Niagara is famous not only for the mighty cataracts. We are also world-renowned for our wines. Flavour Passport: Journey is the ultimate guide to all of the wineries in the area. This video series features wineries across the Niagara Region, giving audiences the opportunity to experience virtual tours. I recently sat down with host, Victoria Gilbert to talk about the series, Niagara wines, and what inspires her.
Victoria, can you tell me a bit about Flavour Passport and what inspired you to be a part of it? Flavour Passport is a series of videos about food and wine in the Niagara Region and we have such a diversity where they are concerned, that we thought it would be a great idea to showcase both restaurants and wineries. Niagara is a very exciting region. We have millions of tourists descending on this region every year to enjoy the natural environment, with the Falls of course, but with the vineyards which have become extremely popular. We get about 3 million tourists a year to Niagara-on-the-Lake where we have some 40 wineries in that small area. Then spreading out, there are at least 20 more in Beamsville and along The Bench. There are even some new wineries opening up right in Niagara Falls. It’s a very exciting time for food and wine!
What do you want your audience to take away from these segments? I want people to know about what we do here in Niagara. Canadian wines are well-known all over the world, but especially for ice wines. We make the best ice wine in the world. I truly believe that. But we are also making really interesting wines from grapes like hybrids and grapes that do well in our colder climate, like Chardonnay, Riesling. We also make some excellent reds. There is a lot of personal attention that’s paid to our vineyards because we have some challenging growing conditions here. The work that goes into making wines is very intense. It’s very hands-on. There is also some new thinking occurring with organic wines, bio-dynamic wines. There is a lot of experimentation happening.
You mention ice wine. What is it about this area that makes it so great for the production of ice wine? Ice wine originated in Germany and Austria because it gets very cold there and we share a similar climate. In fact, we are even colder. The argument has been made that we make the best ice wines in the world because we are able to achieve these freezing cold temperatures that all of us Canadians complain about. (laughs) When it comes to making ice wine, these temperatures are ideal. There are a lot of rules around the making of ice wine which ensure that we have a very high standard. We are not allowed to pick the grapes until it is -8 degrees Celsius. The grapes are very frozen which gives a minimum yield. A regularly harvested grape, in September or October, when crushed will give 100 percent of the juice. A frozen grape will only give 10 percent of the yield when it is crushed. Ice wine is referred to as “liquid gold” because it is very, very precious. This is also why ice wine is so expensive. It’s very hard to produce. Imagine these grapes, hanging on the vines for three months longer than the regular harvest. The skies are black with starlings because these birds are hungry. The grapes have to be protected, so they are wrapped, and bird bangers are installed to frighten them away. Then these grapes are picked by hand. It’s something that is so special for Canadians and the product is beautiful.
Which grape do you think is best when it comes to producing ice wine? Now, the best grape for achieving ice wine is the Vidal. It makes an interesting table wine but it makes an even better ice wine because it has a very thick skin which helps it last longer on the vine. The Riesling grape is beautiful because it lends itself so well to ice wine. It’s complex, it’s very floral, with tropical notes and it has the perfect level of acidity which balances the sugar.
There are so many ice wines out there now. How can you tell you’ve got a good ice wine? When you first taste it, it’s sweet and it fills your palette. It overwhelms your mouth and then there is this nice balance of acidity that comes at the end of it which offsets that sweetness. When people say they don’t like ice wine because it’s too sweet, well they probably haven’t tasted the right ice wine. They should keep tasting because there is the right one for everyone out there.
Victoria, how do you know so much about wines? I’ve worked in the Niagara wine industry for the past 7 years and before that my father owned a fine-dining restaurant for 35 years. He changed his menu every month and he also changed his wine list. I learned a lot from him. He’s a wine agent now. As a child, I was dragged to countless wine tastings. (laughs) Throughout my career I’ve written about wines, done videos about wines, I worked with the Food Network at one point on a wine series. Wine has always been a big part of my life.
Niagara wines are renowned. We are competing on international levels and winning these competitions. What sets us apart from some of the best wines in the world? The terroir, or the land, of every place in the world is unique. The Canadian terroir is very different, especially here in the Niagara Region because of the escarpment. There is a wave of air that washes over our vineyards which makes sure that our grapes mature in a beautiful fashion. Our grapes taste so good because we have the right environment and we have learned how to use it to our advantage. Canadians are known for being tough and hearty people (laughs) because we live in a very cold place. When it comes to making wine, we are very clever, we are risk-takers because we never know how long our growing season will be or what Mother Nature will dish out. Our winemakers and the people that work in this industry are a testament to that heartiness. We don’t give up; we stick to it; we do what we have to do. Outside of the Niagara Region, in Prince Edward County, they will bury their vines to protect the grapes in the winter so that the vines themselves don’t die. We go all out to make sure that we have a beautiful product and it shows. That’s why we are winning a lot of awards. There is so much young talent and I love interviewing people coming up with new ideas.
Let’s talk reds and whites. What are some of the best reds and whites that Niagara has to offer? That’s a tricky question. My personal favorite for this region would definitely be white ice wine, Vidal or Riesling. With table wine, I love a Riesling. We grow many different varieties of Riesling grapes so there are unique tastes. When it comes to reds, I like Cabernet Franc. It’s complex, it has depth and it ages beautifully. We make great wines that we can drink now, but that also can be lain down for many years to come. In a wine region, if you can do that, you’ve made it, you’ve gone to your peak, and now you can go past it. We aren’t competing on the world stage as much anymore. We are getting to the point where Canadians are being recognized for making good wine.
How do you prepare yourself to film a segment? I do a lot of research. I like to read about the people I’m interviewing – find out what they did in the past, what they’re doing now, where they are headed in the future. You can talk to anyone in this region and they are always coming up with something new. I like to find out what’s happening. Victoria, you’ve been a pleasure to talk to. What is it that truly inspires you, that makes you want to get up in the morning and take on the day with all of the beauty and grace that you’ve shown today? Thank you! That’s so sweet! I’m generally a happy person and I love life! I’m originally from Toronto and I’ve been living here for quite a while. I love the nature and history of this area and there is always so much going on. It’s not hard to wake up and start a new day. TM