- The Washington Times - Friday, September 24, 2004

Imagine it’s 2:30 on a frigid Canadian morning. You have been asleep for hours when the phone rings, and the caller, the owner of a local winery, tells you it’s time — right that minute — to help him harvest his grapes. Your “pay”? Some very good wine.

Do you 1) jump out of your warm bed, dress quickly and hasten out into the cold and dark; 2) pull the covers over your head and go back to sleep; or 3) stay awake the rest of the night wondering how to suggest that the guy get psychiatric help?

Perhaps unbelievably, if you live on the Niagara Peninsula of Ontario, you might choose the first option.

The peninsula, you see, has developed into a major location for small wineries, and one of the vintners’ premier products is icewine, made from late-ripening grapes that have frozen on the vine.

They will have dehydrated from repeated freezing and thawing, but on the night deemed right for harvesting, the temperature will have dropped well below freezing and stayed there long enough to make conditions perfect for producing a concentrated but balanced dessert wine.

The grapes must be kept at a constant 14 to 17.6 Fahrenheit throughout the harvesting and pressing process to prevent thawing, which would result in ice crystals (read water) in the wine and ruin it.

That means, of course, that to wait until daybreak to pick the grapes would be disastrous, and, once picked, the grapes must be pressed immediately, through the night.

Some vintners rely on volunteer pickers and reward them with icewine. Others prefer to guarantee a good turnout by paying extra to their regular harvesters.

It’s no wonder that a Niagara vintner watches the weather as closely as any meteorologist. Icewine is a distinctive beverage that has attracted increasing interest and helped focus attention not only on itself, but also on the wineries and all of their award-winning vintages.

Wine was not a notable business in the region until relatively recently, as the fertile fields were devoted to other forms of agriculture, especially “tender fruits” such as berries, peaches and cherries. Most Niagara wines about 30 years ago were intended only for Ontario residents’ consumption.

“No one beyond Ontario would want them,” said Ted Arlant, leader of a winery bike tour I took in June with Steve Bauer Bike Tours Inc.

That started to change in 1975, when Karl J. Kaiser and Donald Ziraldo established Inniskillin Winery on Mr. Ziraldo’s fruit farm in Niagara-on-the-Lake, a charming town named for the spot where the Niagara River flows into Lake Ontario, 171/2 miles north of Niagara Falls.

Viniculture has exploded on the Niagara Peninsula since then. The 2004 Official Guide to the Wineries of Ontario, a tourism guide produced by the Wine Council of Ontario, a trade association, gives information on 62 wineries in the province, 49 of which are on the upper Niagara Peninsula, from Niagara-on-the-Lake west to Winona (about 50 miles from Toronto).

As might be expected, tours and tastings have become increasingly popular. A well-marked Wine Route with white grape clusters on purple road signs connects the wineries, and at times it seems that just as all roads led to Rome in the ancient world, all roads in Niagara lead to a winery. Many vintners have added to their appeal by developing restaurants, lodging and special events.

During our June trip, my husband and I enjoyed delicious dinners at Cave Spring Cellars’ Dine on the Twenty (for Twenty Mile Creek) in Jordan Village and at two Niagara-on-the-Lake locations, the Peller Estates Winery Restaurant and Strewn Winery’s Terroir la Cachette, the latter as guests of owner and winemaker Joe Will.

Strewn has Canada’s only winery cooking school, run by Mr. Will’s wife, Jane Langdon. It caters to recreational cooks, but its spacious kitchen has all the state-of-the-art appliances a professional could want — and enough of them to allow true hands-on learning for classes of up to 16. Special classes can be set up for groups, and more people can be accommodated if the group requests it.

Rockaway Glen Estate Winery in St. Catharines has an 18-hole championship golf course on its grounds, plus dining and banquet facilities and a new museum featuring 19th-century French winemaking equipment.

EastDell Estates Winery in Beamsville invites visitors to “stroll, hike or cross-country ski on [three miles] of … trails winding through ravines and along streams,” perhaps with a meal at the winery’s bistro before or afterward.

At a waterfall, the trails connect with the Bruce Trail, a more than 495-mile hiking trail along the Niagara Escarpment, the rocky spine that forms Niagara Falls and other scenic wonders.

Saturday falconry tours at Harbour Estates Winery on the waterfront in Jordan Harbour and summer jazz and blues celebrations at Hillebrand Estates Winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake help fill a varied special-events list.

Those who want to immerse themselves in the winery experience might consider staying overnight at Vineland Estates Winery’s on-site bed-and-breakfast in Vineland or Cave Spring Cellars’ luxury Inn on the Twenty in restored historic buildings, where they can enjoy a spa, too.

Of course, each winery has its niche, but some branch out more than others. Kittling Ridge Estate Wines and Spirits in Grimsby is both a winery and a distillery, and tours show how Kittling’s whiskeys, brandies and specialty liqueurs, as well as its wines, are made.

Sunnybrook Farm Estate Winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake specializes in fruit wines made from Niagara tree fruits and berries and touts its “irresistible Iced Fruit wines.”

As icewine is produced in just a few regions of the world and thus seems exotic to me, it was my main interest on my winery visits. It’s an expensive pleasure, and if you think about it, you’ll understand why.

Frozen grapes are not juicy. Most of them yield just one drop of juice each, according to Dwight Reid, who leads retail tours and seminars at Peller, the lunch stop on my bike tour.

