Looking for a primo day out of town? Drive around the lake and take advantage of the Niagara Peninsula’s upside down view of Ontario (the lake is north for them). And while you’re there, try some wine. Most of the wineries offer tastings and sell premium wines that are rarely available at the LCBO. These bottles show what this region is really capable of. Until October 1, the Niagara Wine Festival is under way. Wineries are hosting special events, and St. Catharines is putting on parades, concerts and the annual crowning of Ontario’s Grape King or Queen. Here are some good places to pull in for a sip stop.
WHAT: Fielding Estates
WHERE: 4020 Locust Lane, Beamsville, 905-563-0668, www.fieldingwines.com
WHY: Fielding's tasteful tasting room overlooks the Beamsville Bench, a gentle rise of vine-covered fields that work their way up to the Niagara Escarpment. This is a small-scale, high-investment operation. In geek-speak, we're talking low-yield, hand-picked, aged in French oak vintages. This commitment to quality shows up in wines like the 2004 Meritage, a Bordeaux-style blend. Crafted by Andrzej Lipinski (no longer at Fielding), this elegant red impresses.
PICK OF THE CROP: 2004 Fielding Meritage Reserve, 750 ml/$40
WHAT: Flat Rock Cellars
WHERE: 2727 Seventh Avenue, Jordan, 905-562-8994, www.flatrockcellars.com
WHY: At Flat Rock, less is more. They only grow the grape varieties they think are best suited to Niagara: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Riesling. In the beautiful panoramic visitor centre, you can sample all of the above. The off-dry Riesling, aged in stainless steel and topped with an admirable screw cap, is a zippy winner, displaying Flat Rock's high-quality, non-industrialized winemaking.
PICK OF THE CROP: 2005 Flatrock Riesling, 750 ml/$16.95
WHAT: Jackson-Triggs Niagara Estate Winery
WHERE: 2145 Regional Road 55, Niagara-on-the-Lake, 905-468-4637, www.jacksontriggswinery.com
WHY: You could take all the other wineries in this article and fit them into a corner of Jackson-Triggs. But big doesn't necessarily mean bad. While churning out scads of serviceable bottles, J&T also has a stash of limited-release labels that can compete with anything in the region, like this luxurious Delaine Vineyard Chardonnay. Even if you're a teetotaller, it's worth stopping in just to ogle the architecture.
PICK OF THE CROP: 2004 Jackson-Triggs Delaine Vineyard Chardonnay, 750 ml/$19.99
WHAT: Niagara College Teaching Winery
WHERE: 135 Taylor Road, Niagara-on-the-Lake, 905-641-2252, www.nctwinery.ca
WHY: Who didn't drink while they were at school? Here, you don't get expelled - unless you're drinking crap. Students learn all aspects of winemaking, and their class projects - reds, whites and icewines - have won numerous prizes and are stocked in some of Toronto's better cellars. You can only buy these wines at the college store, and they're worth the trip. The 2004 Wismer Vineyard Pinot Noir was a Niagara highlight and the 2005 might be even better.
PICK OF THE CROP: 2005 NCT Pinot Noir Wismer Vineyard, 750 ml/$21.95
WHAT: Tawse Winery
WHERE: 3955 Cherry Avenue, Vineland, 905-562-9500, www.tawsewinery.ca
WHY: Tawse has some of Niagara's oldest vines on its 30 acres, with a particular focus on Chardonnay. Under the supervision of renowned Niagara winemaker Deborah Paskus, Tawse is crafting rich, pungent premium wines like the Robyn's Block 2003 Chardonnay. Like Flat Rock, Tawse employs a gentle gravity-fed system and environmentally sound geothermal temperature control.
PICK OF THE CROP: 2003 Tawse Robyn's Block Estate Chardonnay, 750 ml/$48