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Pure Nectar from Frozen Grapes.

I was hooked the minute the sweet nectar that is Canadian icewine first passed my lips a few years ago. The sweet, intense flavors linger long after they burst onto your tongue and jolt your senses awake. Paired with bitter dark chocolate, the luscious flavors become at once richer and more satisfying; this combination has since become, heretically, my definition of a little slice of heaven on earth.

Peller Estates is one of the few vineyards to produce authentic icewine, and Greg Berti, Peller’s vice president of Estate Wineries and Global Markets, hosted a wine-tasting session on campus last Wednesday evening. Jointly organized by the Wine and Cuisine Society and the Canadian Club, the event was a sell-out, attracting 30 HBS students and partners.

Icewine is luxury in a bottle; nothing this good could ever come cheap which is sadly reflected in its price. Each of Peller’s 350ml bottles of icewine retails for about $60 to $70.

The process of producing icewine is long and complicated, which is reflected in the price. As Berti explained in his overview of the icewine-making process, grapes are left on the vines over winter until late December or January. The frosty conditions freeze and thaw the grapes repeatedly, producing a concentration of sugars in the grapes. The vines are only harvested when the temperature drops to ten degrees Celsius, generally in the middle of the night.

Once harvested, the frozen grapes are immediately pressed, yielding about one drop of the syrupy liquid per grape, which is a minuscule amount (about 1/10 of the yield from ordinary grapes). The concentrated juice goes through weeks of fermentation, followed by months of barrel aging. The resulting icewine is sweet, exquisitely flavorful and aromatic, with an alcohol content of about 10 percent. Niagara Peninsula near Lake Ontario in Canada, where Peller Estates and the majority of other icewine producers are based, is one of the rare regions providing ideal weather conditions for producing icewine: cold enough to freeze the grapes but not destroy them completely.

Several varieties of grapes are used to make icewine, the most common of which are Cabernet Franc, Riesling and Vidal Blanc. We sampled icewines from all three grape varieties during the course of the evening. The Cabernet France icewine was the most delicate, tasting and smelling of sweet berries, and it paired delightfully with the chocolate-coated strawberries offered on each table. The Riesling icewine proved more robust on the palate, but had a wonderful aroma of ripe peaches and honey. According to Berti, it pairs well with pate or foie gras, blue-veined cheeses and spicy Asian cuisine. Rich, citrus notes were evident in the oak-aged Vidal Blanc icewine which pairs well with desserts, creme caramel and soft cheeses.

As a dessert wine, icewine is divine, but the highlight of the evening was the introduction of icewine topped with sparkling Brut as an aperitif. The sparkling wine offset the intense sweetness and acidity of the icewine and proved remarkably refreshing on the palate. Definitely a great tip for the next party!

January 30, 2006
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