I’ve just returned from the best wine country getaway EVER – this destination knocked my socks off!
Picture a location with miles of handsomely tended vineyards, fabulous artisan farm to table restaurants, a beautiful waterfront setting, charming historic village, delightful luxury inns, grand estate wineries, active arts community and world renown theater performances. You might be imagining that I flew off to Napa or Sonoma, Bordeaux, or perhaps Argentina, but my fabulous getaway was a very short flight away…. to Ontario Canada…. just a bit west of Toronto on the north side of Niagara Falls, and a short drive from Buffalo New York. Who knew that Ontario boasts one of the finest wine growing regions in the world?!! I had no idea such a wonderful romantic wine getaway destination awaited just across the Canadian boarder in Ontario. I have to thank Wine Country Ontario and the Ontario Tourism Board for inviting me to visit – I am now a raving fan of this area.
A Bit of History – The Niagara region enjoys a unique micro-climate generated by the effects of Lake Ontario and Niagara Falls, resulting in exceptionally fertile soil and temperate growing conditions. Fruit orchards have populated the region for centuries, and over the past 50 years an ever growing number of maverick grape growers have settled here to produce exceptional wines. Today you can tour 5 distinct wine growing districts that boast over 100 vineyards. A special treat is discovering unique varietals that are produced nowhere else in the world. And in case you haven’t heard, Ontario is famous for their award winning Icewine, which should be sampled at every possible occasion – especially during the Icewine Festival in January!
Ontario also has a very strict quality control board who assures everything “from vineyard to glass passes through a quality-assurance and label-integrity program and is made from 100% Ontario grown grapes”. Look for the VQA seal prominently displayed on Ontario’s finest wines.
My visit was to Niagara-On-The-Lake , a charming community stretching along Lake Ontario and often considered to be the loveliest town in Canada. There are magnificent homes, dramatic winery estates and mile upon mile of perfectly manicured vineyards. The village is picture-book perfect with Victorian gingerbread latticework adorning boutiques, artist shops and hotels. Flowers are blooming everywhere, and you’ll find an eclectic array of restaurants offering organic ingredients sourced from local farms, butchers and fromageries. Evening brings on wonderful entertainment from the famous Shaw Festival that celebrates it’s 50th season this year. Each week the Shaw Theater Company performs the works of Bernard Shaw and other famed playwrights in three vintage theaters from April through October.
Remarkable Vineyards – I was concerned at first that touring half a dozen wineries in one weekend would become monotonous – too much of a good thing so to speak. I shouldn’t have worried though – the variety of wineries is stunning; each having it’s own distinct personality and philosophy of wine production. Because the vineyards are modest in size, the character of the vintner shines through and each can be appreciated as a gem among many. Here’s a brief look at my favorite winery visits:
The Hillebrand Winery– We had a wonderful visit to Hillebrand with its sophisticated earthy decor. During a festive tasting of their refreshing sparkling wine selections, I learned to open a “champagne” style cork the right way (without having the wine explode all over the place). Hint – hold the cork in one hand while gently twisting the bottle down and away with the other hand. Down in the wine cellar we met these enormous “egg” vats where the wine ferments and the shape of the egg helps create tiny bubbles! Next came a truly memorable dinner experience complete with wine pairings – the restaurant food is sensational. I recommend checking out their “Whole Hog” dinners that feature 5 imaginative courses with wine pairings. From my experience, Hillebrand is the complete package – wonderful wines, elegant setting, superb restaurant.
Stratus Vineyards – There is nothing staid or understated about Stratus! Opened in 2005, the ultra modern winery is the first LEED Certified winery in the world. Everything about their operation is done with a strict eye toward conservation and energy efficiency from the geo thermal wells used to heat and cool, to the facility design that allows grapes to be loaded at second floor level and then progress downward by gravity to barrel storage below ground. Their operation is unique, exciting, and creative, as evidenced by the fact that there are no pumps used in the entire wine making process. Their master-blender is known for his eccentricity and passion as he (blindfolded) tastes and blends 18 varietals into just 2 final wines. I especially liked their line of “Wildass” wines at very reasonable prices. I highly recommend participating in the “Taste LEED @ Stratus program, where LEED Certified Stratus teams up with LEED Certified Fromager, Fifth Town Artisan Cheese Co, to put together a sensory delight of wine and cheese pairings. Incredible!
