Canada is known as one of the world’s top producers of Icewine, a sweet yet refreshingly acidic dessert wine. However, Canadian wineries like Pillitteri Estates are increasingly producing other quality white and red wines.
More colder climate countries are producing good wines these days and it has nothing to do with global warming.
For example, take Ontario in Canada, which is known for producing some of the world’s finest Icewines. For the past quarter of a century, its Niagara Peninsula wineries have also been producing other wines of increasingly good quality, despite being so far north. People might be surprised to learn the Niagara Peninsula is on the same latitude as Burgundy, Tuscany and Oregon – all producers of fantastic wines.
However, even though Ontario is in the world’s wine belt, it does have a cooler climate than places like Burgundy and Tuscany, so the strategy to produce good quality wines involves finding grapes than can thrive in lower temperatures.
Ontario’s Pillitteri Estates Winery produces several such wines and to discuss some of them, its Export Manager/Sommelier Allison Slute, along with Monarq Distributors Caribbean Regional Director Geoffrey Markle and BlackBeard’s Wine Sales Manager Jodie Petts sat down to taste four different wines over dinner at Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink at Camana Bay.
Pillitteri is a family winery that was opened in 1993 by Gary Pillitteri, who immigrated to Canada from Sicily in 1948. The winery is now run by members of his family.
The winery adheres to the standards of the Vintner’s Quality Alliance, and the VQA logo is on every bottle of its wine.
Markle said Pillitteri uses 100 per cent estate-grown grapes and that everything from the vineyards to the bottling is done at the winery.
“Doing everything in house gives us an edge in quality,” he said.
The Pillitteris started growing grapes in the late 1970s and prior to opening the winery, they sold grapes to Inniskillin, probably the most well known of Niagara Icewine producers.
“We are farmers and we are wine makers, but we were farmers first,” said Markle.
When it comes to Chardonnay, oak is out. The ubiquitous oaky and buttery California Chardonnays that were all the rage in the 1980s and 1990s are falling from favour and unoaked Chardonnay – fermented and aged in stainless steel tanks – is the new trend.
Pillitteri Estates produces a quintessential unoaked Chardonnay under its Twenty-Three label. Without barrel aging, this Chardonnay is not only light in colour, but also crisp and refreshing with flavours of golden apples, ripe pears and citrus.
The lack of oak also makes the wine more food-friendly, able to pair with everything from seafood to chicken and vegetables.
Sampled this evening was the 2010 vintage, one that Slute said was particularly good.
“2010 in Niagara was a great vintage overall for Chardonnay,” she said.
Because of the cool climate, grapes grown in Niagara don’t get overripe, allowing the wine-makers to make lower alcohol wines,
“In all of our wines, the alcohol is in check,” said Slute.
The Twenty-Three Chardonnay has an alcohol content of 12.5 per cent, making it a great all day-wine – good for lunch, for sipping by the pool on a sunny day, for happy hour by the ocean or with dinner.
On this evening, it paired well with the char-grilled octopus with roasted peppers, tomatoes and torn herbs.
Priced at only $17.49 retail, this is a good value wine suitable for everyday drinking.
Pillitteri also grows Riesling and Gewürztraminer grapes, both of which grow well in the cool climate of Niagara. These wines have both enjoyed increased sales in North America because of their easy-drinking, food-friendly characteristics.
Pillitteri’s wine ‘Fusion’ ($17.49) is a blend of 49 per cent Riesling and 51 per cent Gewürztraminer that has an alcohol content of only 11.5 per cent.
Fragrant with floral aromas and notes of exotic fruits, Fusion is ever-so-slightly sweet with crisp acidity, making it an easy drinking wine for any time of the day. It offers flavours of golden apple, white peach and melon, with a slightly oily mouth feel, typical of the varietals.
“It’s our number one selling wine in the US,” said Slute.
Fusion is perfect for seafood, including smoked salmon, spicy cuisine, and with Asian foods ranging from sushi to Thai. It was a fantastic pairing with Michael’s Genuine’s sweet and crispy pork belly with kimchi, one of the restaurant’s signature dishes.
Although more known for Icewines and white wines, red wine grapes also grow in Niagara to varying degrees of success. One grape variety that does particularly well is Cabernet Franc, said Markle.
“It’s a little more resilient than other varietals,” he said. “It’s a good grape for the region.”
Pillitteri also produces wines from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, but only its Cabernet Franc is available in Cayman ($20.49).
For dinner at Michael’s, a Pillitteri wine that isn’t currently available in Cayman was sampled, the Family Reserve award-winning 2002 Trivalente, a blend of 50 per cent Cabernet Franc, 30 per cent Merlot and 20 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon.
“This is very much a Right Bank Bordeaux blend,” said Slute. “In a blind tasting, it would be hard to pick out.”
Produced only in superior vintages, the 2002 Trivalente had spicy aromas with hints of black fruits and chocolate. The spices also came through on the pallet, as did flavours of blueberries and earthy flavours of tobacco and leather.
The wine was tried with Michael’s wood-roasted Niman Ranch rib eye steak and with the grilled Catalan-style local tuna, the later a piece of fresh grilled tuna placed on a stew-like bed of roasted tomatoes, chorizo sausage and fingerling potatoes. The Trivalente was good with the tuna and great with the steak.
Although Canadian Icewine is sweet like Sauternes and other dessert wines, it is made much differently and as a result has much different characteristics.
Unlike Sauternes, which relies on noble rot or botrytized grapes to concentrate sweetness in the grapes’ juice, Icewine gets its sweetness from the grapes that are frozen naturally on the vine. When pressed immediately after harvesting, these grapes release a thick, concentrated liquid that is the key to Icewine.
Canada and Germany, the two largest producers of Icewine, both have strict standards on the temperature conditions that must exist before the grapes can be harvested. In Germany, the temperature must be -7˚ Celsius or lower, while in Canada it has to be -8˚ Celsius or lower for at three straight days before harvesting can begin, Slute said.
“The can happen as early as December and as late as February,” she said. “What we do is try to wait as long a possible. The longer the grapes stay on the vine, the more dehydrated they become and the more concentrated the flavours.”
Because the grapes stay on the vine so long, there’s much higher risk that weather hazards or animals could destroy the crop. In addition, if the sugar level of the grapes isn’t at least 35° Brix, they cannot used for Icewine and instead are used to produce less expensive wines.
Those factors, combined with a much lower yield because of the process, makes Icewine considerably more expensive than standard table wine, but the process creates a wine that is much different that other dessert wines.
“What makes Icewine unique is that its acidity is much higher than other sweet wines,” Slute said.
Petts noted that Icewine is drier than people expect it to be.
“There’s a dryness to the finish,” she said. “It’s not cloying; it’s sweet, but tangy.”
Rather than aromas of raisins and dried apricots so typical of dessert wines, Icewine offers aromas of fresh fruits like pineapple, peach, and passion fruit. It is, however, still a dessert wine so it goes best at the end of a meal.
To try it out, several desserts were sampled with Pillitteri Estates 2007 Icewine Vidal ($46.95) including sticky toffee pudding, Michael’s Genuine’s renowned chocolate peanut butter candy bar with buttered popcorn ice cream; pie in a jar; and a trio of ice cream flavours. In the end, Markle thought one of the best pairings was with the goat cheese ice cream.
“Cheese in general is a good match with Icewine,” he said.