It started as drunken one-upmanship among a gaggle of winemakers.
“Over a harvest dinner in 1999 at Creekside, all these burly winemakers and I started bantering about who could roll a barrel better,” Sue-Ann Staff told me over a plate of gnocchi and icewine. She’s a leading Ontario winemaker, and I could tell by the uptempo staccato of her storytelling this was going to be good.
“So we all got up and started competing right there and then in the cellars rolling a barrel end over end for about 100 feet. I didn’t just win against all the men; I smoked them! It was hilarious. There was smoke coming from the guys’ ears!”
At the time, she said, she was super fit and competitive having just finished 18 years of figure skating. She’s also very striking, which I imagine threw off her opponents.
The Winemakers’ Barrel Roll Challenge is now an official annual event at the Niagara Icewine Festival, on right now. Watch the race today in Jordan at 1:45 p.m.
Like the barrel rolling, the Niagara Icewine Festival started small and mushroomed into a big deal. Now in its 21st year, it draws 25,000 bon vivants from all over North America.
The quality of Icewine throughout Ontario has never been better. After making icewine in the province for 32 years, local winemakers are hitting their stride, consistently striking the right balance between sweetness and mouth-watering acidity in pretty much every bottle. Good balance is key to pleasure because it lets the wine finish cleanly, rather than cloy — like a mouthful of honey.
The festival kicked off last night with 1,000 people swanning about at the Xerox Icewine Gala — a black tie, $185-a-head soiree at the Fallsview Casino Resort.
For the rest of this weekend, the festival centres on Jordan Village in Niagara’s Twenty Valley region. Catch an outdoor concert, sit down to multi-course meals by celebrity chef Lynn Crawford, watch the Winemakers’ Barrel Roll Challenge and sample all kinds of local wines paired to culinary creations. For a cool and intimate vibe, hit tonight’s after-party in the century-old cellar beneath Cave Springs Winery.
Next weekend, Niagara-on-the-Lake (NOTL) takes the torch and transforms the Heritage District into an icewine village. Sidle up to the world’s largest icewine bar, watch the icewine cocktail competition and sample icewine-inspired food and wine pairings to live music.
NOTL also offers activities throughout the festival such as cheese seminars and the annual White on Ice Dinner — a heated, tented outdoor event where six chefs present complete micro-meals with wine, followed by dancing under the stars.
During the third weekend, Jan. 29 to 31, the festival hub moves indoors to the Scotiabank Convention Centre in Niagara Falls where 20 wineries and 10 top chefs showcase deliciousness to live music.
As well as the goings-on in Twenty Valley, NOTL and Niagara Falls, 40 participating wineries offer unique food and wine pairings developed for the festival, available all three weekends. They’re available a la carte for $10 each, or buy a $40 Discovery Pass ($30 for non-drinkers/designated drivers) to taste at eight wineries of your choice.
In short, the Niagara Icewine Festival is a world-class culinary affair right in our own backyard. And huge fun. See you there!