The Niagara Icewine Festival: Snow Covered Vines and Crisp, Cold Wines

The Niagara Icewine Festival has solidified itself as one of the premier winter events in Niagara (and Ontario). We Explore Canada contributor Suzanne Carmel tells us exactly why that is, and what you can do to take advantage of this year’s festivities.

Niagara Icewine Festival
Bundle up and come have some fun. Photo Credit: Niagara Icewine Festival

The only thing crazier than eating and drinking outside during the heart of a Canadian winter is when it’s at a festival celebrating wine harvested in the middle of the night, during the coldest time of day. But, if there is something Canadians do exceedingly well, it’s finding ways to enjoy a less than ideal climate and Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Icewine Festival certainly does that.

A Bit More About Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Icewine Festival

Held over the last two weekends of January, the festival marks its 28th year in 2023, highlighting a unique beverage produced at 16 different wineries in the region. Leading up to the festival, there will also be the “Cool as Ice” immersive experience at the Niagara Parks Power Station on January 14th.

Throughout January, these wineries focus on icewine, made from grapes that must be picked when the temperature dips below -8 degrees Celsius. VQA Ontario Wine Appellation Authority rigorously enforces icewine production standards; stipulations include that it must be made from a varietal of approved grapes, naturally frozen on the vine and harvested and pressed while the air temperature remains at or below -8 degrees Celsius (about 17 degrees Fahrenheit).  

The Niagara Icewine Festival appropriately notes that they are “Canada’s coolest wine festival.”

Icewine Explained

Niagara-on-the-Lake Icewine Festival attendees
Some past attendees enjoying some delicious icewine. Photo Credit(s): Niagara Icewine Festival/Winestains

The sweet dessert wine is pricey, even more so when exported, due in part to the unpredictable nature of production and the risk involved. While the main wine production occurs in September or October, icewine grapes remain on the vine. There is risk of damage from inclement weather, from birds eating the grapes and in just managing the overall health of the vines. The temperature outside dictates the time to pick the grapes with the majority hand harvested.

“If you ever want to volunteer to come out here when the weather is -8 Celsius at 2:00 in the morning to help pick grapes be our guest,” joked Andrew Niven, director of marketing for Konzelmann Estate Winery and board chairman, Niagara on the Lake Chamber of Commerce.

A sizeable number of grapes must be picked for each bottle of icewine. Frozen grapes yield a higher concentration of sugar, but just a drop or two of juice per grape rather than the 8 to 12 drops of juice used for red or white table wine. Once the grapes are picked in the middle of the night, there is a rush to press them while frozen. The rest of the production is similar to the fermentation process of any typical wine.

Niagara Icewine Fest
Come for the icewine, stay for the photo ops. Photo Credit: Niagara Icewine Festival

Hearty grapes must be used for icewine, typically Vidals, which have a strong skin and withstand the winter, also Cabernet Franc, Riesling and Gewurtztraminer. The wine sells year round throughout Canada with an extant market overseas, particularly in Asia. Duty free shops are a great place to pick up bottles to bring home.

Germany also produces icewine, but the climate is not as consistent as in Ontario. The beverage was first made by mistake there in 1794 from grapes left too long on the vine, and then officially produced in Niagara in 1984 at the Inniskillen Winery by Karl Kaiser of Austria. In 1991, he submitted his 1989 icewine to Vinexpo, a wine show in Bordeaux, France, where it won the Grand Prix, putting Niagara and icewine on the map. Now 85-90 percent of wineries in Niagara-on-the-Lake produce icewine.

You can sample this intensely sweet elixir at any time of year, but there is something special about joining throngs of people out in the cold, gathering together to celebrate the fruits of winter labor.

What Makes This Icewine Festival in Niagara Unique?

“I’ve chaired the festival for the past eight years,” said Niven, “and I’ve seen a nice progression from where we used to be in terms of guest experience and how we have really elevated that offering over the past five years.”

