Niagara-on-the-Lake - In summer Niagara-on-the-Lake is a whirlwind of bus tours, theatregoers and the other amusement seekers who pack the sidewalks and boulevards of Canada's self-proclaimed prettiest little town. Come winter, the tourist electromagnet is switched off. Visitors can enjoy the run of the place, sauntering around the boutiques and specialty shops as if they own them. The only interruption to the quiet flow of off-season traffic is the annual Niagara Icewine Festival.
For a weekend in January, the picture-postcard corner of Queen and King beside the historic Prince of Wales Hotel becomes Icewine Central, the site of the festival's elaborate outdoor tasting, conducted at a 20-foot bar fashioned from crystal-clear ice.
The theory is that the lusciously sweet wine produced from grapes frozen on the vine is best enjoyed where it's made.
I discovered that there's something to that frosty logic during last year's tasting, and at a similar event hosted the previous weekend in another of Niagara's rediscovered and renovated sites, the village of Jordan. The draw was the release of the new crop of 2003 icewines. Expectations were high because of the wine's generous fruit flavours and fresh character, but especially anticipated thanks to December 2002's harvest , which was relatively routine by normal standards.
The wines were indeed thrilling, particularly examples produced from Riesling, and I enjoyed the Henry of Pelham icewine I selected from the range of a dozen or so honeyed dessert wines on offer.
Even more appealing was the spirit of the tasting, attended by a small crowd of devotees from Toronto, Rochester and Ottawa. This is a relaxed, even casual and even somewhat idiosyncratic wine event that doesn't stand on ceremony.
A small part of me enjoyed the stolen freedom of drinking outside without fear of reprisal. And there's something unique about a wine-tasting where people are as likely to cup their mittens around a steaming hot chocolate as they are to swirl, sniff and sip.
A couple from Rochester had travelled to Niagara to shake off the post-holiday doldrums. It was the wife's first experience of icewine, which has emerged as Niagara's signature wine on the international scene. As she sipped her salmon-coloured Cabernet Franc, bliss registered on her flushed face.
"This is delicious," she trilled, her warm breath visible in the cold air. "It's not nearly as sweet as I expected."
Exactly. A well made icewine should have a balanced acidity that adds some electricity to the palate. Without acidity and alcohol, icewine would be about as appealing as pancake syrup.
Check out this taste sensation at this year's festival, scheduled for January 14 to 23. The outdoor tasting events are only part of the enticements of the 10-day fest, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year.
Look for more special tastings at participating wineries along the Niagara wine route, a gala tasting in Niagara Falls and special winemakers' dinners. (For a full schedule, check out www.niagarawinefestival.com.) As well, sample Niagara's growing array of fine dining establishments, spas and all-season tourist attractions.
After finishing a second sample, a rich apricot-flavoured Vidal icewine, it was time to seek warmth.
The wine route beckoned, so I headed off to discover more wines reflecting the personality of this historic region.