When somebody mentions Canada, what’s the first thing you think of? I am going to hazard a guess that the list includes maple syrup; the Canadian Mounties; a moose; and the Niagara falls. It probably does not include Canadian wine – but as I found out on a recent trip, Canadian wine is one of this vast and beautiful country’s best-kept secrets. The Canadian winemaking history goes back over 200 years, but the industry was initially hampered by unsuccessful attempts to grow European grapes in the harsh, cold climate; the unpleasantly “foxy” characteristics of the hardier local grape varieties; and the Prohibition in the early 20th century. Even after Prohibition ended, licenses to make wine were strictly limited and it was only in the 1970s that more winery licenses began to be issued and better growing techniques together with grape vine upgrading in the 1980s led to increased wine quality and ultimately secured the viability of Canada’s wine industry.
Generally, wine growing in Canada is confined to areas with a less extreme climate, namely the area of southern Ontario around the Great Lakes (particularly the Niagara peninsula); and the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia (although wines are now also made in southern Quebec and a small area in Nova Scotia). My recent visit focused on the former and we were based in the chocolate-box pretty town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, a great base from which to explore the surrounding wineries. Although southern Ontario is roughly on the same latitude as southern France, grape-growing is not without its problems – the harsh winters can damage tender vines and humid summers can cause problems with fungal diseases. It also remains a cold climate growing area, so wines like Cabernet Sauvignon or Shiraz are unlikely to reach greatness – but cool climate varieties like Riesling, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay thrive, alongside Ontario’s showpiece Vidal (a hybrid between Ugni Blanc and another hybrid, Rayon D’Or). Vidal is often made into Niagara’s most famous wine, namely Icewine made by pressing grapes that have naturally frozen on the vine. If you are looking to sample a selection of Niagara’s best wines, accompanied by outstanding local food, here are four wineries that you should visit.
The Two Sisters Vineyard is conveniently situated in Niagara-on-the-Lake and we arrived as the sun was setting over the vines, casting a mellow golden glow over everything. The eponymous two sisters are Angela Marotta & Melissa Marotta-Paolicelli and although their vineyards were planted in 2007 and their grapes have made wine there since 2010, the winery only opened to the public in late 2014. The sisters’ attention to detail is evident everywhere in the beautiful venue which now boasts a spacious tasting room, a private dining venue in the atmospheric barrel cellar, an indoor restaurant and terrace dining. The winemaking is left to winemaker Adam Pearce who applies a non-interventionist approach and a ‘less is more’ philosophy to crafting wines. He prefers not to over-engineer his wines and believes instead that the grapes should be allowed to express their true varietal character and the terroir where they were grown rather than the winemaking process. We tried a number of his wines, including wonderfully zesty unwooded Chardonnay and their gorgeous Vidal Icewine.
But the star of the show for me at Two Sisters was the Kitchen 76 Restaurant, led by young chef Justin Lesso. Justin knew from age 14 that he wanted to be a chef and in the kitchen he allows his decisions to be guided by seasonality, authenticity and quality, preferring to work with local suppliers to ensure that only fresh and seasonal ingredients are used. The menu is a feast of northern Italian cuisine, but often with a Niagaran twist. To start, we shared a cheese and Italian charcuterie platter, heaving with cured meats, cheese, olives and chutneys. We also could not resist the lure of the glorious freshly-made pizzas, one with fresh mozzarella and one with Prosciutto, accompanied by a wonderfully autumnal salad of beetroot, endive, goat’s cheese, rocket and toasted hazelnuts. Mains were equally spectacular and included rabbit and oyster mushroom ragu pappardelle; lamb chops with guanciale potatoes; a ribeye steak with red wine jus topped with the World’s Best Potato Croquette; and sea bream on zucchini caponata. Flavours are rustic and robust with portions large enough to share around – the perfect kind of meal for a convivial group of family and friends. We finished with an apricot and polenta tart before being treated to a tour of the kitchen and a chat to the very personable chef Justin
The 13th Street Winery in St Catharine’s was born out of its 3 owners’ shared common love of food, wine and art as well as their heart for hospitality. When you first arrive, you wonder momentarily whether you have arrived at the right address as the first sight that greets you is the Whitty Farm Stall, followed rapidly by the glorious aromas emanating from the 13th Street Bakery adjacent to it. But the concept of a farm gate shop, bakery, art gallery and winery all sharing the premises was central to the owners’ vision. We were greeted upon arrival by glasses of the exuberantly coloured NV Cuvée Rosé sparkling wine, a delightful pink sparkler made in the traditional Champagne method from Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Gamay. After a stroll through their glorious herb gardens, we were all seated in the gallery, a wonderful light-flooded space with a massive wooden table and original art on the walls. Here, we met Jean Pierre Colas the charismatic and trés, trés French 13th Street winemaker. He arrived in Canada from his native France in 200, after having been head winemaker at Domaine Laroche in Chablis for 10 years. During this tenure he made what was crowned Wine Spectator Magazine’s White Wine of the Year – the Domaine Laroche Chablis Les Clos 1996 which scored 99/100 points in a blind tasting.
