Ontario's Niagara Peninsula is home to one of North America's most interesting wine regions. So why aren't more Americans exploring?
Tucked between the southern shore of Lake Ontario and a rugged escarpment that runs for hundreds of miles through the upper Great Lakes region, the Niagara wine country is one of North America's best. (There. Got that out of the way.)
Just twenty minutes or so from the world-famous Niagara Falls but light-years away in spirit, the Niagara—just say the Niagara, it's fine—has long been a favored weekend getaway destination from Toronto, barely an hour away from the big city in good traffic, which these days is never. The action typically centered around Niagara-on-the-Lake, one of Canada's most charming historic villages, sitting pretty, right there where the Niagara River flows out into Lake Ontario. The winding, scenic Niagara Parkway, connecting village to falls, was once called the "prettiest Sunday afternoon drive in the world" by none other than Sir Winston Churchill. He was not exaggerating.
Grapes have been grown in the Niagara longer than most of us have been alive, thanks to the favorable microclimate created by the Niagara Escarpment's close proximity to the lake. It wasn't until the 1980's, however, when fledgling winery Inniskillin successfully bottled their first Icewine, that the modern Niagara—an almost intimidatingly sophisticated wine region, the likes of which you probably were not expecting to find, east of the Rockies—began to take shape.
With Toronto growing in leaps and bounds and the regional economy booming, it's no surprise to see just how high the bar has been raised. From giant, commercial successes with their flashy, over-designed wineries to secretive, appointment-only passion projects started up by various important people who've made lots of money in something or the other, to postcard-cute lodgings that cost hundreds of dollars a night, a couple of very good farm-to-table restaurants, along with all of the other accoutrements we've come to expect from a proper wine region, the Niagara has become over-fabulized to the point where the younger, hipper crowd now prefers to hang out in their own, also terrific wine country, up in Prince Edward County, on the north side of Lake Ontario. There are other wine regions within the province as well—in fact, in Ontario alone, the wine and grape industry is estimated to have generated over $3.5 billion in economic impact. While many people elsewhere are still wondering how you can squeeze good wine out of a place that cold, Canadian winemakers are laughing, all the way to the bank.
On the fence, yourself? Don't be—if you've ever appreciated a good Finger Lakes Riesling, the Niagara is only a couple hours' drive to the northwest, just past Buffalo. It really isn't that much of a stretch. Don't wait around forever, though—a very thirsty Toronto tends to hoard a lot of the annual release. Going to the source really is the best way to be introduced.
If it's your first time in the region, book a tasting at the highly experimental (and truly memorable) Pearl Morissette, get a swig of the sparkling rosé at Henry of Pelham, drop in for a few bottles of the highly-drinkable Ladybug rosé at Malivoire, and get to know the family of Rieslings at Cave Spring. Not even all that serious about wine? Some of the bigger wineries, with their grand patios, bold architecture and snacks on offer, are just great places to hang out—Jackson-Triggs or Peller or Stratus are fine places to start. Easily the best-known of the bunch, you must swing by Inniskillin, forefather of Canada's modern wine industry and home to some of the world’s most prized Icewines, produced from late harvest grapes. Pick up a bottle of their sparkling Vidal, an almost semi-dry treat that will likely be like few other wines you've ever sampled. A glass of that, served terribly cold and shared with someone you really, really like (it's not cheap), is almost worth the drive on its own.