Niagara on the Lake, Ontario
This winter has been tough. If you are not Canadian I am sure you see picturesque photos of white powdery snow and think we’re all building snowman and skiing down mountains. The truth is after the first snowfall the season becomes a slushy, wet cold miserable season and frankly I hate it.
This year I wanted to take shorter getaways so I asked my friend Matt if he wanted to head to Niagara on the Lake for the weekend for the Niagara ice wine festival.
Despite living in Toronto for over a decade I am ashamed to admit I had never been to this wine region. It is silly as it is only an hour a way and I’m pretty much a lush but after visiting vineyards in Portland and the Okanagan I have realized I need to discover the best wine in my backyard. Rather than just go for the day I wanted to take my time and do it right. I don’t like my designated driver to drink even a sip of alcohol so we got a driver and decided to stay the night.
Even with all the planning I approached this weekend with a bit of trepidation, I don’t really like a lot of sugar in my drinks and so I usually pick red wine or really dry white. I have had ice wine once prior as a dessert wine, it was the typical maple syrup and far too sugary for me. But I thought this time could be different as I saw a lot of savory food pairings – and lots of pork.
It wasn’t what I expected at all.
I was really surprised how much I liked ice wine. With over 300 wineries in the region there are a lot of different personalities. The vibe of each was distinct and for me going to Niagara isn’t simply about the wine but about the experience, I wanted to have a fun weekend away and learn a bit about ice wine. Here were my favourites:
Best overall experience
Inniskillin is a pioneer in the region. Karl Kaiser an Austrian moved here in the 70s and found that vineyards were growing concord grapes (think Welch’s grape juice). He partnered with Donald Ziraldo and they were determined to grow great wine.
While this is definitely one of the big players in the region the people all have interesting stories. In fact, our sommelier Don, who retired from working in steel and went back to school to follow his passion.
He took us through one of the Signature Experiences. I was really happy we started here as Don explained why the vineyard has its own signature Riedel stemware and how it really did affect the taste of the wine. Also I was so pleased to see the ice wine paired with savoury food like pulled pork. Apparently ice wine doesn`t have to be a dessert wine.
The only downside to starting with Inniskillin is that you will want to linger all day. They have food on an outdoor grill and big chairs around fires so the time can pass quickly.
Many friends unanimously recommended Chateau des Charmes and while the tasting room is sterile and lacks personality the wine is fantastic. I was really surprised to see great choices under $20. Unfortunately my favourite ice wine was $75.
Why do I have such expensive taste?
Best wine consulant
Our driver Bobby recommended Colaneri, a new Italian winery in the area.
Our wine consultant Mike has worked in wine and cruise ships for years and it’s easy to see because he was so much fun. The winery is owned by a family and has a very distinctive Italian feel.
We spent most of the time laughing and he introduced me to Unita, a big jammy red that reminded me of Okanagan wine. He shared the story of the labels as each one represents a family member.
Best place to stop for wine and a snack
Ravine Vineyard is a small estate winery and everyone raves about the restaurant. We started off with lunch there and the charcuterie plate is incredible with chicken liver parfait and pickled veal tongue. They raise their own heritage Tamworth pigs. You can really taste the difference.
The vineyard is organic but they don’t play up on it for marketing purposes. They believe it is part of their values in preserving the land. They have fascinating stories about how they deal with the weather and its challenges.
Most surprising attitude
Lailey Vineyard was also recommended by friends. I was surprised to see such a modern building focused on sustainability. Although I learned it was very much in line with their beliefs to be a farm of the future.
But this isn`t what surprised me.
When I tried the 2009 Redacted I noticed much of the label had been blacked out. It turns out they created it to be an ice wine and processed it in the same manner but they were not permitted to call it an ice wine because of its taste.
I respect their feisty attitude as they changed the name to Redacted and blacked out all the forbidden words. It`s a conversation starter and great wine.
Most passionate sommelier
Archie at Reif Estate Winery blew me away as we went through a formal tasting lesson. I learned so much I have to put it into an upcoming post but he made my day.
My best advice if you are going to come is to stay the night and hire a driver. We stayed at Shaw Club, a really modern hotel in the midst of old Victorian buildings with a restaurant so good it also deserves its own post. It was nice to be able to take things slowly and know we could see more the next day. I don`t like designated driver to have even a sip of alcohol so it`s worth the money for everyone to just relax. Our driver Bobby from Niagara Classic Cabs was amazing and gave us lots of recommendations.
My only warning is that this can be really addictive. I actually liked walking out in the vineyards in the snow and when I heard February would feature wine and chocolate pairings I wondered if it was too soon to go back….
Disclosure: Some but not all of my weekend was complimentary. I was a guest of Inniskillin, Ravine Bistro, Reif Estate Winery and Niagara Classic Cab but I did pay for my hotel and wine at the other vineyards. No one requested a favourable review or had any clue that I was under the impression that I would absolutely hate all ice wine. I surprised even myself.