Touring Ontario’s Wine Routes
By Margaret Swain
The first in a three-part series on Canada’s wine routes. Wine aficionado Margaret Swaine spills secrets on where to imbibe the pleasures.
I’ve spent twenty-five years on the road visiting wineries around the globe and know by comparison that our wine routes are as pretty as they get. Then there are the surrounding activities. Many Canadian wine regions encompass public golf courses, ski hills and bike trails. Some are connected to top summer theatre and close to world landmarks. Others have cooking schools, fine dining and luxurious inns. All have rural charm and an opportunity to try some amazing wines.
More than wine, the pleasure is in the activities along the way.
In twenty-five years, Ontario has gone from being nowhere in the wine world to a mini Napa North. The province now has over 70 wineries, the majority of which are in the Niagara Peninsula. Almost all offer at least a tasting room that includes reserve wine for sale you can only get at the cellar door. There’s much more than wine geek appeal however. Sure it’s fun to bring a special bottle back to impress your friends, but that alone doesn’t make a destination. It’s the other activities that are the drawing card.
Driving down the long laneway to the impressive new Peller Estates Winery in Niagara during fall harvest celebrations, I arrived at a wine lovers’ Disney World. There were horse drawn carriages trotting around the vineyards, a Steve Bauer cyclist group in bright yellow shirts resting on the steps leading into the winery, diners on the sunlit patio and pretty young girls standing between the vines offering free samples of fresh crushed grape juice from different varietals to compare with wine made from those grapes the previous year. Inside, educational seminars on the ABC’s of cabernet were taking place, along with winery tours and a harvest celebration tasting menu at the elegant Peller Estates Winery Restaurant. The boutique was packed with shoppers examining the decanters, fine crystal, posters, corkscrew collection, wine CD’s, icewine chocolates, placemats and of course the wine.
Some of the guests were on “Shaw Vineyard Pleasures” package. After their tour and dinner at the winery, they would drive, or do the short walk, to Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Shaw Festival to enjoy a world-class theatre performance. Others who had joined the Peller by Request club were getting a complimentary premium wine tasting after their tour or were taking advantage of their discount on accessories in the boutique. Then there were people like me who were making Peller Estate just one stop on a weekend tour of Ontario wineries.
The Niagara Wine Route starts about an hour’s drive from Toronto. There just off the main QEW highway, travelers can begin their tour, which meanders along 40 kilometers of rural roads from Grimsby to Niagara-on-the-Lake. The route, starting on Regional Road 81, traverses gently rolling landscape through small towns, vineyards and orchards. Half the Niagara Peninsula is still devoted to agriculture and many of the farms are proudly preserved century properties, with roots tracing back to the days of the Empire Loyalists. The Niagara Escarpment on one side and glittering Lake Ontario on the other handsomely bracket the route. The top ridges of the craggy cliffs of the Escarpment were once the shoreline of Lake Iroquois, an ancient lake that receded with the glaciers leaving behind the Five Great Lakes as we know them today, and fossil rich land great for grape growing. The route is not a straight drive, rather in order to visit wineries, there are many sideroads to take up and down the escarpment. Signage is generally good, marked with a grape logo and names of the wineries, but even I’ve been confused, and I’ve done the route many times.
You can leave the QEW at the first sign of a winery or continue until you see a particular one you wish to visit. Many of the wineries have signs on the QEW that direct you to the correct exit. I’m not a fan of highway driving so I exit at Fifty Road and start the route from the beginning, stopping at roadside stands to pick up fresh fruit and other local goodies as I go.
The road passes by the towns of Grimsby, Beamsville and Vineland and so might you.
It’s the wineries dotted around them that you want to visit, all which have tasting rooms. Peninsula Ridge has a restaurant on site and delicious chardonnay. Angel’s Gate, a spanking new winery and Thirty Bench quite country-rustic in comparison, share the same road (Mountainview) and make lovely wines. Modern looking Malivoire, between Beamsville and Vineland on Regional Road 81, uses a hillside drop for a pump-free wine process. The end result from winemaker Ann Sperling is some of the best chardonnay and pinot noir in the province.
The next town however on this meandering route to Niagara is worth a visit. Jordan Village, home of Cave Spring Cellars Winery, is a restored tiny hamlet with Georgian and Victorian homes lining Main Street. Antique shops, galleries, a garden shop, restaurant and inn are all bunched together on two streets. Jordan Antiques Centre houses 25 professional dealers in 7,000 square feet. Cave Spring’s adjacent restaurant On the Twenty serves good Canadian fresh market cuisine. From the restaurant you see the steep and beautiful Twenty Mile Valley. Across the street, The Inn on the Twenty is a charming property build in 1996 that has some of the best accommodation in the area.
Once past the town of St. Catharines you can head south towards the US border and visit a few wineries on the way to the famous Horseshoe Falls in Niagara Falls. The other direction takes you to picturesque Niagara-on-the-Lake and a host of wineries encircling the town. Three million tourists flock to this Regency town annually, so don’t expect a quiet time. Home of The Shaw Festival, theatre dominates the town from April 4 to November 24. Shaw, North America’s second largest repertory company, is the only one in the world specializing in plays written by George Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries (shawfest.sympatico.ca). Ten of the nearby wineries offer dining and theatre packages along with a winery tour.
