By Louise Nunn
On a cold winter’s night in January, most Canadians will be wrapped up warmly in bed, enjoying a much-needed reprieve from winter’s relentless chill. But for Niagara’s Icewine makers, an evening such as this means harvest time. Vintners will be busy rousing their harvesters, anxious to catch the small window of time in which weather and ripeness come together.
Unlike other wine grapes, those designated for Icewine must be frozen on the vine; harvesting for this unique dessert wine will not commence until the thermometer reaches minus 8˚C. At these chilly temperatures, the water in each individual grape freezes to ice crystals, leaving only the sweet, highly concentrated juice to extract when pressed. The effect is a small quantity of an amber-coloured, rich wine that bursts with the flavours of dried fruit and toffee. Icewine’s limited yield and extensive stipulations have given it a reputation for luxury and rarity around the world.
In the Niagara region, Icewine takes centre stage during the winter months. The celebrations of Icewine are a recognition of the drink’s initial role in the success of Canada’s modern wine industry. Icewine became grafted into Niagara-on-the-Lake’s vineyards in the 1980s, a decade after the renewed wine industry had found its feet. Three key events are responsible for Niagara-on-the-Lake’s wine transformation: Firstly, winemakers brought the grape variety vitus vinefera across the ocean from Europe – a variety known to produce an elevated quality of wine; next, Icewine makers struck gold; and finally, the region founded the Vintner Quality Alliance (VQA), the regulatory body that would ensure only the best in wine quality.
The region’s temperate climate, caught between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, make the terroir – or land – perfectly suited to an Icewine harvest’s laundry list of demands. For the Icewine industry, Canada’s bitter winter suddenly becomes an unexpected virtue, as year after year it delivers cold but reliable grape-harvesting temperatures to Niagara’s Icewine makers. With an optimal climate, reliable freezing and a tough-skinned, higher-quality grape, it is easy to see why Icewine quickly became one of Niagara-on-the-Lake’s most cherished creations. The region’s Inniskillin Winery received international acclaim in 1991, when its 1989 Vidal Icewine was awarded the Grand Prix d’Honneur at Vinexpo. Inniskillin’s victory became the milestone on which Canada built its reputation for premium Icewine.
Each year, Ontario’s winemakers look forward to celebrating the success of their liquid gold at the annual Niagara-on-the-Lake Icewine Festival. Although now a participant in the region’s overarching Niagara Icewine Festival, the festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake was the original. For two weeks in January, the Wineries of Niagara-on-the-Lake transform historic Queen Street into an “Icewine Village” complete with ice, white tents and, of course, wine. Each year, the town’s heritage district provides an idyllic backdrop for the festival. The setting allows visitors to experience Niagara-on-the-Lake’s historic old town in all its wintry, icy splendour. Andrew Niven, the current Festival Chair, says that the festival “really celebrates what we do best, celebrating the tie between the town and all of our winery properties who are involved in Icewine.”
Since the festival’s start in the 1990s, the central theme has been simple and genuine: to celebrate the humble beginnings of Icewine in Canada. This concept reflects the vision of the festival’s initial creator, Trius Winery (formerly Hillebrand Estate Winery). As one of Niagara-on-the-Lake’s original Icewine creators, Trius initially held a small in-house celebration on their property. After a few short years, however, the winery – in true collaborative style – reached out to fellow Icewine entrepreneurs Inniskillin Winery and Reif Estate Winery. The wineries soon partnered with the town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, and together they created a miniature version of the current festival. Today, what was once a single event at one Niagara winery is a full-blown community celebration of Icewine. Through the years, however, organizers always make sure they ground the festival on its original purpose. Niven says “the idea has never changed; it has always been celebrating the original or origin of Icewine in Canada, which is here in Niagara-on-the-Lake.”
This year’s 24th annual Niagara-on-the-Lake Icewine Festival will run on the weekends of January 19-20th and January 26-27th. According to Niven, this year’s festivities include the eagerly anticipated Icewine Village, as well as three returning evening events. The wineries in Wineries of Niagara-on-the-Lake pour chilled Icewine in their own individual tents on Queen Street, while Niagara’s Signature Kitchen Chefs provide accompanying food pairings. The roughly 30,000 dollars’ worth of ice, shipped in each weekend to create the village, adds sparkle to the already charming scene. Residents will warm themselves by fire pits, while visitors admire sparkling ice sculptures, and all will be caught in the spell cast by Niagara-on-the-Lake. Guests who stay for the evening events are treated to the ice- and winter-themed dinners – “Sparkle and Ice” and “White on Ice” – and the crowd favourite “Icewine Cocktail Competition.”
Niven is looking forward to visitors re-experiencing the second weekend at this year’s festival: “We’re hoping that weekend two will mimic weekend one. We’ll have the village set up with the individual tents.” Unlike previous years, where weekend two has seen a variety of different focuses, Niven’s enhanced weekend will reproduce the well-loved landscape of Queen Street’s Icewine Village. Two rich weekends of wine and culture instead of one will focus the event solely on wine, wine, and more wine. The fresh take on the festival, although new, seems like a return to its well-worn tradition of simplicity: the theme, says Niven, “celebrates our roots, where we came from and where we’re going.”
Heading the festivities is the Sparkle and Ice Gala, the festival’s kickoff event. This year’s installment will be held at the Princess of Wales Hotel on January 18th, and be hosted by Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Wineries and Signature Kitchens. An evening of live music and dancing – with delicious food and VQA wine pairings interspersed throughout – already sets this event apart, but its memorable finale is what ultimately steals the show. When the dancing has drawn to a close, guests walk into the night air where the Icewine Village has been newly created; each guest receives Icewine, poured into a glass made entirely of ice; and in the wintry sky, fireworks pop over Simcoe Park. Niven recalls, “It’s one of those moments…when you see the fireworks as the backdrop of Niagara-on-the-Lake, and you’re in the old town and it’s lit up by Christmas lights, and you’re drinking Icewine out of an ice glass…it’s just one of those life moments.”
For information on the Niagara-on-the-Lake Ice Wine Festival, visit wineriesofniagaraonthelake.com