The Indian summer of Niagara’s autumn followed by the early winter frosts and snowfalls create an environment in which grapes will naturally dehydrate, freeze, thaw, and ultimately freeze solid while hanging naturally on the vine. From the frozen depths of a Canadian winter and with the spirit of those who welcome it, we bring you Ice Syrup.
The idea came to Niagara-on-the- Lake grower Steve Murdza about nine years ago after bringing in a haul of frozen grapes. Instead of turning the sweet, concentrated berries into icewine, why not try making a nonalcoholic syrup? After all, fans of Niagara's signature dessert wine know it can be pretty thick and very sweet -- kind of like another Canadian favourite: maple syrup. So Murdza, a second-generation grape grower, set out to create what he hopes will be the next iconic Canadian product: Ice Syrup.
These grapes are then harvested and pressed while still frozen, yielding the intense flavour profile of Ice Syrup, uniquely created in the Niagara Peninsula. This fruit of winter has become legendary, characterized by naturally rich fruit flavours with an ideal sugar acid balance to match. Ice Syrup will take its place in the world as a Canadian one of a kind.
The product starts out the same as icewine: Grapes are kept hanging on the vine well into winter and are not picked until temperatures hit a minimum -8°C. Sweet and Sticky uses grapes that come from the growing regions of Niagara because, according to founder Steve Murdza, the location nestled between the escarpment and the lake helps Niagara to produce the best icewine and now Ice Syrup. Instead of letting the juice ferment into an alcoholic wine, the liquid is kept as pure grape juice. The Ice Syrup is produced by slowly evaporating freshly-pressed icewine juice until its sugar content and viscosity resemble that of maple syrup, the non-alcoholic product boasts a refreshing balance of sweetness and acidity.
“The Canadian maple syrup market is around 25 million litres a year. Current production of icewine is about 1.5 million litres. If Ice Syrup could capture even half of the market volume that maple syrup has achieved, it could really make a difference for Niagara’s grape growers”, Murdza points out.
To illustrate what he sees ahead for his new product, Murdza points to the example of balsamic vinegar, first introduced to the U.S. market in the late 1970’s. “Sales of balsamic in North America began with two thousand cases coming in a container load of products from Italy. Today, the global market for balsamic is more than two hundred million bottles a year, and it’s a ‘go-to’ product. We see the same type of opportunity for Ice Syrup if it’s supported".
The market certainly could grow. “We are hoping this product will help to pick up where icewine export sales have trailed off”, he notes. “As a food product, we see it being easier to market than wine. We believe Europeans will readily recognize the grape varieties in the syrups, and the non-alcoholic aspect will help to boost sales in the Middle East.”
Sweet & Sticky Ice Syrup was the brain child of Niagara businessman Steve Murdza. Murdza’s family has been growing grapes in the St. Davids area since the early days of hybrid and vitis vinifera grapes being planted in Ontario. “At one time, my father had two hundred acres of wine grapes on the go”, Steve notes, explaining that they were one of the first families to grow higher-quality wine grapes.
Today Murdza, who is also co-owner of Coyotes Run Winery in St. David’s, has a ten acre vineyard, and he plans to open a Niagara production plant and buy icewine juice from other growers as the market for Ice Syrup grows. Murdza is in partnership with his brother Peter, retired insurance broker Mike Berlis and Canadian wine icon Donald Ziraldo. And in early 2010, Sweet and Sticky launched two new Ice syrups: one produced from white Vidal grapes and another from red Cabernet Franc. "Ice Syrup is the first product of its kind in the world", Murdza said.
While Murdza has a big vision, he's starting off small, diligently pitching his product to gourmet food shops, wine critics and prominent chefs. In an effort to promote the syrup as a cooking ingredient, Murdza strategically distributed bottles to local chefs with the hopes they'll come up with unique uses for it. The sweet treat has already garnered interest from top Toronto chefs Susur Lee -- who has endorsed the product -- and Mark McEwan.
When asked how he likes to use Ice Syrup in cooking, Murdza recommends brushing pork tenderloin with a mixture of two tablespoons each of Ice Syrup and olive oil just before placing the meat on the grill. “The syrup adds complexity to any dish”, notes Murdza. “It’s not so strong that it takes over; rather its unique balance of sweetness and acidity provides a very interesting layer of flavour”, he adds, fondly remembering the results when Susur Lee drizzled Ice Syrup over a cooked, chili-glazed Ontario Bosc pear garnished with blue cheese and sweet cream.
"There's no strict use for this syrup, it has multiple uses and when you talk to a foodie person, right away they start to bring their own ideas to it," he said. "And that's what I think it'll take for this product to really take off -- people adopting it for their own use and own creations."