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Three days in Niagara wine country

grapesLast year at this time we packed our kids off to camp for a week, and took a quick trip to the newest wine growing region in Ontario, Prince Edward County.  It was so successful that this year we did a repeat, spending three fabulous days in the Niagara Region visiting a selection of the 70 or so wineries that can be found on the Beamsville Bench and in and around Niagara-on-the-Lake. 

We made the trip to wine country Tuesday morning.  Arriving around lunch time, we went in search of food first.  Our first stop was the Grand Dame of Niagara wineries, the Chateau des Charmes.  Impressive chateau, but unfortunately no restaurant. Tummies were rumbling. We decided to move on and return to Chateau des Charmes another time.

We settled on Hillebrand's newly renovated Trius winery, and their acclaimed restaurant.  It didn't disappoint. 

Trius Brut sparkling wine accompanied a starter of fennel and spinach soup.   The main course was the chef's sampler consisting of a prosciutto wrapped chicken dish, a small piece of grilled salmon, and a generous "Trius Red burger" — a miniature hamburger, drenched in caramelized onions.  A flight of Trius barrel-fermented Chardonnay, Dry Riesling, and the Trius Red accompanied it. 

And finally, desert — a granita of Trius Vidal Icewine, a strawberry tart, and strawberry rhubarb creme brulee, complimented by Trius' stunning Showcase Cabernet Franc Icewine.

desert at trius 

Our picks: the Trius Brut, Showcase Icewine, and Trius Red.  The barrel-fermented Chardonnay was too heavily oaked for our tastes, and the Dry Riesling, while delicious, was not a standout.

From there we went to one of the oldest wineries in the region, Inniskillin.  Known primarily for their icewines, Inniskillin makes a variety of table wines as well. Because Inniskillin wines are so widely available, coupled with the fact that their tasters were so expensive ($25 for a flight of four icewines!), we did not stay for long. 

Our picks at Inniskillin: their well priced 2006 Late Autumn Riesling, and the 2005 Vidal icewine.  

Our next stop was Peller Estates.  Peller Estates is owned by Andres Wines, and is the sister winery to Hillebrand Trius, Thirty Bench, and a number of other personal favorites.  However, I cannot recommend it.  The place was overwhelmed by a bus tour, the staff overworked and their high end wines apparently absent from the tasting room.  The red wines we tasted were atrociously tannic.  Our picks: the Private Reserve 2006 Pinot Gris, and 2005 Dry Riesling.

Strewn was a striking contrast to Peller.  Not a big name, it occupies an unassuming site housing a tasting room, boutique, restaurant and cooking school.  Their three lines of wines are labelled Terroir, Strewn and Two Vines.  Terroir are their premium wines and Two Vines their introductory line. In the tasting room Terroir wines are 3 samples for $5, while the Strewn and Two Vines wines are 50 cents each per taste. No $25 flights here.

Our host at Strewn was superb.   We tasted a selection of reds and whites, including both a dry and an off-dry riesling, meritage, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, sauvignon blanc, their flagship Strewn Three, and more.  Our picks: the 2005 Strewn Terroir Cabernet Franc, 2004 Strewn Terroir Riesling, 2005 Strewn Terroir "Strewn Three" (a meritage), 2006 Strewn Terroir Sauvignon Blanc, and 2005 Strewn Off-Dry Riesling

Strewn is highly recommended, both for the quality of their products, and the experience that their knowledgeable, friendly and enthusiastic staff provide.

Our last stop of the day was Jackson-Triggs.  Starting with the concierge who greets you as you enter their "great hall", Jackson-Triggs ultra-modern winery and tasting room is a great visit.  Whether sitting on the leather sofa in the breezeway between the winery and the tasting room admiring the view of the vineyard, or chatting with the staff in the tasting room, it's a welcoming and friendly environment. 

Naturally, we tasted a wide selection of wines.  Ultimately we left with:

That's salesmanship.

That evening we checked-in to our rooms at the SkyeHaven bed and breakast.  This circa 1787 home in the historic part of Niagara-on-the-Lake is a short walk from the downtown shops, restaurants, and theatres.  Proprietors David and Sandra McAslan are a generous, energetic and welcoming retired couple who host guests with great service and food at a very inexpensive $12
5 per night.  We rented the Blue Room, an expansive and comfortable period bedroom with an ensuite bath. 

sandra

Dinner that night was in the lounge at the Pillar and Post Inn, a block from SkyeHaven.  Forewarned by David about the size of the Pillar and Post's meals, we opted to order a salad and fish and chips to share.  It was ample. The bar staff was friendly, offering advice on where to find great Pinot Noir in Niagara, a nice martini menu, and a welcoming atmosphere. 