The yield, says an icewine flier from Reif Estate Winery, also in Niagara-on-the-Lake and also a stop on my bike tour, is “as low as 5-10 percent of the average seasonal grape yields. Icewine, therefore, is one of the most exclusive and sought after wines in the world.”

Fortunately, a little bit goes a long way. Because it is so concentrated, a 2-ounce serving is generous; I prefer 1 ounce. Half-bottles (usually 375 ml) are a good option.

Several trends have developed since Niagara icewines started garnering acclaim, and awards, well beyond Ontario. The number of wineries producing them has multiplied, and the list of grape varieties being used also has expanded.

The first Canadian icewines were made from white grapes, most frequently vidal and Riesling, as has been a tradition in Austria and Germany for centuries, but reds recently began appearing on the market as well.

Some vintners are reluctant to try them because, as Mr. Will explained to my husband and me over dinner, much of the taste and color in red wine comes from contact with the skin of the grapes, which is greatly reduced with frozen grapes.

I was skeptical when our tasting at Peller ended with the Signature Series cabernet franc icewine — but I thought it was exquisite.

I’m not a wine connoisseur by any stretch of the imagination, but for the first time, I understood what critics mean when they talk about fruit tastes in a good wine. I could have sworn I tasted strawberries, and I bought a half-bottle to take home.

The downside of icewine’s growing renown is unflattering imitation, often with a deceptively cheaper price tag.

Growers in some cold-weather areas have started producing wines from grapes they pick late in the growing season and then freeze. Wines that are “artificially frozen,” as the Inniskillin Web site describes the process, would not qualify for Canada’s crucial VQA (Vintners Quality Alliance) label, the standards for which are enforced by law.

I learned a lot about Niagara wines and wine in general during my trip, but even those who are not fortunate enough to have a vintner such as Mr. Will invite them to dinner and answer all their questions can start to feel like cognoscenti.

Just sign up for a “tutored” or “structured” tasting such as my bike group got at the Peller and Reif wineries. We learned not only about taste, but also what to look for in a wine’s appearance and how to appreciate and judge the bouquet.

Inniskillin even offers a $30 stemware-matching tour, which includes a half-hour tour of the winery; a half-hour private “informative” tasting; and, finally, a demonstration matching wines with the style of stemware that brings out the best of each.

The wineglasses are made by Riedel Crystal in Kufstein, Austria, and the selection includes a glass specially designed for icewine.

It’s in the tastings and visits to the wineries that one begins to understand the breadth of Niagara’s wine culture. Though the icewines get attention because of their near uniqueness, international and national award certificates hanging on tasting-room walls show that the vintners’ dedication is paying off in their products — red or white; sweet to dry; for afternoon sipping, with dinner or dessert.

As a red-wine drinker, I particularly enjoyed Strewn Winery’s Strewn 3, a blend of merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc. Unfortunately for me, it, like many of Niagara’s premier wines, is not sold in the United States because it’s made in too small a quantity. Some years, when the grapes aren’t at their very best, it’s not made.

New wineries continue to open. One, Daniel Lenko Estate Winery in Beamsville, is so new it isn’t listed yet in the Wineries of Ontario guide.

The vineyard has been producing chardonnay and merlot grapes for other wineries for more than 40 years, according to the Lenko Web site. Owner Daniel Lenko recently took over the operation from his father, Bill, and hired a veteran local winemaker, Jim Warren, who has used Lenko farm grapes for more than 15 years.

I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to visit Mr. Lenko’s operation. I heard about it from Sue Murray, owner of the Harbour House hotel in the historic district of Niagara-on-the-Lake, where my husband and I stayed. Mr. Lenko, she said, conducts tastings in his kitchen, with his mother often baking as the tastings take place.

He uses only grapes grown in his own vineyard; performs every step of the winemaking process, including bottling, on site; and sells the finished product only at his winery. He already has “devotees who line up for each vintage,” Mrs. Murray told me, and I later learned that demand was so strong over the summer that he closed temporarily — sold out of wine for a while.

• • •

The annual Official Guide to the Wineries of Ontario (www.winesofontario.ca) is an essential source for information on Niagara wineries, with profiles of the wineries, tour and tasting schedules, Web and e-mail addresses, a Wine Route map, and a list of wine-related special events.

Not listed yet: Daniel Lenko Estate Winery, www.daniellenko.com.

The profiles include the winery’s best LCBO (Liquor Control Board of Ontario) brand and the “winemaker’s choice.” The LCBO brands can be found in stores and usually are a winery’s higher-volume wines. The winemaker’s choice is one of the premium lower-volume wines.

The Wine Route map simplifies a self-directed driving tour. Those who prefer a guided tour can go by bus, bike or even horse-drawn carriage. The wineries provide receptacles for visitors, especially drivers and cyclists, who do not want to drink the full amount poured into their tasting glasses.

Niagara Airbus wine tours: www.niagaraairbus.com.

Queens Royal carriage tours: www.queensroyal.com.

Three bike companies go to wineries: Steve Bauer Bike Tours (www.stevebauer.com), Zoom Leisure (www.zoomleisure.com) and Niagara Wine Tours International (www.niagaraworldwinetours.com).

An online source I found for buying Niagara wines is www.icewineniagara.net, which distributes products from 19 wineries. Despite the name, it’s not limited to sales of icewine. I found its icewine prices to range from $170 U.S. for three 375 ml bottles of most vidal icewines to a high of $264 for three 375 ml bottles of Peller’s Signature Series Riesling icewine, including shipping and handling.

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