In 1812, gunfire filled the air and cannon balls were lobbed across the Niagara peninsula. Nearly 200 years later, there is an explosion of grapes. Something has happened in Niagara Wine Country: a new wave of homegrown winemakers with new techniques in exciting new directions, offering a whole lot more to discover.
Wineries are now focusing on the experience of visiting—not just tasting. The sensory bar at Reif Estate Winery offers tutored flights paired with artisanal cheese and charcuterie. An herbal basket is displayed to impart the affinities and flavours associated with different wines. The Sensory Garden, divided into varietal notes, allows contemplation of the aromas and spices characteristically used to describe wine.
The tasting bar at Inniskillin reflects its tradition as a well-established winery with different vintages that show the wine’s aging process. Comparing vintages, and also tasting the same wine in different glasses, helps to understand wine components. A small-plates menu includes flat bread pizza emphasizing local ingredients like honey mushrooms, Pingue cacciatore, chevre and arugula, and a side of smoked bacon cooked in ice wine.
What does a Gewürztraminer grape look like? What does it taste like? At the Jackson Triggs Winery demonstration vineyard, grapes are there for touching—and tasting. The Savour The Sights tour guides us through the winery, and at each stop, the wine is paired with food to better understand how what we drink ends up in our glass.
Romance under stars. The talk of the town is the Jackson Triggs Amphitheatre concert series. After dinner in the barrel cellar, we head towards the vineyards and listen to live music with Sparkling Merlot— refreshing with its soft effervescent cherries and very fine bubbles—from the Bubbles Bar. Another hot destination is Ravine Vineyard where, on Friday evenings, an oyster bar, a Chardonnay Musqué and live music make it the place to be. At Peller Estates, it’s dining among the vines—and the right wines with their food match. While drinking Sauvignon Blanc in the Sauvignon Blanc vineyard, the chef shucks oysters. In the Chardonnay vineyard, we sip and then sample barbeque-glazed quail and cheese mushroom tarts. In the Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard we drink, then eat braised beef panini. Under a canopy we enjoy the Meritage—a blend of three vineyards—and an “anatomy plate” of white pepper crusted lamb, cherry risotto and vanilla crème fraiche to deconstruct the wine’s four major flavours. For dessert, fire pits for roasting Cabernet Franc ice wine marshmallows. Could it get any better than that?
Appasimento, grape-drying common in Amarone wines, has now become very popular. Reif’s Magician is a robust blend of Shiraz and Pinot Noir dried in tobacco kilns to produce velvety rich textures of cherries, cedar and spice. At Magnotta, Enotrium—blended Merlot, Cab Sauv and Cab Franc—reveals cassis, blackberry, plum and cloves. The Cabernet Franc at Foreign Affair Winery, dried for 103 days, aged in oak for two years, and then bottled for another year, has a freshness and intensity that is meaty and earthy with robust fruit. At Colaneri Estate Winery, the Cabernet ’09 has a sweet bouquet of mixed berries and a zesty raspberry mouth-feel. The Pinot Grigio is a surprising blossom of tangerine, nectarine and peaches, and the Riesling is fresh in its floral aroma and fruity palate. The old world, da Vinci-inspired imagery in the artwork of each bottle of Colaneri wine tells a story that is, in and of itself, alluring.
While most Niagara wineries produce ice wine, there is growing experimentation. Magnotta’s Vidal ice wine is a sensuous layering of banana, honey, cloves and orange rind. Stratus Wines has a tropical and creamy assemblage of Sémillon and Riesling, and a red ice wine blend of Cab Sauv, Cab Franc and Syrah that is a cool burst of candied berries. The Gewürztraminer at Malivoire Wine is like luscious honeyed peaches and pears. Reif’s kiln-dried, “totally botrytis affected” Riesling is golden nectar of citric notes, apricots and honey.
The structure of the Inniskillin Riesling, Vidal and Cab Franc ice wines consistently stand out because of the attention paid to their balance of natural acids and sugars. Very concentrated, they are beautifully nuanced, and the Oak aged Vidal has even more complexity. I could not be happier than to be greeted with a glass of their Sparkling Vidal ice wine.
Alternatives abound. Magnotta’s Passito Vidal is late harvest, dried and not as sweet as ice wine, but higher in alcohol, with subtle and elegant melon and floral aromas. The Iced Apple Wine, made exclusively from Ontario apples, tastes of baked apple with notes of nutmeg and spice. Perfect in the autumn, and with foie gras, or with rich blue cheese. In the raisin-to-wine tradition of Recioto, Colaneri’s Profondo is a lovely aromatic Pinot Grigio with a smooth citric pineapple and honeydew palate.
There is a growing movement in Niagara towards biodynamics. At Southbrook Vineyards, Featherstone Estate Winery and Tawse Winery, sheep graze, naturally pruning vines by eating grape leaves, allowing more sunshine and air to get to the grapes. Horse-drawn plows at Tawse are less compacting than tractors; while chickens till the soil and eat insects. “Organics tells you what you can’t do,” says Moray Tawse. “Biodynamics is a more holistic approach that tells you what you should do.” Naturally irrigating, supporting local farms, providing for local restaurants, these wineries focus on the energy of their environment and product.
Standing at the highest point in the escarpment is Megalomaniac, where wines are highly concentrated from cropping down for richer yields. Each bottle sold helps provide laptop computers for long-term care children in hospitals across Canada. The “Big Mouth” Merlot of dark plumy berries and currants lives up to its name, while the “Homegrown” Riesling with 3 per cent ice wine is like a soft, floral peach.
The Sauvignon Blanc at Creekside Estate Winery is refreshing, zesty, bright, with grass and citrus. The Shiraz is opulent, plumy, and full-bodied with bold fruit, a touch of pepper and earth tones. Paired with The Deck’s baked Woolwich chevre cake and roasted Ontario spring lamb, it is a luscious find. From Creekside we drive past country roadside stands of fresh rhubarb, cherries, honey and peaches. Along the way, a stop at Upper Canada Cheese unearths Niagara Gold. Uncommon taste and texture is hand crafted daily from local Guernsey cow milk. Oka-style semi soft, with nutty and earthy tones, and Camembert-style soft with an intense buttery palate, these cheeses with hand-salted, bloomy edible rinds, are also offered at most wineries.
While the wineries give us a taste of the cuisine of the region, there are some very special hotel dining rooms that take us all the way to thrilling gastronomy. The Vintage Hotel Group has taken on the mantle of leadership in Niagara hospitality and fulfills it well. The beautiful Tiara Restaurant at Queens Landing offers cuisine that is executed in the traditional French manner, using ingredients grown on local farms, easily sourced from the amazing bounty available in the Niagara region. Local wines, yes, but also a good selection of old and new world wines.
At the world-renowned Prince of Wales Hotel, Escabèche, the hotel’s flagship restaurant, culinary finesse, exceptional service and unparalleled ambience are what makes it a four-diamond restaurant year after year. And don’t miss the elaborate ritual of English High Tea, served daily. At the Pillar and Post, the heart of The Cannery Restaurant is the hearth and a classic brick pizza oven where they make thin-crust pizza. The hearth is also a serving station during breakfast when it’s an omelet bar, and at lunchtime when it’s a pasta bar. Relaxing, casual and much heralded as the most convivial spot in town. Watch for Jamie Kennedy on the Falls at Sheraton on the Falls when one of Toronto’s most renowned chefs opens in full view of Niagara’s wonder of nature.
Accessible sophistication. The Niagara wine route is about more than exploring wine, it’s about discovering all the possibilities to experience along with it. – Adam Waxman