Often little known beyond Canadian (or even provincial) borders), the wine and vintners of Ontario play by their own rules
Growing up in Niagara I never drank wine. Only after two years in France did I come to appreciate it. This is a common pattern for Canadians; we look past what is near to what is far. Though Canadian wine is still a young phenomenon in the land of beer, with serious wineries only emerging in the 1970s, pioneering winemakers are experimenting with unique but challenging environments and building new traditions.
Two of Canada’s major wine regions lie along the shores of Lake Ontario, a short drive from Toronto, making them the perfect destinations for a weekend escape. The Niagara Peninsula and Prince Edward County, a patchwork of vineyards, farmland and colonial towns, are now home to over 150 wineries, along with the attendant restaurants, artisans and boutique hotels.
Tracing Ancient Footsteps
Geology marked the Niagara Peninsula for grapes. The glacial Lake Iroquois, a precursor to Lake Ontario, deposited the necessary fertile soil and red clay, while an ancient sea laid down the limestone sediment for the Niagara Escarpment, trapping the warm air currents from the lake. Follow Regional Road 81, which winds its way through the peninsula, and you’ll be tracing the former Lake Iroquois shoreline, while passing some of the area’s leading wineries.
In Vineland we stopped for delicious thin-crust pizza at Redstone Winery. Rene Van Ede, the Australian winemaker there, told us he was shocked when he first arrived ten years ago and discovered that the cold temperatures could kill vines and that late frosts were deadly, with wineries resorting to windmills, helicopters and hay fires to warm the air. At neighbouring Back 10 Cellars Andrew Brooks even had the local pastor bless the vineyard. It couldn’t hurt. He and his wife Christina are dreamers. Quitting their restaurant jobs, they bought this ten acre derelict vineyard after looking in Italy and British Columbia and laboured tirelessly until their first vintage ten years later. Riesling, the workhorse of Niagara, is made into an off-dry sparkler and the Chardonnay, to give it a twist, is aged in Canadian oak which results in a unique marmalade/coconut cream pie flavour. Sometimes the harsh climate helps, said Brooks. “When a vine suffers it’s forced to make interesting fruit.” But there’s a limit to such suffering, with frosts sometimes wiping out whole vineyards.
At 16 Mile Cellar in Jordan head winemaker Regan Kapach works in a more hands-off style, but it’s risky, especially for a new winery. Instead of dictating a wine you have to react to its development, or simply trust. Sometimes it fails. “How do you make a million dollars owning a winery?” Kapach joked. “Start with ten.” So she experiments on a small scale, like her unfiltered, sulphate-free Chardonnay, which she left in a barrel undisturbed – except for a pat and a song – for 15 months. There was worry and there was hope, and winemakers are used to doing both. The result: ripe fruit balanced by tart acidity and a finish that slides down your throat like a core sample of the dolomitic limestone from which it grew.
The 81 ends at the Niagara Parkway, which meanders along the river. Here you can stop for a hike down into the Niagara Gorge or climb Brock’s Monument in Queenston Heights, a memorial to the general who defended against the invading Americans during the War of 1812. Niagara-on-the-Lake, the wine region’s capital, is a colonial dreamland with its shop- lined mam street and grand Victorian houses. The town is home to the renowned Shaw Festival Theatre, which is dedicated to the works of George Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries.