by Ron Bernthal
The Niagara Region of Ontario is most famous for Niagara Falls, created by the Niagara escarpment, a high plateau that runs across the region, forcing the Niagara River to drop 176 feet over a cliff into the gorge below. The escarpment, a geological feature formed over millions of years, along with micro-climates caused by the proximity of two great lakes, Ontario and Erie, have also blessed the region with the ability to sustain a unique agriculture, growing the best peaches north of the Carolinas, as well as some of the best wine producing grapes in the country.
Winemakers discovered the benefits of Niagara soil and weather more than 200 years ago, as the early stages of a wine industry began to take shape. During the past 25 years more than 100 wineries have located in the region, earning high ratings from the wine media, and becoming a vital part of Niagara’s tourism industry.
Although local wineries produce excellent rieslings, chardonnay, cabernet franc, and pinot noir, it is the area’s ice wine harvest that brings thousands of visitors to the snow covered vineyards each January for the annual Niagara Icewine Festival (www.niagaraicewinefestival.com), which just completed its 16th year.
During several weekends in January tourists and residents attend several outdoor wine and food tasting events, and meet with owners and winemakers from more than 36 of the region’s almost 100 wineries. The tourists also learn how to cope with Canada’s winter weather, which seems to make people happier the colder it gets, at least during the festival days. After all, it is called an Icewine Festival, with the emphasis on the first syllable.
What we’re drinking today is a 2007 Vidal Icewine which we call Sweet Revenge,” said Ed Madronich, owner of Flat Rock Cellars (www.Flatrockcellars.com), as groups of visitors arrived at his modern, glass-enclosed tasting room on a small rise overlooking the 100- acre, snow-covered vineyard. “We try to harvest the grapes when the temperature is between 11 and 17 degrees Fahrenheit,” said Madronich, a young-looking 42 year-old who likes to have fun marketing and naming his wines.
Grapes can’t be turned into Icewine until they freeze, and they need to be kept frozen until crushing, not always an easy task, even if the press is located within an unheated facility. If the temperature drops between 10 degrees the crushing will stop so the rock-hard, frozen berries do not break the press. Although some wineries use pickers to manually take the frozen grapes off the vines, many vineyards now employ specially devised mechanical harvesting machines that move along the rows quite efficiently. That may not satisfy Icewine purists, but machines work through the below-freezing temperatures without having to stop for hot chocolate or to thaw out frozen fingers and toes.
Icewine is expensive, a normal bottle can cost between $50 and $100, but the harvest is labor intensive, done during the coldest part of the night, and if a single vine produces enough fruit to fill a regular bottle, it will take five times that many vines to yield enough juice for a half-bottle of Icewine.
During Icewine Festival weekends David Hulley, of Vineland Estates Winery (www.vineland.com), guided visitors around the two-story tasting house, as well as the winery’s bed and breakfast venue down the driveway, and at another historic stone house that the winery uses for weddings and other events. Sitting on a former 80-acre, 1857 Mennonite farm site the winery, and its award-winning, four-diamond fine dining restaurant, is one of the best eateries in the region. “We really welcome Americans when they visit us,” Hulley said, stressing that the U.S. Canadian border is only 20 minutes away. “Coming here for a weekend is so easy for many folks from New York State and New England, and between our B&B, the restaurant, the winery, and our vegetable gardens and local farmers, we can offer both vine to table, and farm to table, food and beverages.”
In the village of Jordan, located in an area known as Twenty Valley, the Twenty Valley Winter WineFest was taking place on the town’s quaint Main Street, under falling snow flakes. Part of the larger Niagara Icewine Festival, visitors to the Twenty Valley event were bundled in winter gear, tasting wine from 32 wineries, freshly shucked oysters and oyster chowder, wild game stew and roasted root vegetables, smoked salmon, locally produced cheeses, and dozens of other tasty snacks. “Everyone at our small town festival has a chance to sample local food and wine products, listen to live entertainment, and enjoy the friendly atmosphere of the festival,” said “Dori Andrewes, one of the Twenty Valley festival organizers
On a Saturday night in St. Catharines (www.stcatharines.ca/en), a city just west of Niagara Falls, a thousand festival visitors and residents filled Market Square, listening to a live band and tasting Icewine and food from the region. Kimberly Huntertmark, Executive Director of Niagara Wine Festivals, was enjoying the music and loved seeing the crowd of young people from St. Catharines that joined the out-of-town festival goers for a night on the town. “The festival is one of the highlights of our winter season, and it’s great that young people from the area appreciate the event, and the wine and food tastings, as much as our visitors do. Particularly in winter, when our days can be cold and snowy, it’s nice that the wine festival can bring people together to enjoy our local produce.”
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