Niagara Wine Tours

before you go Pick up a copy of Wineries of Ontario at LCBO stores. It has maps and all the contact info for wineries, restaurant and hotels.

the low down The wonderful 07 Vintage is the current hot topic but don’t overlook the wines of 06, which are drinking really well right now. This cool year produced light wines that are truly local in character.

There are 2 district regions ““ the flat lands of Niagara-on-the-Lake (NOTL) and the more sloped escarpment of Beamsville/Jordan/Vineland. The two regions are separated by the city of St. Catharines. If you’re on a day trip, I suggest you don’t try to visit both regions as this involves highway travel and that ruins the Niagara experience. The QEW is to Niagara what Yonge Street is to Toronto ““ a central artery best avoided. You need at least two days. Three would be better ““ especially if you want to take time to smell the roses. I like to do the Niagara-on-the-Lake region first, heading down York Road to Queenston, and then up the beautiful Parkway. A little refreshment on the back patio of the Riverbend Inn, and I’m in the zone.

Don’t spend all your time at wineries. At least take a break for lunch.

When confronted by a tasting bar with dozens of wines, try saying this: “Take me through a day of wine ““ lunch, aperitif, appetizers, main course, after dinner, nite cap. And how about something novel, an adventure?” This way you’re tasting with context in mind.

Niagara is producing some of the most exciting $20-$30 wines in the world.

Treat yourself. If you’re spending a few days consider staying at Inn on the Twenty in Jordan. Upscale but friendly, relaxed and everything in good taste. Some rooms have a garden, and breakfast in the grand dining room is a fab way to start the day.

On the restaurant scene, Stone Road Grille, located just outside Niagara-on-the-Lake is a rare Ontario edition of the bistro experience. Locally popular, personable owners and staff, bustling, informal atmosphere, generous~  food portions, a commitment to local produce and wines, reasonable prices”¦you must go. (Reservations 905-468-3474)

best new attractions: Southbrook’s stunning modern winery ““ with a “˜great wall’ and pizza patio. Organized Crime’s sexy tasting room. Olson’s Foods and Bakery shop at Ravine Winery. Chefs Michael and Anna Olson have opened a big food shop/café on a lovely woodsy hillside in the village of St. David’s. It’s part of a complex containing Ravine Winery. Top quality foods and a rustic setting ““ can’t beat that.

Best winery reception on my last visit was by Lindsay at Thirty Bench. Most intelligent restaurant service was Christina at Hillebrand.

NIAGARA WINERIES – Beamsville Bench

peninsula ridge Upscale, with a high end restaurant. French winemaker Jean-Pierre Colas is re-learning his craft in Niagara. And doing well, especially with whites. Start with the 07 Viognier ($14), an interesting, herbaceous white ““ great food partner. Then move on to Sauvignon Blancs ““ the lively, aperitif-style 07 Wismer ($19) and the richer 06 Fumé Blanc ($27). Enthusiasts may want to check out the amazingly concentrated and rich Reserve 06 Viognier ($39). The everyday 06 Shiraz ($14) and Merlot ($16) at the LCBO are my favourite reds and the 06 Reserve Shiraz ($29) may also turn out to be a star on another level.

angels gate winery Nouveau riche-style house nestled into the hillside. Lunches indoors or on the patio. Pretty place but hard to say if they want to be formal or casual. The wines are good ““ with a light touch in the making and the pricing. The 07 Riesling ($14) and 07 Gewurztraminer ($16) are delicious, anytime drinks. Gorgeous flavours, off-dry and very gulpable. Age the Riesling if you’re a fan. My fav reds are the rustic, very Italianesque 06 Gamay Noir ($13) ““ really gets you going ““ and the light and lively 06 Pinot Noir ($19) which is also rustic and quite earthy. I like the old-fashioned, bistro character in both of these reds.

