While the snow covered vines and below zero temperatures indicate that it's still a long time until Niagara is lined with lush vineyards and ripe grapes, there's actually a lot of exciting activity throughout region.
January is actually one of the best times to visit Ontario wine country because there's so much going on. It all centers around the region's best known international export—Icewine. In honour of this special sweet elixir, which is amongst the best and most revered of the world's great dessert wines, Niagara is holding festivals, special tastings and even galas throughout the month. Below are a few of our highlight picks for why you should make the 45 minute trip from the city to Niagara this January.
The Ice Queen's Ball
Date: Jan. 11th 8-11pm
Location: The Grand Ballroom at Niagara Fallsview Casino Resort
The month-long celebration of local food and wine that is January in Niagara officially opens with this gala. Just like last year there promises to be dancing, ladies and gentleman dressed to the nines, plenty of great wines from some of Niagara's top wineries and food to match courtesy of the restaurants at the host Fallsview Casino Resort. Although Icewine is rightfully the star attraction, rest assured that you can happily enjoy the whole evening tasting only dry table wine without feeling the least bit deprived if that's your preference.
Twenty Valley Winter WineFest
Date: Jan. 12th from 12pm -10pm (After Party 10pm-1am) & Jan 13th 11am-6pm.
Location: Main Street, Jordan Village
Cost: Free. There is a small fee for tokens to purchase food and wine. After Party tickets are $20.
The day after the gala you can find much of Niagara gathered along Main Street in Jordan Village to enjoy the Twenty Valley Winter WineFest. This weekend-long celebration features 28 Twenty Valley wineries pouring 80 wines from sparklers, to dry reds and whites and of course Icewine. There's also live bands, a fashion show, the winemakers' barrel rolling competition, cooking demonstrations from celebrity chefs like Niagara's own Anna and Michael Olson. To keep you fueled through all that tasting and fun, gourmet food trucks including: St. Catharines' El Gatronomo Vagabondo, BBQ truck the Dirty South and schnitzel truck Dobro Jesti will be on hand as well as local winery restaurants On the Twenty and Vineland Estates. A new addition to this year's festival is an after party being held in Cave Spring Cellars' barrel cellar. Attendees can look forward to cocktails from the newly opened Beamsville spirit maker Dillon's Small Batch Distillers, Steam Whistle beer and a menu of small bites from celebrity chef Chuck Hughes.
Niagara-on-the-Lake Icewine Celebrations
Date: Jan 19th 11am-5pm & 9-11pm for the cocktail competition. & Jan. 20th 12-5pm
Location: Queen Street, Niagara-on-the-Lake
Cost: Free. There is a small fee for wine samples.
The weekend after the celebrations in Twenty Valley the festivities move to historic Niagara-on-the-Lake where its 28 wineries close down Queen Street to pour a warming taste of Icewine or table wine for visitors. On Jan. 19th local restaurants and bars get in on the fun as they try to craft the best Icewine cocktail for the judges. For those that love food some of the areas top restaurants are performing culinary presentations in the Old Court House. There will also be jazz and a beautiful array of ice sculptures on display.
Discovery Pass Program
Date: Jan. 12, 13, 19, 20, 26 & 27 during operating hours of participating wineries (approximately 11am-5pm)
Cost: $40 (designated drivers can opt for a special pass which includes the bite and a mocktail for $30)
If the gala is the headline event of the Niagara Icewine Festival, the Discovery Pass is its heart. Over the next three weekends in January this passport-style program allows you to visit up to eight wineries and enjoy a gourmet bite carefully matched with a tasting of one their Icewines or another special wine of their choosing. If that wasn't enough, Icewine is often an ingredient in the bite adding a little something interesting in the form of an infusion, glaze or sauce. The pairings range from the exotic and savoury, to the classical and contrasting to the conventional and sweet, so there's something for just about every taste. A few that stand out are: Château des Charmes' Riesling Icewine paired with a Thai curry and coconut nage; Creekside which has matched its 2007 Vidal Icewine and 2010 Laura's White with Szechuan roast pork and Peller which has paired its Icewines with winery chef Jason Parson's legendary Icewine marshmallows. If you're looking for a bit of an interesting learning experience Colaneri is pouring the gamut of different dessert wines made in Niagara for its Discovery Pass. It's a great opportunity taste the difference between a Select Late Harvest, the winery's recioto-style dessert wine (made from air-dried raisined grapes) and Icewine.
Written by Mike Di Caro
Michael Di Caro covers all things vinous at Spotlight. His lover affair with Ontario wine began over a decade ago and he’s been in front of tasting bars trying to sweet talk staff into pouring a taste of a library wine or the latest unreleased bottle ever since. Since good wine can’t be made without great grapes, you can also catch him amongst the vines trying to persuade the winemaker into revealing his/her next big thing for you on Spotlight. His epicurean tendencies don’t just stop in the glass either. During the rest of his free time you can find him searching for the perfect bowl of Dan Dan noodles, exploring the city’s best tasting menus or baking cookies and mucking about in the kitchen.