My parents, girlfriend and I take on a Canadian winter to experience the beauty of a semi-frozen Niagara Falls and the various wineries in the Niagara-on-the-Lake region. We were surprised with the annual Icewine Festival and charged with new knowledge about one of our favorite grape based beverages. All in all a great family trip, met with amazing company, world class wine, and Canadian memories.
Day 1 – Hello Niagara
We planned to meet my parents in Niagara Falls to start our trip together, and we got our first taste of the northern winter waking up at the hotel to a fresh coating of snow. Very fitting for a winter trip to Canada and it made us even more excited to get across the border as we heard rumors of a major winter storm due to hit.
After embarrassingly handing our passports to the toll booth operator at Rainbow Bridge, we passed through customs (handing our passports to the right person this time) and made the looping turn to Niagara Parkway. Walking through the visitor center, we were met with sweeping, frozen views of Niagara Falls. The spray from the falls had frozen along much of the railing outlining the sidewalk, providing for incredible ice formations up to a foot thick in some areas. We absorbed the views for a few minutes before spotting my parents car passing on the Parkway. We met up at the visitor center and made our way to one of my parent’s and I’s favorite restaurants in the area, Queen Victoria Place. With great views of the falls and incredible food, this place is not one to be missed. My girlfriend and I enjoyed a flight of local beers as the spray from the falls filled the air behind us.
After lunch we enjoyed our last views of the falls and hit the road again for a 30 minute drive to Niagara-on-the-Lake, one area of Canada’s famous wine country. Our next stop was Jackson Triggs winery, off of Route 55 about five minutes away from our AirBnB. This winery, established in 2001, has a modern barn look with beautiful wood supports and expansive ceilings. The tasting room greeted us with our first wine of the trip. The Shiraz and Arterra Pinot Noir were some of my favorites. We started our collection of what would become a ridiculous amount of wine by each buying two bottles to start the trip off right.
Five minutes later we were stepping into our AirBnB cottage a few blocks from downtown Niagara-on-the-Lake. We couldn’t have asked for a better place for our long weekend. It was close to town, but on a quiet street, perfect for relaxing together after a day out in wine country. After unpacking, we walked a few minutes into town and were pleasantly surprised to find that the Niagara-on-the-Lake Icewine festival was happening Friday – Saturday. We had no idea that this was happening and it was such a serendipitous find! This was one of the town’s largest festivals and featured the iconic Canada Icewine (more on this later) on a cold, snowy January weekend. This couldn’t get any better and we were ecstatic to learn more about the festival.
Taking a break from the cold in a local shop, Viking Shop Gift Collectibles, we learned the details of the festival and the impending winter storm. The storm, due to hit over night and continue throughout the day on Saturday, was forecasted to drop about 12 inches of snow. This was shaping up to be the perfect Canadian experience, snow, subzero (Farenheit) temperatures, and nothing to do except drink wine, eat, and enjoy the local festivities. We ended the night with a meal at Corks Winebar and Eatery and drinks at Prince of Wales hotel. Overall, an epic, fully packed first day in Canada. We were all ready for bed and itching for our private wine tour waiting for us the next day.
Day 2 – Wine Tour Blizzard
We woke up on Saturday morning to a fresh sprinkling of snow. It was much less than we were expecting and honestly, we were a little disappointed. With the hope of more snow in the back of our minds, we made coffee and enjoyed a relaxing breakfast together, waiting for our driver to arrive. We had booked a day long winery and brewery tour with Niagara Vintage Wine Tours that would bring us to four wineries and one brewery, all with included food/drink samples and a few with a tour of the grounds. Fortunately, the four of us were the only ones that had booked with Niagara Vintage Wine Tours for the day, so we had a private wine country tour on our plates.
Our driver and local guide arrived at precisely 9:30am and ushered us into the black Lincoln SUV. It was everything you would expect in a wine country tour, a kind, knowledgeable guide and a trunk large enough to fit a few cases of wine. Our guide informed us that the snow was still coming and that the roads would be getting worse and worse throughout the day. We only had one thing on our minds, spending the day together enjoying what we all love, wine. The snow would just be icing on the cake.
