NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, ON - From a perched terrace overlooking a sea of green vines that seem to stretch to the horizon, I stare at my lovely surroundings while sipping a glass of sweet ice wine and think to myself, “Now this is how life should always be.”
My idyllic respite at Ontario’s famed Peller Estates winery is soon ended when the coach driver announces: “It’s time to move on to our next vineyard.”
Peller Estates is just one of the stops we make during a day of touring the wine country that surrounds quaint Niagara-on-the-Lake just outside the tourist mecca known as Niagara Falls.
Ontario’s wine country is equal to anything you’ll find in Italy, France, New Zealand or California and the Niagara area is often called the “Napa Valley of the North.” And while maybe not as mature as some of those other historic wine regions, Niagara’s growers are quickly making a name for themselves globally for the quality and taste of their vintages.
Peller Estates is a perfect example — its wines have won a number of national and international awards and the winery has become a must stop for the coach tours, most of which originate in Toronto, an hour’s drive away.
Many Niagara wineries, including Peller, have added restaurants to their vineyards — the kitchens are usually governed by up-and-coming chefs — and the “wine and dine” packages they offer have become popular options with tourists.
“Our next stop will be Southbrook Vineyard,” the driver announces to the passengers, who don’t have to worry about drinking and driving.
Another advantage for those staying overnight in the Niagara area is that the coaches will pick you up at the hotel where you’re staying and then drop you off after the tour ends. There’s also lots of private wine tours on offer and hotels in the area will arrange those for guests as well. There are half day and full day tours available and many now include dining experiences — lunch or dinner — and the menus at each of the vineyards is top quality in every way. I especially like the friendly servers that we meet on our day trip.
“This is the most relaxed I’ve been in weeks,” an elderly man on the bus tells me as the driver pulls into the Southbrook entrance. The organic wines produced at Southbrook are full and flavourful and bursting with lots of fruity taste — Niagara, after all, is the fruit basket of Eastern Canada.
Left: The vines in Niagara hang heavy with grapes and produce some top quality wines. Right: Niagara wines have earned high praise in competitions around the world.
As the bus rumbles along the back roads to our next stop — Ravine Winery Restaurant in the small village of St. Davids — we pass orchids filled with apple, peach, pear, plum and cherry trees and the rolling countryside drifts off in all directions. Ravine’s vintages are favoured by foodies across Canada and one sip tells me why — its Riesling is especially good.
Our last stop is Trius Winery, a vineyard whose bottles are becoming increasingly popular with wine drinkers because of its intense fruity flavours. Its award-winning restaurant — its chef is a recipient of the 2010 Toronto Gold Plate Award — is gaining just as much attention at the winery.
For those who don’t want to sit in a coach, there are plenty of other options in wine country —– you can ride of horse or a bike across the fields were the grape grows and I see several bikers lying between the rows of vines soaking up the sun and sweet smells that hover over this region.
As our coach slowly cruises down the main street of historic Niagara-on-the-Lake, I watch people sitting on restaurant balconies holding glasses of wine from the local vineyards we’ve just visited. Many of the restaurants in the town with the War of 1812 history feature local wines and their patrons are often seen in the local licquour store purchasing bottles of Ontario wine to take back home.
Lots of people use Niagara-in-the-Lake as their base while touring the wine region and the local hotels — most of them 5-star quality — offer packages that include private and group tours of the nearby vineyards.
Like many of the homes I see along the tree lined streets of this fairy-tale town, the hotels and B&Bs are designed to blend in with the colonial brilliance of this town which once served as the capital of Upper Canada — circa 17th Century.
My favourite area hotels in Niagara-on-the-Lake:
1- The Prince of Wales: Located on Main Street, this dollhouse style property is chic in the extreme and its cozy rooms, restaurants and spa are all the talk of this town. It’s also located in easy walking distance to the Shaw Festival Theatre, one of the biggest drawing cards in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
2- Harbour House: It offers gorgeous views of Lake Ontario, especially at sunset, from its main patio and is located close to the town’s historic golf course where troops who fought in the War of 1812 camped out before the big battle which saw Canadian troops hold off the invading American army.
3- The Charles or Oban inns: Both are a bit off main street but well worth the walk. The Charles Inn looks a bit shabby from the outside but looks can be deceiving — inside, gourmet meals await and lots of people praise the Charles’ dining room in Trip Advisor. The Oban Inn is especially lovely as it sits overlooking the lake and golf course.
4- Queen’s Landing: It’s a bit more modern in design but offers great service and its main dining room is spectacular.
5- White Oaks Conference Resort and Spa: Just off the QEW, the main highway from Toronto leading to Niagara-on-the-Lake, White Oaks has quickly earned a reputation for top quality everything — its indoor tennis facility may be the best in the country. A recently opened outlet super mall right next door to White Oaks, featuring over 100 stores, is sure to attract a lot more guests.
Above: The lovely wineries in the region open their doors for wine tastings and now have added restaurants as well.
If you’d like to stay in fast-paced Niagara Falls — a short drive away along the scenic Niagara Parkway — may I suggest the quaint Sterling Inn & Spa. It’s within easy walking distance of the Falls and the service level here is fantastic — they slip a note under your door each evening asking what time you’d like breakfast delivered to your room next morning. It also offers a relaxing steam room and free parking.
So let’s raise a glass and toast Ontario’s charming wine region — it’s only going to get better with age.