thirty bench Not great on curb appeal but this little joint gets three awards from me: most improved wines, best tasting- room personnel, and best wine descriptions by winemaker Natalie Reynolds. I also like the option to taste at your own bar table. Improvements here are thanks to new owners, the former bad guys of local wine, Andrés (Baby Duck), now known as Hillebrand and Peller Estates. Dry Riesling is the star, closely followed by Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay and the Bordeaux blend in reds. Small Lot “˜Wood Post’ 07 Riesling ($30) is edgy but quite flavourful. The “˜Steel Post’ 07 ($28) is super-austere, and my favourite, the “˜Triangle Vineyard’ 07 ($30) feels like a mix of both ““ steely, elegant and superb. Thirty Bench has some of the oldest Riesling vineyards in Niagara. Small Lot 07 Gewurztraminer ($30) is a stunner for flavour and richness. A wow for sure ““ too good to share with food. If it’s richness you want in Chard check out the Small Lot 06 ($30). Winemakers 06 Red ($22) is a lightish, rustic wine for bowls of pasta or BBQ’d burgers. Benchmark 05 Red ($60) is a big, solid guy in need of a steak.

hidden bench Niagara’s newest aiming-for-the-top winery. Big budget, restored old farmhouse and huge barn. Very good, high-end wines by a French winemaker Jean-Martin Bouchard. The stars are a super-rich, 06 white Meritage called “˜Nuit Blanche’ ($40) and the red equivalent called 05 “˜La Brunante’ ($70). Not a fun sort of place to take your drinking buddies.

organized crime Great name! Go to their website for the story behind it. Looks very plain from the road but there’s a pleasant patio with a great view, and the tiny wine shop is a bit like a French boudoir. Check out the delish, Beaujolais-style 06 Syrah ($22) and an equally charming 06 Gewurz ($22). Next year the winery will be releasing some sensual 07 wines ““ Sauv Blanc, Cab Franc and Syrah. All crafted by roving winemaker Andrzej Lipinski (also at Foreign Affair). Talk about a flair for picking wineries with interesting names.

fielding estates Mountain chalet with a great view from the tasting bar. And friendly, welcoming staff. Hard to get a fix on the wine style as they keep changing winemakers. The 07 Riesling ($16) has gorgeous tropical fruit flavours ““ not typical Niagara ““ but would be the perfect choice for Thanksgiving or Christmas. Even richer is the 07 Pinot Gris “˜Rock Pile’ ($24). Should be wonderful in a year or two when it firms up. Rich and slightly sweet is also the style of the very seductive 07 Gewuztraminer ($16). Hit of the year is the outstanding 05 Meritage ($35) ““ a brilliant local edition of the Bordeaux blend.

mountain road wine company Am I entering a winery or a scrap yard? (Both appeal to me). It gets better once you see a café table set against a stone wall. Steve Kocsis has some seriously old Chard vines and it shows in his wine. The 05 Barrel Fermented Chardonnay ($16) is a must for fans of well aged white Burgundy. Rich and a shade raunchy. Great couch sipping wine. Some older vintages of Icewine are still available including the mellow, supper-sweet and bargain-priced 1999 ($29).

de sousa A mini Portugese villa and gardens set on top of the escarpment. Surreal! Delish 06 Gewurztraminer and rustic reds that taste best out of a clay cup ““ which they provide. Portuguese BBQ in the garden on Saturday and Sunday. Was recently sold to the Diamond Estates group so check website for updates.

malivoire Beautiful landscaping, striking entrance and serene tasting room. A modern space with traditional values. Estate wines are organic. My fav wine here is the 06 Gamay ($17) ““ couldn’t be livelier or brighter, so much fun to gulp. There’s nothing like it on the planet, a true local. Malivoire’s 07 “˜Lady Bug’ Rosé ($16) is as good as ever ““ refreshing and also substantial enough for food ““ as is the spicy/sweet Alsace-style 07 Pinot Gris ($20). The 06 Chard ($22) and Pinot Noir ($27) are also excellent. I think Malivoire’s line up of wines is exactly right for the region.

tawse winery Welcome to my Chateau! Please close the gate! Well-made, high-end wines in keeping with the fancy surroundings. Exotic Chardonnays and a very understated but sexy 06 Pinot Noir ($32) that would not be out of place in a French restaurant. Lean but characterful. Cabernet Franc may be Tawse’s best red as exhibited by the deep, rich 06 ($38) which is modeled on the top wines from the Bordeaux right bank ““ solid and serious. Speaking of Bordeaux, Tawse 06 Meritage ($48) is concentrated, elegant and very much in the top league. Give it a year or two.

