The Niagara Peninsula appellation contains some of the most productive wine-growing areas in Ontario, shaped by the natural wonders of the Niagara Escarpment and the majestic Niagara Falls. According to Wine Country Ontario, the Niagara Peninsula provides ideal cool-climate conditions for wine growing and its diversity has resulted in the identification of 10 sub-appellations. Pretty cool, right?
Some say that Niagara-on-the-Lake and the surrounding sub-appellation is the "Napa" of Ontario. While we tend to veer away from calling any place the "X of Y" because they tend to be less than meaningful, we do think there's a little bit of merit in that statement, especially when you consider the nearby Niagara Escarpment & Twenty Valley sub-appellation as the "Sonoma" of Ontario. With a warm climate, rich soils, many visionary and original proprietors and plenty of destination wineries, we can see why some would equate Niagara-on-the-Lake with Napa. And, not to add our own two cents to the conversation, but you can absolutely find great Cabernet Sauvignon here, albeit more Old World in style. The Escarpment area is home to several sub-appellations, but with a more boutique vibe and a "small but mighty" attitude that's complemented by rich soils, a somewhat cooler, varied but forgiving climate and great wineries, it draws comparison to Sonoma.
With the 2019/20 Wine Country Ontario Travel Guide in hand, we made our way through these two beautiful regions to see how these two areas compare!
First, we explored the Niagara-on-the-Lake region. In reality, this area is actually several sub-appellations, including the Niagara River. Here, lower vigor soils comprised of sand, loam, silt and some red shale which contribute to the special character of the sub-appellation. Gentle, sloping plains offer moderate draining and full sunlight exposure throughout the day offer excellent heat accumulation, together with the moderating effects of surrounding waterways. This contributes to the perfect conditions for red grape growth – from Cabernet Franc, to Merlot, to Cabernet Sauvignon. That’s right: Cab Sauvignon!
Icellars Estate Winery
Intrigued (as sparkling wine lovers), we had to scratch that itch and made our first stop at the "House of Reds," or ICELLARS winery in the Four Mile Creek sub-appellation (615 Concession 5 Rd, Niagara-on-the-Lake, ON L0S 1J0). This is not our first time at ICELLARS. In fact, we've been visiting regularly and have seen this small boutique winery grow and expand, with their tasting room recently doubling in size. ICELLARS has 24 hectares (60 acres) under vine, carefully tended to by owners Adnan and Elif ICEL based on precise research of ideal growing conditions for premium vinifera varieties Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petite Verdot, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. We were big lovers of their Chardonnay, but their reds are their wheelhouse and we can see why! Adnan and Elif used extensive investigation and soil testing, as well as weather data analysis and consultation with scientists, local grape growers and neighbours to determine which white and red varieties would perform best in their vineyards. Adnan and Elif work diligently to produce small batch wines, crafting them with care and, as a winery takes a village, they work with preeminent wine consultant Peter Gamble to ensure their wines shine. While mostly estate grown, for some varietals, they work with local grape growers to supplement their program until their new plantings are ready to produce.
As we learned from Adnan and Elif, ICELLARS winery was designed and built on the principles of having everything under one roof, creating a simple yet functional space. We weren't alone during our visit, and their tasting room was full of customers exploring the House of Reds.
We tasted several reds, including the 2014 Pinot Noir, which has ripe intensity and berry fruit notes, with balanced tannins. An example of a fruit forward Pinot Noir, we would be hard-pressed to place this Pinot Noir among those from their neighbours, as it takes you somewhere a bit balmier this time of year. Following this lovely wine, we tasted the 2015 Arrina, a wine paying homage to the proprietors roots. The Arrina is rich and, benefiting from 12 months in both French and American oak, is complex and interesting. A blend of mostly Cabernet Sauvignon, it will hit the mark for the Bordeaux blend / Meritage lovers in your friend group. And, we couldn't leave the tasting area without trying the 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon. Coming from a warm growing season, the grapes had a full season to ripe and were harvested late in the season on the estate. With a little less oak than the blends, we felt this wine sang in the glass and showed us that Wine Country Ontario can hold its own in the red category.
