Canada is known as The Great Frozen North. It’s easy to see why in January, but a trip to its Ice wine Festival will warm the spirits, says Judy Waytiuk
Beneath the clock tower of the tiny town of Niagara-on-the-Lake’s main square, the Ice wine Festival sculptors wield power saws and hand chisels, sweating in the midday warmth. A few of them, whose sculpting stations sat in full sunlight, curse quietly as they carve; their ice blocks, delivered hours earlier by freezer trucks, have begun to melt in weather unseasonably warm for this time of year on this part of the planet.
Canada in mid-winter is supposed to offer up a sparkling, snow-crusted landscape – and an ice wine festival should really be held in frigid conditions. But the snowy season
in southern Canada is notoriously unreliable: if the 2006 Niagara Ice wine Festival saw a perplexing thaw, festival-goers in 2005 braved sub-zero blizzard conditions amid winds so high that the densely falling snow blew sideways.
Whatever the weather, the 10-day festival in January offers visitors the perfect chance to explore the small central Ontario villages of Grimsby, Jordan, Niagara Falls and Niagara-on-the-Lake during the wine region’s quieter off-season.
Ice wine fever began when Inniskillin Wines co-founders Donald Ziraldo and Karl Kaiser, after a few false starts (ravenous birds ate the crop one year) turned out their first ice wine in 1989 – and took Le Grand Prix D’Honneur at the 1991 Vinexpo international wine fair in Bordeaux. Ontario’s ice wine vintners have never looked back, routinely reaping global awards for their luscious wines. And each year the festival invites visitors to immerse themselves in ice wine culture, from tasting seminars to studies of the perfect ice wine glass.
The harvest is as subject to the whims of nature as the festival. Each November, ice wine producers begin praying to Bacchus that the first frost will time itself propitiously. On the Niagara Peninsula along Lake Ontario’s southern shore, the tempering influence of the lake on the microclimate creates long, mild summers ideal for growing grapes. The penalty is routinely iffy winter weather. Late-harvest grapes must be unaffected by botrytis and picked when frozen (below -8°C). They are then quickly pressed: water is removed as ice, leaving a concentrated juice high in sugar, acid and aromatics. There are always a few bone-chilling cold snaps; vintners just never know when they’ll come. When they do, winery staffers roust hardy locals from their beds, regardless of the time (the hardest frosts settle just a few hours before dawn), to don heavy coats, boots and thick mittens, and troop into snow-covered vineyards where they’ll collect the bullet-hard grapes.
A similar spirit of small-town camaraderie permeates the festival, which has kept its comfortable charm intact; one of its joys is its intimate nature. Throughout the celebration, 24 regional wineries stage special tastings while chefs at winery dining rooms, hotels and local restaurants feature dinner pairings of locally produced wines (ice wine and others) with local fruits, vegetables and meats.
Peller Estates, Reif Estate, Jackson-Triggs Niagara Estate, Creekside Estate and Château des Charmes boast the most sought-after dinner menus, but even at these, places may be limited to a few dozen guests, creating a cosy atmosphere.
More than a dozen wineries bring their best bottles to the historic courthouse hall for the Grand Tasting ahead of the final weekend of the festival. Guests sample wines and nibble on canapés, ranging from roast bison to aged Québec cheeses and, following the candlelit march from the hall to an ice bar, indulge in an ice wine martini.
Festival weekends revolve around these frozen centres of conviviality, 10m long and built from giant ice blocks. The initial weekend’s ice bar is built on Jordan’s main street and the closing weekend’s version is on Niagara-on-the-Lake’s town square. Both bars serve from late morning until late at night, with light lunches of chilli or stews available, cooked by locals.
For CAD$575 (£255), the festival’s Classic Weekend Pass offers an affordable packaged option for the closing weekend. It includes two nights’ hotel stay and two ‘Wine Country Exploration Tours’, one for each day. Choices range from culinary and wine seminars to glassware tutorials, all of which include winery tastings and wine-paired lunches. Additional tickets for any of the other 20 Exploration Tour choices can also be bought for CAD$125 (£56) for Saturday tours, or CAD$85 (£38) for Sunday, including brunch.
For those staying longer than the weekend, hire a car and tour the countryside. Winery Touring Passports for CAD$25 (£11) entitle entry during the week to all wineries’ special events, ranging from cheese fondue tasting to seminars exploring ice wine harvesting, pressing and ageing techniques. If the frost gods have been kind, harvest and pressing will have finished (unseasonal weather in the past has meant grapes have been picked as late as March), but visitors still receive guided tours.
The Ontario Wine Route’s quiet country highways take drivers past vineyards, small farms, orchards and forests, and up and down the slope of the Niagara Escarpment. Highway 81 meanders through the Twenty Valley which, along with Niagara-on-the-Lake to the east, is a hotbed of antique shops where visitors can hunt for sets of vintage ice wine glasses to go with the bottles they buy.
