Perfect for a winter getaway, this scenic region within easy reach of Toronto offers friendly welcomes and impressive wines, says Julian Hitner...

For the quintessential Canadian wine experience, the annual Niagara Icewine Festival is in a league of its own. Held over three weeks every January, this most frigid of fêtes is the perfect starting point for exploring the Niagara Peninsula, currently one of the world’s hottest cool-climate regions.

Nestled between Lake Ontario to the north, Lake Erie to the south (the 228m Niagara Escarpment in between) and the bucolic yet commanding Niagara River to the east, the peninsula has for more than 20 years been celebrated for its icewine. The best versions are crafted from Riesling, with less expensive examples fashioned from the white hybrid Vidal Blanc. Indeed, there is nothing more Canadian than bundling up in one’s warmest garments, possibly for temperatures reaching as low as -20°C, and sipping these world-class dessert wines at the height of the snow season.

Each weekend during the festival, the main street of Niagara-on-the-Lake – one of southern Ontario’s most quaintly picturesque 19th century towns – is transformed into a wondrous outdoor wine tasting. The frozen temperatures, snow drifts and occasional icy tumble onto the ground are integral parts of the experience. With plenty of hot drink stations and indoor cafés, delicious local foods and magnificent ice sculptures, there is something joyous about judiciously downing Niagara’s sweetest elixirs and braving the elements all at once.

Beyond icewine

Yet in recent years, icewine has taken a back seat to the extraordinary progress that local producers have made with their dry reds, whites and sparkling wines. For many, Riesling, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the region’s future, the finest garnering global attention – including at the Decanter World Wine Awards.

In general, the best examples come from the Niagara Escarpment, particularly Beamsville Bench and Twenty Mile Bench, a 35-minute drive from Niagara-on-the-Lake. An unhurried visit at Hidden Bench is a must – its owner Harald Thiel is ferociously committed to producing the greatest possible artisanal Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling (plus several fine Bordeaux blends). Less than 10km down the road is Tawse Winery, home to some of the greatest Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc (a minor specialty) in the region.

Most wineries in Niagara are eagerly, and graciously, open to visitors throughout the year, though tours should always be booked in advance. Tasting fees are usually waived if a bottle is purchased.

Not far away is Cave Spring Cellars, which offers many of its fine wines at the well-known Inn on the Twenty restaurant next door. However, for a uniquely Canadian experience, White Meadows Farms is only a 15km drive away. Here you can take a guided weekend tour of the sugar bush in February, March, July and August to discover how maple syrup is made – and of course taste all sorts of maple products, with or without pancakes.

Less than 3km to the north is Henry of Pelham, a pioneer winery and producer of Baco Noir, a red hybrid of fascinating chewiness and flavour. The estate’s vintage blanc de blancs and Riesling icewine are also excellent.

Like most other wine regions, local growers here are increasingly embracing organic and biodynamic viticulture. Presently, the only fully biodynamic winery is Southbrook, located on Niagara Stone Road off the Queen Elizabeth Way. While the Chardonnays show great sense of place, the Poetica red Bordeaux blend is a showstopper.

Year-round attractions

The annual International Cool-Climate Chardonnay Celebration has become a fixture in Niagara every July, with producers from all over the world descending on the peninsula for a weekend of events. Without question, Burgundian-type Chardonnay has made significant headway in the region over the past several years. With warmer and greener settings for outdoor dining, some may prefer this time of year to visit than January.

In large part, Niagara’s greatest wine estates are in private hands. Of these, ownerwinemaker Wesley David Lowrey of Five Rows Craft Wine is one of the most unassuming and quality-obsessive. He produces just five wines at the moment, all sourced from St David’s Bench (the warmest area in Niagara) and made in tiny quantities. Visits are by appointment only. The Riesling and Shiraz are inspirational.

For those wanting a detour from the wine route, many of Niagara’s most charming historical sites are based in and around Niagara-on-the-Lake, stretching along the Niagara River, one of the loveliest driving routes in the region.

Of particular interest is the brilliantly preserved Fort George, which served as the British Army’s headquarters during the War of 1812. During this period, Laura Secord, Canada’s most famous heroine, travelled a perilous 32km to warn the British of a surprise American attack. A visit to her homestead near Queenston Heights Park is a great way of celebrating her courage, before heading to Niagara Falls – beautifully covered in icicles in January – just a 15-minute drive away, then warming up over a late dinner at one of Niagara-on-the-Lake’s many fine restaurants.

When visiting the Niagara Peninsula, wine lovers will find two things in common. The first is astonishment at the quality on offer – sweet, dry and sparkling. The other is an extremely friendly welcome from whoever is pouring the wines. Despite the freezing conditions if journeying in winter, there is no better way of appreciating Niagara’s warmth and new winegrowing status.

Julian Hitner is a Toronto-based wine historian, critic and consultant