13 of the Most Interesting Wineries in the Niagara on the Lake Area
Niagara on the Lake is a beautiful town in the gorgeous, wine-growing area that straddles the border between the State of New York and the Province of Ontario. In fact, the town’s nickname is “The Loveliest Town in Canada”. Wine is the area’s lifeblood, and even celebrities like Wayne Gretzky and Dan Aykroyd have thrown their hats into the wine-making ring.
These and other wineries throughout the area are truly one of NOTL’s finest amenities, and many people both live there and travel there because of them. The area has kept much of its 17th-century charm. Indeed, Niagara on the Lake is the only town in Canada that still has a Lord Mayor. Many people come to see the theatre at the Shaw Festival and do wine tastings between shows.
The Festival’s famously funny epitaph reads, “I knew if I stayed around long enough, something like this would happen!” That same good humor and appreciation for the fun and wit of life oozes throughout the entire area. Wineries in the area are renowned for their identifiable personalities, quirky or otherwise.
High Standards of The Vintners Quality Alliance
All wine produced in Ontario must conform to the strictures of the Vintners Quality Alliance, which is also known as the VQA. These strictures ensure that all wines are crafted exclusively from Ontario grapes and that no water is used during the fermentation process. Concentrates or juices of any kind are disallowed. The ripe grapes must also contain a certain amount of sugar.
The Alliance also stipulates that all labels must be truthful and that all wines other than sparkling must be stamped with a vintage date and follow all secondary vintage processes. The last hurdle NOTL wines must pass is evaluation by both an expert panel and an independent laboratory. After production and bottling the wines must adhere to regulations regarding their provenance, style, and type.
***We have not ranked the following wineries in any way. The numbering is just for convenience so you know where you are in the article.
Jackson-Triggs Niagara Estate Amphitheatre
Jackson-Triggs Winery is a fixture among the NOTL wineries that rely on advanced technology to craft their products. Although the grapes are grown in NOTL, the species are French. The winery’s 11.5-acre growing fields produce many varieties of both red and white wines. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Pinot Noir are among the most popular red varieties. Whites include Chardonnay, Riesling, and Sémillon.
For those interested in the science behind the making of wine, the Jackson-Triggs Winery is a great place to visit. The winery includes a research center that continually experiments with different soil compositions, rootstock variants, and pruning techniques in a quest always to better the winery’s vintages. The grounds are also a popular place for open-air concerts, so you can excite all your senses during a visit.
Wayne Gretzky Estates Winery & Distillery
Old Number 99 opened the newly revamped doors to his winery in the spring of 2017, and both connoisseurs and vintners alike were excited by the prospects. Unlike other wineries in NOTL, the Wayne Gretzky Estates became both a winery and a distillery. Wayne even produces a notable lager. The stars, however, continue to be his wines, which have been described as “robust and possessing a long finish.”
Wayne’s grandfather was a vintner, and the younger Gretzky was always fascinated by the process, particularly the way his father picked the best grapes by eye and treated the barrels like royalty. The family’s affinity for both wine and hospitality has carried over into the 21st century.
The Lakeview Wine Co.
Although Dan Aykroyd grew up in Ottawa instead of Niagara on the Lake, his passion for wine has taken him around the globe. He samples wines from every country he visits, and that passion led him to partner with Ontario winemakers at the Lakeview Wine Company. In 2012, that passion bore fruit, so to speak, with the Canadian Wine of the Year award from the Wine Council of Canada. That wine was part of the Dan Aykroyd Discovery Series.
The Lakeview Wine Company produces icewines as well as the usual slate of reds and whites. The merlot and the icewines are of special note. The wines bearing Dan Aykroyd’s name are vinted to be moderately priced without sacrificing quality or taste.
Southbrook Organic Vineyards
Southbrook Vineyards is a wholly organic operation that leads the way among LEED®-certified wineries in the NOTL region. Southbrook Vineyards has achieved the LEED® Gold level. Southbrook’s most notable contributions to the wine industry are its Bordeauxs. Their robust fruitiness has an almost Chambertin-like feel that Ontario wine luminary Michael Pinkus calls “tasty and toasty.” He made a similar comment about the winery’s Chardonnay.
Because the winery cultivates only organic grapes they develop ancient flavours that are uncommon in a world of technology and advanced crop-control techniques. The winery has collected several awards since 2011, including a Lieutenant Governor’s Award. Perhaps the quirkiest wine in the vineyard’s arsenal is the superlatively fruity “orange” wine, which delighted connoisseurs in 2015.
The name Inniskillin is synonymous with icewines as much as icewine is synonymous with Canada itself. Their icewines are world-renowned and have earned such prestigious awards as the Le Grand Prix d’HonneurVinexpo. They may not have any of that storied vintage in the cellars today, but their sensational, long-finishing, velvety creations are still one of NOTL’s grandest flavours.
