My parents have a house on Lake Ontario. Literally – the ‘front yard’ is the massive body of water. This part of western New York is mostly farm land. It takes 20 minutes by car to get anywhere worthwhile. The nearest major city is Rochester which, at 45-minutes away, is just far enough to make you second guess going out for dinner. [That Uber ride home would be pricey.] Let’s just say, if a couple of urbanites come for a week and a half getaway, they might become a little stir crazy. Fortunately, this area happens to be home to Finger Lakes Wine Country and, just over the Canadian border, the Niagara Wine Region. *wine drinkers rejoice!*
Our most recent trip up north began mostly soggy, but after days of miserable weather, the clouds parted; the sun finally peaked through. With such beautiful driving conditions, we hopped in the diversity cruiser and headed to the charming, southern Ontario town, Niagara-on-the-Lake.
The Niagara Wine Region
First, let’s get oriented. The Niagara Wine Region is in the province of Ontario, specifically the area of the Niagara Peninsula – south shore of Lake Ontario and the north shore of Lake Erie. There are 4 main wine regions – Lake Erie & Pelee Island, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Niagara Escarpment & Twenty Valley, and Prince Edward County – as well as a few ‘emerging’ regions. The Niagara Peninsula rules as one of Canada’s largest grape growing “appellations”.
What about the wine? The region produces many varietals but is most known for its Riesling, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir. VQA [Vintners Quality Alliance] Ontario is the designated wine authority in town and determines whether a winemaker gets to slap a VQA Ontario + an appellation name on a bottle. The wine is judged on grape varieties [must be 100% Ontario grown] and ripeness, winemaking techniques, labeling requirements, and sensory & chemical criteria for the finished wine.
‘NOTL’ Wines. Niagara-on-the-Lake is home to 20+ wineries. More than enough to keep you busy for a day. The weekend. A full week! Below is just the tiniest sampling of tasting rooms you can venture while crossing off your NOTL vineyards ‘TO VISIT’ list. *No tasting notes here – I’m purely an appreciator. Recommendations are based on my love for the wine, but more so, the experience.
Small, family operation with a 25-acre vineyard in the Niagara Lakeshore sub-appellation. The cottage-like tasting room is intimate but offers a back room for larger groups and al fresco seating. Tastings are done by the glass and range from 1 – 3 Canadian dollars. The wines were wonderful [and all are VQA Ontario] but what really sold us was the welcome from the staff. As a party of two, we sampled 4 each of white and red. We had turned down the offered cheese plate but our tasting guide went to fetch us 3 cheeses anyway – just because she thought they would go with our selection. One of which was Abbot’s Gold Caramelized Onion Cheddar by Wensleydale Creamery in England. [Ermahgerd!! Raymond Hook Specialty – add this to your list of imports 😉 ] Not only were we offered comp cheese but also two additional tastes – their Rose and Gewurztraminer Icewine. So, I guess I’m a sucker for freebies. Our tasting guide was more than happy to chat and listed off tons of info about the area – more wine, good eats, BEER!, and upcoming things to do. We left with three wines – most bottles in the $15-25 range – and would have gone home with the Icewine if we didn’t already have a cellar full of Sauternes. *Grid Walking Tip: tasting charges waived with bottle purchase!
A new winery on the NOTL scene. Formerly, a ‘virtual’ producer, Big Head now has a brick and mortar – or, rather, cement and metal – cellar. Their wines embrace the art of drying grapes, appassimento, resulting in a concentration of “big” flavor. Tastings are 6 days a week [closed Tuesday] and run $10 for 4 pours – $10 fee waived with $50 purchase. Or they have a ‘blind’ tasting option. For $25 you’ll get 10 tastings and a big old hunk of cheese with crackers. Budget Tip: we shared a blind tasting which was enough for both of us to enjoy each taste. *Disclaimer: must be willing to share! No spoilers here as most of the fun is not knowing, but we found the whole experience to be entertaining. Our sommelier was extremely knowledgeable, as one would expect, and took the time to review the winemaker’s process for each taste. The wines at Big Head are good – like WOW good – and you can tell a lot of attention is given. The price point per bottle is a little more than Rancourt at around $35+ but the wines are interesting and not fully what you would expect, a result of using a tobacco kiln to dry the grapes and the introduction of wild yeast [wild fermentation] into the process. Worth the $$ in my opinion!!
A Few More Suggestions…
Straight from mouth of our tasting guide at Rancourt… she’s a local!
PondView Estate Winery – Italian traditions run strong at PondView and proprietor, Lou Puglisi, earned the title Grape King in 2008, by the Ministry of Agriculture. Classic Cheese & Wine Pairings [$10 – minimum 2] & VIP Premium Tasting [$15] in the wine cellar available.
Reif Estate – Founding member of the VQA and a partner in the development of the Environmental Charter for the Sustainable Winemaking Committee for the Wine Council of Ontario. Reif Estate has a focus on sustainability on the farm and in the winery. Wine bar open daily and they offer a few different ‘sensory’ tastings.
And if you’ve had enough wine, stop in at Silversmith Brewing Company. We did! The ivy-covered church that Silversmith calls home should be enough to draw you in, but if not, know their craft brews are worth stepping inside. They have 4 flagship beers – one being a black lager, yes, please! – and one seasonal release. When we were there, a black IPA – double yes, please!! Great atmosphere and pub food. On Sunday’s, live music from 3-5p.
Niagara-on-the-Lake is *self-proclaimed* the ‘loveliest town in Ontario’ and worth a day or weekend jaunt to visit the numerous vineyards, catch one of the many festivals, or just soak up some of the quintessential charm that comes with a heritage tourist destination.
Happy Grid Walking 😊