For winery visitors however, theatre is just one activity among many they can enjoy. In summer there are barbeques, jazz and blues in the vineyard, chamber concerts and picnics. Fall is harvest celebrations, wine makers dinners and dozens of events surrounding the Niagara Grape and Wine Festival. Winter brings icewine celebrations and holiday shopping at winery boutiques. Spring is for new release tastings, biking and walking through the vineyard and blossom festivals. Every time I’ve done the trip I’ve found new wineries, restaurants and activities. There is one thing though that I’m not going to do again – pick grapes for icewine in the dead cold of winter. That, like sleeping in Quebec City’s Icehotel, is more fun in concept than reality.
Other Ontario Wine Routes
The two other officially recognized wine regions of Ontario, Lake Erie North Shore near the city of Windsor (across the river from Detroit), and Pelee Island are much smaller areas with a handful of interesting wineries. Pelee Island, 18 kilometers off shore in Lake Erie, is Canada’s most southerly inhabited point. A four hour drive from Toronto (plus a hour and a half ferry ride in the case of Pelee Island), the wineries here are worth seeing if you plan to be nearby for other tourist reasons. Vineyards were established more than a century ago on Pelee Island, the oldest commercial grape growing area in the country. Point Pelee National Park is renowned for birds and the migration of monarch butterflies. The largest wineries with the most facilities are Pelee Island Winery in Kingsville on the mainland – on the island is a pavilion – (peleeisland.com) and Colio Estate Wines (colio.com).
Some Recommended Wineries
Peninsula Ridge Estates Winery
One of the rising stars of Ontario wineries, their French winemaker Jean Pierre Colas, first made his name at Domaine Laroche in Chablis. His Chardonnay Reserve, Sauvignon Blanc and Bordeaux style blended red are among the area’s best. On site, set in an historic 1885 Victorian manor, is The Restaurant at Peninsula Ridge. They serve Canadian delicacies such as seared Quebec Foie Gras, pan-seared Arctic Char and Ile Verte lambe.
Cave Spring Cellars
Cave Spring specializes in Riesling, Chardonnay, Gamay, and Cabernet/Merlot blends from Beamsville Bench vineyards, among the oldest vinifera plantings in Niagara. Their On the Twenty Restaurant serves Niagara cuisine year round. Signature dishes include house-smoked Lake Erie venison and double espresso chocolate torte.
Vineland Estates Winery
Vineland, up on the escarpment, has a sweeping view of vineyards and Lake Ontario, the most scenic of all the wineries. Its historic setting includes a wine store with a wide selection of wine accessories and artistically made decorative items (vases, candle holders, place mats), a carriage house and an elegant restaurant. Canadiana cuisine with a Mediterranean influence is served, using fresh local ingredients.
Henry of Pelham Family Estate Winery
Makers of excellent VQA wines, their retail store is set in an 1842 inn, once a gateway point through the Niagara escarpment. Next to the Short Hills Provincial Park, they have picnic and patio facilities as well as innovative activities during touring season such as Shakespeare in the Vineyard and hiking on the Bruce Trail. Their Couch House Café serves light meals such as soups, duck pâté on a French stick, mesclun salad and special Quebec and Ontario artisan cheeses to eat in or take out as a picnic.
Hillebrand Estates Winery
Hillebrand boasts the largest product list of VQA wines in Canada. Of note is their ultra premium Showcase series of single vineyard unfiltered wines. These are stunning wines of depth and complexity with long aging potential. In addition to regular complimentary tours offered hourly, they have music concerts throughout the summer, bicycle vineyard tours and fine dining in a casual setting. The Vineyard Café serves regional dishes such as vanilla scented lobster, Century Game Farm bison and Oka cheese polenta.
Inniskillin is the winery that started the renaissance of wine in Ontario. The visitor centre is housed in an old restored 1920’s barn and includes a retail boutique and tasting bar featuring their excellent Pinot Noirs, single vineyard Chardonnays, icewines and other premium products. Its twenty station self-guided tour is very educational and well presented.
Jackson-Triggs Niagara Estate Winery
This state-of-the-art winery designed by Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects just opened last summer. One reason to visit is to see its stunning two-storey Great Hall, which separates the wine production area from the hospitality section. Also take in the wine and food sensory experiences in the Tasting Gallery, concerts and theatre in the vineyard and other activities.
Peller Estates Winery
Peller Estates, a large winery with an excellent well-stocked boutique, also has one of the best winery restaurants. A weekly tasting menu consists of six courses matched with wine to compliment each tasting portion dish.
For more information on Canadian destinations visit the Canadian Tourism Commission.
For details on special winery events, tastings and dining visit wineroute.com.
For a free copy of The Official Guide to the Wineries of Ontario call 1800.263.2988 or email email@example.com.
Niagara region B&Bs range from historic manor houses to river-view countryside farms. For information, contact the Niagara Bed & Breakfast Association at 905.468.0123.
The new Legends on the Niagara Golf Complex has two 18-hole championship courses designed by renowned golf course architects Thomas McBroom and Douglas Carrick. For details on this and other local courses see niagaraparksgolftrail.com.