I’m not usually a fan of sweeter wine, so when a friend suggested we check out the Niagara Icewine Festival, I was a little dubious. As we started sampling ice wines, I was totally converted. These delicious treats are fascinating, complex, flavorful, and the sweetness is well-balanced by the acidity so it doesn’t feel very intense on the palate.
Even if sweet wines aren’t your thing, this is still an amazing experience and a fun way to really dive into an interesting category of wine. But before I dive into the deliciousness I tried, let’s chat a little about what is being celebrated…
What is Icewine?
Icewine has been described as liquid gold (it’s also known as Eiswein). There’s a hype around this wine, and given what goes into its production this isn’t a surprise.
Unlike regular wine production where the grapes are picked and processed in late Summer and early Fall, grapes used to craft Icewine are picked during the Winter season, usually on one of the coldest days of January. Healthy grapes are left to hang on the vine until temperatures fall under 17 degrees Fahrenheit. Once picked (by hand in under 17 degree weather… brr), the grapes are crushed while still frozen solid.
Only a small amount of pure grape juice is collected; much of the water that was once in the grape remains frozen and doesn’t get pressed out. It’s a lot of labor for a very small amount of finished wine.
What you’re left with is a highly concentrated juice that produces intensely flavored, sweet wine. To balance the sweetness, winemakers often use grapes that have a higher natural acidity such as Riesling, Vidal, Gewurztraminer, or Cabernet Franc.
When done right, these wines can be utterly divine.
Winetraveler Tip: A quick note, you’ll notice I’m using Icewine, not ice wine. This is like calling a wine “Champagne” versus Sparkling Wine. Using the term Icewine means that you produced your wine to the standards set by the Vintner’s Quality Association in Ontario.
What is the Discovery Pass?
Each January, the Niagara wine region hosts a celebration of Icewine over the course of the month. This includes a gala celebration at the beginning of the month, a wine tasting festival each weekend, and a Discovery Pass option that runs from Friday through Sunday throughout the month.
The Discovery Pass gives you the chance to sample eight different Icewine and food pairing experiences that have been carefully crafted by winemakers and chefs. It costs around $45. You can claim these experiences at over 30 different wineries throughout the Niagara region.
How you use the pass is up to you. As an example, you and a friend can each get two pairings at four wineries, or you can use it yourself. It’s also good throughout the entire month, so if you want to break up the touring over the course of a weekend, you can!
Having never been to this area before, we thought the Discovery Pass offered a unique way to explore wineries in the area, and learn a little more about this region.
The Discovery Pass also offers a designated driver version that is slightly cheaper. You get all the pairing perks, but with a non-alcoholic option. Some of the stops have a specific non-alcoholic pairing, with local cider or sparkling juice, and others offer options like soda and water. We noticed a lot of families had chosen this option for their kids as well.
Niagara Icewine Festival Discount Code
Looking for a discount? We found one on Instagram! Check their social media leading up to the event and you may be able to score $5 off.
Tips For Touring the Niagara Wine Region During the Festival
Wineries are spread out across the Niagara Wine Region, but they do tend to cluster in a couple areas. We chose to stick with the Niagara-on-the-Lake sub-region area since we were driving in from New York and this offered a nice driving loop.
Our tasting adventure included:
Starting off with Niagara College Teaching Winery’s Vidal Icewine and a caramel shortbread. This was a fun way to kick off the tasting adventure since it is run by students from the college. They were able to tell us a lot about Icewine production and gave us a chance to nerd out a little. The pairing was also delicious, with the caramel bringing out the apricot notes in the wine.
Lakeview Wine Co.’s Gewurztraminer Icewine paired with the Donut Monster yeast doughnut topped with an Icewine infused sugar candy offered an impressive second stop. The Gewurztraminer Icewine had a spiciness to it that was refreshing, and enough acid to balance the sweetness. When paired with the doughnut, the acid of the wine became even brighter, cutting through the sugary goodness of both.
