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Monday, November 13, 2006

13 November 2006

Would you like some Ice-wine? What a suitable name, I thought - ice and Canada - two synonyms of the Winter Wonderland. This was my first encounter with Canadian wines, an encounter that after some days developed into an unexpectedly pleasant experience. I soon learned that Ice-wine does not have much to do with ice, more than that this particular wine is only the tip of the iceberg of Canadian wines – Canada produces plenty of high-quality wines; Gewürztraminer, Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir & Blancs, to name some of them.

The Niagara Peninsula, just south of Lake Ontario, draws my mind to the South of France. If I wouldn’t know where in the world I was, Mediterranean France would be my first guess. The deep-blue lake in the horizon, rolling hills and vineyards forming symmetric patterns make the atmosphere romantic, and yes, you get thirsty!

It is when I discover that this region is on the same latitude as Tuscany and has sizzling hot summers that I start to understand why wine producing makes sense – today there are 66 wineries in the Ontario province, most of them on the Niagara Peninsula. The region can not boast with an as longstanding tradition of producing good quality wines as the familiar oldies, Italy, France or Spain. Although Johann Schiller, a retired German soldier introduced his expertise from Rhine and planted 400 acres of grapes in the region in 1811, it was not until the mid seventies that the modern era of wine making started. After almost 50 years of moratorium on producing wine, the pioneering partners Donald Ziraldo and Karl Kaiser were granted licence to produce and sell wine. In the 1980s the so far unsuccessful native grapes were replaced by European grapes and the number of wineries rapidly increased as the government provided financial support. Today fine grape varieties are grown and a variety of wines are produced, but it is only the Icewine which really has made it outside North America. So far.

One hour south of Toronto, the region makes a perfect daytrip away from the city. For those interested in sipping different wines for a day, a wine route can be enjoyed by bike. Some of the vineries have restaurants serving dishes made of local produce, composed to match the wines of the producer. We had our lunch in the shadows beneath a huge chestnut tree, surrounded by plum and apple trees and grapes as far as the eye could see.

After a wine tour you are likely to end up with boxes of wine wondering how you will manage to bring them on the plane back home. You will feel that you have discovered a gem which, if it was not for the absence of Canadian wines abroad, would compete with the French Chardonnay, Italian Chianti and Spanish Rioja. Even if a variety of wines come out of the region, quantities are still relatively small and only sold in North America (except very few specialist retailers in other countries), making Canadian wines to a sophisticated and well-kept secret.

If you happen to be here in winter, you will be surprised to see that they pick frostbitten grapes. Riesling Seyval Blanc and Vidal Blanc grapes are usually used for making the deliciously sweet Ice-wine (similar to Moscatel) – and given that it is made using frostbitten grapes, it is perhaps a bit closer to what I had expected in terms of wine from Canada!