By DAVE DELUCA - For the Star Beacon
For wine lovers, ice wine is a rare treat. Made from grapes frozen on the vine, the result is a nectar-sweet, but slightly tart wine that pairs perfectly with desserts, appetizers and even some main courses.
During the first three weekends in March, thousands of wine, food and winter fun aficionados from many miles around will converge on Grand River Valley wineries in Harpersfield and Madison for the 10th annual Ice Wine Festival.
Ice wine making goes back to ancient Rome. German ‘eiswein’ was the internationally popular favorite for centuries, but over the past 40 years Ontario ice wines have taken the top spot in sales and reputation.
Now Grand River Valley ice wines are making waves. They’ve won awards. The reason for this is the Grand River Valley’s unique growing microclimate, situated between the Grand River and Lake Erie, with glacial soil, hot summers and cold winters.
This year’s festival is sponsored by Debonne Vineyards and Chalet Debonne Winery, Grand River Cellars Winery, St. Joseph’s Vineyards, Laurello Vineyards, South River Vineyards and Ferrante Ristorante and Winery. They’ll not only be uncorking their ice wines, but also serving gourmet appetizers and giving away crafted glasses.
Ice wine sampling will start at noon and end at 5 p.m. on March 2, 9 and 16 at each participating winery. The cost is $6 per patron per winery, or $5 if the patron brings a canned food item for donation to local food banks. Although not an event sponsor, South River Vineyards will be offering ice wine samples. There are also plenty of free events scheduled. An Ice Wine Festival Queen will be named at a March 2 coronation.
Debonne Vineyards will be offering samples of their vidal blanc ice wine and barrel fermented ice wine. There will be a variety of blue cheese appetizers. Dog sledding, ice sculpture and other winter events will be happening. A progressive dinner is being offered March 1, 8 and 15.
Grand River Cellars Winery will be offering ice wine samples, blue cheese mousse appetizers, wine jelly samples and an ice wine marshmallow roast. There’s also a progressive dinner on Fridays before samplings.
Laurello Vineyards will feature their ice wine paired with thyme-topped savory bacon crostini and goat cheese mousse appetizers. There’s a beach glass and pottery show.
At St. Joseph’s Vineyards, ice wine samples will be paired with pound cake drizzled with maple syrup. There will be a maple syrup demonstration and an art show.
Ferrante Ristorante and Winery will be pairing vidal blanc ice wine and carbonated raspberry blanc samples with peach ricotta ravioli. There will be a cooking demonstration with Chef Nina and a gourmet three-course dinner each Friday before sampling days.
South River Vineyards will be serving samples of its Concord and cabernet sauvignon blush ice wines, and giving away specially made wine glasses.
This year’s harvest of ice wine grapes came late, but it is expected to be one of the best ever. It must be around 17 degrees for three consecutive days for the grapes to freeze just right and that happened in the middle of January. An exceptionally hot summer with little rain and lots of sun made for a good yield.
“This year’s ice wines should be great,” Ferrante Ristorante and Winery winemaker and co-owner Nick Ferrante said. “We had nature on our side, and it could be one of the best vintages ever.”
Making ice wine is labor intensive and yields are small, less than 20 percent of harvest. The frozen grapes are usually not much bigger than raisins. The juice from these grapes is extremely sweet so the work to get it is worth the effort.
According to South River Winery owner Gene Segal, ice wines are a niche wine, but very popular now.
“Ice wines from the Grand River Valley region are truly great,” he said. “And they are much more affordable than Ontario ice wines, usually a fraction of the cost.”
Niche wines or not, Grand River Valley ice wines are unique local treasures. And although not as famous as the fall harvest’s Grape Jamboree, the winter harvest’s 10th annual Ice Wine Festival is a unique local treasure too.