Our first winery was Pond View, a winery that got its start in the vineyard business, providing grapes for other wineries in the area. We were welcomed with our own private tasting table all setup and ready to go. We had our own Pond View tour guide who walked us through how to properly examine and taste wine, a great refresher for our second of many wineries on this trip. Each wine had an associated food pairing that brought out the prominent flavors in the respective wine. It’s incredible how a small piece of cheese can change the entire experience of a wine. Pond View is where we learned why the Vidal Blanc grape is the most popular for making Ice Wine. It has a thick skin, making it very hardy and easy to manage in the cold conditions required to produce the famous Canadian Icewine. We also learned that red wine gets it color from the skin of the grapes during fermentation. Most grape juice itself is actually clear. After an outstanding wine lesson and tasting, we perused the shop and with the encouragement and marketing skill of our Pond View tour guide, walked out with a case of wine (mind you, this is still just the first of our wineries for the day).
A quick aside, Icewine is made from grapes that are frozen on the vine in temperatures 17 degrees fahrenheit or colder. Ontario Canada is one of the most popular areas in North America for Icewines. The VQA (Vintners Quality Alliance) allows consumers to have confidence in the wines they purchase that they follow strict guidelines/processes for production and that the grapes are grown in the Ontario area. Most Icewines in the area are VQA compliant. On average it takes 4 – 5 times more grapes to produce a 375ml bottle of Icewine compared to the amount of grapes needed to produce a standard 750ml bottle of wine. This is because while frozen, only about 10 – 20% of the juice in the grapes is used. This produces a very sweet dessert like wine anywhere from 32 – 46 Brix.
Our next stop was for lunch and beer tasting at Silversmith Brewery. Built in an old church, this brewery was one of the most elegant I had ever seen. Large stained glass windows and reused church pews made this brewery one to remember. The beer was pretty good, with one dark ale, simply called The Black Lager, blowing our socks off. For lunch we were served grilled cheese on rye (an amazing combination if you haven’t tried it) and homemade coleslaw. After some time relaxing in the unique revamped church, we were off to our next winery.
Unexpectedly, we ended up back at Jackson Triggs on our tour. At first we were a little disappointed, but soon we learned that we would be going on a tour of the grounds, which is something we had never done before. Meeting our tour guide in the sunlight filled lobby after some snowy pictures on the vineyard bike, we soon found ourselves in the industrial part of the winery surrounded by steel casks, learning about the winemaking process from start to finish with a delicious glass of wine in hand. Being on a private tour offered us perfect views of the entire factory like room and allowed us some time to walk around and explore a bit. Next up we headed down into the wine cellar where we learned about the production of sparkling wine and the barrel aging process, surrounded by hundreds of wine barrels. It was an unreal experience having the place to ourselves and having time to walk around and read the barrels to learn of their origin and what they contained.
The next stop on our wine tour was Southbrook, Canada’s first organic and biodiverse winery. Prior to arriving, our driver explained that this winery is unique in that it is very eco-conscious, producing it’s wines in unpopular and risky ways that are sometimes hit or miss. He didn’t seem too keen on it, but hearing about the responsible, more environmentally friendly processes used by the winery, I was excited to learn more and try their wine.
The winery is easy to spot due to a large wall appearing out of nowhere along the road. This wall is described to block the winds from affecting the vineyard behind, providing a more insulated environment for the grapes to grow in. We later learned that the winery is positioned in a way to allow the windows to assist in the temperature regulation of the building’s interior.
We were welcomed into a large tasting room completely encased in glass with a large wooden table as the centerpiece holding our food and wine pairings. Our tour guide shared some very interesting information with us regarding the unique processes used to create Southbrook’s wines. We learned that in order to monitor the health of the vines, rose bushes are planted at the edges of each row. Roses are very sensitive, so if they became diseased, it is likely that the vines would later be affected. They acted as a canary in a coal mine, or in this case, a rose in a grape vineyard. We also learned that no pesticides are used are the crops and that the fertilizer is all natural made from the compost of local farms.
All in all, the wine was incredible. You could really taste the absence of preservatives which made the fruit notes much more prominent. Of course, this also meant that a bottle won’t last as long on a shelf, but I don’t really expect these will sit around long seeing how quickly we enjoyed the samples we were given.
Southbrook produces a very unique Orange Wine that is a skin fermented white wine. Not quite a rose, but it has a hint of sweetness and the boldness of a red that produces a really interesting taste. Out of all of the wines we sampled, the Chardonnay was our favorite. Southbrook was a very cool and humbling experience, learning that there are wineries out there that can produce outstanding wines while minimizing their environmental impact. I feel that this really helps Southbrook connect with their product and challenges them to produce a perfect wine without the help of chemicals that can make up for mistakes made in the winemaking process.
