Krista Lamb is emerging as an important commentator on Ontario's growing wine industry. You will find more of her insights on her blog: Upkeep: Wine Body and Soul.
Snuggling by the fire in a cozy hotel room, glasses of wine in hand, while snow swirls outside—it sounds like the perfect winter wonderland scenario. For visitors to Niagara's Icewine Festival, it’s a wonderfully possible way to spend a post-tasting evening. Wandering through the Icewine Village holding tasting glasses in your mittens, sharing Icewine marshmallows roasted over fire pits dotting a winery property, photographing stunning snow-covered vineyards, the Icewine Festival experience offers much for the seasoned wine traveller looking for something different.
For three weeks each winter, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario turns into an Icewine wonderland during the annual Icewine Festival. This year’s festival runs from January 15 to 31 (weekends only) and features more than 35 wineries, a gala event, cocktail competition, comedy festival and much, much more. Each weekend offers special Ice-Wine-themed events and the Main Street in Niagara-on-the-Lake is transformed into an Icewine Village offering samples from participating wineries and delicious bites from the best local restaurants. The 30’ ice bar is a special touch and over previous years fun ice sculptures have popped up along the street to ensure fun photo opportunities.
As, Janice Thomson, executive director of the Niagara-on-the-Lake Chamber of Commerce says, “It’s uniquely Canadian. It’s outdoors, it’s elegant and it’s fun. There’s great exposure to winemakers in their own environment.”
Canadian wine encompasses far more than Icewine, of course, but it’s a product for which the country has become renowned. And for local wine producers, who follow strict standards that include only picking and pressing Icewine grapes when temperatures dip below -10 to -13C (a process that often takes place in the middle of the night), it’s a point of pride. A grape frozen on the vine produces only a tiny drop of wine, so this magical elixir is difficult (and expensive) to make. But when it’s done well, as it so often is in Niagara, it’s worth every penny.
“In Canada, we have definitive seasons which really help us to produce award-winning Icewine. Those spring and summer seasons allow us to grow and ripen the grapes, then the consistently cold temperatures in winter help us freeze the grapes to perfection,” explains Inniskillin winemaker Bruce Nicholson, who has produced Icewine for more than 20 vintages. “When we press we get that small amount of concentrated juice that delivers that award-winning taste. I believe we get international recognition because Inniskillin has been delivering high-quality Icewine consistently over three decades.”
As part of the festival, participating wineries pair Icewine with everything from chocolate, to cheese to lobster bisque, creating delightful taste sensations that open visitors’ eyes to the versatility of this dessert tipple. At Inniskillin, Nicholson promises an especially unique opportunity. “Guests can enjoy taking a frozen Icewine grape from the vine – a true grape-to-glass experience,” he says.
One of the very special elements of the Icewine Festival is the focus on vintage Icewine by some producers. Pillitteri Estate Winery is well-known for offering a back vintage tasting, and in 2016 they will continue the tradition. Aged Icewine is a truly special treat, as each varietal offers unique characteristics and the flavours can be spectacular.
“Aged Icewine is a rare delicacy,” says Jeff Letvenuk, marketing and media manager for Pillitteri, the world’s largest estate Icewine producer. “Most Icewine is consumed within a year or two of its release, so it isn’t too often we find an older wine outside of our own wine library. What makes it so special is seeing how the wine has transformed from a young vibrant wine with bursting fruit flavours, to a smooth, creamy textured wine with almost a velvety mouth feel and candied notes. While both fresh young Icewine and aged Icewine offer a wonderful drinking experience, aged Icewine offers intricate and complex flavours wine lovers often love to explore.”
And, like with all the best wines, how an Icewine ages is completely different depending on the grape. “Aged Icewine offers a unique insight into the past. Like all wines, each varietal and style of Icewine will age differently,” Letvenuk explains. “The key to ageability of Icewine is the balance between sugar, acidity and alcohol. Each must be in perfect harmony and when they are, the wine can age for upwards of twenty years. This of course depends on the vintage. We have found that our Vidal Icewine age the longest and offer honey and toffee notes, while the Cabernet Icewine also age extremely well with notes of caramel and strawberries in older vintages.”
And newer vintages of Icewine also offer great insight into the area’s terroir. While British Columbia is also well-known for Icewine, Inniskillin’s Nicholson explains that the difference in growing season in Ontario creates a diverse wine experience. “One of the big differences is B.C.'s weather, which can be a little more unpredictable when it comes to creating Icewine. In Ontario there is always that cold weather to deliver the -10C temperatures we need to harvest. Both regions can produce world class Icewine, but for example, in B.C. last year they harvested on November 12th as they had an early cold snap. It was the earliest harvest in Inniskillin Okanagan's history.”
So how can you create your quintessential Icewine Festival experience? Organizers suggest booking early and several local hotels offer festival specials, including Vintage Hotel properties like Prince of Wales and Pillar and Post, both of which offer select rooms with fireplaces. And the Icewine Festival website is a great resource to decide what events and wineries fit your interests. You can purchase passes to experience eight winery tastings (or four each for those who wish to split a pass). Designated driver passes are available for non-drinkers who would still like to enjoy the food samples. And if you prefer not to drive, you can simply wander Main Street to do your tastings (most wineries are represented there) or purchase a ticket for one of the bus or limo services offering tasting tours in the region.
And there’s much to do in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Farm-to-table restaurants are common and top sommeliers offer impeccable dining experiences at restaurants like Treadwell and Escabeche. And the quaint town offers so many romantic or fun opportunities during the winter.
There really is so much to discover, says Kelly Exelby, general manager of the Prince of Wales Hotel and Spa. “Dress up for the weather and enjoy the beautiful scenery,” she suggests. “Or enjoy a horse-drawn carriage ride wrapped up in warm blankets drinking hot chocolate, going through the prettiest town.”
And if you’re worried about bad weather ruining your experience, organizers are quick to assure that they’re prepared – whether it be warmer than usual temp or extra snowy days, you can still have fun. “Some of the Festival components are indoors,” explains Thompson. “Winery tours and tastings are available every day of January. The outdoor festival goes ahead unless there are drastic weather conditions. This has happened on only one occasion in 21 years when we missed one day due to high wind."