Cottage Prepping

It always seems in early Spring that my wife and I get restless. It is the drawback of the island cottage, there is a period of forced absence. We have to wait until the lake ice melts away before we can open up the place. It is that forbidden time, usually from late March to mid-April, when the ice becomes unsafe. We can only stare from the mainland out to the island.

We will usually take advantage of this sabbatical by doing some cottage prepping at the Spring Cottage Life Show, to see all that is new and fanciful for cottage living. This year, however, we decided to do something a little different, so we trekked down to the big city a weekend earlier and took in the Wine and Cheese Show. It represented a virtual round-the-world taste test, to find that ultimate wine to sip on the dock in the late afternoon after a busy, fun and productive cottage day, or that full-bodied red to compliment the thick steaks that I would have cooking on the barbecue.

We started at the show wandering up and down each aisle, savouring the best vintages the world had to offer. While some of those standing around us would swish around the tastings in their mouths, gurgle it like mouthwash, and then, and what’s the sense in this, spit it out into some stainless steel spittoon, we would take a sip, close our eyes, and imagine ourselves laid out in a lounger on the cottage deck with the sun warming our face, or sitting around the big pine kitchen table enjoying a fine meal. While others would talk about their wine exhibiting the beautiful sweet nose of spring flowers and a taste of such richness that it massages the palate with the flavours of chocolate, gooseberries and leather oxfords, we would ask which offerings might best repel blackflies. There is nothing worse than swallowing a drowned insect in one’s robust merlot.

We sipped Italian Chianti and decided it would compliment a cottage comfort meal of spaghetti and meatballs. We tasted an Argentinian Malbec and muttered “mmm – steaks on the barbecue.” We swirled around a Pinot Noir from New Zealand, a Californian Cabernet and something unpronounceable from Great Wines of China. China? – really. It wasn’t bad … we decided it would go nicely with Chinese. The great wine regions of Ontario were well represented, Strewn from Niagara and Crew from Erie – great for the cottage we decided.

We sipped our way through most of the afternoon, and for most of the day our romantic city escape and cottage prepping plan seemed well founded. Then, two things happened. Firstly, we started to realize the value of using the spittoons. No matter, we had wisely booked into a local hotel and had taken a shuttle to the show. Still, the wonderful wines had probably clouded my judgement a bit, and had made my wife less tolerant. Wandering down one of the last aisles I came across a wine tasting seminar being advertised. “Get Naked With Wines” it was called. I stared in at the young, nubile speaker and immediately signed us up.

When the pretty vintner swirled around wine in her glass and said things like “you have to check the legs, the lighter the wine the faster they run, the fuller, the slower,” or “a slight hint of melons and the essence of candy,” or “this is likely a little more body than you’re used to,” I thought she was speaking directly to me. Worse than that, my darling spouse thought that I was thinking that she was speaking directly to me.

Cottage Prepping! We have some newly discovered wines we want to savour dockside. I can swirl a rich, robust wine around in my glass, look over at my wife and proclaim, “beautiful legs.” Perhaps that will get me back in the good books. Or, maybe, such tasting theatrics are redundant, a good bottle of red sipped at our favourite place on earth will suffice.

Celebrating Icewine – One Very Cool Festival

The snow and chilly temperatures set a perfect winter scene in beautiful Niagara-on-the Lake, as my wife and I bundle ourselves in parkas, mitts and wool hats.  We set off from our Bed and Breakfast towards Queen Street, wandering past snow-draped vineyards, the region’s famous grapes seemingly asleep under a white shroud.  We trek into the town’s historic downtown.  Our plan is to sample the best offerings from the region’s 28 wineries, to enjoy the wine, food and live entertainment and to learn more about Niagara’s liquid gold.

It just seems a very Canadian thing to do, rather than going into hibernation through the icy months, we have found various ways to celebrate winter. There is hockey, of course, and skiing, curling, dog sledding, and snowshoeing – and, there is icewine.  Every January, when the temperatures drop, select Niagara winemakers gather their crews, and venture into the vineyards in the middle of the night to hand-pick the frozen grapes.  Then, to celebrate their good fortune, they welcome visitors from all around to sample the region’s unique winter wine, paired with the local cuisine.

2_Welcome-to-the-Icewine-Festival

Heading into its 20th year, the Annual Niagara Icewine Festival is a uniquely Canadian winter experience, an outdoor street festival with live music, gala dinners, ice sculptures, icewine marshmallows to roast over open fires and lots of icewine tastings to help warm you. We move around sampling the icewine offerings from area wineries, while enjoying delicious savoury and sweet treats from local restaurants.

Often touted as Canada’s greatest liquid luxury, icewine is made in only three countries, and undoubtedly made best here, which is why we have become the world’s leading producer.  More than any nation, we have the right climate. Our growing conditions combine warm summers with cold winters, allowing Canadian winemakers to reap the benefits of this special winter harvest.  The grapes for Icewine are picked at temperatures of at least -8˚C so that only the highly concentrated juice is pressed from the frozen berries, leaving behind the icy water crystals.  The result of these unique climatic conditions is a deliciously sweet wine, with intense flavours and aromas, and an exceptionally high concentration of sugars, acids and extracts from the grapes.

3-Collecting-Frozen-Grapes

Admission is free for the Niagara-on-the-Lake festival, where the town’s main street has been transformed into an icewine village.  Hundreds of people mingle, tasting icewines from the wineries and sampling edible delicacies from signature kitchens.  We stop to marvel at the ice sculptures.  There is a Flash & Panache Icewine Cocktail Competition where shaken, stirred, mixed and occasionally muddled concoctions are thrown together by local mixologists.  The only rule is that they include icewine in their cocktail repertoire.  The cocktails are sampled and scored, in a competition to win the Icewine Cup.  I volunteer to become an official judge, but my wife’s fingers and toes are beginning to freeze, so we pick up a festival discovery pass and venture inside the wineries to experience wine pairings in a warmer, cosier atmosphere.  The pass ($40) includes eight wine pairings, with a mocktail and food pass ($30) available for “designated” drivers.  Thank goodness, my wife and I had chosen to walk, helping to avoid a marital spate.

Visitors looking to learn more about icewine can sign up for a tasting class. I was treated to an enlightening pairing class at Reif Estate Winery, where I learned the proper technique for savouring every sip – let the wine linger on your tongue.  I try to resist the urge to gulp it down.  Weekend packages include the ‘Get Schooled in Cool’ tasting seminars and an icewine inspired dinner.

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There is something very romantic about sipping icewine outside in a winter wonderland; with the snow falling, a bonfire crackling, and people bundled up in hats, gloves and winter boots, celebrating one of Niagara’s most unique products.  You haven’t really experienced winter’s rare gift until you have enjoyed it outdoors in sub-zero temperatures.  It’s just so Canadian.

If you Go …

Where to Stay – From five diamond hotel properties to charming inn and bed and breakfast homes, there are plenty of accommodation properties. Reservations can be arranged through the Chamber of Commerce Accommodation Booking Service. We stayed at the engaging and very comfortable Wine Country Bed and Breakfast. stay@winecountrybb.com

Dining – We escaped the cold for an exquisite meal at The Charles Inn by Chef William Brunyansky. Built in 1832, this white neo-Georgian house with the ambience of a colonial mansion is one of Niagara-on-the-Lake’s oldest buildings, and is recognized by Wine Spectator as one of the best dining experiences in town. www.charlesinn.ca

Visitor Information – Contact www.niagaraicewinefestival.com and www.wineriesofniagaraonthelake.com