NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, Ontario — The word "Niagara" might reflexively make you think "Falls." Not far from that majestic wall of water, though, is another Niagara worth more than the cursory snapshot on a honeymoon road trip.
It's a brief 30-minute drive north of the falls, nestled on a lovely bend just across the Canadian border where the Niagara River opens up to feed Lake Ontario. This is Niagara-on-the-Lake, also known as the "Loveliest Town in Canada." (Really. There's a contest, and it won).
What draws visitors to this hamlet of 15,400 people isn't so much the loveliness, which abounds: Victorian-era storefronts and pleasantly landscaped parks are all within strolling distance of the quaint downtown. Nor is the region's fruitful tourism due to its wealth of history, from restored forts and heavily plaqued battlegrounds to proud remnants from the War of 1812 and the town's claim as the first cross-border stop on the Underground Railroad.
No, the biggest draw, for an increasing number of tourists, is the wine.
Niagara-on-the-Lake is one of several destinations in Ontario's vast wine country, which hugs the western border of Lake Ontario in the regions to the north and south of Toronto. On the Niagara Peninsula alone are more than 80 wineries within a 715-square-mile radius, making it the largest planted area of all viticultural areas in Canada.
Most oenophiles associate vineyard visits with the warmer months, having quenched their way through Napa Valley heat. That's true in Niagara-on-the-Lake, too, where spring and summer wine seasons correlate with the world famous Shaw Festival, which dominates the town's theaters every April through October. But the region's winter wine festivities rival the summer months for one good reason: ice wine. (Canadians make it one word.)
Named for wine produced from grapes that have been purposefully left to freeze on the vine, ice wine is one of the Niagara Peninsula's biggest exports, which in good years can account for the world's largest volume of the stuff. It's been an active industry here since the 1980s, and regional vintners continue to win international competitions over other major producers (Germany is a big one), solidifying the region's consistency as an industry leader. That's worth celebrating every year, non?
Oui. Now in its 18th year, the Niagara Icewine Festival takes over the township each January with typical wine-fest fare — tastings, tours, an opening gala — with a twist: Most events take place outdoors, in the snow, in the freezing cold. At the 2012 festivities, temperatures flirted with a chilly 18 degrees Fahrenheit while bundled-up couples linked puffy-coated arms to stroll down historic Queen Street, which is temporarily transformed into a wine-themed winter wonderland. At the heart of the fest is a bar made of ice (naturally), and dozens of local vintners hole up in little booths offering sample pours for a small price. Scattered in between, outposts of local restaurants serve healthy portions of staples and specialties. (Poutine fanatics, take note.) Queen Street becomes packed with passers-by who leave one mittened hand outstretched to clutch a glass half-full of sweet-smelling wine.
Unfortunately that word, sweet, is responsible for ice wine's most common misconception. Ice wine is made from grapes with concentrated sugars and juice (the rest of the grape, mostly water, remains frozen). The sweeter the juice, the more difficult it is to ferment, resulting in naturally sweeter wine that, compared with standard table wine, is much lower in alcohol and higher in sugar.
"Ice wine is a risky business," said Suzanne Janke, director of hospitality at Stratus, one of the region's newer vintners and Canada's first LEED-certified winery. Janke was referring to the wine's temperamental production (there's no guarantee temperatures will drop as required), but she could just as easily have been alluding to international inconsistencies that mar the category: There are ice wines produced in other parts of the world, Janke explained, that add or remove ingredients for a desired flavor — often cloyingly sweet.
The misconception that all ice wine is sugary-sweet is something Niagara Peninsula's vintners are actively trying to overcome, aided by Ontario's VQA (Vintners Quality Alliance, or appellation of origin system), established in 1999. Terroir rules aren't unique. But ice wine's production is: It takes a village — quite literally. Because VQA regulations dictate that ice wine grapes be harvested only when temperatures drop to minus 8 degrees Celsius (18 F) or below, grape-picking parties often are called upon to work en masse in one long shift, picking and pressing before finicky temperatures threaten to spoil the harvest. Locals and tourists sign up with the thrilling caveat that they may be summoned in the middle of a subzero night to head to a dark field to pick grapes hard as pebbles. Their reward? Bragging rights for bottles of the next year's vintage.
If you go
Niagara Icewine Festival (niagarawinefestival.com) takes place Jan. 11- 27 with opening-weekend events Jan. 11-13. Admission is free; various ticket packages are available for wine and culinary samples and related events.
Niagara-on-the-Lake is about 80 miles southeast of Toronto and 35 miles north of Buffalo, N.Y. Multiple daily nonstop flights abound to and from Toronto and Buffalo; thereafter, car rental is ideal for getting to and exploring the region's many wineries.
Where to stay
Harbour House (866-277-6677, niagarasfinest.com/properties/harbourhouse; from $265) is part of Niagara's Finest Inns, the town's small group of award-winning private inns. Full breakfast is included, all rooms come standard with luxury amenities such as fireplaces and whirlpool tubs. Also recommended: The Charles Inn (866-556-8883, niagarasfinest.com/properties/charlesinn; from $166).Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun