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It may be the wine Canada’s most known for. After all, we have the necessary winter temps needed for those frozen grapes. Icewine has long been a treat in Germany (since 1794) and Austria, but Canada now leads in world production. True Icewine is pressed from grapes that have frozen right on the vine, and the magic number for grapes to maintain that frozen state of concentrated sweetness is -8. To see the puckered-fruit-ball bunches, there’s no better spot than in the field, so to speak, at the annual Niagara Icewine Festival. Over three weekends in January you get an up-close look of the winter wonder of this liquid gold. All in the mix, gala dinners, icewine tastings and menus, outdoor street stalls in the towns of Niagara-on-the-Lake and Jordan Village, ice sculptures, live entertainment and some very popular icewine marshmallows roasted over open fires.

Here is southern Ontario, on the Niagara Peninsula. And, more specifically, Stratus Vineyards, where it’s all about the soil, location and climate – as with any terroir.

Stratus sits on 62 acres at the south-eastern edge of the Niagara Lakeshore sub-appellation, and this spot, it seems, is just right for growing particular grape varieties, from Cabernet Franc and Malbec to Gewurztraminer and Viognier.

The snow drifts may be hip deep, but his wine country exists because of the relatively temperate climate (thanks to the moderating effects of Lake Ontario) and glacial soil. And, geographically, the Niagara Peninsula is actually south of Bordeaux.

Stratus is even “…drawing comparisons to the boutique cult wineries of Napa Valley,” as The Globe and Mail has noted, calling the winery an “eco-wonder.”

This is sustainable low-yield viticulture. Stratus has the distinction of being the first LEED-certified winery in the world. Think reclaimed wood and steel, recycled materials, energy efficient, natural light and even geoexchange heating and cooling technology…making it one of the most sustainable wineries in the world. Oh, and it’s super sleek and stylish. The minimal modern design and art evokes the eco-chic mindset.

Sample a flight of assemblage wines (the name Stratus, after all, speaks to the layers in blended wines as well as clouds and soil) Or, perhaps more fitting in the snowscape, go for the Ice Duo, in which you can taste the balance of intense sweetness and acidity in the signature Icewine White and Red. Then, before continuing on the icewine trail, pick up some gorgeous upcycled pieces re-imagined from old wine barrels…candleholders, napkin rings and even a bunch of vine branches for the hearth.

Stratus is definitely not alone in stellar wines and style. Farther down the peninsula on St. David’s Bench is the inspiring and trend-setting Ravine Vineyard.

The fifth generation family-owned farm dates back to 1802. After marveling at the old-school farmhouse (restored to its original charm as closely as possible), nosh on a locavore lunch in the Bistro, where gourmet poutine provides hearty and happy fodder.

Of course, the roasted beet and chevre salad or brioche burger (topped with local aged cheddar, smoked bacon and jalpeno) is best paired with Ravine wines – Sand & Gravel Cabernet Franc, Estate Reserve Unfiltered Chardonnay and Riesling Icewine.

The next must-stop winery is considered the pioneer of Niagara – and Canadian – wines, especially when it comes to icewine Inniskillin started in 1972 and has grown into the icewine winery. There’s a tasting bar, demo kitchen and boutique, where you can even get Riedel glasses designed just for Inniskillin. You can also chow down here at the Market Grill, where Chef David Penny incorporates the winery’s Vidal and Cab Franc icewines into the menu. During last year’s Icewine Festival, Chef Penny was serving up a warm Vidal-infused apple tart.

Some of the other food-and-wine pairings found at the fest: campfire chili with Trius Vidal Icewine from Hillebrand Winery; toffee pudding cake with Hinterbrook’s Vidal Icewine; braised chuck taco with salsa and Cabernet Franc Icewine from Jackson Triggs; and “train-wrecker” beans, infused with

the Zweigelt/Merlot blend from Konzelmann Estate Winery.

The most popular treat at the 2012 festival may have been at Peller Estate Winery, where crowds happily toasted massive icewine-infused marshmallows (some 5000 of them, according to Chef Jason Parsons) over open fires at the edge of the snowy 25-acre vineyard. Or, even simpler (and my fave)…roasted chestnuts back at Ravine.

Throughout the fest there’s food, food and more food to sample, like the bite-sized samplers at the outdoor stalls set up on historic Queen Street in Niagara-on-the-Lake – from icewine infused lamb sausage to icewine-marinated tuna on beet. Oh, and more icewine (from 28 wineries) as accompaniment.

It’s definitely a foodie/oenophile scene, although those who don’t know Vidal from Viognier happily puff steamy breath and stomp the snowy block right alongside, only occasionally escaping to browse inside the cute boutiques on either side of the street.

An even better escape? The wine-based treatments (think vinotherapy facial using grape-seed extracts, or a wine wrap) at the Shaw Club Spa just down the street. Post treatment it’s time to bundle up again and thrundle through the pretty town towards the lakeshore to settle in fireside at the Harbour House Hotel. Of course, there’s a wine-and-cheese hour, if you must continue sampling. (I did)

After a brief warm-up it’s back out for more festivities…especially the don’t miss Flash and Panache icewine cocktail competition. Shaken, stirred or muddled, it’s all about local mixologists incorporating icewine into a glass.

The winner last year? The “I-Swine-Tini” by Stone Road Grille, with bacon-infused scotch, Pilliteri Gewurztraminer icwine and a splash of cranberry cocktail…plus crispy bacon as a garnish.

And that winning establishment, the Stone Road Grille restaurant in Niagara-on-the-Lake is itself a destination, getting in on all the local wine action. But be warned, it’s perpetually packed, especially during the fest.

So come early and feast on the constantly changing menu with recommended local pairings. One mouth-watering sample: confit leg and pan-seared breast with foie gras croquette, guanciale cassoulet, toast fingerlings and icewine braised cabbage…paired with Stratus 2010 Red Icewine.

Yes, we’ve come full circle back to Stratus. Everything here really does start with those layers…from the soil and clouds found on the Niagara Peninsula to the blend of wines that come out of it all and are showcased at this fest admist the ice and snow.

Smack your lips and sip.
For complete article, Story by: Barb Sligl

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