This year, for the first time there is a new offering, a VIP lounge, and, in addition to the usual street level performances including buskers, stilt walkers and magicians, there will be a stage with live entertainment. Tickets to the VIP Lounge sell for $150.

The private area boasts a warming station of fire pits and lounge chairs, a separate bar serving wine tastings and ice wine inspired cocktails, and a five-star restaurant with icewine infused menu items. Other perks include a Wine Discovery Pass for exclusive onsite tastings and pairings at six different wineries, a fleece type blanket, and six tokens and a glass to use at the bar. In addition, it affords guests front row views of the entertainment stage.

Action throughout the day on stage will include everything from keynote speaker Andrea Kaiser’s talk on the history of icewine to mixologists showcasing cocktail creation, local chefs doing cooking demos and live musical entertainment. 

“It’s a one of a kind event here and I would say even in Ontario,” said Niven. “There is really nothing like it. It’s really a magical sense of Niagara on the Lake when you are there on historic downtown Queen Street and there is a bit of a light snowfall and you are drinking icewine outside.”

This Year’s Event

You may not be able to attend this year’s event, but this breakdown should help you envision what makes the Niagara Icewine Festival special.

There are 18 wineries in the marketing co-op that is Wineries of Niagara on the Lake, of those 16 produce icewine and participate in the festival.

As noted above, you’ll want to take note of the Cool as Ice Icewine Gala that’s happening on January 14th to unofficially kick things off at the Niagara Parks Power Station.

The Sparkle & Ice Gala is also one of the signature events, and it happens on Friday, January 20th from 8:00 – 11:00 p.m. in the ballrooms of the courthouse.

For $175 a ticket you can mix and mingle while enjoying all you can consume and imbibe from local restaurants serving dishes that pair well with the wine presented by the vintners, accompanied by live music. The gala culminates with guests moving outside to Icewine Village at street level, sipping icewine from glasses made of ice while watching a spectacular fireworks display.

Attend on the following weekend for an Icewine Cocktail Competition, Saturday, January 28 from 7:00 to 10:00 p.m., also in the courthouse.

Mixologists from local wineries will make cocktails with icewine as the key ingredient; there will also be food stations and a live DJ. Tickets for $75 include three cocktails and charcuterie boards. During both weekends, wineries will offer winemaker dinners and tastings in unique settings – Konzelmann Estate Winery will have an icewine lounge overlooking Lake Ontario (you can see Toronto across the lake). Peller Estates Winery has a tasting room made of ice, and the Wayne Gretzky Estates features an ice skating rink – of course! 

Tickets are on sale right now for the VIP lounge, gala and cocktail competition and will sell out in advance. Admission is free to the street festival, held from 11:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. Saturday and Sunday January 13-15, January 20-22 and 27-29; purchase tokens at the festival for icewine and food.

Sparke and Ice Gala at the Niagara Icewine Festival
The Sparkle & Ice Gala is one of the premiere events at the Niagara Icewine Festival. Photo Credit: Niagara Icewine Festival

Winter in Niagara

Throughout the month of January Niagara on the Lake wineries will be hosting various tastings, dinners and other special events. Wineries include: Chateau des Charmes, De Simone Vineyards, Inniskillin, Jackson-Triggs Niagara Estate, Konzelmann Estate Winery, Lakeview Wine Company, Marynissen Estates Winery, Niagara College Teaching Winery & Brewery, Palatine Hills Estate, Pillitteri Estates Winery, Queenston Mile Vineyard, Reif Estate Winery, Riverview Cellars Estate Winery, Trius Winery & Restaurant, and Wayne Gretzky Estates.

While in Niagara on the Lake, stay in town at well-appointed properties such as Price of Wales hotel, Pillar and Post inn, White Oaks Resort & Spa, or 124 on Queen Hotel & Spa.

This is one way to warm up on a Canadian winter day that you won’t want to miss!

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