An ice wine crawl in Niagara-on-the-Lake

I love my family and visit them often, but after a few days at my parents’ house, I’m usually in need of a drink. For many years, my refuge has been the Niagara Wine region, centered around Niagara-on-the-Lake, a well-preserved, picturesque town on Lake Ontario, just minutes away from Buffalo and Niagara Falls.

Over the last decade, the area has exploded from obscurity to a serious wine producing region with nearly seventy wineries, ranging from small, family run estates to major corporate players. The area is best known for its ice wine, in fact, it produces some 80% of the world’s supply of this sweet liquid gold.

A host of regional wineries will take part in the Niagara Ice Wine Festival from January 13-29, so if you don’t mind braving the cold, this would be a great time to visit. If you’re not familiar with ice wine, it’s a syrupy sweet desert wine produced from grapes that are frozen on the vine and harvested when the temperature is about 17 degrees Fahrenheit. There are a lot of different varieties but the taste tends to be intense and even a small sip is a serious treat which doesn’t come cheap. A ton of grapes yields just one-sixth the amount of ice wine as table wine, so prices typically start at about $45 for half bottles, but tastes range from free to about $5.

Two of the most celebrated Niagara wineries, Inniskillin and Jackson Triggs, are owned by Vincor International, a major multinational corporation, but all of my favorites are family owned and operated places that produce superb, affordable wines.
Pillitteri Estates– Founded by an Italian immigrant, Gary Pillitteri, in the early 90’s, Pillitteri is the largest estate producer of ice wines in the world. On a recent visit, I was able to taste a half dozen varieties, one more delicious than the next. The Reisling and Shiraz ice wines were particular favorites.

Reif Estate Winery– The Reif family has been making wines in Germany since the 1600’s; Klaus Reiff opened his winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake in 1982, making this winery one of the veterans on the local scene. Reif produces a wide variety of whites, reds and ice wines, but I was most taken with their Kerner- a rare white varietal that is grown in just a handful of vineyards in Ontario.

Marynissen Estates– If you prefer reds, definitely check out Marynissen, which was founded by Dutch immigrant John Marynissen in the early 50’s. The cabernet franc is terrific, as is the solstice, which is a merlot, syrah, cabernet sauvignon blend.

Konzelmann– This family run winery, established in 1988, is a bit off the beaten track but is my favorite in the region. I’m particularly fond of their gewürztraminer and pinot blanc, but their ice wines are to die for. A mouthful of their vidal ice wine feels so good on the palate you almost don’t want to swallow it, and when your glass is empty, you immediately crave more. The bartenders here are generous and knowledgeable.

There are numerous companies that offer tours of the wineries, and in the summer, there are also bike tours, which use the Niagara River Recreation Trail, a 35-mile bike path that runs along the Niagara River connecting Niagara-on-the-Lake with Niagara Falls and points beyond. Niagara Falls is a leisurely thirty minute drive on the scenic Niagara Parkway and Toronto is less than two hours to the north east.

Niagara-on-the-Lake (NOTL) is also the home of the Shaw Festival, which presents plays in four beautiful theaters around town from April-October. Architecture buffs will love NOTL’s quiet side streets, which are filled with tidy 19th Century Victorian homes and bed and breakfasts. Many of the shops and restaurants in town are pretty touristy, so on a nice day; I’d take a picnic and eat lakeside at the Queen’s Royal Park. Otherwise, venture a couple miles outside town to the Pie Plate, an outstanding bakery and restaurant which serves fantastic pies, baked goods, soups, sandwiches, salads and pizzas at reasonable prices.

I’ve been to NOTL dozens of times but every time I return there are new discoveries and more wineries to try. George Bernard Shaw once said that alcohol is the “anesthesia by which we endure the operation of life,” and by that token, NOTL is a terrific place to numb the senses.