The Sweet Bounty from a Frozen Land – Celebrating Niagara’s Ice Wine

Wanna know a good recipe for procrastination? It starts with a week-long bout with the flu, add one incredibly lazy personality, discovery of Minecraft on PS4, and you have yourself a severely delayed blog post.

This post is supposed to be about my trek to Niagara’s wine country to cover the Ice Wine Festival, which took place over 2 weeks ago. So I do realize that this is a bit late, especially since the festival is already over, but I like to think that maybe my recap will help in planning your next winter adventure. Maybe even inspire you to seek out the wines I write about. Maybe I am helpful. Maybe…I am not so lazy after all? Probably not.

Disclosure: the opinions expressed in the below review are my own. Festival passes were bought with my own hard-earned money and I didn’t receive incentives to endorse any of the below products. 

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One of the great things about living in Toronto is how close we are to the Niagara escarpment, Ontario’s original wine country. Going to Niagara is a bit of a pilgrimage for an old boozey like me, and one that I happily undertake multiple times a year. I don’t know when it happened exactly, but at some point after university it occurred to me that transitioning to an adult meant that I should stop buying boxed wine and terrible cheap beer. A friend of mine introduced me to some really good red wine from a Niagara boutique winery, and I was immediately hooked.

Here’s a micro history lesson for ya: A whole bunch of years ago, a massive ice berg crashed onto the Canadian shield. Over time the berg melted, releasing limestone, minerals, and other lovely stuff into the earth around the escarpment. I’m no viticulturist, so I consulted one to learn more about Niagara’s fertile terroir. Apparently the rich limestone and minerals found abundant in the area makes the whole region (Niagara-on-the-Lake, the Escarpment, and Twenty Valley) ideal for growing fruits and particularly wine! Hallelujah!

The terroir, combined with our frigid Canadian winters, is perfect for ice wine production. But what is ice wine you ask? It’s basically a type of sweet/dessert wine made from grapes that are allowed to remain on the vine beyond harvest time and frozen through the winter. The sugars in the grapes do not freeze but the water does produce a sweeter juice, which is then fermented. The ice wine harvest usually takes place when conditions are near perfect, that means a cool −8 °C (17 °F). There’s also other crazy strict requirements in ice wine production, which I won’t bother going into too deeply.

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Now in its twentieth year, Niagara’s Ice Wine Festival is an annual celebration of the region’s ice wine and culinary creations. Through something called the Discovery Pass, visitors can go to participating wineries (a mix of small and large estates) and sample up to 8 “experiences”, which are food and ice wine pairings. Most of the wineries with on-site restaurants take the opportunity to showcase not only their wine but also their restaurants’ creations, making this festival a foodie’s paradise! I was really lucky to not only meet some emerging talented winemakers and chefs, but also the winery staff who were all too happy to geek out about wine with me.

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There are of course big name productions in the Niagara escarpment which most Ontarians are familiar with, places like Inniskillin, Jackson Triggs, and Peller Estates. You will always find these brands at any of our government-controlled liquor stores, the LCBO. And for the most part these places make ok wine – at least in my opinion. When I visited some of these places during the festival, however, I was less than impressed with their ice wine experiences. In fact, I didn’t bother wasting any space writing about some of them on this post. That is not to say these big companies make horrible wine. The spirit of the festival was to indulge the senses, it was also an opportunity for the wineries to bring good food and ice wine together with passionate foodies in an intimate experience. I found that spirit lacking at some of these bigger estate wineries where people seemed more interested in dishing out the food and thimbles of ice wine and send you on your way. We came to engage with the staff out of a genuine curiosity about the food and wine pairing, perhaps even learn or experience something new, but at some of these bigger places we felt rushed and hurried out the door just as soon as we landed.

Some of the other wineries that we visited (fortunately) salvaged the festival experience. Some were big and some small but most importantly they had people, who no matter how busy it got, were happy to talk to you about the wine.

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