Our tour ended at Between the Lines where they didn’t quite seem prepared for us. It seemed like a rushed ending among a very busy winery where they scrambled to get a bartender for us. It was a very different experience from what the rest of our day was like. We stood around the bar for a bit and enjoyed a dessert brought to us by our driver paired with some red wine. We didn’t spend much time here though. It wasn’t the best ending to our tour, but it made us thankful for the other experiences we had that day. With the car packed with about two cases of wine, we headed back to our cottage to rest for a bit before heading out to explore the Icewine festival.
We walked to a local Irish pub, The Irish Harp Pub, to grab a bite to eat after a long day. We were all pretty beat at this point from a day of traveling around and drinking great wine (and beer). We weren’t sure if we were going to feel up to going to the festival, but we soon got our second wind after eating some great pub food and enjoying some local brews from Oast House. A relaxing meal was just what we needed to prepare us for a few hours in the frigid temperatures as we experienced the Icewine Festival.
It was the Icewine cocktail competition night of the festival where local wineries and restaurants crafted cocktails made from Icewine and the public got to vote on their favorites. At this point the snow was still falling and the wind was brutal, driving the temperature down to near negative 10 degrees Fahrenheit. It was cold enough for a little frost to develop in the cocktails, so we learned to quickly drink them (or not to enjoy a little Ice Wine cocktail slushy). By far the favorite of the night was a Bourbon/Icewine concoction that warmed the body. Barely able to feel our faces and fingers (let alone hold our sampling glasses), we headed back to the cottage to turn in for the night after an action packed day.
Day 3 – Ice Ice Baby
Today was the day of Icewine! The snow had stopped by the time we woke, leaving about 8 inches on the ground and a beautiful view to enjoy our morning coffee to as we patiently waited for our next scheduled wine tour at Pellar Estates. We carefully drove the few miles to Pellar over the still snow covered roads. This is one of my parent’s and I’s favorite wineries that we have frequented many times before. This would be our third tour with Pellar. It never seems to get old.
The highlight of this tour is their 10 below freezer that houses the icewine portion of the tour. Creatively named after icewine’s harvest at -10 degrees Celsius, on the outside, the icewine cellar looks like a large walk in freezer you would see at a restaurant. Once you walk in though, you realize that it is much more than that. The room is set to 14 degrees Fahrenheit, and is encased in clear, light blue ice with a bar and multiple benches carved out. It looks like a room of crystal. Bundled in parkas available at the entrance, we are served perfectly chilled icewine as we sit on the ice benches and learn about Pellar’s icewine history. This is definitely an impressive and memorable way to drink ice wine. Looking around, bottles of icewine can be seen frozen into the walls.
After perusing the wine shop at Pellar (and six more bottles of wine to add to our trip’s collection) we headed next door to enjoy lunch at Two Sisters Vineyard. The inside of this winery is super elegant and houses a great restaurant called Kitchen 76. This was our first time to this winery, and we were blown away by the food available at Kitchen 76. With beautiful views of the vineyard, high ceilings and incredible pasta dishes, we were in good spirits. My girlfriend and I headed over to the tasting room after lunch and found that the wines from Two Sisters, while good, are extremely overpriced compared to the other wineries in the area.
In the afternoon, we headed back to Queen Street Niagara-on-the-Lake for the final day of the Icewine festival. Today at the festival the various wineries were offering their standard ice wine selections. It was another cold day with wind chills dipping below 0 degrees Fahrenheit, so we sampled an icewine or two and then visited a few local shops to escape the cold. One store we stopped into was the iconic BeauChapeau Hat Shop, where of course we explored the many hat options and tried our hand at pulling off exotic headwear.
Tipping our hats to the Icewine Festival after many delicious samples and frozen fingers, we made our way to Wayne Gretzky’s winery and distillery (No. 99). It’s more towards the entrance of Niagara-on-the-Lake, but it is well worth the drive. With and outdoor patio (for the warmer months of course) it sticks to the theme of Gretzky offering an outdoor ice skating rink (in the summer roller skating rink). While my parents enjoyed a glass of wine by the fire inside, my girlfriend and I tried our skills on the ice. After renting some skates from the conveniently located patio rental kiosk, we hit the ice with surprising grace and soon found ourselves racing each other around the rink. I can imagine that this offering at the winery/distillery is a huge attraction during a warm winter day or in the summer with the great outdoor patio and beautiful landscape. The rink is just a quick walk from Trius Winery, so you can knock out two places in one go and have a blast doing so.
