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Wine Region Know-How
Ontario may not be famed for its wines—yet—but the Niagara Peninsula alone has more than more than 70 wineries and has been producing wine commercially since the early 1970s. Four decades on, the region is coming into its own with some of the world's best wines of origin.
The position of the Niagara appellation, wedged between Lake Ontario and the Niagara Escarpment, creates a microclimate that regulates ground and air temperature and allows for successful grape-growing (today more than 30 varietals) in an otherwise too-cold province. Winds off Lake Ontario are directed back by the escarpment, preventing cold air from settling. Heat stored in lake waters in summer keeps ground temperatures warmer longer into winter. In spring, the cold waters keep the grounds from warming too fast, protecting buds from late-spring frosts. Some say that the slightly colder climate means a more complex-tasting grape. Indisputably it does provide perfect conditions for producing some of the world's best ice wine.
Touring Niagara's wineries is a relatively relaxed affair compared to the hoopla you encounter in more commercialized areas like California's Napa Valley. Here you can usually drop in for a tour and tasting (typically under $5 or free) without a reservation and you might even find yourself chatting with the winemaker.
What's in a VQA
Canadian wine is regulated by the Vintners Quality Alliance, a government-sanctioned wine authority whose strict standards are on par with regulatory agencies in France and Italy. Many Niagara wineries proudly declare their vintages VQA; in fact, 65% of all VQA wines in Ontario are Niagara wines. To be deemed VQA is no small honor: Wines must meet rigorous standards—including being made entirely from fresh, quality-approved Ontario-grown grapes (no concentrates) and approved grape varieties, passing laboratory testing, and approval by an expert tasting panel prior to release. Look for the VQA stamp on the label.
Niagara Wine Touring Basics
Wineries here range from tiny tasting rooms staffed by the owners to huge estates with tours, events, and upscale restaurants. Niagara-on-the-Lake and the greater Niagara Escarpment together have about 75 wineries. Many produce quality wines; the few we've singled out provide superior or unique experiences for visitors.
The Ontario Wine Route
Niagara wineries along the Ontario Wine Route are well marked by blue signs between Grimsby and Niagara Falls.
For a full map of the wine route, pick up the free Official Guide to the Wineries of Ontario, updated annually and available at wineries and tourist attractions or directly from the Wine Council. 905/684-8070 www.winesofontario.org.
Timing and Costs
Most wineries are open year-round, with limited hours in winter. Tastings begin between 10 and noon. Reservations may be needed for tours in summer.
Tastings usually cost C$1-C$2 per wine, or up to C$7 for more expensive wines. The larger wineries do regular public tours; at smaller operations you may be able to arrange a tour in advance. Tasting and/or tour fees are often waived if you buy a bottle of wine.
Crush on Niagara. Crush on Niagara wine-tour packages include overnight stays, meals, and winery tours. 4101 King St., Beamsville, ON, L0R 1B1. 905/562–3373 or 866/408–9463. www.crushtours.com.
Grape and Wine Tours. Grape and Wine Tours runs day trips and one- or two-night wine-tour packages from Toronto and Oakville. Pick-up and drop-off at Niagara-on-the-Lake and Niagara Falls hotels is included. 758 Niagara Stone Rd., Niagara-on-the-Lake, ON, L0S 1J0. 905/562–9449 or 866/562–9449. www.grapeandwinetours.com.
Niagara Wine Tours International. Niagara Wine Tours International leads guided bike, van, and coach tours along the Wine Route and has bike rentals. 92 Picton St., Niagara-on-the-Lake, ON, L0S 1J0. 905/468–1300 or 800/680–7006. www.niagaraworldwinetours.com.
Zoom Leisure. One of the most popular bike rental stores in the area because of its convenient location, Zoom Leisure has organized cycling/winery tours and custom guided and self-guided tours. 431 Mississauga St., Niagara-on-the-Lake, ON, L0S 1J0. 905/468-2366 or 866/811-6993. www.zoomleisure.com.
The Niagara Wine Festival group organizes three big events in Niagara. The largest, with an annual half million attendees is the eponymous, 10-day Niagara Wine Festival, in September, celebrating the grape harvest. The three-week Niagara Ice Wine Festival, in January, is a nod to Niagara's specialty, ice wine. The three-weekend Niagara New Vintage Festival, in June, is a wine-and-culinary event. 905/688-0212 www.niagarawinefestival.com.
The Wine Council of Ontario also has a full calendar of Ontario wine events online.
Ontario's Ice Wines: Sweet Sipping
Ontario is the world's leading producer of ice wine. It's produced from ripe grapes left on the vine into the winter. When grapes start to freeze, most of the water in them solidifies, resulting in a fructose-laden, aromatic, and flavorful center. Ice-wine grapes must be picked at freezing temperatures before sunrise and basket-pressed immediately. By nature ice wine is sweet, and when well made it smells of dried fruits, apricots, and honey and has a long, refreshing finish.
Vidal grapes are ideal for ice wine, due to their thick skin and resistance to cracking in subzero temperatures. The thin-skinned Riesling yields better results but is susceptible to cracking and ripens much later than Vidal.
Drink ice wine after dinner, with a not-too-sweet dessert, or alongside a strong cheese. Here in Niagara it also appears in unexpected places such as tea, martinis, chocolate, ice cream, French toast, and glazes for meat and seafood.
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