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Keeping cool The Niagara Icewine Festival remains on track despite an unusually warm season

If God gives you lemons, make lemonade; if God gives you ice, make icewine. It all makes terrific sense when you think about it.

But this year is different. This year, wine lovers are asking, "Where's the ice?" Given the record warmth on the Niagara Frontier this winter, they certainly can't be blamed for wondering how the annual Icewine Festival on Ontario's Niagara Peninsula is going to be pulled off next week.

Very easily, it turns out. Very easily.

Last year was a cold year, and it's the 2005 wine that we'll all be drinking.

This is the 12th annual festival that has been held to celebrate all aspects of the special wine that is created from grapes purposefully left on the vine until the temperature reaches about 17 degrees Fahrenheit. This cold air concentrates the sugars, and the grapes are picked and pressed in their wizened, frozen state to produce a golden nectar that can sell for about $30 for a 375 milliliter bottle at the wineries. (It may cost less for Americans at the duty free.)

The wine is mostly served as a dessert or after-meal treat, but it's a fine accompaniment to blue cheese, too. And the French (or the Quebecois) would probably enjoy it with foie gras.

The precious stuff was once the exclusive product of Germany and Austria, where it is known as Eiswein, but it's now one of the best known products of Canada, as well.

"Canadian icewines have almost mythic status," Karen MacNeill writes in her "Wine Bible." "As the frozen grapes are pressed, the sweet, high-acid, concentrated juice is separated from the ice.

"The ice is thrown away, and the resulting wine is made solely from the super-intense juice. As a result, the greatest icewines possess an almost otherworldly contrapuntal tension between acidity and sweetness, making drinking them an ethereal sensation."

>Grapes wait

"We're the only area in the world that can produce icewine consistently every single year, says Sherri Haigh of the Wine Council of Ontario. In Ontario, icewines are produced not only from white grapes such as Reisling and Vidal but also from red grapes such as Gamay and Cabernet Franc. There's also a sparkling ice wine.

"This may have been the warmest year on record," Haigh says. "But we've often picked in mid-January, sometimes even into February." (It's all very dramatic. Everyone listens to the weather, and the picking is always done at night, when special crews get called in at the last minute to maintain the frozen conditions.)

Though some wineries on this side of the border have given up on the idea of icewine this year, picking all their grapes unfrozen last month, the berries still hang on the vines in Canada -- or at least they did as of earlier this week.

Brian Kroeker of the Niagara Grape and Wine Festival says that about 90 percent of the 2006 crop is still out there, patiently waiting for the vineyards to cool off.

"This warm weather won't hurt those grapes," he says.

>Growing strong

No wonder he is optimistic. The Niagara Icewine Festival has grown in strength and length for 11 years; this year it will run from next Friday through Jan. 28. More than 25 wineries are involved, and the festival is so packed with seminars, tastings, ice bars, tours and dinners that not everything can be listed here. (See accompanying list of some highlights.)

On the first weekend, the focus is on West Niagara from Beamsville to St. Catharines, with the Twenty Valley Icewine Bar in Jordan Village and a number of special winemakers' dinners.

On the second weekend, the spotlight moves to Niagara-on-the-Lake, with an Icewine Lounge meandering down Queen Street complete with ice tables and chairs -- if you can't stand the heat, you can stay in this kitchen.

Also, on the grounds of the Shaw Festival Theatre, visitors will see Gordon Halloran's "Paintings Below Zero," an installation where frozen paintings of all colors are created using copper piping and a freezer plate system.

Halloran invented this new art form in the early '90s, and his work was featured at the 2006 Olympic Winter Games in Torino.

Please note that most participating wineries are open daily from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the Icewine Festival. There's a Niagara Icewine Discovery Pass available for $30 (Canadian funds) per person; the pass, which can be purchased at participating wineries, provides complimentary admission to many tastings.

Salud.

***

WHAT: Niagara Icewine Festival

WHERE: Various locations on the Niagara Peninsula

WHEN: Next Friday through Jan. 28

INFO: www.niagarwinefestival.com or (905) 688-0212

e-mail: jokun@buffnews.com

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