Wednesday

The next day we headed out to the wineries in the Beamsville Bench area, a 30 minute drive from Niagara-on-the-Lake.  The Beamsville Bench is a steeply sloped area, with limestone / clay soil perfect for Riesling. 

Henry of Pelham is a winery off the beaten track and best known for its wines made from the Baco Noir grape.  We didn't taste any of the Baco Noir wines, as they are commonly available at the liquor store near us.  We did try a variety of wines, including their 2005 Pinot Noir, Cuvee Catharine Rose Brut, and several others.  Our picks: the 2006 Off Dry Reserve Riesling, and the very fine 2005 Botrytis Affected Late Harvest Riesling. Both were great value at reasonable prices.

Cave Spring Vineyards tasting room and shop is conveniently located adjacent to the Inn on the Twenty restaurant, in Jordan, where we had lunch reservations.   Cave Spring's shop was a winery boutique as opposed to a simple tasting room.  With products ranging from wine, to glasses, to picnic sets, books, gourmet foods, and artisanal breads, it had something for everyone.

We tried a variety of Cave Spring wines. Our picks were the 2005 Pinot Noir, 2005 Select Late Harvest Cabernet Sauvignon, 2003 Estate Bottled CSV Chardonnay,  and 2005 Estate Bottled CSV Riesling

Lunch at Inn on the Twenty next door was fabulous.  The accolades it receives are well deserved.  The dining room is gorgeous, overlooking gardens and ravines.  The service is excellent, and the ambience fabulous. 

I had the soup of the day, which was an asparagus soup with creme fraiche.  Janice had the simple salad.  For the main course we each had smoked Berkshire Pork Loin with spinach and chorizo polenta and rhubarb confit.  Our server suggested the Cave Springs 2006 Estate Bottled Gewurtztraminer to accompany the pork.  Not big fans of gewurtztraminer, we nevertheless gave it a try. The floral acidity of the gewurtz was a perfect accompaniment to the sweet / salt / spice of the pork and spicy polenta. It was a wonderful balance.  The pairing suggested by our server is the hallmark of both a talented chef and a superb wait staff.  At a great restaurant you want to have your ideas about food challenged and surpassed.  Inn on the Twenty did just that.

Following our meal, we headed back to the Cave Springs shop, and bought some of the 2006 Estate Bottled Gewurtztraminer

We tumbled out of Inn on the Twenty and spent a few minutes in the shops in Jordan (many many many… and lots of fun!) and then zipped off to the Beamsville Bench proper. 

Malivoire is a favorite Canadian winery.  For several years, we have stocked Malivoire Moira Vineyard Chardonnay in our own small cellar. This wine, a staple of the Rideau Hall wine cellar, is a fabulous and opulent chardonnay with exactly the right amount of oak.  Needless to say, Malivoire was one of the most anticipated tasting rooms of the trip for us.

The Malivoire tasting room is spare, with no restaurant or boutique. It's all about the wine.  Our host, Eric,  walked us through a suite of wines, along the way explaining owner Martin Malivoire's philosophy with respect to the vineyard and winemaking.

Our picks: the Courtney Gamay 2005 (a completely different take on Gamay, which is a grape I ordinarily don't like), Estate Bottled Pinot Noir 2004, and 2006 Pinot Gris. In addition, I can heartily recommend their Chardonnays, and wonderful Ladybug Rose, which we have drunk on numerous occasions. 

Thirty Bench, just down the road, was the other highly anticipated vineyard of the trip, and it didn't disappoint.  Alex, our host, gave us a short tour of the winery, including vats, barrels, and vines. Then it was off to the tasting room.

Of all the hosts we experienced in Niagara, Alex at Thirty Bench was easily the best.  Our tasting and tour was done with just one other couple. Alex walked us around the vineyard, briefly, and explained the characteristics of their three vineyards.  He also did an excellent job of explaining the advantages of the  small batch / oak fermenter approach they use versus the large steel vat.  And finally, at the small bar where Alex guided us through the tasting, he worked hard to educate us on the wine itself.  For example, when I commented that the Pinot Noir was tight, he poured three glasses: straight out of the bottle, aerated, and aerated and in a burgundy glass, to show how the wine opens up over time, and how the correct stemware can improve the experience of the wine.

