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Words: Henry Yuen Pix: Stephanie Yuen
My wife and I visited Niagara Wine Regions for the first time recently. We were so taken by their natural beauty and by how country-like and nostalgic the areas were; we left with a fantastic impression and the promise to a return trip in the Summer time.
The stay at this quaint little town of Niagara-On-The-Lake, a historic town with lots of characters, was equally lovely. Only about an hour’s drive from Toronto, Niagara-on-the-lake took me by surprise – I would never imagine one could get away from all the hustle and bustle of Toronto in such a short time. It’s like entering into another world where all of a sudden everything stands still for a moment waiting to embrace you. With its heritage buildings, neat and unique arts & craft shops, tree- lined mansions and top rated restaurants, the town itself is like a movie-set. The picturesque country side and scenic trails along Niagara River take your breath away. We stayed at this charming sea-side “Harbour House” that welcomed guests with country-style warmth and pampered everyone with cozy décor and top-notched hospitality which included home-style buffet breakfast daily. The town, the scenic drive and the leisurely stay were key elements making this Niagara Wine Tour memorable and exceptional. But most impressive were the wines I tasted!
Our first wine stop was a relatively new winery in Beamsville, the Good Earth Winery possesses the look and the feel of a charming country farm house. With their first vintage planted in 2008 in the 55 acres of orchard-converted vineyard. The short distance to the lake that brings breeze and adequate moisture benefits the vineyards. The soil profile is predominately sandy and loam on flat surface. Proprietor Nicolette Novak greeted us with open arms as if we were her next door neighbours. The extended warm welcome included a delicious lunch at her bistro, starting with a wine tasting with Nicolette in the tasting room/wine shop.
The Good Earth wines:
2010 Chardonnay: Well-balanced wine with enough citrus and weight on the palate.
The 2010 Riesling: Has adequate acidity and sweetness for a crispy finish.
The Betty’s Blend: Predominately Chardonnay; with Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc to round out this wine with stone fruit and bake apple aromas and a delicate smooth finish.
Reds sampled with our lunch:
2012 Gamay Noir: Lovely aroma with lots of fruit on the palate.
2010 Pinot Noir: A lighter body structure with good presence of black fruit bouquet and a smooth finish.
2011 Cabernet Franc: Infused with subtle tobacco and red berries aroma and a balanced finish due to 12 months in oak treatment.
After a hearty home-style but nicely plated luncheon, we headed for Rosewood Estate Winery, the only winery in Ontario to operate as both a winery and a meadery. Greeted by William Roman, Operations Manager & Beemaster whose family founded Rosewood. With European heritage, they brought with them expertise in both areas – grape growing and beekeeping. But it was their foresight to establish their operation in the Niagara region that made it all happened. Fast forward to today with the first planting in 2003, the winery is producing award winning wines and the mead wines are equally impressive and delicious. With 10 acres in the Beamsville Bench and another 20 acres in the Twenty-Mile Bench, Rosewood is producing over 7,000 cases with hand pruning and zero irrigation. Vineyard management emphasis on the production and caring of quality grapes. Being a third generation of beekeeping, they understand how to take advantage of the beekeeping operation to benefit vineyard health, such as helping grapes to set during blooming season. Harvested honey is used to make top rated mead (honey wine) and other products. After a tour of the operation and especially the eye-opening and educational session on beekeeping, set in the most natural environment in the back valley, we could not help but appreciate what Rosewood has been doing. Our heightened anticipation took us into the tasting room which showcased their efforts and products very well.
2012 Reserve Riesling: An off dry version with a hint of melon and honeydew that is crisp, juicy and with a slight hint of minerality.
2010 Merlot: 100% Merlot with 14 months in a combination of American, French and Hungarian oak. The nose is luscious with lots of berries and good tannins on the palate. Definitely a fruit forward wine to fully express the terrior of the Beamsville region.
We don’t know much about honey wines but what we tasted were delicious and could be substituted for any late harvest wines to pair with desserts. The 2010 Harvest Gold is un-oaked with refreshing aroma of peach and pear. The uniqueness of this wine is that it is produced from wildflower honey to give it the floral fragrant and unique taste profile as compared to other regular honey wines. Besides dessert, it is a mead wine that can also pair well with some spicy dishes and soft cheeses.
After checking into the charming Harbour House right beside the river, we headed to Charles Inn for a sumptuous dinner. A Victorian mansion with 12 guest rooms, the restaurant is a return to the 19th century nostalgic room with a menu offering classic dishes using local ingredients. We’re quite surprised by how young but creative Chef Spirling was! After dinner, we retreated back to the Harbour house and relaxed in front of the fire place for some “R&R” time in our cozy suite This classic and luxurious inn has all the amenities to pamper guests and make them feel welcome and looking for a return booking.