JP explained that although the majority of the grapes used at 13th Street are grown in their own vineyards, they do buy in some grapes – but these are sourced exclusively from the Niagara peninsula so that their wines are allowed to be labelled under the Niagara appellation. The estate’s 40 acres under vine includes plantings of Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Gamay Noir, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. At our tasting, we had the 2013 Gamay Noir, a grape for which the estate is particularly well-known. The wine has had 30 months on the lees to give it structure and flavour and boasts a nose like fresh raw meat and a surprisingly deep colour. The palate is dry with an underlying hint of meatiness, not much fruit and a clean, medium-length finish. JP also explained the difference between a late harvest (90g of sugar per litre required) and an Icewine (grapes must freeze on the vine and needs 225g sugar per litre) before letting us try one of each. The 2013 Below Zero Riesling was fresh and balanced despite its high sugar content; but the 13 Below Zero (an aromatic 60/40% blend of off-dry Riesling and Riesling Icewine was totally different with a faintly bottle-aged nose with almost no fruit. The surprising palate was buttery and caramelly with a rounded, full mouthfeel – complex and fabulous and a wonderful match for the locally-produced Blue Haze cheese. As an accompanying snack, we were served a little pastry round topped with green pesto, roasted heirloom cherry tomatoes and Grey Owl cheese, with purple basil mustard pesto sauce on the side – it was wonderful with the Gamay!
The first thing that you notice as you arrive at Vineland Estate Winery is their landmark stone tower standing proudly over the former Mennonite homestead. The homestead includes structures that date back to the 1840s (the former farmhouse is now the restaurant and the barn is the retail store), all surrounded by the rolling vineyards of the Twenty Mile Bench sub-appellation of Niagara. For over 30 years, the unique convection-warming effects of Lake Niagara on Twenty Mile Bench has enabled the winery to make award winning wines in gorgeous surroundings. Current winemaker Brian Schmidt has been at Vineland for over 20 years and his philosophy of increased synergy and reduced intervention has resulted in a range of wines that all express their unique Niagara terroir (the elusive concept of “somewhereness”). Brian was born in British Columbia and was raised on a vineyard that had been in the family for three generations, so winemaking is truly in his blood. Extensive travels and winemaking experience in Europe has left him with a lifelong love of cool climate varieties, particularly Riesling and Cabernet Franc. We were lucky enough to meet the hugely personable Brian who was at the winery as some of the harvest was being brought it for crushing. He explained that although knowing your vineyard’s unique soil is hugely important, you also need flexibility to deal with the factors like the weather – an late frost or a hailstorm can wreak havoc with a vintage. He also showed off his optical sorter, one of very few in the world, which sorts grapes according to colour in order to select only the ripest grapes to press and so avoid unattractive “green” notes in the finished product. Clever!
After our visit to the winery, we moved on to lunch on the terrace of the renovated farmhouse, under dramatic shade sails and overlooking the rolling vines. Executive chef Justin Downes was born in the town of Vineland and began his career at Vineland Estates Winery in the summer of 1999, starting as a kitchen steward. After completing the Chef’s Apprentice Program at Niagara College he worked his way up the chef’s ladder before doing a stage at a Michelin starred restaurant in Italy. In 2011, he took over the helm at Vineland and his love of classical Italian cuisine is evident in the beautiful menu. He also explained to us that they do a lot of their own pickling and curing, which was on display in the fabulous charcuterie platter which we were served. This consisted of different types of cured ham, outstanding rillettes, a game terrine with pistachio, crispy pickled vegetables and a pungent purple mustard. This paired well with the Elevation Series Sauvignon Blanc, a dry Loire-style white with enough crisp acidity to match the rich charcuterie.
