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If there’s one bonus to visiting Toronto in winter, it’s the opportunity to attend the nearby Niagara Icewine Festival and indulge in ice wine, gourmet cuisine and spectacular frozen scenery.
Sure, it can get bone-chillingly cold (and Niagara Falls itself can actually freeze!) but that’s just a reminder of what it means to be a real Canadian and is all the more reason to warm up with some VQA Niagara icewine.
Here’s our guide to what to do, where to stay, the best icewines to try and more at the 2023 Niagara Icewine Festival and other must-see winter events in January in Ontario.
What is Icewine?
But first, what is Canadian icewine? It’s basically a specialty dessert wine produced from frozen grapes.
While icewine might sound easy to produce, it’s actually a lot more complicated than it sounds!
Making quality icewine requires careful cultivation of the vines, ideal weather conditions and vigilant harvesting of the grapes.
It requires a combination of magical timing and careful production.
At least three full nights of below -10C weather is needed for icewine grapes to release their unique concentration of sugars, acids, flavours, and aromas into the juice.
In the middle of the coldest night, grape pickers from local wineries don their warmest winter gear and head into the vineyards to hand-pick the grapes.
The clusters are then gently pressed, with each grape yielding just one drop of the prized juice.
The labour intensive process and low yield means the cost of icewine is higher than regular wines.
Check out this video about how Ontario VQA Icewine is harvested:
Grapes that are harvested outside of these strict requirements are known as late harvest wines.
This means that while all icewines are late harvest wines, not all late harvest wines are icewines because they didn’t actually freeze on the vines before being picked.
Types of Icewine in the Niagara Region
While most people are familiar with Vidal icewine, one of the things you’ll quickly learn at the Niagara Icewine Festival is that there are actually many other types of ice wines.
Icewine is also produced in wineries along Germany’s Rhine and Moselle Rivers (where it’s known as Eiswein) as well as other European countries where the temperatures drop low enough.
It’s also produced in Ohio, where an afternoon of ice wine sampling is the perfect way to wrap up a morning on the ski slopes and snow trails.
The grapes that grow well in cold climates are popular grape varietals used for making ice wine.
This means you can also find Riesling, Vidal Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Gewürztraminer.
Not all wineries produce each type of icewine!
Some icewines are produced in such small quantities, they’re not even available at the LCBO (or Duty Free Shops). That means you can only sample them at the wineries or at Niagara Icewine Festival events.
This is where the fun begins.
Best Niagara Icewine
What does Niagara icewine taste like?
While all icewines feature a highly concentrated, sweet flavour, they range in colour from pale gold to bright ruby red.
The aromas range from the cherry, red licorice and raspberry of a Cabernet Sauvignon icewine to the citrus notes of a Chardonnay icewine.
In order to decide on the best icewine for your palate you need to sample a range of icewines.
You might be surprised to discover that although Vidal icewine is the most widely available icewine, there are other icewines you might enjoy more.
The 2023 Xerox Icewine Gala
The Xerox Icewine Gala is a swanky gala evening that takes place in early January.
It’s an opportunity to sample rare icewines, dance to live music, indulge in fabulous cuisine and gawk at Niagara Falls lit up in its technicolour glory.
While the Xerox Icewine Gala usually takes place at the Fallsview Casino Resort, in 2023 it will be happening on January 14, 2023 at the Niagara Parks Power Station.
This heritage building situated on the Niagara Parkway (Google Map) is an architectural masterpiece that offers spectacular views of Niagara Falls.
It’s sure to be a fantastic backdrop to the Cool as Ice gala cocktail reception.
Tickets are $225 per person. Purchase them online at the Niagara Icewine Festival event site.
The event features pouring stations from at least 30 different Niagara wineries. They will be pouring icewines as well as red and white VQA wines.
It’s worth checking out our Quick Guide to Wine Terminology before you go to better understand and enjoy your wine tasting.
Some of my favourite must-visit pouring stations include Pillitteri Estates Winery for their Reserve Vidal Icewine, Henry of Pelham for their Reisling Icewine and Peller for their Andrew Peller Signature Series Cabernet Franc.
Check prices and availability at Hilton Niagara Falls – Fallsview Hotel & Suites on Booking.com.
Check prices and availability at Sheraton on the Falls on Booking.com
Can You Take a Niagara Wine Tour in the Winter?
To enjoy a taste of Niagara without the hassle of driving, it’s worth taking a guided wine tour that includes pick up and drop off at your Niagara Falls (or Niagara-on-the-Lake) area hotel.
The most popular Niagara wine tours that include transportation are:
- Half-Day Wine & Cheese Tour that includes stops at three or four wineries with wine tastings and cheese pairings.
- Niagara Wine Tour with wine tastings and transportation. These tours usually include a stop for lunch in Niagara on the Lake (at extra cost).
