A blog devoted to exploring wines made from unusual grape varieties and/or grown in unfamiliar regions all over the world. All wines are purchased by me from shops in the Boston metro area or directly from wineries that I have visited. If a reviewed bottle is a free sample, that fact is acknowledged prior to the bottle's review. I do not receive any compensation from any of the wineries, wine shops or companies that I mention on the blog.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Cabernet Sauvignon Ice Wine - Niagara Peninsula, Canada

Cabernet Sauvignon is almost certainly the most well known red wine grape on earth which ordinarily would fall well out of bounds for a site focused on unusual wines.  Part of what makes a wine unusual for me, though, is the style that it is made in, and today's wine definitely fits the bill for unusual styles.  The wine that I'd like to take a look at today is an ice wine made from Cabernet Sauvignon, which certainly isn't all that common, but the more I thought about it, the more I started to realize that wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon in general fall into a very narrow range of styles.  This is true of a lot of wine grapes, but seems to be especially true of Cabernet Sauvignon.  The range of styles available for a given wine made from a given grape are generally much wider than most people realize, but with the exception of grapes like Pinot Noir or Chardonnay, most of the great wine grapes of the world are made into a very limited number of styles.  Why might that be?.

Let's stick with the example of Cabernet Sauvignon, which tends to be made into big, powerful red wines everywhere it is grown, though the possibility certainly exists for it to be made into sparkling wine, white wine or even dessert wine.  The reason wines from this grape (and most other grapes you can think of) tend to be made in the same style all over the world is probably two-fold.  On the production side of things, Cabernet Sauvignon has been grown for centuries and over that time period, people figured out that to make Cabernet Sauvignon into the best wine possible, it really needed to be treated a certain way and made into a certain kind of wine.  You can make sparkling wine from Cabernet Sauvignon, but the best example you can make in that style is never going to be as good as the best still red wine made from those same grapes.  Grapes have certain characteristics that make them good for some application and not so good for others and, over time, producers have recognized these characteristics and have found the best ways to accent the positive while downplaying the negative.

The other part of the equation involves the consumer.  Wine makers aren't able to determine which styles of wine best fit an individual grape without some idea of who is ultimately going to be drinking the wine.  Let's imagine four different wineries putting four wines (one from each winery) made from Cabernet Sauvignon on the shelf, one as a still white wine, one as a sparkling wine, one as a fortified wine and one as a regular red wine.  If the winery making the still red wine sells out of their wine right away while the other wineries struggle to sell theirs, you can bet that by the time the next harvest rolls around, the other three wineries will devote at least some of their efforts to making a wine like the one that everybody wanted to buy.  Pretty soon all of the wineries are copying this style and the market is flooded with still red wine and few other styles for this one grape.  Consumers try wines made from the same grape but from different wineries in different regions that are all stylistically very similar, and they eventually come to identify this style with the grape itself.  The consumer then has a certain kind of expectation about a wine made from Cabernet Sauvignon and many are resistant to variations on that one style.

Which isn't to say that I think any of this is a bad thing.  The collective wisdom of centuries of wine making and wine drinking has generally not led us astray.  The great wines of the world are typically those that fit into these kinds of molds or conform to these kinds of standards.  Fortunately, though, this collective wisdom doesn't equate into dogma and even in places where the lawmakers limit the available possibilities for winemakers by dictating varieties and styles, there are ways to circumvent these regulations.  There are still winemakers who will poke at traditions and perform experiments and there are still wine drinkers who will indulge and even revel in these breaks from the norm and as long as these things continue to happen, I should have enough material to keep this blog alive for a long time.

As mentioned above, today's wine is an ice wine, which is a style that is definitely limited by a winemaker's geography.  In order for a wine to be a true ice wine, the grapes must be picked from the vine and then pressed while they are naturally frozen.  As you might imagine, this isn't possible in some of the warmer areas of the world, but maybe not for the reason you'd think.  Let's think about a hot place like Spain, where I'm pretty sure nobody is actually making ice wine.  You might think that ice wine isn't possible in Spain because it doesn't get cold enough for the grapes to freeze, but that's not necessarily true.  The temperature does drop below freezing occasionally in warm climates, but the problem with making ice wine in Spain is that by the time the climate gets cold enough to freeze, the grapes are way overripe and have probably either rotted, raisined or fallen completely off the vine.  Their growing is season is very hot, so the grapes ripen very quickly and reach their peak ripeness well before the temperature gets cold enough for them to freeze.  In places at more extreme latitudes, the growing season is less warm overall and the grapes ripen much more slowly so that by the time it gets cold enough to cause grapes to freeze, these grapes are closer to being ripe and have maintained much more of their acidity than their counterparts in warmer parts of the world.

Today's wine is from the Niagara Peninsula of Canada, which is just over the border from Buffalo, NY.  This is southern by Canadian standards and the climate here is moderated a bit by Lake Erie and Lake Ontario which border it to the south and north respectively, so while it's warmer than say the Yukon territory, it's still pretty cool by wine-growing region standards.  There is table wine production here, mostly from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but the region's best known export is probably their ice wines.  Most ice wines are made from high-acid white grapes like Riesling or Vidal Blanc, but there are some red ice wines made as well.  I have occasionally come across some ice wines made from Cabernet Franc, but I had never seen one made from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes until this one.

The wine I tried was a 200 mL bottle of the 2006 Lakeview Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon ice wine.  I received this as a gift from a family member who was in Canada a few months back (retail on this website is around $11).  In the glass this wine was a fairly light tawny color that had a kind of purple-brown hue to it.  The nose was moderately intense and fruity with aromas of strawberry jam, figs, raisins and dried strawberries.  On the palate the wine was medium bodied with very high acidity.  It was very sweet with flavors of freeze-dried strawberries, black raspberries, tart cherries, and raisins.  It was light and berryish overall with a lot of red fruits and dried fruits.  It was bright and zippy, which is an excellent quality in a wine this sweet, as it provided a very nice kind of balance.  I would imagine that these icewines are the winery's "Plan B" for those years where the growing season isn't warm enough to ripen these Cabernet grapes completely.  It's definitely a side of this grape that you don't get to see that often, and I found it very interesting and enjoyable.

No comments: