There’s Gold in Them There Hills

The hills would be the area around the Niagara Escarpment in the Niagara Region where many of Ontario’s wineries are established. The gold would be the ice wine produced by the region’s wineries. And in more recent years rubies can also be found in the form of red ice wines.

The production of icewine (note the single word here which is how the Canadian product is spelled) is a very precise and labour intensive process.  The grapes must be frozen before picking.  To ensure full freezing, temperatures have to remain at -8 degrees Celsius or lower for 3 consecutive days.  Once frozen, the grapes are picked by hand and pressed while still frozen, often in darkness.  Those working the presses have to work in unheated settings so that the grapes remain frozen throughout the pressing.  This is a risky proposition as these little frozen nuggets can break a press.  By allowing the grapes to remain and freeze on the vine after the regular harvest, the water content is reduced through dehydration, the flavours concentrated and the sugar level increased.  Some of the water in the grapes also gets left out in the form of ice during pressing, further concentrating the juice.  This concentration of flavours is a big reason why icewines are known for their strong perfume and rich flavours.  Ice wine is thought to have originated in Germany (eiswein) but the wineries of the Niagara Region have made it their own and mastered it.  The region’s icewines are renowned as the best in the world.

The icewines made by the wineries in Niagara Region are world famous and multi-award winning. Now in its 17th year, the annual Niagara Icewine Festival is a celebration of these sweet libations.

Beginning on the second Friday in January with a private gala and running for 3 successive weekends, visitors get a chance to sample a variety of icewines and wine/food pairings.  The first weekend is dedicated to the wineries of the Twenty Valley area which encompasses west St. Catharines, Vineland, Beamsville and Jordan.  The Twenty Valley Winter Winefest sets up a street festival on Main Street in the town of Jordan where eager oenophiles can sample icewines and taste food creations that complement the wines.  This year Canadian fiddler Ashley MacIsaac performed a concert on the Saturday evening and there was a wine barrel rolling competition among the participating wineries.

Getting ready to serve the crowds at Twenty Valley Winter Winefest

In addition to the street festival, the wineries also have food/wine tastings at their winery sites.  Perhaps the easiest way to visit a number of wineries is with a Discovery Pass.  This year the Pass costs $30 and allows you to visit six wineries to sample their food/wine pairings.  If you paid for the samplings individually the cost would be at least $60 so the Pass is a good deal.

Icewine has a bit of a similar reputation to champagne or other sparkling wine in that many people feel it’s just a dessert or a special occasion drink.  The wineries of the region are working to dispel that idea and many are offering tastings that pair icewines with savoury dishes.  Just as a sparkling wine can be chosen to accompany most any dish or meal, the same is true of icewine.  The key in any food/drink pairing is balance.  And the savoury, salty, bitter, sour tastes of many foods act as a terrific foil to the sweetness of icewines.  Perhaps the icewine producers could riff on the old slogan for eggs:  Icewine – Not just for dessert anymore.

Enjoying Winter Winefest in Twenty Valley

In the Twenty Valley area, I visited three wineries – Creekside Estate, Flat Rock Cellars and Tawse.

Creekside served a very nice butternut squash bisque topped with a chestnut/smoked bacon compote paired with their Vidal Icewine.  Vidal is the grape used to make much of the icewine in the region.  It tends to be less acidic which pushes the sweetness forward and the fruit flavours are a bit less pronounced.  The peppery notes in the soup matched well with the wine, taming down the sweetness.  I also tried the soup with Creekdide’s Reisling Icewine.  Reisling icewine has a better balance between acidity and sweetness.  Creekside’s has a deep amber colour and proved a more satisfying match to the bisque.  The honey was pronounced and the fruit characteristics of the Reisling were very strong with pear and some hints of guava.  The wine does spend time in oak which lends to the deep colour and a smoother overall taste.

Creekside Estate Winery

The wine industry in Ontario has developed in a similar way to the beer industry. There are the large, high volume breweries that produce good beer. But if you want really good beer you look to one of the small craft breweries. These are the breweries that are experimenting with fermentation methods and ingredients and really turning out some spectacular brews. Much the same is true in Ontario's wine industry. You have the large, well-established wineries that produce consistent and good wines. But then there is a host of smaller, lower volume, small batch wineries that are experimenting with grapes, using much more manual fermentation processes, experimenting with different types of oak and blends and producing the really interesting wines in the province.

Award winning Creekside Estate Winery in the Twenty Valley area, is just such a winery. Creekside began operation in 1997 and was 'outside the box' right from the get go. According to Matt Loney, Sales Director for Creekside "That's our mandate, to do stuff that's not being done by everyone else." Creekside was the first to plant and produce a commercial volume of Shiraz (Syrah) as a single varietal in Niagara and since the winery was founded has been producing Sauvignon Blanc which is another grape that's considered 'outside the norm' in the region.

Creekside Retail Store/Tasting Room

The Barrel Cellar at Creekside

Creekside has an affinity for small-batch, hand processed wines. Several of their reds undergo a process called manual punchdown of the cap. When the grapes are pressed the juice and the must (pulp and skins) are put into tanks to begin the fermentation process. The must will float to the top of the tank. Many of the wineries in the region use a process called 'pump over' where juice from the bottom of the tank is pumped up to the top and allowed to filter over and through the must. Creekside, using small tanks, will manually push the must down into the tank to mix with the juice. "It's all done in 1 ton bins, 2 or 3 times a day for 20 or more days", says Loney. What does this do for the wine? Well, let's look at a bit of an analogy. If you make coffee using a percolator, the grounds are in a basket at the top of the pot and the water is forced up a tube where it runs over and filters through the grounds. As this happens through the brewing process, the water picks up more colour and flavour from the grounds but the grounds are never in full contact with the water. Now think of making coffee in a French press. You put the grounds in the press and pour the water over. The grounds are in continual contact with the water where they can steep more. Now, press the plunger of the press down about halfway and pull it back up. Give the press a bit of a shake and the grounds will start to float back to the top. The percolator is still going to produce a really fine cup of coffee but it won't have the intensity that the cup from the French press has. Manual punchdown is similar. By doing this the skins and the grape pulp are allowed to be in greater contact with the juice which extracts more colour and more of the flavour compounds from the grape leading to a deeper, richer flavoured wine.

The winemaker at Creekside is encouraged to experiment with different blends and aging methods. The experiments fall under the Undercurrent label. These are small-batch, limited production wines that tend to sell out fairly quickly. One such experiment is a Shiraz Icewine. This wine is currently sitting in a barrel coming to the end of its two plus year aging. It's scheduled to be bottled in April and released to the public in June or July. It'll only be available through the winery directly. I didn't get the chance to taste any out of the barrel but did get the chance to smell the wine in the barrel. It's got really strong black fruit aromas. It's also got a really nice port-like nose that's quite appealing. I expect this is going to be a terrific wine. Order early as it will probably sell out fast!

In closing my discussion with Matt Loney I asked him if there was one thing he could say to sum up the winery and the wines. "We're small, craft, 100% VQA, premium producers. We have a good sense of humour but we take the wines we produce seriously. We're nerds but we consider ourselves funny nerds and we love what we do. Our biggest thing is to try to get people to try something new, to explore."

As a side note, I bought a bottle of their 2007 Malbec; which is one of the wines in the Undercurrent label, and had it for New Year's Eve dinner with a garlic studded prime rib roast. The bottle was opened about half an hour before serving and the first glass poured about 15 minutes before drinking. The wine has a terrific black fruit aroma. Tasting, it's got that black fruit, a hint of chocolate as well as a pronounced spicy tobacco flavour. The folks at Creekside say the tobacco is something that's only developed in the time since bottling. It seemed a wee bit light at first but it built very well and paired nicely with the beef. It's a very good wine. The vines are only about 6 or 7 years old so over the next several years, the wine from these grapes should just get better. I've also got a bottle of their 2007 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon but am saving that one for a while yet.

Spending a bit of time with some of the people at Creekside I'd have to agree that they've got a sense of humour about what they do. Most wineries number their fermenting tanks. Not Creekside. They name theirs. John, Paul, George and Ringo being four of them. But they also do produce some seriously good wine.

At Tawse the Arrow Points the Way

At Flat Rock Cellars, the offering was a Mulligatawny soup paired with their 2006 Sparkling Brut (brut means dry).  On its own, the wine is very neutral.  It has a bit of acidity but not a lot of fruit is apparent.  Tasting the wine after the soup changes things; however.  The fruit flavours in the wine are brought out by the spicy soup.  Quite a nice pairing.

Tawse was sampling two icewines.  The first, a Chardonnay icewine that had undergone significant aging in oak was paired with Niagara Gold cheese from Upper Canada Cheese.  Upper Canada makes a terrific selection of award winning, artisinal cheeses.  Niagara Gold has a hint of sharpness and an earthy/nutty flavour a bit similar to the Dutch Beemster.  The wine has a very strong honey/mead flavour and a rich white fruit aroma.  The pairing of the earthy/nutty cheese and the honey of the wine was excellent.  The cheese toned down the sweetness of the wine quite nicely.  The second icewine at Tawse was their Cabernet Franc ice.  This was matched with a fleur de sel dark chocolate.  The wine has a bright, ruby red colour and the smell of cooked rhubarb.  On the palette, you get deep, stewed red fruit flavours.  Sampling the wine with the chocolate, the flavour changes quite dramatically and the combination is like that of a chocolate covered brandied cherry.  Really nice!  I bought a bottle of the Cab Franc ice and tried some with a spicy chili con carne.  The sweetness of the wine ratcheted down the spiciness of the chili and the spicy chili tamed the sweetness of the wine and enhanced the strong stewed fruit flavours.  It was an excellent match.  The Cabernet Franc icewine is only being sold during the Icewine Festival as a pre-release.  The wine will be officially released to the public in the next few months.  Check with the winery for updates.

Ice Sculpture in NOTL

For the second weekend of the festival, the street scene shifts to Niagara-on-the-Lake.  The wineries set up tents on Queen Street for visitors to sample the wines.

Sweet & Salty Treats

Several local restaurants also set up on the street with food to complement the wines.

The Discovery Pass is good for 32 participating wineries and for all three weekends of the festival.  But the street festivals take place just the first two weekends.

In the NOTL area, I sampled the offerings from Lakeview Cellars (via Diamond Estates), Pillitteri and Coyote’s RunDiamond Estates is the representative for several smaller Niagara wineries.  A full list can be found on their website.

At Diamond, they were sampling the Lakeview Cellars Gewürtztraminer with a sweet potato tart.  If you’ve ever had a sweet potato pie, you know it has a similar flavour to pumpkin pie.  This one was mildly flavoured and not overly sweet.  The icewine had a very nice acid level as well as a hint of bitterness that matched nicely with the richness of the tart.  Lakeview actually produces icewines from five different grape varietals.

An interesting Shiraz icewine was paired with a feta cheese tart at Pillitteri.  The wine has a distinct spicy note of cinnamon candies combined with candy apple.  The spicy sweetness of the wine complemented well the rich egginess of the tart and the hint of the briny, salty feta.

Coyote’s Run was serving their 2007 multi-award winning Reisling icewine with a rich, thick Mulligatawny soup topped with carmelized onions.  Different from the soup at Flat Rock, it was spicy but not as much from curry.  The Reisling, as with other Reisling icewines, has a nice acid note with pronouced fruit flavours of peach, apricot and lychee.  The Coyote’s Run Reisling doesn’t spend any time in oak.  The balance between the spiciness of the soup and the wine was very good.  A terrific pairing.  Jeff Aubry, owner of Coyote’s Run also recommends Asian dishes, particularly curries, with icewine and mentioned that the sharp, salty flavours of blue cheese also pair well with their icewine.  Coyote’s Run is an interesting winery, as the following feature will explain.

Coyote's Run Estate Winery

Enjoy a glass by the fire at Coyote's Run

Founded in 2004 and named after the coyote's that can be seen running around the property, the winery has two distinct soil types. Named the Red Paw Vineyard and Black Paw Vineyard, these soils produce very different wines from the same grape varieties. "2004 was the first year we were able to release Pinot Noir from the two different soils and the wines were profoundly different", says Jeff Aubry, owner of Coyote's Run. "In 2006 we also had Cabernet Franc from the two different soils. This was really interesting because it was a different variety but it was showing the same differences between the soils."

The Black Paw soil is very heavy, dense and dark with a higher organic content than the Red Paw soil. The Red Paw soil, on the other hand, is lighter, with less organic material. The Black Paw soil is slower to warm up but also slower to cool down. It will hold moisture better than the Red Paw soil as well. These different soil characteristics play into the way in which the grapes develop and give the wines from each vineyard their distinctive characteristics. This is the very essence of terroir in winemaking. Terroir is the combination of soil and climate conditions that add to the characteristics of a wine.

Retail Store at Coyote's Run

In terms of how the soil types affect the wines, with the reds the Red Paw vineyard wines are fruitier whereas the Black Paw reds tend to be heavier and fuller bodied in comparison. With the Chardonnay, similarly the Black Paw is fuller bodied with a less acidic feel in the mouth where the Red Paw has a more pronounced acid feel in the mouth and fruitier flavours.

Coyote's Run Rare Vintage wines are the 'best of the best' from the winery. The Rare Vintage are "only made from the best years", says Aubry and would be classified as true 'reserve' wines. The winery's icewine is Reisling. The decision to use the Reisling grape was made expressly for the acidity and more complex flavour profile compared to a Vidal. And, as Aubry notes, "we don't have a lot of room here so if I'm going to make a wine it's going to be the best wine I can make".

While at the winery, I tried their 2010 Cabernet-Merlot. This is a very nice, lighter red with fairly pronounced tannins and good fruit. As it ages over the next couple years, the tannins should mellow. I think this would be a good wine to pair with lighter meats and chicken or turkey or fuller flavoured fish like salmon or rainbow trout.

Some of the wines from Coyote's Run are available at the LCBO but the best of their wines are only available at the winery. The crew at Coyote's Run are very friendly and helpful and will be happy to talk to you about their wines and help pick some wines for whatever occasion you may need.

If winter isn’t your thing, the Niagara Grape & Wine Festival also operates two other events celebrating the region’s wines.  The Niagara New Vintage festival in June will be in its 16th year in 2012.  “The event started as a release of new wines or the first tasting of new wines and has since evolved into a farm to table celebration of the new season in Niagara”, says Kimberly Hundertmark, Executive Director of the Niagara Wine Festival.  Later in the year is the Niagara Wine Festival.  Happening for the 61st year in late September, the festival celebrates the harvest and the end of summer.  Any of the three make for a terrific weekend getaway in the region.

Fast Facts:  VQA Ontario lists 83 wineries operating in the Niagara Region.  The retail value of wines produced in Ontario exceeded $500 million in 2010.  Over 1 million people visit the wineries of Ontario each year.

Other things to do:  There are a great many attractions and things to do in the region.  If you want to get in out of the cold, the Niagara Butterfly Conservatory is a terrific spot.  Make note that the climate inside the conservatory is very warm and humid so if you’re coming in from outside and want to take photos, be sure to let your camera acclimatize first or you’ll be fighting condensation.  During the months of December and January, Niagara Falls has a Winter Festival of Lights with elaborate lighting displays set up in a few different locations.

In the warmer months, next to the Butterfly Conservatory are the wonderful Niagara Botanical Gardens.  Niagara-on-the-Lake plays host to the world famous ShawFestival, which runs from spring through fall.

Where to stay:  Many of the major chains have hotels in the region.  The real charm of visiting the Niagara area; however, is found in the many boutique hotels and bed & breakfast places.  The NOTL Chamber of Commerce site has an extensive listing.  Some of the local businesses have accommodations above their stores too.  The Irish Harp Pub and The Olde Angel Inn are two.  Keep in mind these are above working pubs so sound from below may filter up.  Cheese Secrets operates the Market Street Loft above their shop.

Where to eat:  Queen Street in NOTL has several restaurants and there are many others within walking distance of Queen Street.  The Irish Harp Pub on King Street serves authentic pub food (not the typical faux pub grub found here in Canada) and has a good selection of beer on tap.  The Grill on King has indifferent food and indifferent service – best to avoid.  Balzac’s coffee shop on King has a good selection of high quality coffees.  A number of the wineries in the region also have restaurants or bistros that offer dishes to complement their wines.  The Wine Country Ontario website has links to all of the wineries of the NOTL and Twenty Valley areas where you can find information.

Shopping:  There are several interesting shops in the town of Niagara-on-the-Lake.  Cheese Secrets sells a selection of artisinal cheeses including the only clothbound cheddar made in Canada from Avonlea in Prince Edward Island.  The owners are very helpful and knowledgeable.

BeauChapeau on Queen Street is a personal favourite.  Everything from baseball caps to tophats.  If you’re looking to put a bit of flair into your haberdashery, this is the place to do it.  On King Street, a few doors up from The Irish Harp is The Dog Store.  For pet owners (cat too), this little shop probably has just the right thing for your furry friend.  Heather, who works in the store, is friendly and helpful.  If you’re looking for pastries, Niagara Home Bakery (no website) which has been in operation for over 75 years is a must stop.  Terrific selection of small pastries, both sweet and savoury.  Be aware, the bakery only accepts cash for payment.  They also have an extensive selection of jams, vinegars and the like.  Back up the QEW in Jordan Village is Upper Canada Cheese.  Their Camelot goat cheese won first prize in category at the 2011 Royal Winter Fair.  They also have a maple smoked camembert that has a wonderful richness with a light, smoky note that doesn’t overpower the natural flavours of the cheese at all.  They also offer a wide ranging selection of vinegars and other condiments, many of which complement their cheeses very nicely.

Cheese Secrets

That concludes the tour of the Niagara Region and the Niagara Icewine Festival for this trip and the premiere article on The Vicarious Traveler.  TVT may head back to the area in the warmer months during the Shaw Festival.  Your comments and feedback are always welcomed.

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3 Responses to There’s Gold in Them There Hills

  1. I have a general interest in travel and would love to get your updates. You are doing a wonderful job showing us how beautiful Canada really is.

  2. Great articles, Bob. Had no idea there was so much going on around Ontario wine country. And to think you can get there on a bike (most of the time, anyway). Looking forward to the next series.