The winery’s grounds are equally compelling. The 100-year-old Brae Burn Barn has been recently refurbished and upgraded with a wine-inspired demonstration kitchen, and the attached dining hall harks back to the days when the province’s French oak barrels were stored there. If cooking is your thing grab a toque and enter one of the many amateur cooking contests held at the winery. Make a delicious dish to go with the delicious wine.
Ravine Vineyard Estate Winery
Gently spreading across 34 acres of bucolic beauty the Ravine Vineyard Estate Winery brings five generations of passionate wine making to the table. The winery pairs it with a restaurant that uses only farm-fresh ingredients on its delectable menu, and guests can sample the vineyard’s finest along with top-flight victuals.
Although the vineyard is well-known for its fine aged wines, perhaps its most charming products are the Sand & Gravel array of wines. They are known for their flowery fruitiness and also for their eminent drinkability right out of the bottle. Noted Canadian wine author Natalie Maclean calls the Sauvignon Blanc both refreshing and mouth-watering, naming it a terrific choice for summer dining. If you happen to arrive on a weekend, be sure to grab a loaf of fresh-baked bread.
Joseph’s Estate Wines
A cottage winery is to wine what a microbrewery is to beer: It produces wine in small amounts, largely because the vineyards are akin to the “yard” of a cottage. Joseph’s Estate Wines was one of the first three cottage wineries in NOTL when it was founded in 1979. For the first 25 years of its existence the winery produced small, but mighty vintages. In 2003 however, it expanded to roughly 10,000 square feet.
Despite this expansion the winery has not lost any of its “cottage charm.” In fact, a 2006 Joseph’s Estate Wines Vidal Icewine charmingly took a silver medal at the International Wine and Spirits Competition. That is high praise, indeed, from wine professionals from all over the world.
Palatine Hills Estate Winery
Palatine Hills Estate has been growing grapes on its spacious 187-acre property since 2003. The winemaking on the estate, however, predates the current owners by three decades. The personality of the wines of the Palatine Hills Estate is both creamy and fruity, and some people say there’s a mild touch of heat in the fairly short finish. Those who enjoy sipping and savoring their “fruit of the grape” would do well with these wines.
The winery’s icewine took home top honors at the 2003 Ontario Wine Awards. Even after this auspicious beginning the winery continues to produce award-winning vintages. Fans of Gewürztraminer will also enjoy a tasting at the Palatine Hills Estate, the off-dry fruitiness of the white being quite pleasing. Palatine Hills Estate is one of the NOTL wineries that also mixes red and white vintages with proprietary percentages to create unusual and enjoyable blends.
Château des Charmes
Seven generations of Boscs have created fabulous wines in France. In 1978Paul Bosc put down roots, so to speak, in Niagara on the Lake. He brought all of that winemaking history with him and dedicated his new vineyards to the common European grape vine. He was actually the first winemaker in the NOTL area to do so. Steeped in two centuries’ of tradition the Bosc family nevertheless operates green, sustainable vineyards.
The famous wine critic from CTV, André, says that some of this wineries’ vintages are “stupid good” and that they are among the best he has ever tasted. The winery also provides romantic guided tours that include a tasting paired with the finest cheese. The winery is not only dedicated to being green so that it is beneficial to the community, but it also donates part of its tour proceeds to charities in the area.
At the Riverview Cellars Estate Winery it’s all about being relaxed and taking your time. Many of the winery’s vintages, most notably the 2007 Merlot, will need some aging. They’re not quite of the same ilk as Amantilladooloroso, but a year or two will do wonders for the already incredibly long finish of deep, dark flavours and tannins. The fellow who runs this quaint, tucked-away winery is as dedicated as he is laid back. The Pinot Grigio and Gewürztraminer are both youthful and fresh and evoke a sleepy afternoon passed in a Vienna cafe.
The winery is noted for its familial friendliness, which is no doubt derived from the owners’ shared history of running a farm-fresh fruit stand for many years before opening the winery. In addition to the Pinot Grigio and Gewürztraminer, Cabernet Blanc, Riesling, and Chardonnay are all products of this winemaker’s loving touch.
The Strewn Winery produces wines from its own grapes and from grapes procured from other vineyards in the NOTL region. The winery is small and cozy, and the atmosphere of family percolates through the staff and the winery’s guests, many of whom attend tastings and cooking classes as part of a “true NOTL wine experience.”
Despite the winery’s small size it is a formidable presence on the world stage. Its wines took home 17 medals from competitions in 2018. One of those medals was a gold at Selections Mondial des Vins in Montreal, and another was a silver at Citadelles du Vin in France. You can sample these and other vintages at the OLiV restaurant. Strewn Winery also lets you join a club that will give you access to members-only wines for a fee.
