The winery business in Southern Ontario is a growth industry. In 1974, winery pioneers Donald Ziraldo and Karl Kaiser launched Inniskillin wines, the first boutique winery in Ontario. Today, there are an astonishing 125 wineries open to visitors, from Pelee Island to Prince Edward County. The Niagara Peninsula continues to be the heart of the business, with 84 wineries, all eager to tempt the taste buds of wine virgins and oenophiles alike.
That means Niagara wine country has become downright confusing for anyone planning a tasting tour. With this glut of options, visitors will inevitably struggle to choose their destinations.
So tip number one: don’t try to do it all in a day. The Niagara Peninsula offers enough attractions and activities that you can happily spend several days, or a week here.
Most visitors come to see Niagara Falls, consistently rated among the top five tourist attractions in North America. But smart tourists will look beyond the Falls, to discover the wonders of wine country – wine, food, heritage attractions, gardens, adventures on the Niagara River, and golf. Did we say a week? Maybe, a month.
Niagara wine country is well populated with excellent hotels, inns, and B&Bs. There are several highly-rated heritage hotels in Niagara-on-the-Lake, a beautiful, historic town at the mouth of the Niagara River. There are inns in many of the smaller towns on the peninsula, like those found in Jordan.
Niagara-on-the-Lake is the northern point of the Niagara Peninsula, where the Niagara River empties into Lake Ontario. The town, renowned for boutique shops, also has several of the finest hotels in Canada, all part of the Vintage Hotels group – among them, the Prince of Wales and Queen’s Landing.
These are high-end accommodations. The Prince of Wales is the priciest, but its elegant décor, ideal location, fine dining (including afternoon tea in the drawing room) and luxuriously furnished rooms make it a perfect home base for Niagara exploration. There’s something about the place – the Victorian architecture, the over-the-top gardens, the horses and carriages for hire beside the hotel – that make you smile every time you see approach the Prince of Wales.
Queen’s Landing is only four blocks south of the Prince of Wales, but it has its own dramatic character. The location is fantastic, with a view of the Sailing Club’s harbour and the Niagara River. There’s a more contemporary approach to the 140 re-designed guest rooms, all now featuring plush hypoallergenic duvets, two-inch mattress pads and 300 thread count sheets, and half with jetted tubs or fireplaces. Queen’s Landing is home to 100 Fountain Spa, which has been named the number one spa in Canada.
The Inn on the Twenty is also part of the Vintage Hotels group. It actually comprises three facilities, all in the heart of the charming village of Jordan, about half an hour’s drive from downtown Niagara-on-the-Lake. The Inn is an elegant boutique hotel with 28 rooms, each unique, with surprising features such as private gardens. Meanwhile, Vintage House is a traditional B&B, while Jordan House, five minutes from the Inn, provides more contemporary accommodations, at about half the price of the upscale Inn on the Twenty. A key feature of the Inn is its excellent restaurant – try the beet tart, and the wild boar chop.
The White Oaks Conference Resort and Spa is officially located in Niagara-on-the-Lake, but it’s 13.5 km from the historic downtown area. White Oaks is actually at the hub of Niagara wine country, right beside the QEW (the peninsula’s freeway), and cheek by jowl with the 100 stores of the Outlet Collection at Niagara. White Oaks is considerably less expensive than the high-end heritage hotels while having earned a very high rating from guests.
Planning your tasting tour
You’re starting to plan your visits to Niagara Peninsula wineries, and naturally, you’d like to visit all 84. That, of course, can’t be done.
So ask yourself, what do you want to experience? Do you want to visit large, well-established wineries in impressive buildings? Or would you prefer small, perhaps newer wineries – family operations, or eager start-ups?
There’s also the question of geography. The official Wine Country Ontario Travel Guide divides the Niagara wine area into two districts: Niagara Escarpment & Twenty Valley, and Niagara-on-the-Lake. Focus on only one of these districts in a day; if you have several days, sub-divide them further.
This writers’ bias is toward the smaller wineries – you get individual attention, interesting tastings, samples of new wines, and there is either no tasting fee, or the fee is immediately waived when you buy some wine.
If you do want to experience some impressive, large-scale wineries, there are several of interest, especially in the Niagara-on-the-Lake district. Inniskillin is where it all started, but now is a larger, more corporate operation; Trius (formerly Hillebrand) is also one of the wine-making pioneers in Niagara; and the new Wayne Gretzky Estates offers impressive architecture, a skating rink in season, lots of sports photos, although a rather clinical approach to customer service.
There are a lot of great, small wineries in this district, and as you explore the area you will certainly find some that will become your favourites.