After our tasting, Adnan was kind enough to take us on a tour and offer a barrel tasting of some of their premium red wines, including the Wiyana Wanda. As we learned from Adnan, the name means "land of wine" in the ancient Hittite language of Central Anatolia, where he and his wife are from. A blend structured around Cabernet Sauvignon, this wine is rich and complex, benefiting from new oak. The Wiyana Wanda, like all of their small lot wines, is processed separately by gravity flow in an environmentally friendly design. We appreciated the effortless simplicity of the architectural design of the wine-making facilities (which were technologically complex), and the wonderfully cozy tasting room. As we mentioned, we weren't alone in tasting ... in fact, we even made friends with Simba, the world's friendliest dog.
Ravine Vineyard Estate Winery
From the Four Mile Creek sub-appellation, we head south to the warmest of them all: the St. David's Bench sub-appellation. Located in the heat, we mean heart, of things is Ravine Vineyard Estate Winery (1366 York Rd, St. Davids, ON L0S 1P0).
Located on a beautiful plot of land and containing some of the original structures, this historic spot is also family-run, organic and biodynamic. Ravine is located on the Lowery farm, which has been producing fruit since 1867 (the year of confederation, no less) and has been a source of pride fro the family. This pride now extends to Ravine's winemaking team, with Marty Werner and Ben Minaker preserving, maintaining and harvesting grapes on this unique property.
As you'll see from the 2019/20 Wine Country Ontario Travel Guide, Ravine has an on-site restaurant that specializing in on-farm dining. Their winery restaurant includes seasonally-inspired dining and wine pairing experiences that celebrate the bounty of Niagara. So, we of course had to stop in for a glass of sparkling and a charcuterie plate.
After lunch, we headed down to the tasting room to sample a few of Ravine's wines. They offer a full range of red, white, rose and a sparkling, with which very familiar but which we can never pass up. A traditional method sparkling wine made from hand picked and had sorted Niagara Peninsula grapes, the Brut was aged for 3-5 years and shows incredible baked apple, biscuit and lemon peel notes. A fresh and springy mousse elevate the sense and offer insight into the potential for Ontario to make incredible, world class sparkling. Not a bad way to start, right? We completed our tasting by trying the 2018 Cabernet (Franc) Rosé, 2017 Chardonnay (made from grapes from a complex, rollercoaster year) and the 2017 Cabernet Franc.
With the 2019/20 Wine Country Ontario Travel Guide, we headed into historic Niagara-on-the-Lake for our final stop of the day. And what can we say, spring was in the air!
Without a doubt, Trius Winery (1249 Niagara Stone Rd, Niagara-on-the-Lake, ON L0S 1J0) is a Niagara pioneer, as they’ve been crafting excellent VQA still and sparkling wines for more than 30 years. For our bubbling (er, budding) wine industry this is a substantial period of time! Trius produced one of the first traditional method sparkling wines in Ontario (yay!) along with their iconic Trius Red – made from a blend of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes. The Trius Red was a roaring success, taking home a trophy for the best red wine in the world at the International Wine and Spirits Competition in London, UK in 1991.
Today, this experience translates to terroir driven still and sparkling wines, made from grapes grown on the Niagara Peninsula. According to the winery, a visit to Trius is an unrushed sensory experience – a time out that lets you taste, feel and discover. Now that’s our kind of place! With this experience, it should come as no surprise that Trius’ sparkling wines are among our favourites here in Ontario. All their bubbles are made in the traditional method, finely crafted by winemaker Craig McDonald. Craig is a magician, working his magic on the winemaking side of things, producing wines in various ranges. His love of sprakling is evident, not only in Trius' sparkling cellar and in the Trius Brut and Brut Rosé, which are constants in the Ontario sparkling scene, but in the Showcase range of wines. Years ago, we shared a bottle of Showcase 5, a Blanc de Noirs aged for five years on the lees, with Craig. It was truly a special moment to experience such a powerful wine that showcased the aging potential of Ontario bubbles. We cellared a bottle from that experience and last summer, pulled it out for a lunch at Trius with Craig and as we learned, it may have been the last one of it's kind. Luckily for us, Trius released the Showcase Blanc de Blanc, a complex Chardonnay sparkling that lives up to the showcase series!
Sunday: Niagara Escarpment & Twenty Valley
As you'll see in the 2019/20 Wine Country Ontario Travel Guide, exploring Wine Country Ontario is easy because the guide is structured by region, highlighting its wineries, restaurants and experience.
