With wineries across North America, surely, I thought, I can find some undiscovered wine regions producing great vintages, boasting wonderful scenery, and filled with activities to keep you busy between tastings. I found three great ones.
Living in California’s wine country, I know how the combination of food, wine, and beautiful countryside make for a winning tourist destination. Wine-driven tourism rules from Argentina to Australia, from such classic destinations as Champagne and Bordeaux to New World meccas like Russian River Valley and Napa Valley. These are some of the best known, but what about the less familiar? With wineries across North America, surely, I thought, I can find some undiscovered wine regions producing great vintages, boasting wonderful scenery, and filled with activities to keep you busy between tastings. I found three great ones.
NIAGARA PENINSULA, ONTARIO CANADA
My first trip is to the Niagara Peninsula, a friendly, pretty region between Lakes Ontario and Erie, that produces notable ice wines and other fine wines. Of course, everyone knows Niagara Falls, and those in the know have heard of the Shaw Festival Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake. How many people, though, are aware that there’s actually a wonderful wine-producing region that stretches some 690 square miles. This wine-growing area is sheltered by the Niagara Escarpment, a long outcropping that shields the area from the worst of Canada’s winters, creating a microclimate that’s perfect for grape growing, particularly such hardy varieties as Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Vidal.
While it’s at the approximate latitude of Northern California, there’s one difference: Canadian winters. While the region avoids the harshest of it, it’s still a factor. How else would they produce their most famous product? This is, of course, ice wine, a sweet wine that’s made by letting the grapes stay on the vine till they freeze (technically, at three consecutive days of 17 degrees or lower), concentrating the sugars and producing a velvety, intoxicating dessert wine. So popular is this unique wine that each winter sees two weekends devoted to the Ice Wine Festival, a tremendously fun event where you can sample the product from various vineyards and enjoy small bites of food from local restaurants.
If you’re heading here from Toronto, it’s best to drive (about two hours) or book a private or group tour with a company like Niagara Airbus, one of the best in the region for creative and well-run excursions.
There are two main winery regions, those around the fun little tourist town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, and The Bench, an area in the southwest part of the peninsula, perched up on the escarpment and a little cooler than the rest of the region.
On the edge of Niagara-on-the-Lake, you can’t go wrong staying at Shaw Club Hotel. It’s short walk to the village, and just far enough away to ensure blessed quiet in its spacious and well-appointed rooms. I could relax all day here, but I need to sample some ice wine.
At Reif Estate, I sit in the “sensory bar” and have a feast of Icewine, from a young Reisling paired with sausage/chicken pate, through blue cheese with a powerful 2002 Vidal. I pick up their 2015 Vidal ice wine, which won the “best dessert wine” prize at the 2017 International Wine and Spirits Competition.
From there it’s on to Peller Estates, where the grand living roomlike lobby is your entrance to a world of experiences. Want to learn to smoke your own cheese or infuse it with ice wine? Analyze the sugar content like a pro? The must-do here is the 10Below Ice Wine Lounge, a tasting room that’s -10 degrees Celsius year-round (the temperature at which ice wine grapes are picked). Don’t worry, they give you parkas!
At Château des Charmes, you can experience everything from a gourmet picnic to “Popping the Bubbles,” three sparkling wines paired with popcorn. Their unoaked Aligoté (a lesser-known white grape from Burgundy) is a crisp, fresh revelation, while their flagship wine Equuleus, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot, is only made in years when all three varietals are primo, resulting in a bold, earthy robustness.
Need some great food to go with that wine? Ravine Vineyard, in the tiny community of St. David’s, about 15 minutes from Niagara-on-theLake, is organically certified, with fruit orchards, vegetable gardens, and even their own honeybees. Their luscious wines like Cabernet Franc, Reisling, and Chardonnay pair perfectly with cuisine so fresh you understand why a sign “Welcome to the Farm” greets you outside the restaurant. (Salmon and crab grits, anyone?) They also do their own charcuterie, so you can construct a perfect picnic to savor on the grounds.
At Two Sisters Vineyards, the most upscale winery I’ve seen in the Niagara-on-the-Lake area, sit can on the stately patio overlooking the vineyards while you enjoy savory little arancini or luscious burrata, followed by wood-fired pizza or tender little gnocchi. Their unoaked Chardonnay is totally without “bite,” creamy, fruity, and crisp, made with grapes from the oldest Chardonnay vines in Canada. It will, in a word, change the way you think about Chardonnay. For Merlot lovers, here it is silky and rich, making you cast aside whatever cinematicallyinspired prejudices you had about this grape.
Heading over to the Niagara Escarpment (informally called “The Bench” and about 40 minutes west of Niagara-on-the-Lake), I start my day with a lovely brunch at The Good Earth Food and Wine Company. Their main attraction is the cooking school, which was the original intent when founded 20 years ago (the winery part is now in its eighth year). Take a seat on the patio, overlooking the vineyards, a glass of their 2016 Pinot Grigio in hand, and enjoy smoked trout livened with thin slices of pickled onions, or a rich mushroom soup with a surprising dollop of blue cheese.
Fully satisfied, I hop back on the road, riding past signs for strawberries, rhubarb, and honey, and rows of vines planted up slopes, to arrive at estimable Malivoire Wineries, where true devotees can enroll in one of their seminars to learn about everything from pruning grapevines to mixing and blending wines. Me? I just taste, starting with a nice sparkling wine (“all that wonderful acidity makes a great sparkling wine,” notes award-winning winemaker Shiraz Mottiar) and continue through fruity Lady Bug (Malivoire’s best-seller) to Vivant rosé, which I like even better, as to me it has more richness and depth. “Lady Bug is our most popular, but Vivant is the younger sister everyone’s looking at now,” smiles Mottiar.
Next stop: Flat Rock Cellars, near the village of Jordan (note: If you want to stay out on the Escarpment, nearby Inn on the Twenty is the lodging of choice). Here, the first thing you notice is Flat Rock’s view past vineyards to Lake Ontario and Toronto in the distance, really driving home how close to the metropolis we are, which you can forget in this stunningly rural area.
Like many places in this relatively new industry, it was built with an eye toward tourism, and their various tours are an integral part of the experience. Of course I hit the tasting room, where their 2016 Nadja’s Vineyard wins me over: this Riesling is much sweeter than I usually choose, but is so smooth, mellow, and drinkable that it could easily become my go-to wine!
Another favorite winery in The Bench: 13th Street Winery, where the gorgeous wines (I love their fresh, clean, unoaked Gamay, and their 13 Below Zero Riesling, which combines ice wine with “regular” Riesling for a crisp and not quite as sweet delight) are just the beginning. They also offer food pairings and boast an admirable sculpture garden through which you can wander, glass in hand. Not to mention an amazing bakery where prize-winning Ontario butter tarts and other sweet treats are concocted. Wine, art, and sweets: can you think of a better trio?
Before I end my Canadian visit, let me assure you that I do visit Niagara Falls: how can I not? It’s only a half hour pretty drive from Niagara-on-the-Lake, and there’s a reason it’s so popular: it’s amazing. For a great experience, do the Journey Behind the Falls, that takes you down a long tunnel underneath the falls, with viewing platforms to get a view of the thunderous waters from below. For me, though, it’s but one attraction of this amazing region where the landscape veers between pleasing and spectacular, the wines are lovely, and the people are super-friendly. These are people who live close to the earth, and love where they live and what they do. It shows in everything they do, from the beautiful fresh food of the region to their stunning wines.
As winemaker Shiraz Mottiar states: “Why come here? Most of all, for the surprise.”