The 18th annual Niagara Icewine Festival has come and gone, but that doesn’t mean you must wait a year to start planning a trip to the Ontario township of Niagara-on-the-Lake.
In fact, the seasons other than winter offer more abundant scenery and, of course, more comfortable temperatures for walking around what has been voted the “Loveliest Town in Canada.” It’s also easier to reach sans snow and ice, a quick 30-minute drive north of Niagara Falls.
One could spend an entire vacation in this welcoming hamlet, learning about its connection to the War of 1812 and the Underground Railroad, strolling through meticulously landscaped parks, and enjoying the Victorian-era storefronts.
Book a stay at the Harbour House, and you’ll start each day with a full breakfast; then after a day of touring, you’ll return to a room with a whirlpool tub and fireplace.
There’s no shortage of dinner destinations, either. Among the restaurants recommended by locals are Bistro Six-One (the Grilled Maple Salmon is outstanding), the Cannery at Pillar and Post (specializing in comfort food with a twist, such as a Modern Vegan Cassoulet and Cornmeal Encrusted Pickerel) and Stone Road Grille (the Roasted Root Vegetable Risotto and the Short Rib Pot Pie are favorites, and the wine list features numerous local bottles).
Day trips to the local wineries are very convenient, with 28 nestled below the Escarpment from the Niagara River Parkway to the shores of Lake Ontario.
The estates are renowned for making “terroir” wines that fully express the grape varietals and vineyards from which they came. Within the designated viticultural area known as the Niagara Peninsula, Niagara-on-the-Lake has been classified by Vintners Quality Alliance Ontario as a distinct area.
Niagara-on-the-Lake is bordered by three unique geographical features: the Niagara Escarpment, Lake Ontario and the Niagara River. The wineries share a climate moderated by the unique relationship among those geographical factors.
Yet, across this expanse of fertile land, the wine estates are differentiated by geology, soils, elevation, and variations in temperature and precipitation. These distinct growing conditions are responsible for the four sub-appellations of Niagara-on-the-Lake: Niagara River, Niagara Lakeshore, Four Mile Creek and St. David’s Bench.
While a great many varieties are grown in the region, Icewine is what put Niagara-on-the-Lake on the world wine map. Elegant… silky… lush… decadent. It has been said that wine critics wear out their thesauruses when describing Icewine.
And little wonder: Year after year, the Icewines made by Niagara-on-the-Lake estates take top awards at competitions around the globe—something that no doubt warms the hearts of the local vintners when the winter weather turns frigid.
A true Icewine can be made only from grapes that have naturally frozen on the vine, and then are picked when the thermometer dips to -8° C (or lower). The solidly frozen grapes are hand-picked and pressed immediately in order to gently release the drops of thick, rich, yellow-gold liquid, highly concentrated in natural sugars and acidity. The yields are miniscule, but the results are sumptuous and perfectly sweet wines that can function as desserts themselves.
Don’t tell that to the chefs in the area, however. Many will serve Icewine as an apetritif, alongside soft cheeses and rich pates or foie gras. Icewine also can be a tasty companion to spicy Thai fare and curry dishes.
The grape growers and vintners of Niagara-on-the-Lake also are leaders in sustainable practices. They have built LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)-certified wineries and winemaking facilities; implemented integrated pest management methods in the vineyards to reduce and eliminate the need for pesticides, herbicides and insecticides; begun using lightweight glass for wine bottles; started using grape pomace, stems and leaves as compost in the vineyards; and even introduced lambs to the vineyards to thin leaves on the vines and create compost.
The winery owners of Niagara-on-the-Lake prove that North American “wine country” is not limited to California or even to the United States. Less than an hour from the honeymoon capital of America, a truly unique vinous experience awaits.
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