Touring Ontario's Wine Routes More than wine...the pleasure is in the activities along the way by Margaret Swaine
wine growing revival owes much to Inniskillin. The famous
vineyard has made a name for itself mainly by producing
ice wine, renowned today all over the world.
Over the past several decades, Ontario has gone from being nowhere in the wine world
to a mini Napa North.
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.
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 theater 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.
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 25 miles 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
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.
guided tours are offered at all hours at Hillebrand Estates
Winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
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.
passes by the towns of Grimsby, Beamsville and Vineland and
so might you.
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.
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, theater
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. Ten of the nearby wineries offer
dining and theater packages along with a winery tour.
For winery visitors however, theater is just
one activity among many they can enjoy. In summer there are
barbecues, 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.
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, 11 miles 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.
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 - (www.peleeisland.com)
and Colio Estate Wines (coliowinery.com/).
Peninsula Ridge Estate (5600 King Street, Beamsville. Tel. 905-563-0900,
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 (3838 Main Street, Jordan. Tel. 905-562-3581,
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
Vineland Estates Winery (3620 Moyer Rd., Vineland. Tel. 905-562-7088.
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
Henry of Pelham Family Estate Winery (1469 Pelham Rd., St. Catharines.
Tel. 905-684-8423, henryofpelham.com)
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
Hillebrand Estates Winery (1249 Niagara Stone Rd,. Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Tel. 905-468-7123. 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 Wines (Line 3 Niagara Parkway, Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Tel. 905-468-3554, www.inniskillin.com. Inniskillin
is the winery that started the renaissance of wine in Ontario.
The visitor center 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 (2145 Niagara Stone Rd.,
Niagara-on-the-Lake. Tel. 905-468-4637, www.jacksontriggswinery.com)
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 theater in the vineyard and other activities.
Peller Estates Winery (290 John Street, Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Tel. 905-468-4678, www.peller.com)
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.