Celebrating Liquid Gold
Celebrating Liquid Gold
All around the world, vintners celebrate the harvest with autumn festivals: Wine tastings, food pairings and all the trappings of a party.
It just so happens that, for Ontario’s icewine producers, harvest time arrives in the middle of winter.
Designed to celebrate Niagara’s place at the center of the icewine world, the Niagara Icewine Festival takes place each January. With vineyards and rolling hills lying under a thick blanket of snow, the Niagara peninsula turns its attention away from summertime attractions such as its roaring waterfalls for three weeks, focusing instead on its quintessential drink.
Vintners pour glasses of chilled icewine and samples of local sparkling and table wines (lest celebrants forget this region’s famed traditional pinot noirs, Rieslings and chardonnays). Local restaurants dish up food pairings. And Niagara’s communities stage events ranging from white-tie galas to mixology seminars and barrel racing.
In autumn, most wineries in Niagara set to work harvesting their grapes. Those producing icewine hold off on picking a few precious bunches, instead draping nets over their fruit and allowing the grapes to hang. Vidal Blanc, Riesling and Cabernet Franc are the varietals most likely to remain on the vine through September, October and November, well past traditional picking time. The fruit is allowed to ripen and intensify into winter. Once frozen, the icy grapes are harvested and gently crushed, releasing a rich, concentrated nectar that’s fermented into a dessert wine often dubbed liquid gold.
While icewine is produced throughout northern North America and Europe, Ontario enjoys a reputation as a premier location for this cold-weather wine. In the mid-1980s, Ontario vintners took note of the region’s pairing of hot summer weather and cold—but not bitterly cold—wintertime temperatures. They’re conditions just perfect for icewine production.
The winery Inniskillin was the first to enter its wine in competition, submitting a Niagara Vidal icewine in Bordeaux in 1991. The wine earned Inniskillin the Grand Prix d’Honneur. And it introduced a new industry to Niagara.
About 60 Ontario wineries produce at least some icewine each year, accounting for about 15% of all the wine produced in the province. And the fact that Ontario is reliably cold each winter means that its icewine appears on wine shop shelves year after year.
White Tie and Icewine
Each January, the Niagara Wine Festival Icewine Gala kicks off the annual Niagara Icewine Festival. Dressed in tuxedos and shimmering gowns, surrounded by impossibly ornate ice sculptures and accompanied by live music, wine lovers gather for an elegant evening of icewine sampling from at least 35 area wineries.
Served alongside the wines is a wide array of foods, each created specifically by local chefs to complement the wine. From seafood appetizers and vegetarian pasta dishes to hearty meat stews and decadent chocolate desserts, each food may be combined with one of several table wines or icewines for comparison.
Fifteen miles north, the village of Niagara-on-the-Lake offers its own icewine ball, the Sparkle and Ice Diamond Gala. Attendees don formal wear and walk past quaint redbrick facades, boutiques and inns adorned with overflowing flower boxes in summer but covered with a dusting of snow in January. The party glitters with sequined gowns and glasses of golden icewine, then culminates with a drawing for a free diamond.
Winter Boots and Wine Barrels
While Niagara’s formal icewine events garner plenty of attention, most of the region’s activities tend toward the exceedingly casual. At the Twenty Valley Winter WineFest, smart visitors come dressed in down parkas, heavy boots and fur-lined hats.
Located west of Niagara-on-the-Lake in Jordan, the Twenty Valley festival features live music and dancing in what can only be described as a street party. Bonfires warm chilly visitors who sip wine samples or roast icewine-spiked marshmallows. Wine and food samples are sold beneath white canvas tents. And the crowds roar with laughter at the wine barrel races, in which competitors roll empty 125-pound barrels through snow-covered Main Street.
Whatever fun and games the Niagara Icewine Festival offers, for many wine-loving guests, the real celebration takes place in the wineries. And it is in those tasting rooms that visitors often encounter their first sips of liquid gold.
Inniskillin marks the starting point for many of these tasting room visitors. Displayed on its shelves are Vidal, Riesling and Cabernet Franc as well as sparkling icewines. The bottles remind guests of the winery’s numerous awards over the past 25 years. The rich wines smell of red berries and rhubarb or tropical fruit. They taste of lemon marmalade and honey, of apricot and cardamom. They taste like nectar of the gods.
Inniskillin’s bottles also serve as reminders that this winery put Ontario icewine on the map. And that accomplishment is well worth a toast.
If You Go
Enjoy Ontario’s snowy outdoors. Sip chilled flutes of icewine. Then snuggle under the covers in a cozy Niagara-area hotel. Ask about Niagara Icewine Festival packages.
• DoubleTree Fallsview Resort & Spa, Niagara Falls
Rustic stone and wood architecture with a roaring lobby fireplace. AAA Four Diamond rating.
• Marriott Fallsview Hotel, Niagara Falls
A 10-minute walk from the Xerox Icewine Gala. Most rooms offer falls views. AAA Four Diamond rating.
• Shaw Club Hotel & Spa, Niagara-on-the-Lake
Elegant, contemporary design in the heart of the charming downtown. AAA Four Diamond rating.
(link to each hotel w/in AAA.com hotel booking engine)