- Custom Wine Lovers Tour with chauffeured transportation where you choose the wineries (or craft beer breweries and distilleries) you’d like to visit.
If you’re visiting Niagara outside of the winter ice wine festivals, it’s still possible to experience a pairing of food and ice wine by booking ahead.
The most popular icewine tour is:
- A Luxury Icewine and Sparkling Wine Tasting that includes food pairings (such as aged cheese, toffee and mango) with Eric Brut Sparkling Wine, a Vidal ice wine and a Riesling ice wine. This tour does not include transportation.
How to Get Discovery Pass 2023 Tickets
While the gala is a memorably posh event, the main attraction of the Niagara Icewine Festival is the opportunity to enjoy icewine tastings at participating Niagara wineries.
Every Niagara winery is unique so it’s an exciting experience to sample what’s on offer.
This happens with the purchase of a Discovery Pass.
This magical passport allows you to enjoy food and wine pairings during select January weekends on a variety of wine routes through the Niagara Wine Country Region.
Each passport offers six delicious food and wine pairings to be used at your choice of participating wineries.
In 2023, there will be more than 30 wineries participating!
Purchase your Discovery Pass Online, download it and store it on your mobile device. In 2023, the cost is $49 (plus HST) for a Discovery Pass and $39 (plus HST) for a Driver’s Pass that include food paired with a non-alcoholic beverage.
For example, in previous years, a stop at Megalomaniac Winery on the Discovery Passport got you a sample of icewine and a honey-infused drizzle over top of a two-bite goat cheese, apple and pecan tart.
It paired beautifully with their 2014 Coldhearted Riesling Icewine.
The best way to do the Niagara Icewine Festival is to plan your stops and driving route in advance based on the wines and foods you want to try on the Discovery Pass Listings.
Niagara Icewine Festival Dates 2023
Xerox Icewine Gala – January 14, 2023
Weekend 1: January 13-15, 2023
Weekend 2: January 20-22, 2023
Weekend 3: January 27-29, 2023
Flex Fridays: Discovery Pass is valid on Fridays on January 13, 20, 27
What’s Included in a Discovery Pass?
Your Discovery Pass Gives you access to some delicious sweet, spicy and savoury food plus an icewine pairing.
Some of the exciting food and icewine combos in the culinary line-up in the past have included:
- Chicken and Waffles, spread with Riesling Icewine Butter at Iniskillin Winery.
- Roasting an icewine marshmallow over an open fire at Pellar Estates.
- Cheesy chile con queso nachos topped with crumbled bacon and blue cheese at Fielding Winery.
- Late Harvest Vidal tucked inside a chocolate-dipped strawberry cup at Pondview Estate Winery.
Best Niagara Icewine Festival Hotels
The Niagara Icewine Festival is an adult-oriented (19+) weekend trip best suited for couples or a girlfriends’ getaway.
In Niagara Falls, your best option is to choose a hotel that’s aimed at an older crowd rather than one of the family-friendly hotels with waterslides near the Clifton Hill arcade zone.
Another important consideration when choosing which hotel to stay at during the Niagara Icewine Festival is deciding which weekend you’ll be attending and if you’ll be attending the Xerox Icewine Gala.
If you’re attending the Xerox Icewine Gala, then you’ll want to stay in Niagara Falls.
Niagara Falls Hilton Fallsview: Located in the Fallsview area, this modern tower is situated overlooking Niagara Falls and is ideal for exploring the parkway and natural attractions (or going to the Fallsview Casino).
It’s not close to the Clifton Hill arcade zone so if you’re looking to hit up fun zone attractions like dinosaur mini-golf and ferris wheels, be prepared to drive. If not, you’ll be happy to be in the peaceful part of town.
Check prices and availability at Hilton Niagara Falls – Fallsview Hotel & Suites on Booking.com.
Niagara-on-the-Lake Icewine Festival 2023
Sparkle and Ice Gala
The pretty town of Niagara-on-the-Lake (NOTL) is another perfect place to celebrate winter in Ontario. It’s located a scenic 20-minute drive along the Niagara Parkway from Niagara Falls.
In 2023, they’ll be kicking off their festivities with the Sparkle and Ice Gala taking place on January 20th between 8 and 11pm.
Held in the ballrooms of the Old Courthouse, this swanky event features Niagara-on-the-Lake icewine makers and their VQA wines paired with culinary treats.
Tickets for the 2023 Sparkle and Ice Gala cost $150 (plus HST) per person and can be purchased online.
Icewine Village Weekends
When it comes to winter wonderland settings, Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Heritage District is as magical as a storybook. And it’s also the setting for its very own outdoor Icewine festival.
Held outdoors on Queen Street in the heart of town, it features live music, cooking demonstrations, icewine tastings and a VIP lounge with fire pits where you can warm up and chat with friends.