Our picks: the 1995 merlot (wonderful!), the 2003 Pinot Noir, and the "Triangle Vineyard" 2006 Riesling

Further up Mountainview Road from Thirty Bench are the De Sousa and Fielding Estates wineries.  De Sousa is a Portuguese style winery.  While their table wines weren't notable, they do make a nice port. At Fielding we arrived late in the day, and perhaps it was simply that we were tired, but after trying several wine
s we left.  We've heard good things about the winery in the past, however, and will likely return.

Later that evening, we walked over to the Festival Theater from SkyeHaven and took in Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan.  It was a great production, and a breath of fresh air after some of the duds we've seen recently at the NAC in Ottawa.  

Thursday

After breakfast we did a small driving tour around Niagara-on-the-Lake.  Niagara-on-the-Lake is a pretty Victorian town, full of shops and inns, and of course home to the Shaw Festival. It's also home to Fort George, built at the mouth of the Niagara river to guard Canada from U.S. invaders after the British were forced to cede Fort Niagara to the Americans following Jay's Treaty.  The photograph below shows Fort Niagara in NY State, taken from Queen's Royal Park in Niagara-on-the-Lake.  

fort george

Later we stopped at Lailey Vineyards on the Niagara Parkway.  A small winery, Lailey was one of the pioneers of the Canadian wine industry, and owns some of the oldest vines in Niagara. We tasted their 2006 Unoaked Chardonnay, 2006 Sauvignon Blanc, and 2004 Canadian Oaked Chardonnay, as well as a their 2005 Zweigelt, 2005 Pinot Noir, and 2004 Cabernet Franc.  Lailey's use of Canadian oak, rather than the more common French and American oaks is intriguing.  It's a more subtle wood flavor than the American oak, but with some of the same spicy characteristics.

Our picks: 2006 Unoaked Chardonnay (deliciously fruity with crisp acidity), and the 2004 Cabernet Franc.  While the Canadian Oak Chardonnay was intriguing, and a well made wine, neither of us are big fans of oak fermented chardonnay.  For those who like a more buttery and oaky chardonnay, it might be just the ticket, however. 

Like Lailey, Marynissen Estates has been farming vinifera grapes in Niagara since the 1970's.  In fact, John Marynissen was the first grower to plant Cabernet Sauvignon in the Niagara region in 1978. Marynissen also gained some notoriety as suppliers of wine to the Rolling Stones on their tour last year, shipping a total of 10 cases to the band.  We tasted a 2002 Merlot, 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon, and a 2002 Cabernet / Merlot.  The merlot had an unusual tomato flavor, which was quite suprising.  Our pick: the well priced 2002 Cabernet/Merlot.

Stratus is a complete contrast to Marynissen and Lailey.  An ultra-modern, environmentally friendly building houses a chic tasting room and boutique selling everything from wine, to books, oil and Baccarat stemware.

 stratus

Unlike many wineries that focus on creating wines around specific varietal grapes, Stratus' philosophy is that the best wines are assemblages (a fancy french word for a blend).  We were unable to taste the 2004 Stratus White (sold out), but did taste their 2006 Riesling, which was delicious but pricey at $35/bottle.  We also tasted the 2003 Cabernet Franc, and the 2004 Stratus Red.  The Red is a blend of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Gamay, Malbec, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Syrah! Smooth, complex, and balanced with soft tannins, this wine blew me away. It was easily the best wine of the trip.  Our picks: the 2004 Stratus Red, and the 2003 Cabernet Franc. Other Stratus made wines are also available under the more moderately priced Wild Ass label.

Coyote's Run is known for its award winning Pinot Noir.  We tasted a variety of wines from their wine list, including their 2005 Pinot Noir, 2006 Pinot Gris, 2004 Riesling, 2005 Meritage and 2004 Bob Izumi Red.  The Pinot Noir didn't have the blousey fruit expressed in the wine that is characteristic of West Coast Pinot Noir.  It was more reserved, or perhaps burgundian.  It did, however,  have a wonderful nose and a smooth finish. Our picks: the Coyote's Run 2005 Pinot Noir, and 2004 Bob Izumi Red.