Peller Estates Winery And Restaurant
Peller Estates Winery has been growing grapes and vinting wine for more than five decades. The winery’s philosophy is to craft wines specifically to pair with certain foods. They try these combinations in their on-site restaurant. The result is usually spectacular. Indeed, Le Club des Chefs des Chefs, which is comprised of a group of the greatest chefs in the world, chose the Peller Estates Winery restaurant to be part of the group’s 40th-anniversary tour.
For an added thrill you can don a winter coat even in the summer heat and venture down into the rooms where the icewine is made. The temperature in these rooms is the same as that at which the grapes are harvested, about -8 C. After sampling the “taste of Canada” you can enjoy a full bottle while dining on seafood at the Winery Restaurant.
Reif Estate Winery
Other than its wine itself, Reif Estate Winery’s claim to fame is its immersive wine tasting room. The winery goes out of its way to educate its guests in both the enjoyment of wine and its use in the kitchen. Guests stroll through a sensory wine garden to experience everything that wine has to offer.
The winery produces many fine wines but its primary focus is on affordable wines of exceptional quality. During the August 2018 tasting at the winery the 2016 Cab Merlot, which can be had for less than $15, was easily the star of the show. Even though it didn’t win the overall top prize it wowed both the amateur and expert tasters by being near the top in every category. You can get this kind of affordable wine from Reif Estate Winery at almost any time.
Winemaking Basics in NOTL
All vintners in NOTL create their masterpieces from a selection of 19 varieties of grapes. Each one adds its own flavours, finish, feel, tannins, and other items to each vintage. Some wineries use each grape variety by itself while others combine two or more varieties to create new experiences. Here is an overview of four popular varieties:
The Pinot Noir grape changes its stripes based upon the climate where it grows. In warmer climes it’s fresh, fruity, youthful, and jammy. During the colder months, particularly when making icewine, it’s earthy, leathery, and chocolatey with undercurrents of cherries and mushrooms. This flexibility is what makes this grape variety so popular in NOTL.
The Cabernet Sauvignon grape is another red-wine grape that is flexible, but it is that way due to the length of ripening rather than the temperature at which it is grown. Cabernet Sauvignon grapes that are harvested just before the peak ripeness will have a distinct flavour of green bell pepper. To a particular subset of wine connoisseurs this flavor is highly desirable. For those fans for whom it is not desirable these grapes can be harvested after full ripening. The sunlight gradually destroys compounds in the grapes called pyrazines, which give the pre-ripe grapes their distinctive flavour.
When it comes to white wine grapes one of the most popular is Riesling. The wine derived from Riesling is sharply acidic, which counteracts the sweetness of the fruit flavours inherent in the wine. In some cases vintners will honey a Riesling to make it into a dessert wine. While this may seem to make the wine cloyingly sweet the acidity balances the honey to ensure it is delectable. Riesling is different from other white wines in that vintners seldom, if ever, oak it. To do so would be to overpower the crisp freshness of the wine.
Gewürztraminer is a popular grape, but it is exceedingly difficult to grow. It is prone to disease if not watched and diligently cared for. It also grows and ripens quite quickly. The vintner’s chief problem with Gewürztraminer is picking it at just the right time. As the grapes ripen in the warm NOTL summers they quickly become overpoweringly sweet. If, however, the vintner picks them early to retain at least some acidity, all of the floral aromas will not have had time to develop. The delicate balancing act of “to pick or not to pick” keeps NOTL winemakers on their toes.
NOTL is so good for growing grapes and making wine because it lies within the latitudes of 41 degrees and 44 degrees north, which is the band in which almost all of the winemaking regions in the Northern Hemisphere are. The climate may not be identical to the Bordeaux or Burgundy regions of France, but the bits that are colder and warmer than the storied French regions allow NOTL wineries to make rare and beloved wines that cannot be found elsewhere.
Selling Real Estate Using Wine as a Backdrop
Savvy real estate professionals can use wine as a selling point for homes in the NOTL area. For example, they can leave coffee table books regarding wine on flat surfaces in the home they happen to be showing.
Real estate professionals can also chat with their prospective clients about NOTL and the wineries in the area, and if the clients are aficionados or connoisseurs, the professionals can glean clues about their preferred wines, wineries, or vintages. After that, it is a simple matter to have a bottle of their favorite on hand to close the deal with a firm handshake.
Further, if the prospective clients indicate that they would like to live near a winery the real estate professional can show them properties in the right place.
In all, NOTL and its environs provide those interested in wine and wineries with a plethora of possibilities. The baker’s dozen of wineries described above are just part of nearly 100 establishments that adorn the 132 square kilometers (58 square miles) of NOTL. Ontario’s motto is “Yours to Discover,” and it applies as equally to the wineries as it does to the entire province. Feel free to explore!