We had to stop at Wayne Gretzky Estates for their Vidal Icewine and sweet potato mac and cheese… because it’s Canada and you need a little hockey love. The peachy bright Vidal cut through the cheesiness of the macaroni, and it was fun getting to sit in the Gretzky inspired lounge while enjoying our pairing.
Next was Trius Winery, a delightful Instagram lover’s paradise for wine. Trius served up their Vidal Icewine with a hotdog with caramelized onions. The pairing felt so contradictory, a fancy Icewine in a nice glass with this adorable mini hotdog, but it was delicious. All the flavors melted together and the onions were the total star.
Our favorite pairing was Jackson Trigg Winery’s Cabernet Franc Icewine with cheddar Mac and Cheese topped with beef brisket and a Cab Franc Icewine infused hot sauce. Not only was the Icewine well-balanced, fruity and delicious, but when paired with the spicy food it became even better. The cherry notes of the wine perfectly melded with the meaty goodness, and the sweet wine cut through the heat of the hot sauce.
The most fun to eat was Peller’s Icewine infused marshmallow with their Cab Franc Icewine. You get your Icewine and a marshmallow on a stick, along with the ability to roast it over a roaring fire. It was super fun, and a nice break from the seated tastings. We aren’t convinced this was the best pairing, but our group didn’t really care because it was so much fun!
Reif Winery served up their Vidal Icewine with a whole pig roast that we enjoyed in their barrel room. The yellow apple notes in the wine went perfectly with the applesauce covered pork, and we loved hanging out in the space.
Inniskillin’s Sparkling Vidal Icewine with chicken and waffles was the final bite, and it was the perfect way to end the route. This was the best of both the sweet and spicy worlds. The sweet and fruity Icewine balanced out the heat from the spicy chicken, and the sweetness of the waffle was held in check by the acid of the wine. It was also just nice having something a little different to drink!
Tips for Planning Your Niagara Icewine Festival Experience
Plan a route in advance: there are a lot of different stops with different options, so think a little bit about what your priorities are. I’m not a fan of chocolate, and we didn’t want to do too many sweet dishes, so we planned the donut stop first as our 11 a.m. start, and then mainly stuck with savory pairings after that.
Be flexible with the plan: We got lost almost immediately after we drove into Canada and our GPS cut out, and ended up at Niagara College Teaching Winery by accident. It wasn’t on our initial route, but we figured going there would would turn a mistake into a win. We ended up really enjoying the pairing. Have fun, and don’t let a definitive plan get in the way of that.
Have a Designated Driver (DD): It’s a lot of driving, so either find a company that will tour you around, or get a DD. The DD pass really is great; because you get the same food and an interesting beverage, you still get to participate in the fun! If you want to hire a driver, they have special packages you can purchase from Coventry Drivers.
Bring water and snacks or plan a meal: Yes, this is a food pairing event, but you may find it’s not enough food. We brought some small high-protein snacks, and were glad we had them around mid-afternoon. The food samples are good-sized, but it isn’t quite enough for a meal. Also, bring water. It isn’t always easy to find at the wineries.
Relax and enjoy the tour: This is a popular event, so it’s likely you’ll end up waiting in lines or waiting for tables. Or, even waiting for a spot to roast your marshmallow. We ended up having a great time when we shared our tables with other groups, and met some really nice people! So just enjoy the process and expect some lines.
Plan for the weather: Some of the places we went to had their pairing experience outside, despite the fact that it was lightly raining and chilly. Wear something warm, put on your snow boots, bring a scarf, and expect that you’ll be outside at some point. You’re in the North now, get used to it.
Plan Your Visit
This Niagara Icewine Festival is a memorable experience, and we definitely want to do it again next year. What would I do differently? I would stay overnight and extend the experience. While visiting 8 wineries seems like a lot, we definitely would have liked to see more, or extended the tastings at some of the places we visited. We also noticed while driving that Niagara-on- -the-Lake had lots of little shops, museums, and parks that would have been fun to explore had we had more time.
Will we see you there next year? Let us know and share any questions or comments about your festival experience in the comments below!