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harvey steiman at large

Unexpected Wines and Matches

Sparkling ice wine, anyone? An old brut and a Syrah show well with a homecooked meal for friends
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Nov 13, 2012 2:30pm ET

I am not certain how I came into possession of a 375ml bottle of Canadian sparkling ice wine, let alone how it languished in my cellar for almost a decade. Good friends were coming for dinner, and I had already chosen some fizz for before dinner and a Washington Syrah to drink with the main course. (More about those a bit later.) I wanted something light and pretty to go with the planned dessert, a rather light version of sticky toffee pudding (a cakelike British dessert).

As I rummaged through the dessert wines, my eye caught the golden label of the Inniskillin Sparking Ice Wine Vidal Niagara Peninsula 2001. Maybe it was the British Isles association (it's named after a place in Ireland). Maybe I just figured the effervescence might lighten up the wine's natural sweetness and make a good match with the dessert.

Of course, it was also a 10-year-old sparkling wine. It could have been over the hill, or flat. But it worked. The honeyed apricot and pineapple fruit got a nice lift from the gentle carbonation. The color had darkened nicely but still had a golden vibrancy. And the level of sweetness cuddled up with the pudding, which I garnished with halved fresh black figs. Non-blind, I rated it 91 points.

Vidal is a hybrid grape that has proven to be well-suited to the sometimes frigid climate in Canada and the northeastern U.S. I've had some decent dry and lightly sweet versions, but the grape seems to show its best when it makes a sweet, concentrated wine like the ice wine. The Inniskillin winery has made a name for itself with its ice wines, and this one showed why.

The sparkling wine we started with, Argyle Brut Knudsen Vineyard 1998, had been in the cellar for almost as long. The wine was released in 2005. I was afraid this would have lost its charm, but seven years after being disgorged it still had a fine texture, a lovely nutty edge to the creamy, toasty flavors, finishing with delicacy (90 points, non-blind). We drank it happily with toasts topped with prosciutto and mozzarella.

With my main course of chicken thighs braised with green chiles and coconut, most of us would probably reach for a white wine because of the chiles, but unsweetened coconut makes a wonderful match with full-bodied red wines. A chemical component of the coconut helps tame the tannins, and it doesn't clash as you think it might.

Betz Syrah Columbia Valley La Serenne 2006, now that it has 3 1/2 years in the cellar, bloomed beautifully in the glass. It started off with an earthy twang on the finish, but after an hour or so in the decanter those flavors went away and the rich plum and blueberry fruit came forward, underlined with meaty, savory notes. The wine was always elegant, but it has added depth (93 points, non-blind).

And yes, the match with the chicken dish folded together seamlessly. Syrah is as flexible a wine matcher as there is among red wines.

Michael Bonanno
CT —  November 14, 2012 9:54am ET
Sounds like a great evening with friends. Harvey, the 98 Knudsen reminded me of a 99 Tirage I just had the other night. It was wonderful, and it showed a slight cider note on the finish that made me wonder if it had lost some luster. Not that it was flat, but it was not as energetic as when I had it a few years ago. I think I preferred this most recent expression actually, as I feel it was more complex across the board. I hope Im not a fan of fading Bubbly. . .
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  November 14, 2012 10:33am ET
Michael, I normally don't prefer sparkling wines that have been in my cellar too long, and seven years is not what I had planned for this one. But this was an iffy bottle that turned out OK. (Always have a backup...)
Steve Trachsel
Poway, Ca. —  November 14, 2012 7:54pm ET
Visited Inniskillin after being traded to toronto in 2000. Beautiful area and was my introduction to ice wine.
Jason Thompson
Foster City, CA —  November 16, 2012 11:03am ET
Wow! The "Human Rain Delay" is on WS. Very cool.

I opened a 1992 Beringer Reserve Sparkling Wine (might have been called a Champaign before it was illegal to due so) sometime in 2004. I thought it was fantastic. Not quite the same scenario, but still a white that should have been way over the hill. The nutty character took center stage, but it still had enough acidity to wow the crowd.

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