Traveling up to the great white north was never high on our wine travel "to do" list, but sometimes when you travel you get much more than you expected. Sometimes you get surprised.
Canada's Niagara Peninsula is the home to some of the world's best ice wines, as well as some delicious cool-weather Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs, and Rieslings. Every January, it's also home to the Ice Wine Festival and Gala. Each year, our neighbors to the north open the doors of their wineries, restaurants and casinos to wine and food lovers from around the world and remind us that pairing ice wine with food is not limited to sweets like cheesecake and chocolate.
Innovative chefs like Anna and Michael Olson and David Penny at Inniskillin have stepped beyond the convention of pairing sweet wines only with desserts and developed an entire repertoire of dishes including seafood, smoked meats, and charcuterie that compliment the subtle flavors of ice wine.
The production of ice wine is rare and limited due to many reasons. As with most wineries in the northern hemisphere, the grapes mature in late summer, but the Canadians must have more patience than most other winemakers--their grapes are generally not picked until mid January. The Vintners Quality Alliance has specific guidelines that the grapes must freeze at low temperatures for a specific number of days. The freezing process changes the crystalline structure of the sugars and creates wines with exceptional flavors and nuances. Sweet wines are produced in other parts of the world by drying grapes in the sun or allowing the grapes to shrivel under the influence of a specific mold, but only wines that meet the VQA's strict standards can be labeled "Canadian Ice Wine."
The Ice Wine Gala, known locally as The Ice Queen's Ball, is held at the Fallsview Casino Resort and it's a veritable candy store replete with tuxedo clad winemakers and chefs in toques pairing scrumptious small plates paired perfectly with tasty ice wines. One of our favorite dishes was a pan seared divers scallop, swimming in a reduction of Vidal ice wine and topped with a freshly cooked bloc of foie gras--sheer heaven on a plate. We're also happy that we didn't miss the mini pulled pork sandwiches and the hickory smoked bacon bruschetta.
Strolling through the picturesque town of Niagara On The Lake is like taking a step back in time. Quaint shops are decorated in tasteful post holiday decorations offering an assortment of candy and eye candy for shoppers and window shoppers alike. A few miles away, the town of St. Catherine's has a fun outdoor street festival complete with a rocking band, wine tasting tents, and blazing barbeques. Revelers have a choice: they can drink some fabulous ice wine, have a big bowl of steaming hot chili, or dance to a few songs--they're all great ways to keep warm. There's only one Ice Queen's Ball, but the Niagara On The Lake Ice Wine Celebrations go on through the month of January.
Visiting the more than 30 wineries in Niagara and Twenty Valley is also a great way to brave the cold. Wineries including Jackson Triggs Niagara Estate, Inniskillin, Chateau des Charmes, Clos Jordanne, and Peller Estates throw open their doors and cellars to those seeking to learn more about the delicious nectar (and other wines) from the north.