I had an amazing time at Niagara-on-the-Lake’s (NOTL) 19th Annual Icewine Festival this past weekend. I’ve been to NOTL before, but never for Icewine Fest and after just one visit I can confidently say this will become an annual tradition for me. I’m just bummed I missed the first 18 years.
NOTL is an amazing little town located at the tip of the Niagara Escarpment where the Niagara River meets Lake Ontario. Aside from a collection of great wineries the region is also home to the Shaw Festival – a summer long theater festival where you can often catch exceptional productions.
The wineries of the Niagara region make a number of great wines but they are perhaps best known for their icewine. Hillebrand and Inniskillin – both in the Niagara region – were some of the first producers of Canadian icewine, and Niagara’s Pillitteri is now the largest icewine producer in the world.
By Canadian law an icewine is a wine in which the grapes freeze naturally on the vine. The law requires a hard freeze (17º F) to occur sometime after the grapes are ripe which means that the grapes must hang on the vine for an extended period of time – a risky proposition. If the first freeze comes too soon the crop can be lost, and likewise a late freeze can result in rot before the fruit can be harvested. Of course you could cheat, harvest the grapes and freeze them artificially – but then by law you are not allowed to call it icewine.
All of those challenges in production are well worth it – the final product is something truly remarkable. Great icewine is sweet, smooth, rich, and almost syrupy. Typically served with dessert, icewine is a great alternative to port wine (if that’s not your thing) for an after dinner drink. However, as I learned this weekend, icewine shouldn’t be limited to dessert. From chilis, to chowders, to cheese there are lots of great ways to pair icewine – including pouring it over ice cream or even pancakes. That’s right, buy some icewine and suddenly you’ll have an excuse to drink wine for breakfast.
But enough about how it’s made, the real fun this weekend was the festival…
2014 Niagara Icewine Festival
The festival takes place over the course of three weekends throughout the Niagara region. Larger events like concerts, a comedy festival, a gala, and even a ice-winemakers hockey game are individually ticketed (or free) and scheduled for specific times. This year I missed most of those and opted instead for a Discovery Pass, which allowed me to visit 8 wineries to sample an icewine and food pairing at each. At only $40 the difficult decision is not whether or not to get a Discovery Pass, but rather it is deciding which of the nearly 40 participating wineries you are going to stop at. We stayed primarily in the NOTL region, though the other wineries aren’t far away. Below is a summary of our stops.
This has always been one of our favorite NOTL wineries and so we decided to start here. The pairing was all Canadian: a Vidal Icewine with a caramelized maple cheesecake. While I usually prefer Cabernet Franc icewines, I really did enjoy this vidal.
What makes the entire experience even better is that Chateau des Charmes and the surrounding vineyards looked absolutely amazing blanketed in fresh white snow. While I knew we had a long day ahead of us, I couldn’t help but pop over to the regular tasting bar and taste a few of the recent releases – I mean come on, if I am already all the way here I might as well, right?
This was my first trip to Diamond Estates. The winery is a collection of 10 different Canadian wine labels, none of which I had tried before. Tasting on the cellar floor, which was massive, was a lot of fun.
Diamond Estates was pouring the Dan Aykroyd (yes, that Dan Aykroyd) barrel aged Vidal Icewine, which was paired with artisanal bread topped with pear jam, prosciutto and blue cheese. Aykroyd, who is Canadian, has invested over $1M in Diamond Estates.
After the first-time trip to Diamond Estates, next it was time to stop by an old favorite – Trius Winery at Hillebrand. One of the first makers of icewine in the region, and also one of my favorite wineries, this was a must-stop.
Renowned Canadian Chef Frank Dodd prepared a spiced chorizo sausage and white bean cassoulet that went nicely with the Trius Vidal Icewine. This was the third vidal icewine of the day. Each of the wines was unique and despite being of the same varietal, each was paired with a different and yet complementary bite of food.
Just like at Chateau des Charmes, we could not help but tasting and buying a few other bottles here – including a great Trius White that was nicely balanced and very drinkable.
From Trius it was off to Hinterbrook, my first stop along the lake Ontario shoreline itself. During the drive from Trius to Hinterbrook, which is not more than 4 miles, the weather completely changed from a soft light snow to a more driving, windy snow. The varying weather throughout the escarpment helps give each of the wineries its own unique characteristics.
At Hinterbrook we finally got our first Cabernet Franc Icewine of the day which was paired with a turkey brioche and spicy mango salsa. The wine was great, and reasonably priced and so I grabbed a bottle – icewine can get VERY expensive ($150 for 350ml bottle), and so if you find one you like at a good price don’t hesitate. This particular bottle was only $30 for 200ml – a steal for one of the tastier icewines of the day.
This was another new winery for me. The family owned winery is German in both decor and style of wine – with the owner telling us that they take great pride in their Rieslings and Gewurztraminer. In fact, I got to try for the first time a hybrid grape called Riesling Traminer – in fact I have never even seen this grape on a wine list before.
For the festival they served a PEI lobster in fresh cream and white wine with Herbes de Provence, it was finished with a backerhaus crostini and creme fraiche and paired with a 2010 Vidal Icewine. All the food I tasted was excellent, but the dish here won my heart as the best of the weekend. Not only that, but the staff was proud to tell each guest that their icewine was used in the winning cocktail during the festival’s cocktail competition the weekend before. So cheers to Konzelmann!
Next up was Peller Estates – my favorite place for dinner whenever I am in NOTL. Peller had bonfires set up outside and was offering not one, but two different icewines paired with Canadian celebrity chef Jason Parsons’ homemade marshmallows.
The atmosphere was quintessential winter fest, and I lingered for quite a while next to the fire, chatting, roasting marshmallows and drinking wine.
This tasting was in Inniskillin’s founders room and included a 2012 Riesling Icewine with a house made lobster chili. The wine was served in a unique Reidel stem glass made specifically for serving Inniskillin icewine. After a quick conversation with the staff behind the tasting bar, I sat down and dug into the chili.
The chili was fantastic. I never had lobster chili before, always afraid that the delicacy of the lobster wouldn’t stand up well to the strong spices in chili, but after sampling this I stand corrected. The marriage was exquisite and I’ll be on the look out for it from now – perhaps I’ll even try making it myself.
The entire day was great, but when it comes to an overall favorite there is no question that we saved the best for last. The food, wine, experience and just downright beauty of Ravine Vineyard was breathtaking.
I’d never been to this winery before, and its farmhouse charm had me enamoured from the driveway. Once inside, the crackling fire, inviting staff and great aromas had me wishing I could stay all day. The tasting was in the cellar where they were aging not only wine but also an assortment of cured meats – which were available in the restaurant and store on site.
Before leaving Ravine and heading home we stopped into the store and tried a few locally made cheeses and couldn’t help but buy some. If nothing else, they’ll give me an excuse to open some wine this week for a pairing. I also grabbed a few bottles of the Meritage, which was my favorite of the two wines they served and reasonably priced ($24).
From start to finish the Niagara Icewine Festival was the ideal way to spend a cold, wintery afternoon. Anyone who tells you there is nothing to do in Niagara wine country in the winter doesn’t know what they’re talking about.
Next January, on a cold, snowy weekend, when you are sitting around trying to think of something to do to pass the time until spring, hop in your car (or on a plane) and head to Niagara, Ontario. Stop at almost any winery and buy a discovery pass and then relax, drink and enjoy.
And hey, keep an eye out for me, I will definately be there. I wouldn’t miss it.