Perhaps they will include Big Head Wines, a new winery opened by winemaker Andrzej Lipinski. The brand reflects a keen sense of humour – Lipinski and family are Polish, and decided to choose a name that features a stereotype about Polish people. The usual tasting of four wines is fine, but if you have a few hours to spare, the Biggest Tasting – 10 wines poured in a blind format – is a delightful and educational experience. There are two excellent reasons to drop in at Big Head: the unusual Chenin Blanc wines, and the results of the Appassimento wine-making method of drying the grapes before pressing.
Also in the area is the Hare Wine Company, owned by winemaker John Hare. The building is a Mediterranean-style masterpiece with four wings enclosing a terrace. And you’ll like the wine – especially the reds, which are rich and full without that too-common bite on the back of the palate.
One more favourite stop is Palatine Hills Estate Winery. In this unpretentious place, owner John Neufeld and his family are committed to producing good but inexpensive wines. A tasting here is highly conversational. Two good bets are their 1812 Red, a highly drinkable blend, and their Late Harvest Vidal, a very enjoyable dessert wine.
Niagara Escarpment Recommendations
Let’s focus on the dozens of good wineries found in the Beamsville-Vineland area, most of which are in the smaller-and-friendlier category.
Visitors to Fielding Estate Winery are likely to spot a staff member rushing to open the door and offer greetings. This family-owned winery is a great place to relax thanks to comfortable chairs on the patio – and to discover their terrific wines such as the Riesling.
Just around the corner is Ridgepoint Wines, owned by Mauro and Anna, a brother-sister combo of Italian lineage. That explains the focus of their winemaking, especially the exquisite Nebbiolo, and also the flavours in their excellent restaurant. With an order of the Fig and Prosciuttino pizza for lunch, you must order a glass – or bottle – of the unique, peachy White Cab.
Vieni Estates is another relatively new winery, with the most welcoming tasting servers you will meet anywhere. Tell them you like their Alleria Red, and they will insist you also must try the Ripasso. Unlike most of their wine-making neighbours, Vieni also produces spirits, including Graspa, and the utterly delicious brandy infused with maple syrup.
There are a plethora of fine dining opportunities on the Niagara Peninsula, including good restaurants at many of the wineries. Especially recommended are the restaurant at Redstone, the patio bistro at the Good Earth Food and Wine Co., and the rustic Farmhouse Café at Caroline Cellars.
The Old Winery Restaurant on the Niagara Stone Road (close to Big Head and Hare) is a must for lovers of Tuscan cuisine; it’s always a tough choice between their “Chardonnay” pizza (Garlic Béchamel, roasted chicken, sautéed mushroom, caramelized onion & truffle oil) from the wood-fired oven, and the terrific-if-messy lamb burger with tzatziki.
There are a zillion restaurants in Niagara-on-the-Lake proper, but for good food, ambience, and a chance to spot the actors from the world-famous Shaw Festival Theatre, try The Old Angel Inn.
The Niagara Parkway
There is a possibly apocryphal story that Winston Churchill once called the Niagara Parkway “the prettiest Sunday drive in the world.” If he didn’t say that, he should have, because it is.
The Parkway runs south from Fort George in Niagara-on-the-Lake and follows the Niagara River to Fort Erie on Lake Erie. At 53 kilometres long, the Parkway is a feasible day trip in one shot, or can be broken up into smaller sections with a notable stop in Niagara Falls.
As a flashpoint location of the War of 1812-1814, you can expect a trove of heritage sites marking the last time Americans and Canadians took up arms against one another.
The war cost the lives of about 25,000 Americans, British, Canadians and native warriors – and in the end, everything went right back to the way it was before the war. Except for 25,000 gravesites.
The Niagara Parks Commission is responsible for a number of attractions along the Parkway – For Erie, at the south end; the botanical gardens, one of the finest in the world; a butterfly conservatory; the iconic floral clock; and several world-class golf courses, including Legends on the Niagara, and the Whirlpool Golf Course.
For something a bit more spinetingling, the historic Whirlpool Aero Car carries riders high over the whirlpool and rapids. If even that’s too tame, there is always the MistRider Zipline to the Falls.
For more passive observers, an energetic enterprise called Hornblower Niagara Cruises offers a full menu of ways to get up close to the Falls on their boats.
Of course, visitors to this area are going to want to see the Falls, as one of the natural wonders of the world. But if you visit the city of Niagara Falls and that’s all, you are missing some of the best attractions and experiences Canada has to offer.
Niagara wineries are internationally recognized as among the finest in the world, and the small, friendly establishments will welcome you with open arms and open bottles.
The Niagara Parkway is indeed one of the prettiest drives anywhere, with dedicated paths for bikers and hikers. There are plenty of riverside picnic places and enough produce and bakery stands along the roadside to fill any basket. Better yet, the area boasts some of the finest heritage hotels anywhere.
Truth is, once you have slept, sipped, supped and shopped here – you will be convinced of a few more weekends here. We’ll drink to that.