NIAGARA PENINSULA, Ontario — It’s hard to compete with Niagara Falls for inspiring awe and wonder. But as the Niagara wine industry has flourished, this compact peninsula on the southwest corner of Lake Ontario has quietly grown into a top foodie destination.
Our mid-May plan was to eat and sip our way through the region, but once we crossed into Canada at Niagara Falls, we couldn’t just drive by the thundering natural wonder. We considered booking a sightseeing boat to cruise through the mists, and even toyed with the idea of sliding down a zipline from the high embankment to the river. Ultimately, we settled for walking from American to Horseshoe Falls and cycling the bucolic path that continues downriver to Lake Ontario.
By evening, we were back on our food and wine track as we settled at a window table in Elements on the Falls, a restaurant so close to Horseshoe Falls that spray spatters the glass. Because Niagara has some of Canada’s richest farmland, chef Elbert Wiersema told us, he buys most of his provisions from within a 60-mile radius. He made his point by pouring a Niagara pinot noir to complement the Ontario lamb steaks sizzling on hot, flat Niagara River stones.
Apart from the cities of Niagara Falls and St. Catharines, the peninsula is largely farm country, with the main winegrowing district stretching about 30 miles along the south coast of Lake Ontario. Wine aficionados speak of 10 different sub-appellations, but one blurs into the next. It’s easy to bike or drive the flat, straight roads, following blue signs with bunches of grapes to find many of the peninsula’s roughly 90 wineries.
We began with two pioneers.
Inniskillin wines opened in 1975 as Ontario’s first licensed winery in almost 50 years. Co-founder Karl Kaiser, an Austrian immigrant, was determined to make and drink the wines of his new country. In addition to producing table wines, he and partner Donald Ziraldo electrified the wine world by making New World icewines — sweet, highly concentrated wines from grapes that have literally frozen on the vine. Conditions to make icewine are hit or miss in Germany and Austria, where the style originated. Inniskillin hasn’t skipped a vintage since beginning in 1984. The winery even offers flights at its signature Icewine Tasting Bar.
A few miles away, former Algerian winegrower Paul-Michel Bosc planted Niagara’s first commercial vineyard devoted entirely to European wine grapes. That was 1978, and he wanted to prove that the grapes of Burgundy and Bordeaux could flourish in cold-climate Niagara. Mission accomplished. Of more than two dozen wines produced at Château des Charmes, we opted for “Four at Four’’ — a tasting of four wines with four snacks at 4 p.m. The gamay noir grape might make even better wine here than in its native Beaujolais. The Bosc family’s own distinctive clone (“Gamay Noir Droit’’) produces wine with an intense elderberry nose and soft tannins.
We found a snapshot of Niagara agriculture at the St. Catharines Farmers’ Market (Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday at Market Square), which dates from at least the 1860s. In mid-May, the tables overflowed with asparagus, rhubarb, lettuce, onions, radishes, and greenhouse tomatoes and sweet peppers. Baskets of cold-storage apples and colorful glass canning jars full of peaches demonstrated that grapevines haven’t completely displaced the historic tree fruit industry.
Farming west of St. Catharines was long dominated by Pennsylvania Dutch Mennonites who came north in the 1790s. We observed that legacy when we drove up to Vineland Estates Winery, with its handsome timber and stone structures atop a hillside planted in riesling grapes in 1979. Founder Hermann Weis retained the buildings of a former Mennonite farm, placing the Vineland tasting room inside the soaring, log-timbered 1877 barn. Within the 1845 farmhouse, the Vineland restaurant serves sophisticated contemporary fare that’s a match for the magnificent vineyard and forest views.
Where good wineries flourish, great restaurants often follow. Cave Spring Cellars, in picturesque nearby Jordan , claims the first winery restaurant in Canada. In 1987, the winery jump-started the village’s rejuvenation by moving into a limestone building that had housed a vinegar works. Now a smattering of boutiques clusters around the winery and its sister property, Inn on the Twenty, across the street in a former sugar mill. The dominoes fell naturally. The founders planted an abandoned pear orchard in riesling and chardonnay grapes and produced their first wines in 1986. They created a restaurant in 1993 and opened the inn in 1996.
We appreciated the synergy, enjoying a leisurely meal in On the Twenty restaurant overlooking the wetlands of Twenty Mile Creek. After roasted Chinook salmon from Lake Ontario paired with a zingy Cave Spring riesling, we walked across the street to our room at Inn on the Twenty and called it a night.
