I’ve just returned from a beautiful weekend in Niagara wine country. The vineyards were lush with hanging grapes, the sky was cornflower blue, the nights were crisp, and the days were warm. This dry, hot summer we’ve had in Ontario has apparently been perfect grape growing weather.
Let me start by saying – I’m not a connoisseur of wine. I lived for years in Australia, where I sometimes grew tired of wine jargon and wine snobs. I’m happy to have a glass of wine with dinner and don’t need to know if it has tobacco overtones or a polished finish, or was aged in French rather than American oak barrels, or is suited to drink with wild game (which I’ve possibly eaten two or three times in my life, so far). I like Italian pinot grigio, Canadian sauvignon blanc and Riesling, and almost any kind of bubbly – Australian Yellow Glen being my current favourite, though I’d never say no to French Champagne. My all-time favourite wine is French Chablis. I drink red infrequently and prefer lighter reds. The nicest red I’ve had in a long time was an Ontario Prince Edward County wine – Trumpour’s Mill Pinot Noir.
But it was time, I thought, to learn something more about wine. And I wanted my two daughters to learn something about wine too. I like the French idea of both responsible consumption and wine appreciation. So I booked us a place in Niagara-on-the-Lake and we headed out to the wineries, visiting six wineries in two days. Three tastings a day. Four (or so) wines a tasting. That makes for at least twenty-four wines in forty-eight hours. Tastings generally start with the driest whites progressing through reds and ending with dessert or Icewines. Most tastings are about an ounce. No one, I was relieved to discover, spits the wine out.
The Niagara Peninsula is the largest viticultural area in Canada. Niagara vineyards are at same latitude as the Bordeaux region of France, and the vineyards of Northern California.
The rich, fertile soils of the Niagara Peninsula coupled with the microclimate in the area make it ideal for growing Riesling, chardonnay, gamay noir, pinot noir, and cabernet franc grapes.
Niagara is one of the fastest growing wine regions in the world and produces 80% of the world’s Icewine. For those of you not in the know (like me) Icewine grapes are left on the vine and then picked in the dead of night, in the crisp cold Canadian winter after three days of consistently low-enough temperatures. The frozen grapes (which are actually raisins) produce one drop of juice each. Hence the concentrated sweetness and flavour in Icewine, and the cost.
Two or three decades ago most serious wine drinkers scoffed at Canadian wines but all that has changed. Canadian wines are now competitive in the world wine market consistently winning major awards and slowly gaining a devout following. Icewine in particular is a huge export commodity – with the vast majority being shipped to Europe and the Far East. China is the world’s biggest consumer of Icewine.
We picked six wineries to visit and learned something different at each one:
- Konzelmann Estate Winery – our favourite. Impossibly beautiful location on the shores of Lake Ontario with vineyards sweeping right down to the water. Incredibly friendly, funny, and welcoming service by Ken and Gus at the tasting bar. Fabulous wines. We came home with a selection.
- Caroline Cellars – a very close second favourite. A small boutique winery where we were served by Jenni who was both knowledgeable and friendly and made us a perfect list of wineries worth visiting. Loved the plum wine. Don’t scoff – the Chinese starting making plum wines over a thousand years ago. This is not some new passing fad!
- Pillitteri – interesting, free, and informative tour of the production facilities. Pillatteri produces twenty percent of the world’s Icewine. Enjoyed the tastings, especially of the Icewine.
- Ravine Winery – a hip boutique winery with a small, highly-rated restaurant getting rave reviews from all kinds of unlikely sources like Boston.com. We ate dinner here. The building is gorgeous and the restaurant looks out over the rolling vineyards. There is an extremely limited menu – it’s expensive – and while the food is fabulous, a steak ordered medium was served blue-rare. My sweet nineteen year-old daughter, not a keen meat-eater, ordered steak by process of elimination because nothing else on the menu appealed to her, refused to cause a scene and ate her first ever rare steak. I had pickerel which was served on a bed of sautéed swiss chard, cauliflower, bacon and raisins. It was perfect. However the dining room was sweaty-hot, the music was awful (seriously the Killers with five-star food?) and there was not one dairy-free item on the dessert menu, making it difficult for my other daughter who is seriously allergic to dairy. We left and went to Nina’s Gelateria in Niagara-on-the-Lake for gelato and dairy-free homemade sorbet in a rainbow of colours and flavours. Ravine is relatively new and remarkable in many ways, but perhaps not the best choice for a family. It’s more suited to yuppie couples and corporate types (most of whom probably do not listen to the Killers) but it was fun for an evening and the chardonnay was beautiful.
- Sunnybrook Farm Estate Winery – this is a small winery and the only place where we ended up being charged for our tastings despite purchasing cider and a bottle of Icewine. Most of the wineries do have small tasting charges but waive them if you purchase wine. However this is a tiny winery no doubt lacking the budget of some of the other bigger wineries in the region. Sunnybrook only produce one grape wine, the rest are fruit wines – peach, plum, apple cider, etc. Surprisingly many of the wines are quite dry. The staff is friendly and knowledgeable and the property and building are charming.
- Jackson Triggs – this is one of the biggest wineries in the area and it bills itself as “Canada’s most awarded winery.” It’s also the least friendly one we experienced. If you go here – prepare for tour busses and rude staff. We actually walked in and walked straight back out but ended up coming back later in the day when it was less busy because we wanted to see a bit more of the building itself – which is intriguing from an architectural point of view. And also because of outdoor barbeque burger bar where they grill up regular and Portobello burgers. We sat at a picnic table in the late afternoon – practically in the vineyard itself – eating fantastic burgers laden with arugula pesto, fresh tomatoes, corn relish, etc., and drinking some surprisingly good wine. We skipped the tour, preferring to sit in the vineyard. But if you go – tours of the vineyard are $5 a head and include three tastings. Good value if you can bear the crowds and the pretentious nineteen year-old staff sneering down their noses. There seems to a consensus about this – read the warnings on TripAdvisor.com. Go in the off-hours and try the Portobello burger with a Riesling. You won’t regret it. We did our own tour of the vineyard though I’m not sure it’s allowed. The grape varieties are labelled and we sampled them all. The pinot noir and gewürztraminer grapes were particularly delicious.
A final note for grammar geeks
I’m not clear about grape grammar.
And it seems I’m not alone. There’s a variety of usage of caps and lower case for grape varietals. Also not clear on why we must use the word varietals instead of varieties. According to http://www.winesofCanada.com, Icewine should be capitalized. Meanwhile the New Yorker insists on lower case for all grape varietals and wines. AP says use lowercase for wine varietals such as cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, and caps for regional names such as Bordeaux, Sauternes and Chablis. According to the WordPress spell-checker – all of the grapes and wines should be capitalized.
I’m winging it as best I can.