Ahh, dear, sweet icewine. It’s one of those dessert drinks that leaves you feeling like you’ve tasted the nectar of the gods and are experiencing life fully for the first time.
I kid, I kid. (Well, somewhat.) Truth be told, though, icewine is pretty darn fantastic. The Niagara region in Ontario, Canada is world-renowned for its premier icewines, which is why we were so excited to fly out in January 2017 for the annual Niagara Icewine Festival. After a full weekend sampling icewines ranging from the traditional to the groundbreaking, here are the Niagara wineries you need to put on your itinerary for your next trip.
First, here’s a quick primer for all of you icewine newbies out there. We’ll discuss this more in depth in an upcoming post, but for now, here’s what you need to know.
Icewine is a dessert wine made from naturally frozen grapes. This concentrates the grapes’ sugars, because the water in the grapes has frozen. The result is a smaller yield of a concentrated but very sweet wine. Since it takes more grapes to produce a single bottle of icewine, prices for this type of wine tend to be more expensive than table wines.
Riesling, vidal, and cabernet franc are the grapes typically used to produce icewine. However, wineries are experimenting with other types of grapes–including chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, and semillion–to make icewine as well.
An icewine by any other name is just as sweet. Whether it’s called ice wine (United States), icewine (Canada), or eiswein (Germany), it all means the same thing.
There are strict legal requirements for a wine to be called “icewine” in Canada. It turns out that if you want your product to be called icewine in Canada, you can only call it that if it’s made from grapes picked off the vine at or below 18 degrees Fahrenheit (−8 degrees Celsius). Sugar levels must also reach at least 35 degrees Brix.
Now that you’ve got your icewine bearings, let’s talk about which wineries you should visit when you’re in the Niagara region.
1499 Line #3 at the Niagara Parkway, Niagara-on-the-Lake, ON L0S1J0
Inniskillin’s significant role in the history of the Canadian wine industry cannot be overstated. Founded by Donald Ziraldo and Karl Kaiser in 1974, Inniskillin was able to secure the first post-prohibition winery license issued in the region (since 1929!). Their 1989 Vidal icewine thrust Canadian icewine onto the international stage when they won top honors at Vinexpo in Bordeaux, France in 1991.
Why We Liked It: As Canada’s most widely known icewine producer, we walked in expecting competent service and a corporate feel, as we’ve been disappointed by these kinds of corporate wineries in California in the past. Turns out that the joke was on us, however. We were pleasantly surprised by the fact that Inniskillin was our favorite winery in Niagara, and it was largely due to the stellar service we received. Sylvie and Lynn went out of their way to ensure that we tried icewines that suited our preferences, but knew when to gently nudge us into trying something new. We genuinely liked every icewine we sampled here; plus, their icewines were accessible to beginners and wine connoisseurs alike.
(Side note: Inniskillin, like other wineries listed here, produces table wines as well. They make a killer Viognier.)
Favorite Icewines at Inniskillin: 2014 Sparkling Vidal Icewine and 2015 Chardonnay Icewine
Reif Estate Winery
15608 Niagara Pkwy, Niagara-on-the-Lake, ON L0S 1J0
Founded in 1977 by Ewald Reif, Reif Estate Winery was also a pioneer in the Canadian wine industry. Remember Karl Kaiser from Inniskillin? Well, in 1983, he and Reif were some of the first to leave their grapes on the vine to produce icewine. Spoiler alert: it didn’t work out, as both lost their entire crop to some devious birds, but thank goodness they didn’t stop there!
Why We Liked It: As part of the Niagara Icewine Festival, wineries provided guests with a sample of one of their icewines plus a gourmet bite. Reif’s food and wine pairing was spot on: their 2015 Vidal icewine perfectly complemented the juicy, spit-roasted porketta with apple icewine sauce that they served us. On a more general note, staff members were knowledgeable and easy to talk to, despite managing large crowds clamoring for tasting flights.
Favorite Icewine at Reif: 2015 Vidal Icewine
1339 Lakeshore Rd, Niagara-on-the-Lake, ON L0S 1J0
Originally home to the Niagara Canning Company, Strewn Winery was established in 1997. Among one of its claims to fame is that it has Canada’s only winery cooking school.
Why We Liked It: It definitely didn’t hurt that Strewn’s food and wine pairing involved chocolate. (Note to wineries: though I don’t accept bribes, dazzling displays of various forms of chocolate will make me one happy camper.) Strewn introduced us to cabernet sauvignon icewine for the first time–and man, we fell in love hard. So much that we shelled out $68 CAD (~$52 USD). Strewn, you made our wallets hurt, but it was so worth it.
Favorite Icewine at Strewn: 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon Icewine
1249 Niagara Stone Rd, Niagara-on-the-Lake, ON L0S 1J0
Trius has been crafting wines in Niagara for over thirty years. Their winemaker, Craig McDonald, was named Ontario Winemaker of the Year in 2008. More recently, Trius was named the 2015 Ontario Winery of the Year.