ridgepoint wines Take a break and visit this simple spot for a homemade Italian lunch. The reds have a gutsy, rustic character, so they’re perfect with the pasta.

vineland estates One of Niagara’s showpieces (one of the best views) complete with a high-end restaurant. Can be a little pretentious. Outstanding Mosel-style Rieslings (at LCBOs), stylish 07 Sauvignon Blanc ($18), 07 Pinot Blanc ($16), and a charming 05 Cabernet/Merlot “˜Elevation’ ($25).

megalomaniac ““ john howard cellars of distinction John Howard (former owner of Vineland) is developing his winery in the old style ““ vineyards first, winery and cellar next and a few years down the road, he may open a retail store. When, and if he does, it will be a spectacle ““ there are no half measures with John. For now, it’s mail order and sales to restaurants. The juicy, wonderfully refreshing 07 Riesling ($18) is already available and next year it will be followed by a wonderful barrel-aged 07 Savignin, and exciting Cab Franc, Cab Sauv and Merlot. The arty, creative wine labels are a bonus.

featherstone David Johnson and Louise Engel operate Featherstone out of the back of their charming old terraced farmhouse. Nice place, nice people ““ no pretense. All the wines have a light touch and suggest drinking with everyday foods. My favourites are the tart and refreshing 06 Gamay ($15), the seriously rustic 07 Baco/Merlot “˜Gemstone’ ($13) and the house-wine-style 07 Un-oaked Chardonnay ($15). The much touted Black Sheep Vineyard 07 Riesling ($19) has the disjointed feeling of many 07 Rieslings but I’m sure it will settle down.

calamus No fancy resto at this old barn. Very backwoods, very rustic, very small, and very good value. The 07 Un-oaked Chardonnay ($13) is a pleasant, everyday sipper, as is the off-dry 07 Calamus White ($12) and the charming 07 Gewurztraminer ($13). The 07 Riesling ($15) is a bit plain at this stage but should improve.

flat rock cellars Novel, sky-pod winery set high on the escarpment that has done everything right in its first few years. Nadja’s Vineyard 07 Riesling ($20) is already a Niagara top ten. Edgy, flinty and as bracing as a morning spring stroll in Newfoundland. A wonderful pure expression of the grape and a must have if you’re a dry Riesling masochist. Flat Rock’s regular Riesling ($17) is medium dry, gentle and perfect for Sunday brunch. Seriously Twisted ($23) is a novel white that’s seriously dry and challenging. Rustic is not a word I use to describe white wine but it fits the bill here. Twisted 06 Red ($20) is light and lively in the Gamay style. A delicious fruity, fun summer red ““ chill lightly and enjoy.

cave spring cellars A model of consistency in wine. The 07 Estate Riesling ($18) has the elegant, cool/sharp starched-shirt character of the previous vintages. A Niagara star. Chardonnay is another strength here and the 06 Estate ($20) hits a good middle ground between glamour and refreshment. The 07 Chardonnay Musqué ($16) is a real charmer ““ almost too much fun. Estate 06 Sauv Blanc ($20) and the 06 Estate Gewurztraminer ($20) are highly recommended and available at LCBO Vintages. The jewel in Cave’s crown is the 06 Estate Cab Franc ($25). A copybook bistro red ““ gutsy, solid, refreshing and stimulating. Not fancy or showy ““ a wine to engage your appetite and imagination. Cave Spring continues to display their innovation and good taste by developing the village of Jordan: drinks, meals and beds at the Inn on the Twenty, and more of the same down the road at the Jordan Tavern.

clos jordanne There isn’t a retail outlet yet, but this joint venture between Vincor and the Burgundy house of Boisset is producing stunning Pinots and Chards in the $30- $65 range. I highly recommend the 06 Village Reserve Pinot Noir ($30). The wines are sold directly to restaurants and online. They also appear at LCBO Vintages once a year.

