor of Sue-Ann Staff Estate Winery, who introduced the wines, and Jason Parsons, chef of Peller Estates. It was Parsons who determined the format of the tasting – taste nine icewines to demonstrate the range of the style, then nine more with accompanying food – some savoury dishes, some spicy, some sweet. The intention, of course, was to demonstrate that icewine had more versatility as a food wine than is generally thought to be the case. The experiment was a success.

            As chef of a winery, Parsons gets to play with icewine in the kitchen to his heart’s content. For January’s Icewine Festival, for example, he will marinate a whole sucking pig in icewine for two days before roasting it off. He also, famously and delectably, poaches lobster in icewine. Despite the fact that icewine is so very sweet (at least 35 brix – in other words, more than one third of the liquid is pure sugar (imagine that ratio in your cup of coffee)), this leaves neither meat inordinately sweet. Rather it brings out the natural sweetness of the pork or lobster. The very high acidity in icewine that balances all that concentrated sugar  has much more of an effect in the kitchen. Parsons even uses it to cure ceviche.

            It’s also the key in the dining room – as was demonstrated by the first confrontation. Sopra’s chef Massimo Capra had devised the menu but it was executed brilliantly for us by chef de cuisine Derek Von Raesfeld. Not every wine and food pairing was spectacular but there were more than enough bullseyes to allow the project to make its point. Here are the matches that impressed me most.

            A rich, smooth chicken liver paté coated in butter and strewn with grains of salt, served with a clove-scented, very sweet onion marmalade, was overpowered by two Riesling icewines (made me long for a Select Late Harvest) but was great with 2008 Harbor Estates Cabernet Franc Icewine. Why? The red icewine lacked the intensely tangy citrus kick of the Rieslings, offering red berry aromas instead and an illusion of lower acidity.

            Those two Riesling icewines worked much better with crumbled Bleu Elizabeth blue cheese served in a bitter endive leaf with dried cranberries. The sweetness of the wine and the intense saltiness of the cheese mute each other slightly, letting the wine’s fruit and the cheese’s more subtle flavours stand out. Like port and Stilton.

The spicy trio: (from left) duck confit with curried squash puree; seared scallop with chili butter honey glaze, chestnuts and carrot puree; slow-cooked Iberico pork cheek

            Icewine has a lovely ability to counterbalance intense spicing. Chef Parsons found this out by accident once when his kitchen accidentally over-spiced a piece of venison then sent it out into the dining room where he was introducing the match. The meat was too spicy to enjoy on its own, but paired with icewine, it worked beautifully.

So our next flight was of three spicy dishes with three different icewines. The epiphany was a duck confit with mostarda, curried squash purée, baby green cabbage leaves and caramelized roasted onions. All three icewines were delicious with it, each one muting what would otherwise have been an over-seasoned dish, but angels sang when I tasted the duck alongside Reif Estates Winery 2005 Vidal icewine. It reached right into my palate and dismantled the spicing in an extraordinary way, as if it were shining a bright yellow light on the recipe putting each flavour into sharp relief. But the same wine was too sweet and thick for another of the three savoury treats – a slow-braised Iberico pork cheek with chili-apple braised radish and spiced apple-celery salad. This time it was another red icewine, Hillebrand Showcase 2008 Cabernet Franc icewine, that lifted the spices away from the rich sweetness of the meat and spread them like a hand of cards.

The trio of desserts

            Throughout these experiments, the sweetness of the icewines was not an issue at all. The spicy seasoning or the saltiness of the food balanced the sugar out of the equation leaving the field to the acidity and the array of fresh fruit flavours that an icewine wears so beautifully.

            Three desserts had their own tales to tell. German apple cake with salted icewine caramel was overwhelmed by a young Riesling icewine, okay with a simpler Vidal icewine but absolutely lovely with an old icewine that had lost some of its sweetness and mellowed with age, the 1999 Mountain Road Company Vidal Icewine.

            Best match of this end of the meal was a pear poached in icewine and served with lots of dulce de leche and whipped vanilla mascarpone. This time the balance was absolutely perfect with the Peller Estates 2010 Vidal Icewine. I suspect that was the very wine in which the pear had been poached.

            In sum, everyone around the table agreed that our eyes had been opened to new uses for icewine beyond dessert. With blue cheese, certainly; with spicy duck; with richly braised and glazed meats. I’m tempted to open an icewine and try it with barbecued ribs or very hot buffalo wings. Could be interesting.

            Thanks to the Wine Council of Ontario for organizing the event and for the lovely parting gift – a white icewine aroma kit made by Wine Awakenings that contains samples of the 12 aromas most commonly found in white icewine, from passion fruit to raisins and caramel to kerosene. So interesting – and a good way to sharpen olfactory acuity. They will be on sale at Niagara wineries during the January Icewine Festival.

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