This was followed by my favourite dish of the meal – possibly of the entire trip: smoked tomato bisque with olive tapenade and pickled fennel. It’s hard not to gush about this bowl of sweet, smoky bisque offset by the tang of the salty tapenade, creamy goat’s cheese and crunch of fennel. This was beautifully matched with Vineland’s Game Changer Rosé (a blend of 80% Cabernet Franc and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon) with the sweetness of strawberries but the balancing acidity of pink grapefruit. The main course was an excellent pink-in-the-middle beef sirloin with cauliflower purée, local Blue Haze cheese and mustard jus, enjoyed with a glass of Vineland’s flagship Meritage Red. I hadn’t come across the term before, but it is the North American term for a Bordeaux- style blend, made from at least two noble Bordeaux varietals, with no varietal comprising more than 90% of the blend – Vineland’s was deliciously full bodied and balanced. Dessert was a feast for the eyes as well as the palate: panna cotta topped with peaches and lavender ice-cream – a light and delicate dish paired with one of the estate’s several types of ice wine: the 2013 Vidal Icewine. I loved its intense concentration of peach, apricot and marmalade flavours, as well as its clean and balanced finish. I can think of few more delightful (or delicious) ways to spend an afternoon than sitting on the Vineland terrace enjoying their fantastic food, surrounded by the vines that gave birth to the accompanying wines.
No visit to Niagara would be complete without popping in at Inniskillin. The estate takes its name from the Inniskilling Fusiliers, the Irish regiment to which Colonel Cooper (the farmer who previously owned the land) was attached. Their first Riesling, Chardonnay and Gamay vines were planted in 1974 and the first harvest was in 1977 but it wasn’t until 1984 that they started making the wine that would make them famous: Icewine. Winemaker Karl Kaiser actually attempted to make Icewine in 1983 but, lacking experience, he did not net the grapes left on the vines to freeze naturally, and after the first cold spell, the local birds ate all the grapes! Today, the estate produces a range of Icewines and regularly wins gold at the International Wine and Spirits Competition, Intervin, and the Decanter Awards.
We arrived on a blustery, rainy evening and were thrilled to be met at the door by a tray of Inniskillin Sparkling Vidal Icewine to welcome us to their spacious, modern tasting venue. This is a truly unusual wine, combining the best characteristics of an Icewine with a Champagne style wine – I was smitten! Having dried off a bit, we learnt about the history of the estate and their collaboration with premium wineglass manufacturer Riedel, well-known for making differently-shaped wineglasses for different types of wine. They have designed a special glass for tasting Icewine and we had the opportunity of trying some in a standard and then a Riedel glass to compare the difference.
From there, we moved on to the dinner table where a reassuringly extensive sea of stemware awaited us. Although the estate does not have a public restaurant, they do offer lunch and dinner experiences, as well as using the venue for private functions. Estate Chef Tim MacKiddie, is a Niagara native and the son of a vineyard manager, so he has grown up in the wine industry. After graduating from Niagara College’s renowned culinary programme, he was mentored and strongly inspired by Chef Erik Peacock where he gained a strong knowledge of Ontario wines and unique wine and food pairings. After a stint in New Zealand to learn about charcuterie, he returned to Niagara and took on his current job at Inniskillin where his seasonal menus often use herbs and vegetables from the winery’s on-site garden. As we nibbled on fresh bread and Icewine-whipped butter, Tim explained that each course of our private tasting dinner would be paired with two Inniskillin wines: one Icewine and one table wine. I was already intrigued! We started with goat cheese croquettes, local tomatoes, juniper and mizuna. The selected wine match was Sauvignon Blanc. As the current vintage of Sauvignon Blanc Icewine had not yet been made, instead we had the 2015 pressed Sauvignon Blanc juice, a cloudy liquid with a nose like linseeds but a fresh palate of apples and green pears. Alongside this we had the Inniskillin Sauvignon Blanc 2014 Reserve (gooseberry and green pepper, very intense, very dry with a medium finish) – a fabulous match for the croquettes.