creekside Quality keeps getting better and at last there’s a new tasting room, along with a huge patio. You’d swear the 07 Pinot Grigio ($15) was from Italy ““ super refreshing and fun to drink. Best local edition of this grape. The 07 Close Plant Riesling Reserve ($25) is also a classic ““ the tightness and poise of a ballerina. Another superb white is the 07 Mike Weir Sauv Blanc ($16) ““ great flavour concentration and a good food wine. Creekside’s multiple blend white ““ Laura’s Blend 06 ($18) is not unlike an expensive Burgundy ““ another good food wine. The premium Shirazes, 06 St. David’s Bench ($35) and 06 Broken Press ($45), may turn out to be Niagara’s best ever with this grape. And you must try the dry, tangy, fruity 07 Rosé Pinot Noir ($15). P. S. Creekside’s contract with Mike Weir wines expired at year-end 08, but they will continue to produce and develop the Wayne Gretzky wines, which are much improved.

13th street This long established, four-guy, hobby operation will be expanding and moving around the corner to Fourth Avenue sometime in 09. Two new partners have joined the team, more than doubling the winery’s acreage. For now, it’s business as usual at the tiny location on 13th Street, open Fridays and Saturdays only. What makes Thirteenth Street special is the individual statements in the wines such as the 06 Sandstone Gamay ($25). So characterful ““ shades of something out of Burgundy. Funk 06 Riesling ($24) is a wonderful combo of spicy flavours and nervy energy, and the 05 Reserve Chardonnay ($26) has exciting deep flavours to partner richness and vitality. A bargain for sure. On the lighter side there’s gorgeous-for-gulping 07 Chardonnay Musqué ($18) and a fun, off-dry Cabernet Rosé ($16) that would be the perfect partner for spicy and hot foods (think Indian).

henry of pelham Hands-on family operation that’s been one of the cornerstones of Niagara wine. Old coaching inn, interesting 1970s Canadian art collection, light foods and local cheeses available on the patio. Very good wine at all price levels and at last, a smarter-looking label. Excellent Riesling, Chardonnay and Baco at LCBOs. At the winery there’s super-refreshing, sparkling “˜Cuvee Catharine’ in white or rosé ($30), a yummy, very Beaujolais-ish 07 Gamay ($15), a gutsy/rich Baco Reserve ($25), and a very Burgundian 06 Barrel Fermented Chardonnay ($25).

foreign affair A Canadian spends time in Milan as trade commissioner and falls in love with Amarone. On his return home, he buys a Niagara vineyard and hires Andrzej Lipinski to produce similar style wines ““ whites as well as reds ““ made from dried grapes. Len Crispino may give local wine something it can’t produce naturally ““ super-rich reds. Be prepared for corresponding super-rich prices. I tasted some stunning barrel samples but the reds need a few years in bottle before one can comment on the $100 price tag. Yet another interesting chapter in local wine!

NIAGARA WINERIES ““ Niagara-on-the-Lake

chateau des charmes Imposing Chateau surrounded by beautifully manicured vineyards. Rose bushes everywhere ““ very formal, very French. Bossman Paul Bosc is one of the founders of the modern Canadian wine industry, and has always produced a huge range of wines at all price levels. Check out the super-sexy 07 Viognier ($25) and bold flavoured 06 Gewurztraminer ($20) and the classy 06 Estate Riesling ($16). The 06 Gamay Noir “˜Droit’ ($16) has a wild country character similar to bistro wines in France. Great with a paté or cheese platter. The bold 04 Cabernet/Merlot Estate ($20) also feels French. All the reds need a food partner.

ravine vineyard estate winery Located in a beautifully restored (and relocated) Colonial House tucked in behind some trees right in the village of St. Davids. A picture-postcard site overlooking vineyards and woods. The Harber family were smart enough to hire one of the country’s most respected wine gurus ““ Peter Gamble (former head of VQA and consultant to Stratus) ““ to manage the project. There’s great local expression (low-alcohol, elegance) in the first batch of wines. The 07 Cab Franc Rosé ($17) could hold its own with anything from Provençe, and the 07 Redcoat (Bordeaux blend) ($19) has bright flavours and vigour. Keep the 07 Cab Franc ($34) for a year or two. Ravine winery and the Olson Food Shop are a great new addition to the Niagara scene.