The next morning, a short drive took us to the Stratus Vineyards. We noticed some grapes were still on the vines and was told some harvesting was yet to be done, thanks to the permitting weather development and the micro climate in that area. A modern facility with high expectation, Stratus is a winery that is progressive in their daily practice while simultaneously stressing sustainability and good vineyard management. With 55 acres planted since 2000 on 62 acres of land, the focus is on low yield to produce better fruits. They average about 10,000 cases annually that weights in quality rather than quantity. The pump-free winery operation is designed to utilize gravity to render tenderness during transportation and processing with minimal bruising. To avoid pumping of the juice, elevator is used to move the tanks and containers after hand sorting so there is very limited impact. 100% French oak usage with 12 to 24 months aging is the norm and the barrels are retired after just two vintages.
Stratus Vineyard’s wines:
The 2009 Stratus White: A blend of Semillion, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier and Gewürztraminer. With the 1st vintage in 2000, it has developed good acidity with bright Asian fruits aroma and a gentle, pleasant dry finish.
2009 Stratus Red: This luscious red with aroma of berries and anise is a blend of 42% Cabernet Franc, 22% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Syrah, 13% Petit Verdot and 5% Tannat and is equally impressive. On the palate, there are plum and black currents with a slight hint of mint and herb to round out this medium bodied red with delicate oak treatment.
The 2009 Stratus Cabernet Franc: A classic Niagara cool climate and low yield (1 ton/acre) Cabernet Franc with lots of cherries and berries aroma. The 20 months with 47% in new French oak adds tantalizling smokiness with a hint of spice. A Cabernet Franc done really well that is fruit forward and with balanced tannins. A good candidate for the cellar!
The 2012 Stratus Icewine Red has sweet nectar with aroma of peach and stone fruit, sensational on its own.
A short drive away is the Ravine Vineyards on 34 acres with 19 acres under vines. Owned by the same family since 1867, it is an organic vineyard with responsible and sustainable vineyard management. We noticed there are no windmills and no bird bangers on site indicating the St. David Bench area has adequate air flow for the vines to flourish. There were still Riesling and some Cabernet Franc on the vines telling us the relatively long growing season allows the opportunity to manage the vines for hand harvesting under the best possible condition. At the characteristic tasting room, we had the opportunity to taste some of the signature lineup and were impressed.
Ravine Vineyards’ wines:
2011 Cabernet Franc: Medium-bodies with lots of red fruits and well- structured tannins.
2011 Meritage: More refined and nicely-structured with a well-balanced effort.
We also tasted both the 2010 and 2008 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon where the different vintages offering slightly different intrigue and taste profile. The lineups for the white wine are also well-represented.
2011 Riesling: Good acidity and deliciously loaded with bright fruit.
2011 Sauvignon Blanc: Packs in a lot of melon and grape fruit aroma, a beautiful patio sipper.
2011 Chardonnay: Well-crafted and has a lot to offer in the finish. This is a nice Chardonnay to represent this region.
2011 Gewurztraminer: Floral and beautiful bouquet with reserved sweetness.
Vidal and Cabernet Franc ice wines: True expression of the Niagara-On-the-Lake region ice wines that fills the mouth with sensational fruity sweetness and peach nectar that lingers on the palate.
Followed by lunch in their adjacent award winning Ravine Restaurant where European trained chef Paul Harber showcased his craftsmanship. We had more wines to go along with our unpretentious but divine dishes recommended by the very knowledgeable serving staff.
In the afternoon, we arrived at 125-acre Reif Estate Winery set along the picturesque Niagara Parkway. Reif has established at the very same location since 1977 with the 1st vintage in 1982. The proprietor packs over 300 years of European winemaking experience within the family. The vineyard has drain pipes to channel away moisture to induce stress on the vines which results in more vigorous growth. Being close to the river, the site has 7 windmills to drive the cool air away.
The vineyard management philosophy strives on innovation and sustainability. After a tour of the facility with Klaus Reif, we were led to the well-designed tasting room for a Food & Wine Sensory Experience. Instead of straight forward wine tasting, a wine and cheese session was offered to educate us on the finer details of wine appreciation. Different wine glasses were used and different local cheeses were presented to enhance the appreciation of the wines. The exercise was to showcase; with proper stemware, food flavour and texture to evoke the senses; the joy of embracing the wine appreciation experience.
Reif Estate Winery’s wines:
2010 White Meritage is a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon under cool fermentation to maintain the bright fruit and acidity level. The Meritage served in aromatic glass was paired with a semi-soft cheese from Five Brothers cheese Farm.