Our next dish was local Yukon Gold potatoes, Vidal icewine-cured salmon, cucumber, pickled scallion, shaved fennel and toasted caraway. I loved the Scandi feel of this dish, and how the potatoes actually had a taste! The match for this dish was Chardonnay, starting with a 2013 Inniskillin Single Vineyard Series Montague Chardonnay with its lush nose of limes, figs and melons, and a palate like lemon butter with a long, clean finish. The icewine was the 2007 Inniskillin Canadian Oak-aged Chardonnay Icewine. This was phenomenal – a deep gold colour and a nose like peach and apricot jam, with a palate of apricot jam and burnt caramel. And it was an outstanding match for the food! The next course was a veal flank steak and sweetbreads with celery root, beets, Niagara corn, toasted quinoa and candied garlic. This was a satisfyingly Autumnal dish, full of interesting flavours and textures, and the selected wine match was Cabernet Franc. First up was the 2013 Inniskillin Reserve Series Cabernet Franc (a garnet colour; a spicy nose; and a dark berry palate with balanced tannins and a short finish); followed by the 2014 Inniskillin Cabernet Franc Icewine. The first thing that struck is about this unusual wine was the colour – an irresistible raspberry red – and the spicy, cinnamon nose. The palate was equally great with balanced red berry fruit, nicely balanced acid and a marvelously long finish. Our final dish was dessert: a square of toasted citrus cake, lemon curd, vanilla meringue, peaches in ginger syrup and salted pumpkin seeds. With this, we had two Rieslings: the 2014 Inniskillin Discovery Series Susse Reserve Riesling and the 2014 Inniskillin Riesling Icewine. The first was a fabulous example of what this cultivar can do in a cool climate: a crisp nose of sweet green apples and a palate awash with the flavor of sweet litchi offset by an underlying smoky minerality and zingy acid. The Icewine was once again, fantastic: a pale gold colour and an incredible palate of apricots but with a backbone of acidity that never lets the wine become cloyingly sweet. The entire dinner was a fascinating exercise from a food and wine matching perspective, proving that Icewines are far more versatile than we believe and need not be enjoyed only with dessert or cheese.
Of course, in a 3 day visit, I could barely scratch the surface of the rich and varied Niagara wine region, but I think each of these four showcased a different aspect of Niagara – sometimes the food; sometimes the unique wines, sometimes the areas heritage. There truly is something for everyone in Niagara and wine lovers are doing themselves a disservice if they have not yet visited.
Getting there: Air Canada operates four direct flights from London Heathrow daily to Toronto Pearson International. Prices start from about £450 for a return trip. The drive from Toronto to Niagara takes about 90 minutes, depending on traffic.
Staying there: We stayed in the Shaw Club Hotel & Spa in Niagara-on-the-Lake, a perfect base from which to explore the wineries of the region. Prices when we visited in September were from about £175 per room per night for Fri/Sat and a bit less during the week.
Two Sisters Vineyard
240 John St E
ON L0S 1J0
Tel: +1 (0)905-468-0592
Open every day – check website for times. Restaurant open lunch and dinner. Tours and tastings ($15 per person) are available, booking advised for parties larger than 6.
13th Street Winery
1776 Fourth Ave
ON L2S 0B9
Tel: +1 (0)905-984-8463
Wine retail store and tasting bar open Mon-Sat 11 a.m. – 5 p.m. (6 p.m. in summer). Tastings are $5 for a flight of 4 wines, refundable against a 2-bottle purchase. Wines and cheeseboards available at the 13th Street Bakery restaurant on the premises.
Vineland Estates Winery
3620 Moyer Rd
ON L0R 2C0
Tel: +1 (0)888-846-3526
Open daily (see website for times). Public tours and tasting at 12 noon daily (Sat and Sun only in winter) – $12 per person for 60 min. tour including the production facilities, barrel cellar and guided tasting of 3 wines. Private tours for larger groups require reservations. Restaurant also open daily.
1499 Line #3 at the Niagara Parkway
ON L0S 1J0
Tel: +1 (0) 905-468-2187
Open daily (see website for times). Public tours daily June-Aug for $5 per person (see website for winter times) . Tastings available at $1 per wine or $15-$20 for a flight of icewines. Dining only available as part of a private experience – details on the website and reservation required.
DISCLOSURE: I visited Niagara as a guest of Destination Canada but received no further remuneration to write this post. I was not expected to write a positive review – all views are my own and I retain full editorial control. A huge thank you to all the wineries who hosted us and Diane Helinski who put together the itinerary and chaperoned us while in Niagara!
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