coyote’s run The place is not much to look at, but owners Jeff and Lauren Aubry and Niagara pro David Sheppard are cranking out good stuff. The 07 Black Paw Chardonnay ($20) offers richness with a refreshing edge, and the 07 Cabernet ($15) is a dead ringer for something found at a French bistro.

the ice house Longtime Niagara winemaker Jamie Macfarlane and brother Douglas are specializing in Icewine. Located in a lovely old Peach barn, set back from the Parkway. A house white and red is available on their patio.

frogpond farm Heike Koch and Jens Gemmrich operate Ontario’s first organic winery. Farm animals greet you on arrival. Love that. It’s a “˜small holding’, as they say in agri-talk. The 06 Cab Franc ($16) is a lighthearted, everyday or picnic red. My favourite is the 07 Chambourcin ($14), a tart red with the wildness of Sauvignon Blanc ““ a great rockin’ local statement.

inniskillin The Grand Dame of Niagara wine just got a much needed face lift. The old barn has been restored and refitted with a modern entrance, a brighter interior and a separate Icewine tasting bar. Other new additions are a snack counter under the shade of the great wisteria and a giant piazza for hanging out with a glass or two. Corporate clients have a new lounge with a Riedel tasting room, and moving the parking lot to the front gives the whole place more curb appeal. You’ll find lots of~  values here, such as the zesty fresh 07 Pinot Grigio ($13), a decent 06 Chardonnay ($11), the rich, seductive 06 Montague Chard ($18) and austere, classy 06 Montague Riesling ($20). In reds, the Beaujolais-ish 06 Gamay ($12) is juicy, fruity and fun while the 07 Pinot ($15) is an excellent light, rustic, edition of the grape. The 06 Merlot ($15) is mid-weight and offers good value, while the 06 Meritage ($18) has the richness to contend with a steak. Still in the barrel 07 Montague Merlot ($25) should be a class act of flavour and muscle.

lailey Smart, modern tasting room in an old barn. Still a bit of a secret despite turning out some excellent wines. The Lailey family were one of the first to plant alongthe Niagara river. The 07 Sauv Blanc ($16) is reserved and earthy as is the bone dry white blend called Counterpoint ($25). The 06 reds also have an earthy, non-flashy character. Pinot 06 ($25) is tangy dry, Merlot 06 ($25) has Bordeaux elegance and the Syrah 06 ($25) delivers the peppery, vigorous Rhône-style edition of this grape. For more heft and concentration look to the 06 Cabernet/Syrah ($25), and for a really serious red buy the 06 Impromptu ($40).

peller estates Chateau grandeur in keeping with historic homes on the same street. Very much the country manor, complete with elegant restaurant overlooking the vineyards. A lovely lunch stop, with a patio too. One of the smartest tasting rooms in Niagara, offering a full range of wines ““ some overpriced. But check out the stylish 06 “˜Private Reserve’ Pinot Gris ($16.95), and the charming 06 “˜Private Reserve’ Gamay Noir ($18.95). Very Beaujolais. The Sparkling wines flavoured with Icewine ““ Ice Cuvée ($30) ““ will have you swooning all the way out to the parking lot.

jackson-triggs One of Niagara’s liveliest, jazziest winery experiences. Brilliant modern design that showcases the vineyards ““ and you gotta love a place that you can enter without having to open a door. Tina Dehondt, and her enthusiastic staff, create a nice buzz ““ take the tour and see it all. And pick-up some great everyday wines at everyday prices. The 06 Dry Riesling ($11) is an A1 refresher at the best price in town, and Sauvignon Blanc fans will love the 07 at only $13.95. In reds the 06 Shiraz ($16) is one of Niagara’s hits of the year. For a light, summer red try the lively 04 Pinot Noir ($14). In premium wines check-out the 06 Grand Reserve Riesling ($18) and all the wines in the Delaine Vineyard series.

