Ontario Wine Country, which encompasses beautiful Niagara Falls and the Niagara-on-the-Lake region of Canada as well as Prince Edward County and Lake Erie North Shore, is well known for producing world class ice wines. Since 1984, the region has been commercially selling the wine made from vitis vinifera grapes that produce varietals such as vidal blanc, riesling, and cabernet franc, which is often enjoyed as a dessert wine or paired with strong, potent-smelling cheeses.
Today, however, Ontario Wine Country isn’t just producing ice wine — it’s making amazing wines that are standing up to global giants, winning awards, and becoming a serious force to be reckoned with in the wine landscape. This region shares the same latitude as Northern Italy and other cool climate wine regions of Europe, which produces wines that are more aromatic, lighter in body and higher in acidity.
Ontario Wine Country currently consists of over 170 licensed wineries ranging from larger, more established operations like Peller Estates and Inniskillin, to smaller boutique operations such as Ravine Vineyard. The region is also affiliated with the Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA), which guarantees that 100 percent of the grape content of the wines produced comes from Ontario.
Regardless of the size or amount of bottles produced per year, a wonderful commonality remains: most of the wineries are held to the highest standards of wine making, and in many cases, the properties are family-run. The wine varietals showcased most frequently in the region are chardonnay, riesling, cabernet franc, and pinot noir.
Peller Estates Winery is Canada’s largest wine family. They not only own Peller, but also Trius Winery and the soon-to-be-launched Wayne Gretzky vineyard — which is slated to open in 2017, complete with an ice skating rink on its grounds. When visiting Peller’s tasting room, the 2013 Signature Series Sauvignon Blanc is the wine to try as it’s aged in an egg-shaped vessel, allowing for a very clean and crisp flavor.
Peller is also home to a fine dining restaurant that caters to food-lovers and provides intricate tasting menus on holidays and weekends. Sous chef Maurice Desharnais says that everything they cook in the kitchen is explicitly “Canadian” at heart, meaning they utilize local ingredients as much as possible, but also showcase the best Canada has to offer. “We’ll get lobsters from the East Coast, and salmon from the West Coast,” he noted. “It’s a rustic kitchen with a fine dining twist.” For the adventurous diners, the restaurant also offers a five- or seven-course “blind” tasting menu each week, where 80 percent of the menu is unknown to guests.
Inniskillin is one of the heavy hitters and arguably the most globally recognized name (mostly for their assortment of ice wines), but the winery is so much more than that. For starters, they offer unique wine education classes, such as the Riedel tastings where groups can sample the estate’s wines in Riedel glasses, tasting the incredible difference the wine has to offer depending upon the glass it is poured into. The winery boasts the only Riedel room in the entire world and displays an elegant table from the Riedel glass factory in Austria that was given to the winery back in 2008.
At Reif Estate Winery, the specialty tastings are the thing to do, because the winery has been producing great quality wine since it first planted grapes in 1977, and they are very proud to showcase them. The winery boasts a sensory tasting, offering cheese pairings with their wines, as well as blind tastings and wine and chocolate pairings.
Pilliterri Estates Winery has been family-owned and operated since 1993 and is the largest producer of ice wine in the region, having won over 700 awards. It also is home to an artistic barrel cellar with a monolithic concrete table and stainless steel chairs. The winery hosts a variety of food and wine pairings as well — most notably the ice wine and smores tastings featured in the colder months.
Before leaving the region, Ravine Vineyards is a must-try for both its tasting room as well as a restaurant overlooking the stunning vineyards. Winemaker Martin Werner has spent years studying other wine regions — from Australia to California — bringing back his knowledge and expertise to his hometown. Be sure to try the house-smoked charcuterie plate that’s superb on its own or paired with outstanding wines like the 2014 cabernet franc.
Even beyond the countless breathtaking vineyards, the town of Niagara-on-the-Lake (part of wine country that sits on the Western end of Lake Ontario itself) is picturesque in every sense of the word. Lining the main street are quaint boutique B&Bs such as 124 on Queen Hotel & Spa, which offers everything from single rooms to three-bedroom suites complete with full kitchens, fireplaces, washers and dryers, and multiple bathrooms. The property is home to a gym, as well as the luxurious spa and specialty restaurant Treadwell’s that offers a full dining room and a more casual wine bar/tasting room concept as well.
Just a short walk from 124 on Queen on the main drag is a pub known as the Olde Angel Inn, which offers traditional Irish pub fare (try the fish and chips or the chicken curry half-and-half) and live music on Friday and Saturday nights. For a full-scale chef’s table experience, try the newly-opened Backhouse restaurant in town, where chef Ryan Crawford creates Canadian dishes on an open grill, showcasing the best cuisine of the region paired with local wine or craft cocktails.
For those needing to take a break from the wonderful wine scene, Niagara Falls is a mere 10 minutes away by car. Those touring the area can see the falls, dive deeper with a “Behind the Falls” tour, or, for the adventure seekers, take an incredible helicopter ride with a view that is like no other. Or, perhaps, have the best of both worlds and simply buy a bottle of delicious artisanal wine to savor by the fire after a long day of sightseeing in Ontario Wine Country and the Niagara-on-the-Lake region.