Sunday, January 4, 2015

Ice Wine Tasting and Niagara-on-the-Lake

If there's one thing that sets me apart from most people my age, it is that I don't like alcohol.  I mean, I'm not Puritan and I have no real aversion to a nice mixed drink, but most of the time, I just prefer not to ingest any ethanol.  This is in part because I am Asian, and therefore get the "Asian glow" in which my cheeks turn shades of pink, and also in part because alcohol just makes me sleepy.

The one exception to my standard alcohol avoidance though is ice wine.  I first tried this one Thanksgiving with my family.  My parents would occasionally share a glass of red wine with dinner, but they rarely drank sweet wine when I was growing up, and this particular wine was a discovery for me.  It was a dessert wine, but with a nice balance of tartness, and a very pleasant almost caramelized honey taste.  The rest of my family was equally fond of it, and so we dabbled in sweet wines.  I tasted Niagara Falls ice wine from Jackson Triggs, and my parents went to the Niagara Ice Wine Festival one winter and raved about it to my sister and I.  When I had time this winter, I finally decided that it was time for me to take a trip up north and have my first ever winery experience.  I went with B. and two close friends of ours who had never tried ice wine before.

We went up to Niagara Falls, spent the night there, and then drove out the next day to the ice wineries.  We used the Peller Wine Country Touring passes, which are sold for $20 online, as part of the our wine tasting experience.  This pass allows you to visit Trius Winery at Hillebrand, Wine Country Vinters, Thirty Bench, and Peller Estates.  We actually didn't buy our passes, but received the vouchers for free with our hotel stay (The Ramada at Niagara), so it was a fantastic deal for us.

Trius Winery at Hillebrand
1249 Niagara Stone Road
Niagara On the Lake, ON L0S 1J0 Canada

This was our first stop of the day, at 12pm on Friday.  The touring pass allows you to go on a general tour of the winery.  We had a very unenthusiastic female guide, but we still enjoyed the tour. You get to see a lot of the wine making machines and apparatuses and explore a larger portion of the cellars than you do at any other winery. After the tour, they have (included) a structured tasting of a white wine, a red wine, and an ice wine. The white wine and red wine were fairly average, and the Vidal ice wine was my least favorite ice wine that I've ever tried (and I've enjoyed many ice wines, from Inniskillin and Jackson Triggs to various ice wines from Austria and Germany).  It had a strange metallic taste that was rather off putting.

I was a little disappointed by the tasting, although my friends enjoy the structure of it and the tips that our guide had for how to taste and judge a wine as well as what to do for wine pairings.
 After we finished our tour, we walked through their shop.  They do have a wine tasting "bar" where you can pay to taste certain wines.
 It was $7 to taste a selection of any 3 wines from their menu.  This seemed like a fantastic deal for the ice wines, so we tried a sparkling wine, a Riesling ice wine, and a Cabernet franc ice wine (and I kept saying "we" because we paid for and shared one tasting among the four of us friends).  My friends were partial to the Cabernet Franc.  It was my first time trying a red ice wine, and I didn't enjoy it as much as the Riesling.  The Riesling ice wine actually ended up being my favorite wine that I tasted at all the wineries, so we came back that night at the end of our day of touring to buy a bottle for ourselves.
If you do a tasting and then buy a bottle, the cost of the tasting ($7) goes towards the cost of your bottle, which was nice.  This means you essentially get to do the tasting for free!

Peller Estates 
290 John Street E
Niagara On the Lake, ON L0S 1J0 Canada

The tour that was available with our wine pass was the "3 Generations of Wine Making" which includes a tasting of a white, a red, and a Vidal ice wine. They also have grape juice available for any children (or designated drivers!) on the tour.  We arrived shortly before the tour at 1:30pm (on Friday).
Ben was our tour guide and we loved him.  He was funny and knowledgeable.  We started the tour with a brief history of the Peller Estates, then we went outside, saw the vines, and learned a little bit about the Niagara wine country.  Afterwards, we went back inside and had a structured wine tasting in the cellars.  Because I am not particularly fond of dry wines, I opted to try to grape juices instead of the white wine and the red wine.  The juices, which are actually made from the same grape as the wine, were very pleasant to drink.  The Vidal ice wine here was also quiet enjoyable - much better than the Vidal at Trius - but it did not match up to the Riesling I tried at Trius.
Note that there is a very nice restaurant at this winery at which you can enjoy lunch or dinner.  We actually had a reservation here for dinner and returned later at night for a wonderful dining experience.

Wine Country Vinters
27 Queen St
Niagara-on-the-Lake ON L0S 1J0 Canada

While this is not a winery, we had a very pleasant experience with the wine tasting here. The area has a very nice small town feel, and we found street parking easily. We arrived at the wine shop a little after 6pm. There was a very friendly woman who helped us with our tasting. She was very sweet and welcoming and we enjoyed easy banter with her.  She told us that the standard tasting is 3 wines: the Wayne Gretsky white, red, and another wine that I forget. My two friends enjoyed the Wayne Gretsky wines, although B. asked for something a little more oaky and bolder, more in the style of Bordeaux wines. She took out a Thirty Bench red for him to try that he very much enjoyed.  Our friends also tried this as their third wine as well. I am not a big red/white wine drinker, so I asked if I could have a tasting of just one or two ice wines instead (since ice wine was not originally included, and ice wine is more expensive than regular wine). She very kindly accommodated me and allowed me to try the Wayne Gretsky Vidal ice wine as well as a Cabernet franc ice wine. Both were very good.  She was also very generous with her pours. She did not push us to buy anything, although my friends did buy two bottles. I would happily come back here again!

Thirty Bench Winery
4281 Mountainview Rd
Lincoln, ON L0R 1B0 Canada

This winery was a little bit far from the other vineyards, but was on the way to Toronto, and so we decided there was no harm in stopping here briefly Saturday morning.  They do not have any ice wine, but they have a large menu of reds and whites available for tasting, as well as a few rose wines.  Our touring pass allowed each person to sample three wines of their choosing.  Between the four of us, we managed to sample most of the wine menu.  B. was particularly fond of the "Steel Post" white wine, which is surprising, as he is typically a red wine drinker, partial to "oaky" French wines.
The grounds are simple, but rustically beautiful. They have plenty of picnic tables for sitting outside in the summer.  The parking lot is gravel and mud so be prepared in the bad weather; our shoes got pretty messy just during the short walk from the car to the winery entrance!
Also, as a note for parents with kids: they do have a small table with coloring books and picture books. They do not have juices available for kids to drink.

We had a good experience with the wine touring pass, however, because I wanted to drink more ice wine, we also added two other wineries to our tour of the Niagara-on-the-Lake region.  The first was Pillitteri (1696 Niagara Stone Road), which offers free public wine tours.  We arrived shortly before their 3pm tour.  The tour doesn't allow you to see much of their grounds, but they do show you some pictures on the wall and the wine cellar.  Overall, we thought it was fairly boring.  Afterwards, there is a structured wine tasting of three of their basic wines, but we thought it was a rather below average experience.  You can pay $2 to taste ice wine, but the line for this was so long, that we did not think it was worth it.
We also went to Colaneri Estate (348 Concession 6 Rd), which offers tastings anytime from 11am to 5:15pm.  They charge $5 for 5 wines (red or white) and $5 for a tasting of ice wine.  The fees are waved if you purchase.  Thought we did try their Riesling and Cabernet France ice wines, we did not end up purchasing anything here.

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