An ice wine pilgrimage in the Niagara Peninsula winelands

by Kavita Favelle18 November 2016

Kavita Favelle indulges her sweet tooth as she explores the Niagara Peninsula winelands and discovers Canada’s celebrated ice wine.

A greedy Londoner who loves to eat, Kavita Favelle is the author of food and travel blog Kavey Eats.

A greedy Londoner who loves to eat, Kavita Favelle is the author of food and travel blog Kavey Eats. She also contributes freelance articles to a variety of publications, helps run popular Indian recipe website Mamta's Kitchen and spends far too much time plotting her next trip.

A greedy Londoner who loves to eat, Kavita Favelle is the author of food and travel blog Kavey Eats.

A greedy Londoner who loves to eat, Kavita Favelle is the author of food and travel blog Kavey Eats. She also contributes freelance articles to a variety of publications, helps run popular Indian recipe website Mamta's Kitchen and spends far too much time plotting her next trip.

Think you know the great wine regions of the world? Think again! I have another one for you which has everything a discerning wine tourist could want and more. While thirsty hordes traipse the well trodden wine routes of France, Italy and Spain, of South Africa, the Americas and Australia, I’ve been exploring the vineyards of the Niagara Peninsula in Ontario and discovered an entire world of wines in one easy-to-tour area.

Completely at odds with my (rather stereotyped) mental image of the Canadian climate, the Niagara Peninsula has the perfect weather for growing grapes and making wine. I’m gobsmacked when Allan Schmidt, owner of Vineland Estates Winery, tells me that his winery is at a similar latitude to Burgundy in France – in fact it’s a few hundred miles further south! Although it’s officially a cool climate region, he describes it as ‘Mediterranean summers and Siberian winters’. The two great lakes to the North and the South influence local weather patterns creating the perfect micro-climate to successfully grow a great many different varieties of grapes.

Combine this with a legion of innovative and enthusiastic winemakers who are ‘not bound by tradition so much as inspired by it’ and you’ll understand why you can find such a fabulous range of wines made in the Niagara Pensinsula.

Southbrook Vineyards is one of the most popular ice wine producers in Canada
Ice wine is made with frozen grapes, resulting in a syrupy-sweet finish

What is ice wine?

My particular passion is for dessert wines; one of the most celebrated wines made in the Niagara Peninsula is the very weather-dependent ice wine – a syrupy sweet liquid nectar with a hint of acidity, a rich intensity of flavour and a heady scent.

Many dessert wines are produced by noble rot, a fungal mould that causes infected grapes to shrivel, raisin-like, on the vine, increasing the sweetness of the juice. French Sauterne, Hungarian Tokaji and German and Austrian Beerenauslese are all made in this way.

But in the case of ice wine, plump and hardy grapes are left on the vine until a sufficient drop in temperature causes their water content to freeze into crystals of ice. Pressing while still frozen means that only syrupy-sweet, concentrated juice is extracted to be made into wine.

This is a tricky wine to produce since the winemaker must hope for just the right weather conditions to grow luscious, healthy grapes, and then wait for a suitable cold snap during which to harvest. The Vintners Quality Alliance stipulates that the temperature for picking and pressing ice wine grapes must be -8°C or colder. Harvesting is usually done by hand, on the first morning it’s cold enough, and there’s a brief five to six hour window during which the entire harvest must be completed before the temperature rises again.

In some ice wine producing regions of the world, there are years when the weather does not play ball but in Ontario, ice wine has been produced successfully every single year for over three decades.

Bruce Nicholson is the head winemaker at Inniskillin

What to look for

Vidal is the most commonly used grape variety for Niagara Peninsula ice wine, its thick skin protecting the grape from damage caused by repeated freezing and thawing during winter – ice wine made from Vidal is full of citrus, peach and honey on the nose and palate. More fragile grapes are also used, a higher risk for the winemaker, but each offering the reward of a distinct flavour profile – from the strawberry rhubarb complexity of Cabernet Franc to the almost floral peach and apricot notes of Riesling.

Visit a range of wineries and you will quickly come to recognise the differences, and begin to choose your favourites. I recommend a stop at Vineland Estates Winery – their classic Vidal, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc ice wines and late harvest dessert wines are some of my favourites.

My tip is to then move beyond classic ice wines by seeking out some of the more unusual products available.

Peller Estates Winery make an Oak Aged Vidal Ice Wine, adding the delicious characteristics of oak, hickory and vanilla to create a soft, rich and complex offering. They also produce two unusual sparkling wines, an Ice Cuvée and Ice Cuvée Rosé made by adding a 100ml ‘dosage’ of Vidal ice wine to traditionally made Chardonnay and Pinot Noir dry sparkling wine.