Less than 5 miles away, Tawse Winery was founded in 2001 to emulate the great wines of Burgundy. The cunning modern architecture of the facility allows the entire winemaking process to be gravity fed, from the delivery of grapes at the top of a hill to the cellaring in oak in subterranean caves. The four-time Canadian winery of the year makes organic and biodynamic wines. They include a Mâconnais-style chardonnay and a flagship pinot noir that would be great with roast chicken. In contrast to the winery’s sleek modernism, the vineyards are tended by a barnyard menagerie. Sheep graze on the lower canopy of the vines, while horses crop the upper canopy. Chickens strut up and down the rows, eating bugs and picking out weeds around the vines.
As Niagara gastronomy comes of age, craft brewing has also exploded. Niagara Oast House Brewers, located on a rural highway outside Niagara-on-the-Lake, combines serious brewing with a refreshing playfulness. Its big red barn, built in 1895, has housed a fruit basket factory, a fruit packing plant, a farmers’ coop, and even a John Deere dealership. Oast settled here in 2012 and goes through a silo of malted barley every three months. Franco-Belgian farmhouse ales in thick wine bottles are the brewery’s forté. Oast’s whimsical Rural Route canned beers include about a dozen made with local fruit, including a springtime strawberry rhubarb ale.
Genteel Niagara-on-the-Lake is home to the acclaimed Shaw Festival of new and classic drama. Downtown is anchored by the Victorian gingerbread Prince of Wales hotel, which serves a lavish daily afternoon tea. Inspired by their scones to make some at home, we stopped at Greaves Jams & Marmalades (55 Queen St.) for some Niagara fruit jams. That same bounty finds its way into the frozen confections of Il Gelato di Carlotta (59 Queen St.).
The town’s Backhouse restaurant perhaps best exemplifies the Niagara food and wine ethos. We had read such raves (voted best new restaurant in Canada in 2016) that we were surprised to find it in a small strip mall at the edge of town. Code requirements must be pretty strict for a restaurant that does all its cooking over burning logs at a waist-height stone hearth in an open kitchen. Chef Ryan Crawford and his cooks wear leather blacksmith’s aprons.
Crawford and his wife, general manager Beverley Hotchkiss, grow much of the food on their farm. The chef does his own butchering, smokes his own fish, and ferments, pickles, and preserves everything the restaurant can’t serve fresh. Prunings from local peach and cherry orchards provide the wood for cooking. “People are always dropping loads of wood at my house,’’ Crawford joked. The best seats are ringside at the chef’s counter — close enough to feel the heat and to watch chickens and sausages slowly smoke behind the flames. To drink? Niagara wines, of course.
If you go . . .
For an overview of Niagara wineries, see the Vintner’s Quality Alliance of Ontario (vqaontario.ca). See Visit Niagara (visitniagaracanada.com) for attractions, restaurants, and lodging. All wineries below are open daily. Restaurant hours vary with season. Prices are calculated at an exchange of US$1 = CAD$1.27.
Where to stay . . .
Inn on the Twenty
3845 Main St., Jordan; 905-562-5336; innonthetwenty.com ; rooms from $167, On the Twenty entrées from $23
Prince of Wales hotel
6 Picton St., Niagara-on-the-Lake; 905-468-3246; vintage-hotels.com/princeofwales; rooms from $180, afternoon tea from $25
What to do and where to eat . . .
Elements on the Falls
6650 Niagara Parkway, Niagara Falls; 905-354-3631; niagaraparks.com/visit/culinary/elements-on-the-falls-restaurant; entrées from $22
Inniskillin Niagara Estate Wines
1499 Line 3, Niagara-on-the-Lake; 905-468-2187, inniskillin.com; tasting flights from $15.75
Château des Charmes
1025 York Road, Niagara-on-the-Lake; 905-262-4219; fromtheboscfamily.com/chateau-des-charmes; tasting flights from $11.80
Vineland Estates Winery
3620 Moyer Road, Vineland; 888-846-3526; vineland.com; tasting flights from $11.80, three-course dinner from $38
Cave Spring Cellars
3836 Main St., Jordan; 905-562-3581; cavespring.ca; tastings from $1.60 per glass
3955 Cherry Ave., Vineland; 905-562-9500; tawsewinery.ca; tasting flights from $6.30
Niagara Oast House Brewers
2017 Niagara Stone Road, Niagara-on-the-Lake; 289-868-9627; oasthousebrewers.com; tastings from $1.45 per glass
10 Queen’s Parade, Niagara-on-the-Lake; 905-468-2172; shawfest.com; tickets from $25
242 Mary St., Niagara-on-the-Lake; 289-272-1242; backhouse.xyz; tasting menus from $55