A half hour of ice skating is enough to work up a tremendous thirst, so we headed inside to join my parents for a relaxing glass by the fireplace. The interior of the winery is very modern with a large open tasting room/lounge and huge windows that are perfect for catching a sunset. Pinot Grigio is the most popular wine here as it is Gretzky’s personal favorite type of wine. The rest of the wines are quite good, but the whiskey next door at the distillery was icing on the cake.
Their main whiskeys include the Red Cask (aged in a red wine barrel), Ice Wine Cask (aged in an icewine barrel) and Ninety-Nine Proof, but they also offer a few cream spirits that we did not try. Going through a flight of the three main whiskey’s left me stunned. The wine flavors of both the Red and Icewine Cask whiskey’s really shined through and added a unique taste to the spirit. The Ninety-Nine proof was good, but a little too harsh for my liking. Adding a few drops of water helped the flavors come through, but to me, nothing beat the Icewine Cask. With a hint of sweetness at the finish, it was the perfect whiskey to complement the ice wine weekend we were all experiencing during this trip.
Day 4 – Squeezing in last minute wine before the return home
After saying our goodbyes to my parents and watched them drive across the now clearing roads, my girlfriend and I packed the car and headed to our final winery for this trip, Inniskillin.
Arriving just as the tasting room opened, we were greeted with an empty bar and an eager employee, ready to share the decadent wines available. Our guide was an older gentleman, but had enough spunk to keep us laughing and his passion for his work shined as his face lite up with each of our questions and our interest in icewine. As he poured our sixth tasting of the four we purchased (he was very generous), he pointed to an icewine display at the front of the shop and explained how those were the special reserve ice wines priced at $500 a bottle. Our jaws dropped in amazement, but he continued to explain that he once had a gentleman from Japan (we heard a few times that the Japanese really enjoy icewine and actually most icewine competitions are held in Japan) come and asked if they had anymore in the back because he wanted to buy everything on the shelf plus more. The visitor had left with over $30,000 in icewine from Inniskillin alone.
The enjoyment our tasting guide got out of sharing his knowledge with us was contagious and made us very excited to learn more. We were thrilled when the guide asked us if we wanted to see the icewine cellar where they had a video playing that would provide us with even more information about ice wine. Of course we couldn’t refuse, and he swept us away across the driveway to the production facility and down into the cellar. We were met with a dining table that looked like it should have been in a castle and a large television that was completely black. Caught off guard, our guide didn’t know how to get the video working and profusely apologized and offered to show us around the cellar behind the grand table that housed the various vintage wines the winery offered. Still in amazement that this gentleman was offering us a free tour after giving us two free wine samples, we just shook our heads as our smiles grew.
Walking around the shelves and cabinets, we found bottles dating back to the first ice wine ever produced at Inniskillin in 1984. It was amazing to see how the colors of an icewine (and any wine for that matter) change over time. While my girlfriend and I knew this from our dabbles in wine research, we had never seen it first hand, and in the Inniskillin cellars there was a display showing the color differences of a 2013 Riesling icewine and a Riesling from 1999.
Expecting to head straight back to the bar and shop to purchase some of the wine we had just learned about, we were surprised yet again when our guide led us through a foot of snow to one of the vines near the front entrance. He explained how these are some of the unharvested Vidal Blanc icewine grapes and before we could ask any questions, he reached under the netting (placed over the vines to protect them from birds scavenging) and picked a few of the frozen grapes for us to try. It tasted like an icewine popsicle. It was amazing how much the juice tasted like the final product. We will be forever grateful for the kindness and generosity of our guide at Inniskillin!
Still in amazement from the experience we just had, we headed out to find lunch before heading to cross the border. We tried to hit Trius Winery, but found that it was unfortunately closed for the day. Many of the wineries in the area do not offer food, so our pickings were slim when it came to other options. Pressed for time and with rumbling stomachs, we headed back towards the center of Niagara-on-the-Lake and stopped in to Oast House Brewery. To our dismay, their kitchen was closed and they only had a few snacks available. Wanting to experience the brewery, we decided to snack for lunch and had a few plates of chips and salsa to go along with our beer flights.
At last the time had come when we had to say our goodbyes to Canada and cross back into reality after a long weekend of incredible wine, surprising festivals and tours, and great bonding experiences. We were pleased to find that US customs didn’t even blink an eye when we declared two cases of wine. Home at last we unpacked and looked in disbelief at the damage we had done with wine purchases on the trip. Enough to last the year and each bottle had a story and memory associated that we would be sure to share with those who enjoy a glass with us.