Perhaps it was just bad luck, but we hit Chateau des Charmes hungry again.  As it was our last chance to visit the winery we did, tasting a selection of their red and white wines, including their Gamay Noir "Droit".  This unique grape was discovered by des Charmes owner Paul Bosc.  It ripens later than typical for Gamay Noir, producing a richer and plummier wine.  Overall, though, Chateau des Charmes was disappointing.  The wines, while mostly well made, did not really stand out compared to other wineries we had been to.  Or… perhaps we were just hungry. Our pick: the 2006 St. David's Bench Viognier

After a quick lunch, we headed back to the Beamsville Bench area to visit the spectacularly situated Angels Gate winery.  High on the Bench it overlooks Lake Ontario, and on a clear day one can see all the way to Toronto, 35 miles away.  In the photograph below, you can see the sun shining on the tip of the CN Tower, and make out the white dome of the SkyDome Rogers Centre beside it.

view from angels gate 

At Angels Gate we tasted a variety of their wines, including the 2006 SussReserve Riesling, 2006 Riesling, 2004 Old Vines Chardonnay, 2004 Angels III Meritage, and 2004 Snow Angel Late Harvest Cabernet.  The SussReserve Riesling is a Riesling sweetened with a portion of unfermented juice.  It didn't appeal to us, however.  Our picks were the 2004 Old Vines Chardonnay, and the 2004 Snow Angel.  In particular, the Snow Angel had a wonderful strawberry character that would make it a good desert wine, or an accompaniment to pate, foie gras, or duck confit.

From Angels we intended to simply head out to the highway and up to Toronto.  As luck would have it, though, we passed the Peninsula Ridge winery on the way.  After stopping to take a photograph of this pretty property, it seemed impolite to not pay a visit…

peninsula ridge

The Peninsula Ridge tasting room offers both wine and artesanal cheese, which was a nice touch.  We tasted the 2006 Wismer Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc, 2001 Equinox (chardonnay / sauvignon blanc), 2005 INOX Chardonnay, 2001 Arcanum ( a meritage with Syrah added) and 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve.  Neither of the blends were impressive, however the 2006 Wismer Sauvignon Blanc was delicious and balanced with plenty of both fruit and acid.  And the 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon turned out to be a very special wine — easily the best Cabernet we tasted the entire trip, with a great nose, and true expression of Cabernet's cassis flavour on the palate.  Our picks: the 2006 Wismer Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc, and the 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve.

And then it was off to Toronto to have dinner with a friend and stay the night.  We ate at Jamie Kennedy's wine bar, which offers wine and tapas.  While the food and wine were delicious, the portions (of both) were tiny and pricey.  After eating and drinking so well for the previous three days, Kennedy's was a bit of a sticker-shock. 

Friday

The next morning we set off for home, taking a side trip through Kleinburg to see the McMichael Gallery's collection of Group of Seven paintings.  The gallery is small, and most of the paintings exhibited are sketches rather than finished works, but it's still worth a visit if you have an interest in the Group of Seven. 

We lunched in Kleinburg at the Chartreuse Restaurant / Longchamps Pub.  Generous portions, good food and service, priced well.  Then we set out for home on the scenic route through Algonquin Park.  It's a little longer than riding the Trans Canada highway 401 home, but a whole lot prettier.  Besides, after having seen the paintings of the Group of Seven, what better way to finish the day than to experience the landscape they painted?  The drive through the park was beautiful.

On the eastern edge of Algonquin Park lies the village of Wilno, Canada's oldest polish settlement.  As you drive up the hill out of the village, the beautiful church of St. Mary's Wilno sits on the hillside overlooking the Ottawa Valley.  It was spectacularly illuminated by the late day sun, and framed by a backdrop of dark clouds as we passed it by. Click the photograph to see it full sized…

the power and the glory: St. Mary's Wilno

Winery Resources

Most of the wines we tasted are simply not available at your shop, not even here in Ontario.  Getting them can be problematic.  There are really only a few ways to buy them:

  1. Direct from the Winery.  Many wineries will ship, and some will do so in lots smaller than one case. Some will even ship to US destinations. A word of caution — don't order case lots of wine that you haven't tasted.  Quality can vary dramatically.
  2. WineryToHome.com.  This service ships Ontario wines to Ontario customers.  Over 400 wines from 30 wineries are represented.  Unfortunately, because of outdated laws, it cannot ship wines outside of Ontario. 
  3. LCBO Vintages.  Vintages sometimes stocks a selection of Ontario wines as part of their releases.  This is the way I've been able to buy Malivoire Moira Chardonnay in the past.   

