I adore dessert wines. The syrupy liquid nectar is too sweet for some, but I truly love the intensity of flavour that the best dessert wines bring to the glass.
Some of my favourites are produced by noble rot, the action of Botrytis cinerea, a fungal mould that causes infected grapes to partially shrivel, raisin-like, on the vine. This concentrates the sugars, resulting in a delightfully sweet wine, though of course, far more grapes are required to produce a bottle than for regular wine. French Sauterne, Hungarian Tokaji and German and Austrian Beerenauslese are all made in this way.
But there is another method that produces similarly sweet results and that is ice wine. Here, the grapes are left on the vine until a cold snap freezes them – of course it’s mainly the water content that freezes, rather than the sugars and other solids within the grape. Pressing while still frozen means that only a small volume of sweet and concentrated juice is extracted, with the water left behind as ice. This is a tricky wine to produce since the vintner must hope for the right weather conditions to grow healthy grapes, and then for a suitable cold snap during which to harvest. Harvesting is usually done by hand, on the first morning it’s cold enough, and there’s a brief 6 hour window during which the entire harvest must be picked and pressed. For this reason, ice wine is not produced in great quantities, and there are only a few regions with the requisite climate to do so. Canada and Germany are the world’s largest producers; with the majority of Canada’s ice wine being produced in Ontario.
During my visit to the region last year, I enjoyed visits to a number of vineyards in the Niagara-on-the-Lake area. Of course, all these wineries produce regular red, white and rosé wines as well as their sweet ice wines, so they are well worth a visit even if ice wine is not for you.
Two Sisters Vineyard
Two Sisters Vineyard is the first one we visited, on a balmy early-autumn evening, the sun casting a golden blanket across the beautiful stonework of the vineyard, and the fields of vines surrounding it. We ate our dinner on the terrace, probably my favourite menu of the vineyard restaurants we visited. Kitchen 76 offers rustic Italian food at its best – superb fresh ingredients cooked and served simply but skillfully to bring out their inherent flavours.
For starters, we shared pizzas, salads and charcuterie boards laden with locally made meats, cheeses and breads.
For mains, superb pastas – the rabbit ragu pappardelle was a winner, plates of lamb chops with guanciale potatoes and a ribeye steak topped with a potato croquette that was to die for.
Vineland Estates Winery
Three of us really arrived in style to our lunch at the Vineland Estates Winery, dropped off by the helicopter that had just given us spectacular aerial views of the Niagara Falls. (The rest of our party went by road, a beautiful drive in its own right).
Lunch was served on the outdoor terrace, a perfect spot in the gorgeous sunshine. Of course, there are plenty of tables inside, for when the weather is less amenable!
From a wine perspective, this was hands-down the best meal for me; Vineland Estates produce not one but several different dessert wines, some made with late harvest grapes and some ice wines. I was served a flight of delicious sweet wines throughout my meal, switching between wine types, grape varieties and years of harvest. It was a wonderful opportunity to identify the flavour profiles of the grapes, not to mention the difference that weather makes, year on year.
Food was again excellent. A very different style to Two Sisters, but very similarly focused on the superb quality local ingredients. I particularly enjoyed Chef Justin Downes’ home-cured charcuterie and home-made rillettes, patés, pickles and chutneys.
These were followed by an incredible smoked tomato bisque, perfectly cooked beef top sirloin served with cauliflower puree, mustard jus and some blue haze blue cheese. After, a New York cheesecake with brandy-marinated necatines, blueberry gelato and crushed pstachios. Everything was stunningly plated and suitably delicious.
The one I bought a bottle of was a delicious classic Vidal ice wine, 2014.
Inniskillin Winery was the only brand I was already familiar with, having come across it’s ice wine in the UK. Founded by Donald Ziraldo and Karl Kaiser back in 1975, the name comes from the Irish Regiment to which one Colonel Cooper belonged in the 1800s; Cooper was the previous owner of the farm where the vineyard was established.
Unlike the other wineries we visited, Inniskillin don’t have an onsite restaurant. But they did organise for chef Tim MacKiddie to cook us a multi-course meal to enjoy with their wines, served in one of the spacious private rooms at the winery.
Before and during dinner we were talked through the wines by the enthusiastic and hugely knowledgeable Sumie Yamakawa, Inniskillin’s Visitor Experience Manager.
The wine that absolutely floored me here was the incredible sparkling Vidal ice wine, 2014 vintage, and this is the Inniskillin bottle I purchased to bring home. This is truly amazing, well worth a try if you can find it!
13th Street Winery
Located right next door to Whitty Farms (more of which in this recent post), 13th Street Winery is the vision of Doug and Karen Whitty and their friends John and June Mann, but the man behind the wines is Frenchman Jean Pierre Colas, formerly the head winemaker at the Domaine Laroche in Chablis for 10 years, during which time he produced many award-winning wines.
First into our glasses is a sparkling rosé blend of pinot noir and chardonnay plus a little gamay to add a deeper colour and more fruitiness to the flavour. The colour and sparkles are beguiling and the others in the group confirm, for those with less of a sweet tooth than mine, that it’s delicious.
During our tasting Jean Pierer explains that red gamay is the flagship wine of 13th Street, though of course, they produce other wines too. Having worked in Beaujolais as a student, gamay was a grape he knows how to handle and it grows well here in Niagara; “there is something unique in Ontario that allows us to produce crazy, beautiful, strong, charming gamays”. And gamay is also a wine that is made for food, as the pastry with basil, tomato and Grey Owl blue cheese helps us to confirm.
13th Street are one of the only wineries in the area not producing ice wine. As Jean Pierre puts it, “we don’t have to be like everybody, we don’t have to do like everybody”. I ask him why and he quips that he has “no interest to pick grapes in the winter and to freeze my arse outside!”
After the gamay, we try 13 Below Zero, a sweet riesling with far less residual sugar than ice wine. With my super sweet tooth, they’re still too acidic for my liking, but are much-liked by the others in my group.
The owners’ love of art is shared via a selection of modern pieces hung within the winery’s main building and displayed in the beautifully planted gardens just outside.
Hopefully I’ve given you a taste of the Niagara-on-the-Lake region’s excellent wineries, and especially the ice wine that many of them produce.
It’s a perfect destination for a self-drive holiday, with plenty to see and do. There are many charming independent hotels and bed and breakfasts, and some truly world class eating and drinking to enjoy. Find out more about this and other food trails in Canada.
Kavey Eats visited Ontario as a guest of Destinations Canada. With additional thanks to Anna and Michael Olson for being our hosts, and Diane Helinski for being our tour manager and guide.