Who says the wine harvest is only an autumn thing? Canada’s pretty original, so of course Canadians do wine in Ontario differently, too. It’s called Icewine and the Niagara region is the undisputed world leader, thanks to its warm days, cool nights, and cold winters.
Ice-whaaat? It’s an intense, amber-colored wine — luscious, tropical, aromatic, and acidic — made from certain grape varietals left to freeze on the vine. A complex variety served chilled usually before or après-meal, Icewine pairs famously with rich foods and bold flavors: blue cheese, pâté, and caramelized scallops, for example. It makes an intriguing addition to cocktails and sparkling wine drinks, too. Expect tasting notes along the lines of baked pear, apricots, and wet-slate minerality (sounds obscure, tastes delicious). That aside, one of the most fascinating things about Icewine is how it’s made.
Frozen harvest: Peller Estates, 10Below Icewine Lounge
Sure, it’s lovely to sip a 2014 Vidal Icewine. But even more thrilling is to experience what it’s like to pick the grapes it came from: in the moonlight — or in a chilly barn at midnight. It’s like the harvest gone extreme. Icewine varietals are fussy. They must be plucked and squeezed immediately when still frozen — 17 degrees Fahrenheit and colder — concentrating the juice into “liquid gold.” Too warm or cold, and the bounty is lost. Many harvest by hand meaning it’s a high-stakes process, that takes about six to 24 hours in total — from harvest and press. Peller’s igloo-esque lounge simulates what that feels like. And while you’re there, be sure to sample the Oak Aged Vidal Icewine. You can visit year-round, but consider festival time.
Celebrate: Niagara Ice Wine Festival
Former U.S. President Barack Obama poured a Canadian Icewine at his Oslo, Norway Nobel Peace Prize dinner— a 2003 Inniskillin Oak Aged Vidal. Clearly, it is party worthy. Niagara gets it, staging a 17-day winter wonderland fest every January. Expect spectacular galas, tours, tastings, chef pairings, VIP winemaker dinners, and seminars. The Niagara-on-the-Lake Icewine Village transforms the entire town into a sparkling scene. Sample inventive cocktails — Icewine martini? — at elaborate outdoor bars constructed entirely of ice. Pack that fluffy down jacket and gloves!
Learn: IceWine 101
Did you know Icewine yields only 15% of the juice of table wines? It takes eight pounds of grapes to make half a bottle. Did you know the sweet juice is tough to ferment because of the high-sugar, yeast-hostile environment? How about this one: German farmers discovered Icewine in 1794 by accident after an unexpected frost, or so the legend goes. Join a festival session to learn more.
Tour: Grape Escape Wine Tours
Ontario vintners produce icewine on the Niagara Peninsula, Lake Erie North Shore, and in Prince Edward County. Pick your area and take it all in. Try a small-group car passenger tour with Grape Escape Wine Tours, year-round. The company also leads half and full-day cycling tours in warm weather months.
Inniskillin Estate Winery, the grandaddy
Taste: Chardonnay Icewine
Donald Ziraldo and Karl Kaiser put Canada on the map in the 1980s, taking global top honors with Inniskillin’s Icewines nurtured on the Niagara Peninsula. Says Kaiser, “It is our soil and climate that allows us to seduce the world with this wine.”
Reif Estate Winery, the pioneer
Taste: Grand Cabernet Franc Icewine
One of the original 1980s pioneers, Klaus Reif imported his family’s long tradition of winemaking from Germany. Reif’s Icewines are internationally acclaimed and the Grand Cabernet Franc is outstanding.
Pillitteri Estate Winery, the family affair
Taste: Gewürztraminer Icewine
The largest Icewine estate producer, family-run Pillitteri focuses on agriculture and is famed for its one-of-a-kind barrel cellar with the biggest concrete tables in the world. Hanging from the rafters, 23 custom stainless-steel chairs represent the family’s Italian immigrant past and six generations of winemaking history. Connoisseurs recommend the Gewürztraminer Icewine.
Wayne Gretzky Estates, the tasting spot
Taste: No. 99 Cabernet Franc Icewine
Hockey’s “Great One” started his winery as his foundation’s charitable fundraiser, and it delivers consistent favorites. With production based in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, Gretzky’s Niagara-on-the-Lake Wine Country Vintners store is the place to taste. Try the No. 99 Cabernet Franc Icewine.
Make sure to pair your Icewine with some local fun — there’s plenty else to see and do in and around Ontario’s rural wine country.
Ready to get to know Ontario's Icewine? Get started planning your visit on the Ontario Travel website.