2010 Chardonnay Reserve served in balloon glasses were from old vines planted in 1981 with 18 months in French and American oak to give it the luxurious buttery feel and baked apple aroma. This is paired with hand-crafted cheese from the Upper Canada Cheese Company.
The 2010 Merlot Reserve served in magnum glass was fermented on its skin for 12 days and aged in French and American barrels for 12 months rendering lots of plum and dark cherries upon entry that ends with a smooth lengthy finish. This Merlot was paired with old-fashioned cheddar from the Thornloe Cheese Company.
The 2012 Vidal Icewine served in dessert glass was from 26 years old vines and carried a lot of peach and apricot flavour with balanced sweetness and acidity. This dessert wine was paired with an earthy and salty cow’s milk semi-soft blue cheese from Thornloe Cheese Company.
Highlight of the evening was the dinner at Treadwell’s Farm to Table Cuisine. Local and in seasonal ingredients were the emphasis with all the local farms and producers listed on the menu to give diners a sense of what the Niagara farming community is all about.
The next morning we woke up to semi-cloudy sky and cool air, rather windy at times. We headed for the Southbrook Vineyards on the main road where a modern, state-of-the-art building and the Gold Level LEED certified winery facility (in2008) greeted us.
The operation was moved from Richmond Hill in 2005 to its current location of 150 acres, but planting is limited to 63 acres to protect natural terroir which is vital to this first certified organic and biodynamic vineyard in Canada. Vineyard management include efforts to induce some resistance to strengthen the vines, applying various natural herbs and substances as pesticides; and the protection of the natural surroundings to enhance the ecosystem. About 13,000 cases are produced annually by observing low yield practices. Owner, Bill Redelmeier, was there to greet us and was gracious to explain his operation and management concepts in detail. His passion for the respect of the land and his expectation of supporting the neighbourhood businesses for the long term common good flowed across. Sitting in the airy and open tasting room, we tasted all three tiers of Southbrook wines crafted with different emphasis.
Southbrook Vineyards’ wines:
The Triomphe include the lineup of Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Rose, Cabernet Merlot and a Red Blend. The 2012 Chardonnay is a cool climate Chardonnay with baked apple and melon aroma and a creamy mouth-feel. The 2011 Cabernet Franc has blueberry and cherries aroma with an earthy and luscious finish. The 2008 Cabernet Merlot is a well-balanced wine with enticing aroma of dark berries and plum. The entry is smooth with a lasting finish.
The Poetica lineup is not produced every year as only the highest quality grapes harvested would qualify.
The Whimsy are small batches, premium, artisanal wines where winemakers were given the freedom to express their own feelings, passions, expertise and artistic inkling. Their signatures are in every bottle to represent Southbrook Vineyard’s philosophy and strong suit.
After lunch at the Inn on the Twenty in another story-like village of Jordan that reminded us so much of a colonial hotel with classic settings and elegant interior designs. With lunch we sampled a selection of wines from Cave Spring Cellars, our next destination.
Cave Spring Cellars locates just across street from the Inn. Established in 1986, it is truly a family business where the owners are active in the day to day operation. Now with 145 acres planted, production is in the range of 17,000 cases annually. The soil profile is mainly clay and sandstone with high limestone component that is especially good for Riesling. Old and new French, American and Hungarian medium toasted oak barrels are used in various combinations to enhance the profile of the wines.
Cave Spring Cellar’s wines:
The VQA estate bottled 2011 Riesling is from 10 year old vines. Bright fruit and melon aroma, this Riesling is crisp and juicy. I like the 2011 Estate Chenin Blanc which is packed with sweetness, grape fruit aroma and minerality. The Pinot Noir is a cool climate Pinot Noir that is jammy and supple on the palate. The Cabernet Franc upkeeps the excellence taste profile of grapes from the Niagara Peninsula Escarpment. The 2008 Riesling Icewine is burst with honeydew and nectarine aroma and on the palate.
After thoughts: It was an amazing trip, an eye-opener that allowed us to witness and appreciate how different Niagara Wine Regions are from those of BC. In terms of the accomplishments and passions of the people in the wine business, we are totally impressed. With over 17,000 acres planted, Ontario wine regions are growing at a rapid pace. Even though the number of wineries is lower than British Columbia’s 250, the Ontario wineries count of over 140 is expanding with a strong business model of producing quality VQA wines with international fame. We visited different portfolios of small family style operations, each with its own energy and character; and large established wineries with resources and hospitality to provide top-rate guest experiences. Such a short distance from Toronto, Niagara-On-The-Lake is so beautiful, so worth a stroll, if not a vacation. It is a must destination for wine oenophile but for those who are looking for simply a relaxing and pampered vacation, this is definitely a hidden gem.