An hour south, legendary honeymooners’ haven Niagara Falls is frequently the location for the Ice wine Festival’s opening gala. At this time of year, away from the summer tourist hordes, the falls boast breathtakingly beautiful sheaths of ice – ironically when there’s almost no one there to appreciate them. For a birds-eye view, take one of the Skylon Tower’s three elevators that climb almost 260m above the falls, and have a bite at the restaurant while you’re there.
Clifton Hill, the carnival-like street running up from the falls’ viewing area, is a bizarre mix. Tacky museums, burger joints and souvenir shops rub shoulders with the Niagara Falls Aviary (or, as it’s billed, Birds of the Lost Kingdom) and two casinos. The Casino Niagara and the new, more elegant, Niagara Fallsview Casino Resort, are worth stops for those interested in a little gaming action (but no smoking permitted; Canadians take their vices one at a time).
For the more academically minded, history here revolves largely around the only armed conflict ever to take place between Canada and the US – the war of 1812–14, when the US declared war on Great Britain and attacked its sole North American territory of Canada, concentrating its assault in this region where the countries are separated only by the broad Niagara River. Stop at the Fort George National Historic Site to view the enemy (American) fort across the river, and browse through one of Ontario’s most important historical collections at the nearby Niagara Historical Society & Museum.
For the wine lover, there’s a plethora of styles beyond ice wine to be tasted and bought. Hillebrand, Inniskillin, Jackson-Triggs, Peller Estates and Pillitteri Estates may be the best known, but smaller wineries such as Coyote’s Run, Lakeview Cellars, Cave Spring, Henry of Pelham, Peninsula Ridge, Stony Ridge, Marynissen Estates and Joseph’s Estate, amid dozens more, all offer unique wines and accompanying edibles.
Small boxes of ice wine chocolates make delectable souvenirs, as do local vinegars (especially from Flat Rock Cellars) and ‘drizzles’ from Stonechurch Winery. Joseph’s Estate Wines’ Dr Joseph Pohorly’s cold-pressed grapeseed oil is worth buying, if not for its purported health benefits, but because in a vinaigrette it beats even the finest extra-virgin olive oil.
Spectacular local cheeses can be tasted at one of the festival’s gala evenings (where ski jackets and snowboots mingle with off-the-shoulder ball gowns) in Jordan, Niagara-on-the-Lake or Niagara Falls. Cheeses such as these are key to successful ice wine tastings, where the trick is to ensure that the wine is the sweetest part of the dessert. Paired with strong cheese, bittersweet chocolate or foie gras, ice wine is bliss in a glass. Served with sweet fruits or pastries, it gets hopelessly lost in a muddled, cloying cascade of conflicting sugars.
Save time for a final descent into epicurean decadence on the closing Sunday – brunch at the Queen’s Landing Hotel, where an enormous buffet of tasting stations ends in a sweet quandary: more ice wine, or seduction by the desserts?
A Touch Of Frost
The apocryphal story of ice wine’s origins suggests it was invented in Germany in the late 1700s, when grapes froze before a harvest and desperate vintners picked and crushed them anyway.
Of all ice wine-producing countries, only Canada insists on natural frosts. Ontario’s Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA) requires frozen-solid grapes be picked at temperatures below -8°C (most growers prefer -10°C). VQA-appointed ‘ice wine police’ stop the harvest if the thermometer creeps higher. Rules are similar in British Columbia, Canada’s other ice wine hotbed.
Ideally frosts would arrive by mid-December for the largest yield. Early frosts ruin unripened grapes (vineyards once employed helicopters to hover over fields, their whirling blades creating updrafts to keep frost off the vines; now they use steel windmills). Late frosts mean most of the harvest could be scavenged by wildlife, with what’s left shrivelled and useless.
When pressed, each frozen grape yields droplets of concentrated nectar that are fermented in stainless steel. The resulting wine can command CAD$300 (£135) for a 375ml bottle.
Planning Your Trip
The 12th annual Niagara Ice wine Festival runs from 19–28 January 2007. Brochures, schedules, events, a list of participating wineries, prices and tickets may be requested at www.grapeandwine.com or www.niagarawinefestival.com, or by calling the Festival office (+1 905 688 0212).
For wine touring, driving maps and information about Ontario’s Wine Route, you can visit the Ontario Wine Council or download details at www.winesofontario.org. Vistors arriving at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport should reserve car rentals in advance. The festival area is less than two hours’ drive from the airport.
Reserve well ahead for one of Niagara-on-the-Lake’s three Victorian hotels: the Prince of Wales, Queen’s Landing, and Pillar and Post, all at www.vintage-hotels.com. Or try the Oban Inn (www.obaninn.ca) or the tiny Charles Inn (www.charlesinn.ca). Contemporary hotels include the Harbour House (www.harbourhousehotel.ca) and the new, upscale boutique Shaw Club Hotel (www.shawclub.com).
In Niagara Falls, two Sheraton hotels offer bargain off-season rates and spectacular falls views, as does the Fallsview Casino Resort. For accommodation in Jordan, visit
Written by Judy Waytiuk