Why We Liked It: Trius Winery’s outdoor area is the stuff dreams are made of. With its charming gazebo, cozy fire pit, and comfy chairs, it was the perfect romantic winter setting to sip on some icewine. (In fact, I remarked to my friend Emily that it would be an excellent spot for a winery wedding, and she agreed.) We also thoroughly enjoyed their cabernet franc icewine, which had notes of strawberry, rhubarb, and toffee.
Favorite Icewine at Trius: 2013 Cabernet Franc Icewine
Pillitteri Estates Winery
1696 Niagara Stone Rd, Niagara-on-the-Lake, ON L0S 1J0
As someone who grew up around grapes in his native Sicily, it seems only fitting that Gary Pillitteri would eventually open a winery of his own in June 1993.
Why We Liked It: Pillitteri is using innovative grapes to produce icewine. As part of their Reserve Icewine Series, they aren’t afraid to use varietals like sangiovese, sauvignon blanc, and shiraz to create icewine. I was floored by their semillon icewine, which had a nutty finish reminiscent of a tawny port. I’d equate this wine to a “deep cut” in a musician’s catalog: while everyone knows the popular songs (e.g. accessible icewines like riesling and vidal blanc), this is more like a hidden gem lurking in a band’s overlooked fourth album. It may not be for everyone, but if you love it, it’ll make your mouth sing with joy. Service here was absolutely wonderful as well.
Favorite Icewine at Pillitteri: 2011 Semillon Icewine
Konzelmann Estate Winery
1096 Lakeshore Rd, Niagara-on-the-Lake, ON L0S 1J0
Konzelmann is billed as “Niagara’s exclusive lakefront winery” on their website. Unfortunately, the fog rolled in while we were there, so we couldn’t see the gorgeous lake views. I guess that just means we’ll have to return!
Why We Liked It: We felt that Konzelmann’s vidal icewine was more balanced, thicker, and more syrupy compared to other wineries we visited. In short, it was exactly what we wanted and expected an icewine to be. When you think of a golden dessert in a glass, this should be it! This winery also had one of the most streamlined waiting processes during the festival weekend, making our time there quick and painless.
Favorite Icewine at Konzelmann: 2010 Vidal Icewine
Jackson-Triggs Niagara Estate Winery
2145 Niagara Stone Rd, Niagara-on-the-Lake, ON L0S 1J0
Allan Jackson and Don Triggs established this winery in 1993. (See how the winery’s name came to be?) Jackson-Triggs, which is Inniskillin’s sister winery, is also Canada’s most awarded winery.
Why We Liked It: As I set foot into Jackson-Triggs, a wave of nostalgia crept over me. I’d never been there before, of course. But as I ventured inside, I distinctly recalled my very first taste of icewine–a bottle of Jackson-Triggs at a California restaurant in 2008. This began a long love affair with the dessert wine, to say the least. (Sorry, Mr. Five O’Clock!) Jackson-Triggs’ tasting room was packed when we arrived, as it was toward the end of the day. However, we adored their Reserve Cabernet Franc Icewine, with its aromas of raspberries and rhubarb.
Favorite Icewine at Jackson-Triggs: 2014 Reserve Cabernet Franc Icewine
Peller Estates Winery
290 John St E, Niagara-on-the-Lake, ON L0S 1J0
Peller Estates Winery has been around since the spring of 1969. Despite its history, though, the winery isn’t afraid to take chances in the future. They’ve got a nifty experience called the 10Below Icewine Lounge, where guests can sample icewines in a bar made of ice (don’t worry, toasty parkas included).
Why We Liked It: I’m going to let you in on a secret: I seriously hate marshmallows. Like, despise them. (Whatever, I’m weird.) So when I saw that Peller was pairing their cabernet franc icewine with a “cabernet franc icewine marshmallow,” I balked. Fortunately for this post, as well as my better judgment, Mr. Five O’Clock convinced me to give it a shot. And ohmigod, it was glorious. We even got to roast our own marshmallows over the fire!
In a more general sense, Peller’s building and grounds are beautiful, and their staff exuded a sense of calmness and grace while handling large crowds.
Favorite Icewine at Peller: 2013 Cabernet Franc Icewine
Where Are These Wineries?
Want to know where these wineries are located in relation to each other? Check out the map below. For a sense of scale, it takes roughly 12 minutes to drive from Inniskillin Wines (lower right corner) to Konzelmann Estate Winery (upper left).
While we only mentioned a fraction of the Niagara wineries out there in this post, we’d like to give a special shout out to Chateau de Charmes, Stratus Vineyards, and the Ice House Winery. Add them to your list if you’re looking for further wineries to try!
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(All opinions are my own, and nearly all links are included for informational purposes only. There is one affiliate link, and I will earn a teeny, tiny percentage of the sale if you purchase through it at no extra cost to you. Thanks for supporting It’s Five O’Clock Here!)