Oct. 7 2011 12:00 AM

Beautiful wine country and fine vineyards are waiting just across the border


As autumn harvest and color touring season approaches, guest columnist Alan Kerr, a British expatriate teaching chef and wine writer, introduces the wine country of Niagara, Ontario.

In some ways Napa and Niagara are similar. Well OK, Napa is a warm climate region and Niagara is cool climate — aside  from several days this summer when the temperature gauge cranked up close to 100. What they have in common is that they both appeal to hordes of tourists from far and wide.

I have been to Napa and have seen several palatial and stunning beautiful wineries, their parking lots jammed with tour buses pumping camera-happy mobs through tour routes with timely precision. Niagara, too, has such wineries.  

Inniskillin winery, a pioneer of Niagara’s fledgling wine industry back in the 1970s, is today a well-oiled showcase of what tourism in Niagara is all about. Multilingual and deftly trained tour guides troop through the winery, engaging and entertaining  groups that were gleefully snapping pictures moments before. Most of these tourists, after a quick stop at the casino, will be back on the bus and headed back to their hotel in Toronto without ever seeing what the region is truly about. 

Niagara is all about terroir (a group of vineyards that share similar characteristics, including soil type and weather conditions). The Vintners Quality Alliance has divided the region into two regional designations, Niagara on the Lake and the Niagara Escarpment. These regions have been further divided into a total of 10 subappellations, determined by what lies way below the vines.  

There are about 80 wineries in the area. Each winery  focuses on specific varietals. Some produce wines using the Venetian technique of Appassimento (drying the grapes), while others focus on blending. When entertaining friends I like to focus on one varietal or style, sampling wines from all the subappellations to get an understanding of the regional differences.

 Heading in from the greater Lansing area, the first region one encounters is the Escarpment. It runs from Stoney Creek up to St. Catharines. Halfway up the Escarpment is a section of flat land known as Beamsville Bench. The soils in this appellation are composed of gravel, sand, silt and clay, as well as shale, sandstone and limestone. Dolomitic limestone is an important component in the soils and is thought to have a direct impact on the mineral character found in many Beamsville Bench wines. 

Some of the best Rieslings in Ontario are made in this area, and a great place to sample is Cave Springs Winery in the heart of Jordan Village. Their “Dolomite” showcases the minerality found in Niagara wines, while their premium “CSV” Riesling is easily one of the best in the region. 

A few lesser known, but not to be missed, wineries on the Escarpment are Organized Crime, Tawse, Featherstone and Alvento. Organized Crime (the name stems from a now-humorous incident between feuding Mennonite families in the early 20th century) is a small boutique winery that consistently turns out truly stellar wines crafted by local wine guru Andrzej Lipinski. Lipinski makes an array of flavourful and balanced wines that include Viognier, Gewrztraminer, Fume Blanc, Pinot Noir and a Meritage blend. The microclimate on the bench even allows Syrah to fully ripen in a good year. 

Tucked up in the Escarpment in the Twenty Mile Bench appellation is Featherstone Winery. Vines are trimmed by grazing sheep, and at harvest time grape-loving starlings are kept at bay by falcons. Crisp and zingy Riesling best captures the terroir of the Featherstone Black Sheep label. The terrace wrapping the classic country farmhouse is a beautiful spot to sit, sip and enjoy the scenery. 

Some of the best wines in the entire region are made by Paul Pender, the winemaker at Tawse winery, just outside of Beamsville.The six-tier, gravity-flow winery is state of the art and is surrounded by vineyards that are farmed using both biodynamic and organic practices. Their Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays are world-class, and last year Tawse was named Winery of the Year at the Canadian Wine Awards.

Bruno Moos and Elyane Grenier uprooted their winery in Tuscany to open Alvento, an off-the-beaten-track winery in Vineland. These wines take time in the barrel and only now are the reds from the highly touted 2007 vintage reaching the shelves. Bruno produces three red Meritage blends based on winemaking styles in Bordeaux’s St. Emilion and Medoc. Small amounts of Nebbiolo and Viognier are produced in good years. 

Fine dining is slim in this area. Cave Springs has a very good restaurant called On the Twenty, but for a unique farm to table restaurant experience, August restaurant in Beamsville would be my pick.  

Niagara on the Lake is about 15 miles farther east down the Queen Elizabeth Way highway and over the Welland Canal. There are several little cottage wineries to be found off the beaten path.

A "must" stop is Lailey winery, alongside the Niagara River on the scenic Niagara Parkway. Vines were planted here, in what is known as the Niagara River subappellation, by the Laileys back in the 1970s. Englishman Derek Barnett crafts some of the best Pinot, Syrah, Chardonnay and Riesling in Niagara on the Lake. The old vine Pinot and Chardonnay and fruit from the Brickyard vineyard make wines that age well and are exceedingly tasty. 

Ravine Winery, founded in 2008, is another bio-dynamically farmed organic winery located on a 34 acre site in the subappellation of Niagara called St. David’s Bench. It is different from other subappellations in Niagara mostly because it is the warmest area, approximately 20 percent warmer than any other location in the region. These wines are best described as elegant, layered and complex. An onsite restaurant serves true bistro cuisine with a focus on local and organic ingredients. 

Those are just a few of the hidden gems in the Niagara area. It truly is worth the drive to visit.

For more information on what to see and do in the Niagara area, check these links: www.tourismniagara.com/wine_country.html;

www.escarpment.org/travel/highlights/wineries/index.php; www.canadianvintners.com