Forget Napa Valley. Amazing wineries and distilleries can be found just across the river from Detroit in Southern Ontario.
When most people think of great wine in North America, they typically think of Napa Valley. Yet some of the world’s best wineries can be found just across the river from Detroit, Michigan in Windsor, Ontario, and the surrounding region. Here in this oft-overlooked wine area, you’ll discover a rich history, superb wine, and a number of craft breweries and distilleries. The region seamlessly blends the past and present via a variety of attractions, most of which are located in fairly close proximity to each other, making it perfect for either a day trip or an extended vacation, or just a great spot to have a drink.
Wine and Whiskey in Windsor
Old Sandwich Town is located right on the Detroit River and boasts a variety of local craft breweries including The Barrel House, Rock Bottom Bar and Grill, Sandwich Brewing Company, and the Dominion House. Built in 1850, the Dominion House is the oldest continuously operational tavern in the Windsor-Detroit border region and is even one of the oldest in the entire province of Ontario.
Old Sandwich Town is also the start of the iconic Windsor Waterfront Trail, the walking/biking trail passes through Windsor’s downtown center and through several parks including the Odette Sculpture Park, offering visitors breathtaking views of the Detroit skyline across the river. For those who prefer to travel faster than on foot, the WEbike Arts Ride is a self-guided tour along the waterfront that showcases some of Windsor’s eclectic murals, sculptures, and street art. Some say that the waterfront serves not just as a recreation area, but also as a shared source of heritage and beauty between the two cities.
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Also in Windsor, the 160-year-old Hiram Walker & Sons Distillery has essentially written the history of Canadian whisky. Tours offer visitors a chance to experience the brand’s vibrant history and learn about the craftsmanship behind some of the world’s most iconic liquor brands, including the J.P. Wiser’s whisky line as well as brands unique to southern Canada. Best of all, the tour offers samples!
The Essex County Wine Trail
Located on a 40 kilometer stretch along Lake Erie’s northern shore, Essex county’s famous “wine trail” boats over 18 wineries as well as award-winning, world-class wines, including several blends harvested from grapes that cannot be grown anywhere else in the world due to the region’s unique maritime climate.
Paglione Estate Winery brings a taste of Italy to Ontario, both in their wines and in their Italian cuisine, which fuses old-world style with local ingredients in a charming Tuscan-style villa. Their 2019 Merlot blends notes of sugar plum, fig, violet, and chocolate for a creamy finish taste that is unique, much like all of the wines found in this little-known region.
Black Bear Farms of Ontario Estate Winery (a winery named after a former family dog’s name) has won numerous awards with the strawberries, raspberries, black currants, and blueberries grown on-site. Despite winning over 500 awards, Colio Winery had very humble beginnings. It was started by three Italian bricklayers, Alfredo, Enzo, and Tiberio, who decided to fulfill their life dream of building a world-class winery literally brick-by-brick. Their perseverance paid off, and today it is one of the region’s most-toured wineries.
Dancing Swallows Vineyard evolved from a full mixed Victorian farm in 1881 to the current mix of cash crop and vineyard that produces award-winning wines using local ingredients. They also feature local artists’ artwork on their bottles. A paved bike path is available for those that want to work off the extra calories by biking from winery to winery with bike rental options available as well (pandemic contingent).
An Island Home to Dozens of Wineries
Barely visible from Lake Erie in Canada’s southernmost coastline, Pelee Island is most notably home to “the old castle on the beach” (the ruins of an Old English-inspired winery). Today Southern Canada’s island of mystery and intrigue is home to half a dozen wineries, numerous nature reserves, and several charming bed and breakfasts. The island hosts an annual half marathon in June and pheasant hunters flock to the island each fall for the annual pheasant hunt. The island’s largest winery, Vin Villa, was the first estate winery in Canada, founded in the 1860s. The winery makes some of the best ice wines in the world while adhering to the wildlife fund’s strict sustainable vineyard practice. The island is only accessible only by ferry from either Kingsville or Leamington, making it a perfect destination for either a day or overnight trip.
Pelee Island Winery is also one of the nation’s oldest wineries, beginning operations in 1874 and winning numerous wine awards at the Paris World Fair 1878. In addition to a number of wines including Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, and Merlot, they are also one of the only wineries in the world to make ice wine, a dessert wine produced from grapes that have been frozen while still on the vine. The Pelee Island Winery is a founding member of Sustainable Winemaking Ontario, which focuses on using sustainable practices in wineries and vineyards. While most of the grapes are grown on the island, visitors don’t need to take the ferry to get the experience as Pelee Island Winery has a tasting room and tours in Kingsville near the other wineries.
The Final Stop: Wagner Orchards and Estate Winery
The final stop on the loop lies near the border of Lake St. Clair, jokingly known to locals as “the sixth Great Lake.” Not only does Wagner Orchards and Estate Winery offer a variety of local wines, but also hosts an apple orchard in the fall as well as various events throughout the year.
Depending on the time of year, there is also quite a bit of nature to see in the area whether it is the changing leaves along Lake Erie’s shoreline or bird watching during migration season at Jack Miner’s Bird Sanctuary. Essex County is one of North America’s premier bird-watching locations as well as monarch migration locations.
Sandra Paglione of Paglione Estate Winery succinctly sums up the region’s appeal as a hidden gem tourist destination. “Being Canada’s southernmost region, this area has such a unique climate and history, and equally unique off-the-beaten-path experiences to be had! With fifteen wineries, a number of breweries, and distilleries including the historic Hiram Walker, a growing culinary scene, cool agri-tourism spots, health and wellness retreats, unique bike, scooter, and boat tours, and so many amazing places to stay and play, including nearby Detroit, it is still relatively undiscovered, but on the cusp of being Ontario’s most sought after destination.”