This season, the Icewine Village weekends take place on January 21 and 22 and January 28 and 29, 2023.
Purchase festival tickets online at the Official Niagara Icewine Festival website.
Where to Stay in Niagara-on-the-Lake
Brockamour Manor B & B: Stay at this historic guest house and you’ll be in the heart of the wintery NOTL Icewine Village atmosphere.
Built in 1809, it’s well-located on King Street just a few steps away from everything at the Niagara-on-the-Lake. The rates are reasonable and breakfast is extra special.
Check prices and availability at Brockamour Manor B & B on Booking.com
Pillar and Post Spa & Inn: This atmospheric inn is also located near the icewine festivities of Niagara-on-the-Lake. It’s a luxury hotel that features an heated indoor saltwater pool as well as a sauna, hot springs pool.
It’s a top choice for a romantic winter getaway in the Niagara area.
Check rates and availability at Pillar and Post Spa and Inn on Booking.com.
Oban Inn: Set in Niagara-on-the-Lake overlooking Lake Ontario and the golf course, the Oban Inn makes the ideal base for enjoying the best of Niagara wine country in winter.
A historic landmark since 1824, this 28-room luxury hotel features lush gardens, an outdoor hot spring and swimming pool, the full-service OSpa and a rich tradition of culinary excellence.
At the Oban Inn’s restaurant must-try dishes include a red curry cod with orange-scented rice, a classic beef tenderloin and antipasto platter for two featuring locally sourced cheeses and cured meats, house-made pickles, fruit chutney and warm olives.
Twenty Valley Winter Winefest (Cancelled 2023)
While this was one of our favourite winter festivals in the past, it’s not taking place in 2023. But it’s still worth visiting the wineries near the pretty town of Jordan Village, conveniently located just off the QEW.
If you haven’t been to the Twenty Valley area before, it’s worth staying an extra night.
With an extra day you’ll have time to hike to the pretty Balls Falls waterfalls, explore the quaint shops and make several stops at the Upper Canada Cheese Company until you’ve eaten so many free samples of artisanal cheese that they ask you to leave.
Be sure to stock up on Niagara Gold, a buttery, French-style, semi-firm cheese.
For couples looking for a Niagara wine country getaway, the most romantic hotel is the Inn on The Twenty in Jordan. It features its own wine cellar, a full service spa and is walking distance to many attractions.
Check prices and availability at the Inn on The Twenty in Jordan on Booking.com.
Final Thoughts on the Niagara Icewine Festival
Assuming you don’t try to get to Niagara from Toronto in the middle of rush hour (4-6 pm), it should take you no more than 90 minutes to arrive in the heart of Niagara Wine Country.
Here are some links to help you plan your trip:
Niagara Icewine Festival Cost: Discovery Passes cost $49 (plus HST) each and contain experience vouchers redeemable at participating wineries. Prices are subject to change.
Official Website: Wine Country Ontario
Ontario Travel: Get maps, planning and travel tips and inspiration from the Official Ontario Tourism website.
Discovery Pass Tickets: Buy tickets and plan your route at the Discovery Pass Listings Page.
Niagara Falls: If you’re visiting the Niagara Icewine Festival you don’t want to miss experiencing Niagara Falls, Canada. Here are 10 Amazing Things to do in Niagara Falls so you don’t miss a thing.
Other Wine and Spirits Getaways
One of our favourite places to visit for a wine getaway is Central California. In addition to the more than 300 wineries, there’s a bounty of things to do in Paso Robles. Go horseback riding, soak in hot springs …you can even sleep at a winery!
Bourbon is more than just an all-American spirit. It’s a way of life. Discover culture, cuisine and the history of bourbon with a vacation on Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail.
For more ideas on day trips from Toronto, check out these favourite getaways:
The Limassol Wine Festival in Cyprus is one of the largest wine festivals in the Mediterranean. It takes place in September and is well worth a trip!
Frequently Asked Questions
No, icewine doesn’t improve with age. So there is no reasons to save that prized bottle of icewine in the hope that it will increase in value. Enjoy it now!
As with other types of wine, icewines don’t have an expiry date. The alcohol in icewine acts as a preservative.
Unopened icewine doesn’t have an expiry date. Once the bottle is opened, it should be sealed and stored in the refrigerator. It will last two to three weeks in the refrigerator.
Most Niagara wineries are open year round although some may have reduced hours in the winter. Check with each individual winery to be sure they are open.
Dividing her time between Canada, Guatemala and Mexico (or the nearest tropical beach), Michele Peterson is the founder of A Taste for Travel. Her award-winning travel and food writing has appeared in Lonely Planet’s cookbook Mexico: From the Source, National Geographic Traveler, Fodor’s and 100+ other publications.
Read more about Michele Peterson.