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With 14 established wineries tucked along the Atlantic coast, it’s little wonder that Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley is a premier wine destination in the summer. However, despite being touted as a grape lover’s paradise, the region’s busy summer months slow like cold molasses when winter hits. So The Winery Association of Nova Scotia, the face of the region’s wine producers, devised a way to tout the region as an off-season destination: the Nova Scotia Icewine Festival.

 The festival, hosted in the Annapolis Valley since 2007, has grown to include 11 wineries and one featured brewery, distillery, or cidery. While in past years participants would make the short drive between wineries, the move to Lightfoot & Wolfville allows the festival to happen in one immaculate location.

 Reputation precedes both the location and the festival. When given a chance to attend, I wasted no time hopping on a Grape Escapes bus bound for Wolfville. As we cruised to the Valley, I listened to the animated chatter. A group of six were excited to take part in the festival’s grapevine wreath making session. A couple in front mused about the promise of delicious pairings. Two women tucked their snowshoes—presumably for the complimentary snowshoe hike—in overhead storage. It appeared that wine wasn’t the only treat on the menu to come.

 As we pulled up to Lightfoot & Wolfville, the festival’s new, expansive location appeared an obvious choice. The winery is equally elegant as it is roomy. It’s breezy rooms, floor to ceiling windows, and stunning back patio—complete with a massive stone fireplace, Adirondack chairs, and a temporary ice bar—made the spot especially appropriate for hosting the festival’s many guests.

 Upon entering, I was handed a tasting glass, 16 food and drink tickets, and a raffle ticket for a case of the Valley’s finest. The fact that I didn’t win was a forgivable offence—the 16 tickets certainly kept me hydrated and fed.

 The festival’s setup was simple, with booths flanking the interior walls staffed by eager wine producers. The tasting room was, in a word, opulent. Black trim around exposed timber beams, the barn-like façade complementing sleek teardrop ceiling lights perfectly. Not that the room lacked natural light—massive windows look out over fields of grapes behind the winery. A perfect backdrop for the afternoon.

 My first booth was Luckett Vineyards. I started the afternoon with a bang (a buzz?), with the aptly-named Hair of the Dog Rosé Spritzer. The crisp spritzer is sold in a 355ml can and packs a punch. I observed a woman balking at the price of a single can, $10. Apparently, the NSLC had a similar reaction—but not to the price.

 “It’s 11% in a 355ml can,” one of Luckett’s staff said. “We had to put a warning on the can—it’s not exactly a tailgating drink.” To me, it appeared it was a drink fit for the occasion—smooth, crisp, and oh-so-refreshing. The strawberry rhubarb blend was the perfect easy-sipping summer drink. I consider the warning prudent.

 Equipped with Luckett Vineyards’ exquisite Churchill on Sourdough sandwich pairing, I made my way to the next booth: Grand Pré. The industry heavyweight was one of just five serving icewine at the festival.

 When I asked an event organizer, Amy, about the apparent misnomer, she explained the name was kept to retain the tradition and rich history of wineries collaborating in Nova Scotia. In terms of branding, she said they do worry it may detract from the festival. Watching the crowd continue to grow, though, I thought the concern was unfounded. It’s not often that you see such a wide array of people mingling with so few cell phones in sight.

 Grand Pré’s Vidal Icewine surprised me by its subtlety. Sweet, to be sure, but understated. When I told them as much, they nodded, “You don’t get sickly sweet icewines in Nova Scotia. Our climate is perfect for producing balanced, crisp icewines.”

 Creating icewine at all is no easy feat. Made from frozen grapes, ideally harvested on a cold night with temperatures in the range of -8 °C to -10 °C. The industry is regulated—to use the “icewine” moniker; grapes must be naturally frozen on the vine at -8°C or colder. After a slow pressing, it undergoes a month-long cold fermentation process. The final product is a wine with sugar levels nearly double regular wine. And Nova Scotia’s naturally acidic soil provides the perfect balance for the sweet juice.

 Luckett Vineyards, Lightfoot & Wolfville, Avondale Sky, and Benjamin Bridge join Grand Pré in the challenge of producing the wine locally—each proudly displaying their creations at the festival. I sampled each, continuously surprised by the complexity and balance I’d not experienced in other regions.

 Each year, the Icewine Festival’s committee of eight welcome one distillery, brewery, or cidery to add variety to the event. When asked about the methodology behind selecting guests, Amy assured me it’s not scientific—”we spread the love.” To get some air and cleanse my palate, I made my way past the outdoor barbeque to Barrelling Tide’s ice bar. The local distillery’s AppleCran Warm-Up did what it claimed, a welcome treat on a cold February day.

 There’s lots of love to share among the wineries of Nova Scotia. Though one might think the event would naturally breed competition, a rep from Benjamin Bridge assured this wasn’t the case.

“It’s a family. If someone wins an award, we’re all happy. It brings exposure to Nova Scotia and the industry.” I could see this wasn’t just lip service. Vendors chatted animatedly, exchanged food samples, and recommended each other’s wares to guests.  

 At Benjamin Bridge, I found they’d partnered with Nova Scotia Community College for the festival, too. Culinary students handed out their creations—tarts filled with gruyere cheese, onions (braised in Benjamin Bridge’s Borealis Icewine), and ham from the winery’s farm. The collaboration of emerging chefs and Nova Scotia’s finest beverage producers was a welcome sight, and their pairing was among my favourites that day.

 Eleven wineries showcased their best at the festival, alongside tasty complimentary bites. Everything from Tidal Bays to Baco Noirs, Chardonnays to Icewines were served alongside duck rillette, fruit sushi, and donuts. For those looking for a heartier meal, raclette and various barbecued sausage dishes were available for purchase. And participating wineries offered post-festival dinner and tasting packages for those seeking a more comprehensive experience.

 Satisfied, I hopped back on the bus home. Three hours at the event and I could have easily spent three more. The Winery Association’s goal is to keep wine relevant throughout Nova Scotia’s long winter months. If 2019’s event is any indication, it’s already in sight.

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