The Long Weekend - Touring Ice Wine Country in Ontario

At Inniskillin, grapes destined for ice wine are allowed to freeze and thaw through early winter, then are harvested when the temperature falls below 17.6 degrees.
At Inniskillin, grapes destined for ice wine are allowed to freeze and thaw through early winter, then are harvested when the temperature falls below 17.6 degrees. (Inniskillin)
By Christina Talcott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 7, 2008

They're out there now, chilling on the vines, long after the other grapes' fall harvest. The Rieslings and Vidals of Ontario's vineyards are destined for bottles of the region's "liquid gold": ice wine.

I had heard of the dessert wine before, even tried it once or twice, but I learned more about it -- and came to appreciate it -- in September, when a money-saving idea turned into an unexpected road trip. My destination was Toronto, but I discovered it was cheaper to fly to Buffalo and then drive or take a bus to my goal city. Rounding up three friends to split a rental car made economic sense, and setting aside a whole day to make the two-hour drive turned out to be brilliant. We stopped by Niagara Falls, of course, and then hit the road for wine country.

Driving to Niagara Falls from Buffalo, we could see from a distance a white plume of mist rising like industrial smoke from the falls. On both the American and Canadian sides, we gawked at the thunderous cascades.

I liked the Canadian side better, with its head-on views of both major falls and its carnivalesque collection of casinos, hotels and such attractions as the Guinness World Records Museum, an old-fashioned fun house and junk food galore. Though it was well before noon, we got hot dogs from a friendly teenage vendor who darted after us with a forgotten soda. What service!

Suitably fortified, we drove north to Niagara-on-the-Lake's Inniskillin, the winery that put Canadian ice wine on the map.

Since the 1970s, when a few aspiring winemakers recognized the grape-friendliness of the land and opened the first Ontario vineyards, the region's wine production has taken off, with wineries now numbering more than 100. In the mid-1980s, winemakers started to realize that the region's hot summers and cold winters might be suited to something far more valuable than table wine, and in 1991, Inniskillin's founders, Karl Kaiser and Donald Ziraldo, entered their Vidal Icewine in a prestigious French wine competition and won.

A bottle of ice wine routinely sells for three or four times the price of regular table wine. No wonder other Ontario wineries soon got into the act.

The road to Inniskillin runs parallel to the Niagara River, which separates the United States from Canada and links Lake Erie to the south with Lake Ontario to the north. The fields look nothing like the ones in, say, Northern California or Tuscany: They stretch flat all the way to the horizon, the rows perpendicular to the river to let the breezes off the water circulate.

Waiting in the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired Founders Hall for the next tour, we relaxed in comfy club chairs and watched a video, on mute and a loop, playing on a screen above the wood-paneled Demonstration Kitchen (watch the video yourself at The men swirling wine in glasses and the close-ups of grape clusters were shot in snow-covered landscapes, and one scene showed hooded people snipping grapes off icy vines in the middle of the night and dumping them into huge wooden barrels. It looked vaguely clandestine. Was this the ice wine harvest? In a word, yes. Our chipper young tour guide, who'd worked the harvest once, told us how ice wine grapes are left on the vine after the fall harvest, covered with nets to keep animals away. They freeze and thaw through the fall and early winter, dehydrating and concentrating their sugars.

The first night the temperature drops below 17.6 degrees Fahrenheit, the winemaker calls in the workers, who spend all night picking the grapes and pressing the frozen fruit right there in the field. Not only is it labor-intensive, but it takes many more pounds of grapes to produce one bottle of ice wine than table wine.

Our tour guide told us that the time she harvested, her fellow workers seemed unusually cheerful, chatting and singing despite the bitter cold. Later she realized that everyone else had packed a flask.

After visiting the vines, touring the cellar and learning about the complex chemical processes of winemaking, we gathered for the tasting. ("That's what you all came here for, right?" the guide asked jovially.) A few sips of the red and white table wines preceded the big reveal: Inniskillin's famed Vidal Icewine, which was fruity, thick and joltingly sweet.

Before we left, I asked our guide how I could volunteer for the harvest, which seemed as if it would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. She gave me an "are you crazy?" look, as if I'd just asked where I could buy tapeworms. Then she calmly told me, "If you're planning to be in the area, you can leave your name and number, and someone will call you when it's time." She also reminded me that the dates of the harvest are unpredictable, so it's hard to plan ahead. Still, I'd be tempted.

After Inniskillin, our next stop was Cave Spring Cellars, in tiny Jordan Village. The tasting room is on Main Street, a tree-lined thoroughfare flanked by cafes, shops and two Cave Spring-owned properties: the On the Twenty restaurant and the Inn on the Twenty.

At the tasting room, a chipper middle-aged woman wearing a shirt that said "CAVEWOMAN" poured us samples of ice wine, pinot noir and Cave Spring's specialty, Riesling "Dolomite." That wine is named for the layers of dolomitic limestone found in the vineyard's section of the Niagara Escarpment, a natural cliff formed by erosion that runs from the western shores of Lake Michigan, along the top of Lake Huron, south to the Niagara Peninsula and across New York toward Rochester. This massive geological feature just happens to give Riesling a terrific flavor, which Cave Spring's wine captures delightfully.

A tip from the "cavewoman" led us to low-key Lakeview Cellars, where I bagged a port-style red, a sparkling white and a small bottle of liquid gold: a 2004 Vidal to sip before the next midnight harvest.

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