Winter is prime time for ice wine.

By Roger Morris
Updated December 06, 2019
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It is a freezing January evening outside, but inside the Jackson-Triggs winery, near the picture-book Ontario town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, there is the warm glow of Canadian hospitality. Winery chef Tim Mackiddie (who has since been succeeded by chef Kayla Mudford) grates a cascade of brown flakes from a frozen foie gras torchon onto bite-size chunks of chilled Atlantic lobster that are skewered on small grapevine skewers. He hands one to me. “I’ve seasoned it with some yuzu citrus and spicy togarashi,” he says, as I take a bite. A sip of chilled 2017 Jackson-Triggs Grand Reserve Riesling Icewine follows. The flavors and textures all merge into a lovely mélange of fruit, acid, heat, and sweetness.

The next morning, under a snow-threatening sky, I reach through bird netting to pick a cluster of Vidal grapes that’s been left hanging for months in an Inniskillin vineyard, waiting for the temperature to dip to the required 17°F (or even colder) to freeze them for harvest. The grapes are cold and shriveled and oozing with juice, like mushy ice to the touch. Nearby, a group of winery hands battle the frigid temperatures as they dump tons of harvested grapes into outdoor basket presses, squeezing out their last drops of nectar. Though it’s January, these wines will bear last year’s vintage date—the year the grapes were grown.

I am here for the Niagara-on-the-Lake Icewine Festival, held annually during January on the Niagara Peninsula, which juts out on the Canadian side toward the famous twin falls. With its fancy ball, snow-filled street tastings, and sophisticated wine and food pairing events featuring dozens of wineries—some of which have dedicated chefs—the festival draws hundreds of visitors from around the world.

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Although ice wine originated in Germany (where it’s spelled eiswein), Ontario is today the largest and arguably best-known producer of this prized sweet wine. During the 1970s, a small group of German and Austrian winemakers immigrated to the region, and one of them, Karl Kaiser, produced Inniskillin’s first commercial ice wine in 1984 (it would have been 1983, but birds ate his first crop; he started putting nets over his ripe grapes after that). Today, as members of the region’s Vintners Quality Alliance, most Niagara wineries make both table and ice wines.

The winter-hardy Vidal hybrid is the favored grape, although Riesling and Gewürztraminer ice wines are widely produced. “But Vidal produces a purer ice wine,” says Reif Estate winemaker Rob DiDomenico, “because Riesling more easily contracts botrytis [a fungus necessary to production of dessert-style Sauternes and Tokaji wines], which changes the flavor profile of ice wine.” In recent years, a light red wine made from frozen Cabernet Franc grapes has added a delightful option for Ontario winemakers as well as wine lovers.

Generally, ice wine is bottled immediately after fermentation, although some reserves may spend time aging in neutral oak barrels. “I often substitute Canadian ice wine for Sauternes when the restaurant is serving foie gras,” says Adam Petronzio, wine director at Porter House Bar and Grill in New York City. “Ice wine has higher acidity and is generally lower in alcohol.”

I take the short walk from my hotel to the final weekend of the festival’s Icewine Village, an outdoor tasting staged in a cluster of white tents surrounding the town’s clock tower. There, I join other well-bundled ice wine lovers as we make our way through a maze of snow from tent to tent, glasses in hand. (For information on the 2020 festival, visit niagaraonthelake.com.)

Visit Niagara Canada / Tourism Niagara

Where to Taste

Ice wines from most of these wineries, as well as from other Ontario producers, are available in the United States. All are located within a few minutes’ drive of Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Inniskillin

Local lore has it that Inniskillin’s Brae Burn vineyard barn, a 1920s structure that was an early home to the pioneering winery and now houses its tasting room, was a design knockoff of the Frank Lloyd Wright houses being built locally at the time. Look for the similarities, and be sure to sample Inniskillin’s sparkling ice wine, first made in 2000 in celebration of the new century. inniskillin.com

Jackson-Triggs

A visit to Inniskillin’s more modern sister winery can be a destination adventure. All year round, experience its elegant “Savour the Sights,” a five-course progressive dinner served at various spots around the facility. In summer, Jackson-Triggs’ under-the-stars amphitheater is home to the Summer Concert Series. jacksontriggswinery.com

Reif Estate

The Reif family’s winegrowing history dates back to Germany’s Rhine Valley, and they’ve been growing grapes in Canada since 1977. Stop in to test your senses with a blind wine tasting ($20), then enjoy a plate of cheese and charcuterie from local purveyors. reifwinery.com

Stratus

It’s easy to forget that the Niagara region also makes excellent table wines. At Stratus, taste director Charles Baker’s eponymous line of elegant hillside Rieslings before going sweet. And if you have time to tour only one winery, schedule a walkthrough of Stratus’ modern interpretation of a gravity-flow facility. stratuswines.com

Two Sisters

You might think you’re in Napa Valley as you approach this ornate, Italianate winery. Inside, the wines are superb, and the service in the tasting room is top notch. The winery also houses Kitchen 76, a spiffy bistro with a modern menu open for both lunch and dinner. twosistersvineyards.com

Visit Niagara Canada / Tourism Niagara

Where to Stay

There are a half-dozen modern small hotels and a plethora of bed-and-breakfasts in Niagara-on-the-Lake. The Shaw Club, a hotel with high-level amenities and the popular Zees Grill, sits opposite the Shaw Festival Theatre, headquarters for Niagara-on the-Lake’s other main attraction, an annual extravaganza of plays performed in honor of Irish playwright Bernard Shaw (rooms from $189; shawclub.com). Other hotels convenient to Queen Street shopping are the Prince of Wales, a lively Victorian-era venue with a lavishly decorated lobby (rooms from $199; vintage-hotels.com/princeofwales), and the country club–like Queen’s Landing, with its formal Tiara restaurant (rooms from $199; vintage-hotels.com/queenslanding).

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