{ 13 comments… add one }

  • PaulSweeney July 15, 2007, 9:51 am

    Monster Post! and so so jealous!

  • Alec July 15, 2007, 10:07 am

    Definitely worth doing, if you can steal away.

  • Jim Courtney July 15, 2007, 6:55 pm

    Ted Rogers would remind you that it is NOT the SkyDome but rather the Rogers Centre. Rogers has obliterated all references to its original name as well as the McDonald's food stands that had the original concession contract. Naming rights went along with ownership acquisition (even if it was at a bargain price compared to the original cost that was somewhat underwritten by Ontario's taxpayers). And the dome still does open up to the sky in fair weather situations. (Rogers Centre is home to the Toronto Blue Jays; yes this is the same Rogers that provides Alec's and my wireless, cable TV and home Internet services — which also gives us a couple of free tickets to Blue Jays games once a year as VIP customers.)

    P.S. – Great description of Ontario's wine country that has worked very hard to successfully change its image as a premier wine area. Too bad you missed out on Vineland Estates.

  • Alec July 16, 2007, 7:01 am

    Absolutely, Jim. But you know… SkyDome is a hugely better name than Rogers Centre. Corporate sponsorships are great, but the original name of the building should stand. Does anyone remember the name of what used to be Candlestick Park?

    And yea, we missed a lot of wineries. I would have liked to have visited Daniel Lenko, too, but he's only open on weekends.

  • Mum July 16, 2007, 8:26 am

    Great blog!! Sounds like you had a wonderful time. Next time you should come west, meet us in Vancouver, drive to the Okanagan where we have information on a great little B&B and tour the Okanagan wineries.

  • Alec July 16, 2007, 8:32 am

    Thanks Ma! You know we've talked about it in the past … and I'm up for it.

  • Dan York July 16, 2007, 1:29 pm

    Alec, I'm jealous! Especially because now that I've moved south of the border back into the USA, I have yet to find any way to get all this great Canadian wine! Several years ago we did the tour of Niagra vineyards ourselves and in fact stopped at some of the places you mentioned. In our roughly 5 years living in Ottawa we became great fans of a number of Canadian wines. But here in the USA (well, Vermont) when you ask about Canadian wines they look at you funny! We haven't found them in any stores at all. Now, we haven't done any exhaustive searches, but basically whenever I see wine in a store I take a look… pretty much all that is stocked here is either Californian, Australian or European (with the occasional local wine). Anyway, thanks for bringing back all those fond memories… maybe some day I'll figure out how to sample the wine again. Dan

  • Alec July 16, 2007, 2:29 pm

    Ah, but Dan, you can always visit Finger Lakes… that's one of the stops I would like to make some day. I've had a few wines from that region at the Ottawa food and wine fair which have been pretty darn good.

  • Jim July 17, 2007, 10:25 am

    Hi Alec,
    Monster post! I was in the area a month prior, visiting Ball's Falls ( http://www.conservation-niagara.on.ca/conservatio… ).
    Old joke: What's the favorite Canadian whine? "Are we going to Florida this year?…" 😀

  • Cory July 17, 2007, 12:34 pm

    Alec – I live in Lewiston, which is right on the US/Canada border, down the Niagara River a bit from the Falls. The whole region on the Canadian side is just lovely, and luckily 5-10 minutes from home for us.

    Cory Andrews

  • Alec July 17, 2007, 1:28 pm

    Lucky you, Cory!

    And Jim — Balls Falls looks fabulous. Wish I had known about it before heading down there.

  • indian wine September 7, 2009, 6:46 pm

    I got to visit a few wineries while i was in niagara falls canada and they were great especially the ice wines. I'll review them on my blog.

  • Dave (Niagara on the November 1, 2009, 6:22 am

    Good post Alec. Nice pictures too. Perhaps it is time for another trip back. There is a new winery called Southbrook that you should try. They practice bio-dynamics. Another fabulous winery about to get their bio-dynamic designation is Tawse. The process is all natural and the wine is great!

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