Niagara, Canada: Falling for Icewine

Photo courtesy of Tourism Niagara

The Niagara Region of Ontario is most famous for Niagara Falls, created by a high plateau that runs across the region, forcing the Niagara River to drop 176 feet over a cliff into the gorge below.

The escarpment, a geological feature formed over millions of years, along with micro-climates caused by the proximity of two great lakes, Ontario and Erie, have also blessed the region with the ability to sustain a unique agriculture. Here grow the best peaches north of the Carolinas, as well as some of the best wine producing grapes in the country.

During the past 25 years, more than 100 wineries have located in the region, earning high ratings from the wine media, and becoming a vital part of Niagara’s tourism industry. Each January, it’s the area’s ice wine harvest that brings thousands of visitors to the snow covered vineyards. The 17th Niagara Icewine Festival arrives on January 13, 2012 and runs for two weeks.

At last year’s event, I braved the cold to attend a series of wine and food tasting events, and to meet with owners and winemakers from some three dozen wineries.

“What we’re drinking today is a 2007 Vidal Icewine which we call Sweet Revenge,” said Ed Madronich, owner of Flat Rock Cellars, as groups of visitors arrived at his modern, glass-enclosed tasting room on a small rise overlooking one hundred acres of snow-covered vineyard.  “We try to harvest the grapes when the temperature is between 11 and 17 degrees Fahrenheit,” he added.

Photo by Ron Bernthal

Grapes can’t be turned into icewine until they freeze, and they need to be kept frozen until crushing, not always an easy task,  even if the press is located within an unheated facility.  If the temperature drops below 10 degrees the crushing will stop so that the rock-hard, frozen berries do not break the press. It may not satisfy Icewine purists, but these days the picking is typically done by machines which don’t need to stop for hot chocolate or to thaw out frozen fingers and toes.

Icewine is expensive, with bottles running between $50 and $100. Not only does the labor intensiveness add to the cost, but so does the fact that to fill a half-bottle of the chilly stuff requires five times as many vines as it takes to fill an ordinary wine bottle.

Vineland Estates Winery, on a former 80-acre, 1857 Mennonite farm site, features an award-winning, four-diamond fine dining restaurant that’s one of the best eateries in the region.  “Between our B&B, the restaurant, the winery, and our vegetable gardens and local farmers, we can offer both vine to table, and farm to table,” observed owner David Halley.

The event spreads through several villages. In nearby Jordan, the Twenty Valley Winter WineFest takes place on the town’s quaint Main Street, and offers tastings from 30 or so wineries, freshly shucked oysters and oyster chowder, wild game stew and roasted root vegetables, smoked salmon, locally produced cheeses, and dozens of other tasty snacks.

On one Saturday night, I made my way to St.. Catharines, a city just west of Niagara Falls, where a thousand festival visitors and residents filled Market Square, listening to a live band and tasting icewine and regional goodies.  I do believe I never noticed the cold.