The Niagara Escarpment & Twenty Valley is known world over, and it’s a huge landform, affecting Ontario from north to south. Not only is the escarpment a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve, it’s also the backbone for that famous waterfall down river and is home to a wondrous microclimate, perfect for viticulture. So perfect in fact, that according to Wine Country Ontario, it’s the Province’s most active wine region. The Twenty Valley sits within the Niagara Escarpment area, and as hinted at earlier, is home to boutique wineries, intimate experiences and some incredible wines.
Our first stop was Westcott Vineyards (3180 Seventeenth St, Jordan Station, ON L0R 1S0) specializes in Pinot Noir & Chardonnay – the two star players in traditional method sparkling wine. And their story is equally as interesting as their wines. After living busy lives working in IT and banking in Toronto, they decided to slow down a bit and move out to Niagara to grow grapes. Although, they’ve hardly “slowed down” at all. They produced their first vintage in 2012, and in 2015 opened their tasting room (built from a reclaimed 200-year-old timber-fame from a barn)… and its gorgeous!
It's been such a pleasure to see the winery grow over the years and over our subsequent visits, from a harvest tour we did in 2017 to our most recent visit, where we had the chance to chat with winemaker Casey Kulczyk. Casey joined the Westcott team about a year ago as the permanent winemaker. His friendly, candid demenour fits nicely with what might be the friendliest of Ontario's wine regions, but don'tt let that fool you. He's a Niagara College Graduate and awarded young wine professional that understands the intimate and unique relationship that can be developed with wine, particularity Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (which Westcott just so happens to specialize in). And hey, Casey loves his sparkling and we can't think of a better way to kick start the day than with a glass of Westcott's Brilliant Sparkling Brut.
Casey took us through a number of wines, including the Brilliant and Violette. The Violette Sparkling is produced in the Charmat method from estate grown Pinot Noir & Chardonnay, and is fruity and infectious! Bursting with fresh tree fruit like pear and peach – opt for this one if you prefer an easy-drinking sparkling wine. The Brilliant is produced in the traditional method (also from estate grown Pinot Noir & Chardonnay), and is rich and complex! With toasty notes of almond, biscuit, flint, and a hint of smoke – opt for this one if you’re a traditionalist. Or do what we do… get both. Sidebar, the Brilliant is personally hand-riddled and labeled by Casey, and made to order. Clearly, Westcott is taking his hand crafted thing seriously!
Casey took us on a tour of their facility and, in addition to allowing us an insight into some of the cool new Pinot Noir and Chardonnay he's working on since his coming on board at the winery, he hand disgorged a bottle of something special... the Brilliant Rosé which will be available next year. We can't wait, it's all coming up Rosé, we mean roses, at Westcott!
As you'll see in the 2019/20 Wine Country Ontario Travel Guide, there's plenty of choice in the winery department in the beautiful Niagara Escarpment & Twenty Valley. A stop in the region wouldn't be complete without a stop at Tawse Winery (3955 Cherry Avenue Vineland, ON).
Situated on the lower slopes of the Niagara Escarpment, Tawse is a family-owned organic and biodynamic winery guided by Moray Tawse, a life-long lover of Burgundy wines. Moray purchased the Cherry Avenue property in 2000, after realizing the great potential of the Niagara Escarpment as a word-class cool-climate wine region. Tawse was opened in 2005, and it has been a destination unto itself ever since. Complete with a six-level, gravity-flow design, geo-thermal system and a wetland bio-filter, this winery has put the "cool" into "cool climate viticulture" before it was a buzzword. With its beautiful winery garden, cute vineyard sheep and sleek design (and obviously incredible wines), it's no surprise the winery was named Canadian Winery of the year in 2010, 2011 and 2012.
Behind the scenes and beyond the vineyards (of which Tawse owns about 500 hecatures / 200 acres), the winery brings together an award-winning winemaking team of Paul Pender and Rene Van Ede, who are dedicated to producing elegant terroir-driven wines. From Pinot Noir to Chardonnay to Riesling and Sparkling Wines, Tawse have a robust, full portfolio that is not only delicious and award winning, but specific to the region. And, we couldn't leave without a tasting of their Brut Rosé, which is like spring time in a glass... and a perfect way to cap off a wonderful visit to the Niagara Escarpment and Twenty Valley!