The world’s coldest, darkest harvest is time to celebrate how hardy our winter selves can be. Last weekend, we grabbed the chance to do that with friends at the Niagara Icewine Festival.
What is icewine? Until I moved 10 minutes from the Canadian border, I didn’t know either. Now I’ve tried this chilly wine-nectar. I’d call it the north’s (unfortified) answer to port. It can be served with dessert, but cheese or other savories cut the sweetness.
What’s really unique about icewine is how it’s made. Only at this time of year, when temperatures stay below 18 degrees, can the grapes can be harvested. Workers will go out around 2 a.m. to hand-pick frozen, shriveled grapes with stiff fingers. They’re trying both to avoid frostbite and to overcome exhaustion. And they never get milder picking nights—if it’s not cold enough, there’s no harvest.
At Inniskillin, our favorite winery of last weekend’s festival, my friend Alison and I tried the icewine grapes. The winemakers had left full yellow milk crates of fruit by the vines. They tasted like slushy raisins.
The contrast between the tough harvest and the decadent product struck me. There we were, sipping icewine with Prince Edward Island oysters and creamy poutine outside a Prairie School-style restored barn. At the next vineyard, Peller, we’d roast fist-sized homemade marshmallows over a fire with lots of other rosy-cheeked icewine fans.
Woodsmoke hung in the cold air both places. Sure, we were all braving the day outside, but it was plenty easier than harvesting the grapes on a bitter night.
Still, it’s only been five months since we moved north. Maybe next year I’ll volunteer for a night of frigid grape-picking. For now, standing outside in Canada in January drinking icewine that someone else harvested feels hardy enough.