Konzelmann Estate Winery – Pulling up to the Konzelmann visitors’ center leaves no doubt about their German heritage – it resembles a German castle and is the only waterfront vineyard. Inside we met Herbert Konzelmann, founder of the vineyard, and learned of his family’s tradition of wine making that started generations ago in Germany. Konzelmann Icewine has won the prestigious honor of being named in the Top 100 wine list by Wine Spectator Magazine. I particularly liked the gift shop at the Konzelmann vineyard – lots of neat stuff! And by all means keep an eye out for Mr. Konzelmann, he is often in the lobby to great visitors.
Ravine Vineyard – I saved my very favorite winery for last! You have to love a place that combines ancestral farmland, a restored historic homestead, fabulous bakery, French Bistro, and the enthusiasm of three brothers saving the family farm from real estate developers – totally charming! The energy and charisma at this winery will have you smiling as you round every corner. Not only do they produce excellent wines, but their unpretentious presentation of exquisite food is (to me) astounding. We stood in front of the bakery case transfixed and were sorry we couldn’t stay for a dinner in the Bistro. We gobbled up the most whimsical powdered donuts I have ever seen, yummmm.
I should end this article now, because it’s getting very long, BUT THERE IS STILL SO MUCH MORE TO TELL!
Restaurant Recommendations: The quality and variety of restaurants in Niagara-On-The-Lake is impressive, with most featuring fresh ingredients sourced locally. We had a sensational lunch downtown at Zee’s Grill sitting out on the veranda. Highlights included Lobster Poutine (french fries topped with cheese curd, lobster and hollandaise sauce – yummy!) The Zeefood Salad (seafood)was a show stopper bringing praises from the entire table. (And ladies…. make a journey to the rest room – it’s very creative!) As I mentioned above, our dinner at the Hillebrand Vineyards was exceptional. I had spring lamb with stone ground polenta and Icewine tomato jam – delicious. We also had a terrific pre-theater dinner at the elegant, waterfront, Oban Inn, Spa & Restaurant. Here I dined on a delicately prepared arctic char paired with a wonderfully refreshing Riesling from the Reif Estate Vineyards.
Other Activities – because you can’t sip wine around the clock! There are many fine spas in Niagara-On-The-Lake. After our lunch at Zee’s we strolled next door to the Shaw Spa and had a Vinotherapy pedicure – my toes are still a-glow! You shouldn’t miss the opportunity to do some biking in the Niagara Region. We had a long entertaining talk with the folks at Zoom Leisure and learned about the 100 miles of paved biking trails that make up the Greater Niagara Cycle Route. You can wind your way through vineyards, along canals, historic forts and through the countryside – all on relatively flat terrain. We wished we could have gone for a spin, but unfortunately it was raining too hard. But on a future visit, I wouldn’t miss the chance to go on one of their guided tours – they have bikes for all ages and abilities. And of course, no visit to this region would be complete without a stop at the very famous and still very impressive Niagara Falls.
Where To Stay – You will find a large selection of fine historic hotels as well as lovely inns and bed and breakfasts in this area. Each of our tour participants stayed at a different BnB and we all loved our accommodations – here are the inns we stayed at: Brockamour Manor, Copper Lane Bed and Breakfast, Three Forty Gate BnB, The Cottage.
Gathering Information: We flew to Toronto on Porter Airlines, a new Canadian airline that is gathering praise wherever they fly. I’ll do a separate post all about them, but suffice to say they are putting class back in coach class! Flights are approx an hour and a half from Chicago, New York or Boston. Niagara-On-The-Lake is a 45 minute drive from Toronto, about 20 minutes from Buffalo New York, and approx 8 hour drive from New York or Boston.
The folks at Wine Country Ontario put out volumes of excellent information about the region. Take a look at their year-round travel guide that can be viewed on the website. Ontario Tourism also has a wonderful site that will provide lots of info for planning your trip to Toronto, the 5 wine districts and everything in-between. Turn to the Niagara-On-The-Lake site for a great list of events, accommodations and theater tickets.
All in all, the Ontario Wine Region is a food and wine lover’s paradise and a fabulous destination for a getaway any time of year – I can’t wait to go back again!!