At Southbrook Vineyards, Canada’s first biodynamic, organic winery, owner Bill Redelmeiers has created a modern and inviting space for tasting and buying wine. Do a side-by-side tasting of their young Vidal Ice wine – classic, straw-coloured fruit and honey – against their 2006 vintage – aged beautifully to a warm amber, with deep caramelised apple flavours and an almost smoky finish. (For those with a dryer palate, you must also try Southbrook Whimsy, a fortified and barrel-aged Chardonnay born out of Bill’s love for for vintage Madeiras, and Southbrook Small Lot Orange Wine, a skin contact white wine made without sulphur or yeast).

As you’d expect from one of the Niagara Peninsula ice wine pioneers, Inniskillin Niagara Estate Winery makes excellent classic Vidal, Riesling and Cabernet Franc ice wines but it’s their sparkling ice wines that have stolen my heart – two are currently available, Sparkling Cabernet Franc Icewine and Sparkling Vidal Icewine. Both are magical, from the moment the cork is popped until the last drop is poured and drunk; my top pick to celebrate a special occasion.

And of course, all of these wineries also make red, white and rosé table wines in a wide range of styles.

There are plenty of restaurants in the Niagara Peninsula serving top quality dishes
Wineries tend to have their own in-house restaurants, creating dishes that match perfectly with the wine

Eating in the Niagara Peninsula winelands

One unique aspect of the Niagara Peninsula winelands is that so many wineries have truly excellent onsite restaurants. Attracted by high quality produce and a customer-base focused on great food and wine, many top Canadian and international chefs have set up shop here.

Whether you’re following a route that takes you to several fantastic wineries in turn or including one or two in a wider exploration of the area, you are spoilt for choice when it comes to deciding where to eat.

My pick for fine dining in a formal but not-at-all-stuffy setting is chef Jason Parsons’ tasting menu in the main winery restaurant at Peller Estates – perfectly cooked, and beautifully presented, this is top notch cooking. Peller Estates also offer a great range of food and wine experiences for guests; beyond the usual winery tour, try pairing cheese or chocolate with wine, or enjoy a cocktail in their new 10 Below ice bar.

The Vineland Estates Winery’s modern Canadian restaurant offers à la carte and set menus with excellent wine pairings. Eat inside the renovated 1845 farmhouse or outdoors under huge shade sails and make sure you try chef Justin Downes’ home-made charcuterie, patés, pickles and chutneys.

Another beautiful terrace to dine on can be found at Kitchen 76, in the Two Sisters Vineyard. Chef Justin Lesso’s menu is hearty but elegant Italian. Don’t miss pillowy pizzas cooked to perfection in a huge custom-built oven.

If you’re looking for something more casual or quick, many of the wineries host food trucks or run their own outdoor grills on the busiest weekends of the season, serving everything from burgers to Mexican tacos to southern American barbecue.

Inniskillin Niagara Estate Winery at sunset
Apart from the wineries themselves, there's much more to see in the area


There is far more to sightseeing in the Niagara Peninsula than the famous Falls, though you certainly shouldn’t miss them. I asked my favourite wineries for their tips on the best non-wine attractions for visitors.

Allan Schmidt, owner of Vineland Estates Winery, told me about the Bruce Trail, a 300 mile historic Indian trading route that is now a popular walking path. He suggests picking up a baguette, some cold meats and cheeses and a bottle of wine to enjoy as a picnic during a hike along the escarpment.

Tim Coons, Estate Manager at Peller Estates Winery loves the historic district in Niagara-on-the-Lake, and recommends coming along the Shaw Festival, an annual theatre festival that is a huge draw for arts lovers.

Bruce Nicholson, winemaker at Inniskillin loves the flowers planted along the Niagara River Parkway, a water-side path much-loved by walkers, joggers and bicyclists. He also recommends the Butterfly Conservatory, perfect for wildlife lovers.

There are also wonderful farmers markets and delis where you can buy specialities such as locally made honey, cheese and cured meats, fantastic fresh fruit and the justly-famous Canadian butter tarts.

My sweet tooth lead me on this magnificent ice wine pilgrimage but it’s worth remembering that the Niagara Peninsula produces a wonderful range of table wines too. As Allan says, ‘for people that love wine from all around the world, we are a great place to visit because you can find all the world’s wine styles here made with some Canadian flair.’

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