Sampling Exceptional Wine at Niagara on the Lake

I knew the Niagara biking would be stellar and any performance at the Shaw Festival a treat, but to be honest, I wasn’t very excited to try the Ontario wines. Blame it on the annual Canada dinner in Boston each May when Ontario Tourism would bring the sweetest Icewine they could find for us journalists to sample. I admit, I was ignorant and thankfully this past week received a phenomenal education from Ontario wine expert, Erin Henderson. As co-founder of The Wine Sisters with her sister, Courtney, these two professional sommeliers introduce the world to the finest Ontario wines through corporate dinners in Toronto and private tours of the wine region. 

Yesterday in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Erin introduced me to two pioneers of the Ontario wine region, Chateau des Charmes and Peller Estates. Both wineries were instrumental in wisely ripping up the Concord grapes that were growing in the region for almost 200 years, better suited for jelly, and replacing them with vinifera from Burgundy, Bordeaux, and the Mosel. More than 30 years later, these vineyards are producing not only world-class Rieslings and Chardonnays, but Cab Francs and Bordeaux blends that have serious nose and body. Since it was International Chardonnay Day yesterday, I’ll discuss Niagara’s whites, which are cool, crisp, often dry, like biting into a green apple off the branch. They were not nearly as cloying as some of the oaky warm-weather variety. Tawse and Stratus Wines both made a chardonnay that could compete with the best of Burgundy. Hidden Bench and Cave Spring Cellars make a Riesling Germans would spew expletives of joy over. Peller has a 2010 Cab Franc that’s a steal at $40 a bottle, with hints of plum and pepper. They also make an Icewine from Riesling that has the perfect balance of sweetness and acidity. I had it with my blue cheese appetizer for lunch, surprisingly not with dessert. 
Ontario wines have been hiding in obscurity for far too long. I’d happily purchase a bottle at a dinner in Boston, New York, or Chicago if I could find them on the wine menu. Unfortunately, few of these beauties have international distribution. So you’re just going to have to follow in my footsteps and cross the border to see firsthand why I’m so excited. With lake winds keeping mildew and mold off the vines and the Niagara escarpment sheltering the vineyards from early frost and providing much needed limestone terroir, the unique microclimate has created a Burgundy of the West. I’m happy to be witness to this explosion of good taste.
Thanks to Butterfield and Robinson, The Wine Sisters, and Ontario Tourism for a great week. Have a relaxing Memorial Day Weekend. I’ll be back on Monday.