stratus Niagara’s most stylish/arty/serene winery. I love the cool elegance of this place, and Suzanne Janke’s crew gives you a fantastic tasting experience. None of this would matter if the wines didn’t live up to the ambience, but they do. Currently I’m enjoying the whites because they’re ready, whereas the reds seem a bit reserved. Or maybe it’s me. Gewurztraminer has always been good here but the 06 ($32) is a stunner. Lush, rich, exotic, sexy ““ a white wine to cuddle up with. I’m not a big Icewine fan but if money was no object I’d sip a lot of the 07 Riesling (225ml/$39). Tart never tasted so sweet, and vice versa. The 05 Stratus White ($44) invites the awesome comment. Cliché but true. Feels like Chardonnay Musqué on steroids ““ delightfully excessive. A wine to propose with, or serve with foie gras, perhaps to mark an anniversary celebration. The 05 Stratus Red ($44) is quite tight and needs ageing. Stratus 06 Wildass Rosé ($19) is well named because it’s really a light red in the gamey style of Niagara Gamay ““ French bistro food.

hillebrand Another one of the old gang that’s had a make-over. The place now feels like a mini village. It’s fun to explore the new look-out tower, beautiful patio and big stylish restaurant. Frank Lloyd Wright might even be pleased. The tasting room can be very busy but staff are good at hospitality. First time visitors should allow 2 to 3 hours ““ book a table on the patio, go taste a few wines, stroll around, and then indulge in lunch or dinner ““ taking advantage of the excellent food and wine pairings offered on the menu. There’s an awful lot of wines ““ “˜something for everyone’, as they say. The “˜Artist Label’ series line offers good expressions of the grape varieties at reasonable $12-$14 prices. Favourites are the pretty Muscat, the wild Sauvignon Blanc, the richish Pinot Gris. Then move to the Trius line: Trius 05 Cab Franc ($16) has wonderful flavours, vitality and drinkability while the 07 Trius Merlot ($16) combines sweet fruit with a tangy, rustic character. Lots of gusto and very local. The 06 Trius Red ($20) offers more complexity but still keeps Niagara’s hallmark ““ vitality. Hats off to Aussie winemaker Darryl Brooker for raising the quality while still crafting truly local wines. Side note: Hillebrand’s Jazz & Blues festivals (July & August) are a great way to spend a summer afternoon. Very stylish picnicking and fab musical lineups.

southbrook Architect Jack Diamond has created quite the stir in Niagara with his ultra modern design of this winery. The feature being a huge, long, blue/purple coloured wall. Besides getting your attention, the wall acts as the entrance to the glass and steel hospitality centre which in turn frames the vineyards. Step out to the patio and you’ll see another aspect of the aforementioned wall ““ it houses a James Bond style pizza oven. How cool is that. Southbrook is not only cool to look at, it is also eco-friendly ““ the vineyards are organic and bio-dynamic. In keeping with all this newness, Southbrook has switched to jazzy, fun new labels with witty winespeak. Progress at last! Winemaking is in the very capable hands of Ann Sperling who previously helped put Malivoire on the map. I suggest you concentrate on the newer wines ““ Ann’s stunning 07 Sauv Blanc ($19) ““ very pure with a solid centre for pairing with food. And the 06 Syrah “˜Triomphe’ ($25) with it’s deep, peppery flavours and Pinot-style grace and drinkability. I’d put this forward as a role model for Niagara reds. Ann has stellar 07 reds in barrels that won’t appear for another year. Southbrook is a must visit to see how far the region has come from the days of plastic sheds and cute ornaments. Be sure to try the whole wheat pizzas.

charles baker Charles is the sales director at Stratus but he also makes a tiny quantity of his own Riesling each year. The 07 “˜Picone Vineyard’ Vinemount Ridge ($35) cuts right through the Niagara Riesling world, offering a bit of everything. Especially drinkability. Off-dry and better with some ageing.

strewn winery Nice grounds and a good mix of modern and old touches in this former canning factory. Look for the refreshing and tasty 07 Reisling/Gewurztraminer ($14) and the unusually earthy, bone dry, 06 Gewurztraminer ($15) which would be perfect with an herbed roast chicken. The on-site “˜La Cachette’ restaurant serves quality French bistro food and feels quite relaxing compared to places in town. There’s a cooking school here too.

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