NIAGARA NEW VINTAGE FESTIVAL at various locations, June 4 to 12. www.grapeandwine.com.
On a stormy weekend last spring, I wasn't the only one racing from winery to winery trying to get a first look at Niagara's 2003 vintage. A visit to Ontario's wine country offers wine consumers of all stripes unparalleled opportunities to learn more about what they like to sip and savour. There's easy access to wine tastings, informative tours and restaurants with amazing wine-country cuisine.
On this trek there was a steady stream of grape nuts travelling through rain, sleet and snow, beating a path to the cellar door of their favourite vintner, hoping to be first in line.
At the risk of making too sweeping a generalization, I think fresher is better when it comes to aromatic white wines. I like to enjoy them as young as possible. There's a thrill to getting a crack at that fruit and perfume when it's young, vivacious and ultra-fresh, which is why I wound my way through the cold and grey in search of electric versions of Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris.
The dreary weather made my anticipation of a burst of in-your-face flavour all the keener. Tours of Niagara used to be casual, with compulsory stops at top Riesling producers Cave Spring Cellars in Jordan and Vineland Estates in Vineland before heading west toward Niagara-on-the-Lake.
In the span of a day, you could do justice to the fledging wine scene, enjoying the scope of producers – from boutique to large volume – and fitting in a leisurely lunch along the way.
A stop at Marynissen Estates in Niagara-on-the-Lake inevitably signalled the end of the day, leaving the car groaning under the weight of the bottles in the trunk, and your teeth stained a bruise-like purple from sipping and spitting Marynissen's robust range of Cabernets and Merlot.
Today, it takes the better part of a day to make it through the wineries of Beamsville alone, never mind leisurely lunches. Play your cards right, though, and you can enjoy a piece of Mrs. Lenko's pie after tasting son Daniel's impressive range of reds, whites and rosés at Daniel Lenko Estate (5246 Regional Road 81, Beamsville, 905-563-7756). The stunning range of wines produced from some of the oldest Chardonnay vines in Canada and older blocks of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon can be tasted at the family's kitchen table.
A stop at Lenko's brings that recent ad campaign about Ontario wines to life. The quirky TV spot plays off the divergent styles and winemaking approaches of Ontario's vintners, explaining that the wines have as much character as the people who make them.
These differences in winemaking style and approach are evidenced in the peninsula's 50-plus wineries. Some are cathedrals of Chardonnay and Cabernet, others converted houses, barns and garages that have been retro-fitted with winemaking equipment and tasting rooms. Each has its own charm and personality.
The wine route is very much a work in progress. New producers continue to open up their cellar doors. This spring marks the official opening of Fielding Estate Winery in Beamsville, Tawse Winery in Vineland, Flat Rock Cellars in Jordan and Stratus Vineyards in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Each is a must-taste destination for anyone looking to sample great Ontario wines. These openings will undoubtedly add to the buzz surrounding the region's 10th annual eight-day Niagara New Vintage Festival, featuring special tasting and touring opportunities at more than 36 wineries.
Two large-scale consumer tastings provide the fest's focus: the Spring Garden Party at Ball's Falls Conservation Area in Jordan on June 5, and the signature winetasting gala at the St. Catharines Golf and Country Club June 11. (See listings, page 44).
More wine country attractions
Niagara is famous for grapes and that world- famous waterfall, but there are many other spots along the way worth visiting. Antiques and Artists Route, Niagara-on-the-Lake Follow the mustard-coloured signs directing you to shops and studios in Niagara-on-the-Lake's heritage district and beyond. Niagara-on-the Lake Chamber of Commerce, 905-468-1950, www.niagaraonthelake.com. Shaw Festival Shaw's three stages in Niagara-on-the-Lake are in full swing until late November, running 10 productions in repertory including the flagship production, You Never Can Tell, and mainstage musical Gypsy. 1-800-511-SHAW, www.shawfest.com.
Mackenzie Printery and Newspaper Museum The home of political reformer William Lyon Mackenzie now houses a working Linotype and eight operating heritage presses as part of an overarching exploration of 500 years of letterpress printing. 1 Queenston Street, Queenston. 905-262-5676 www.niagaraparks.com.
Niagara Parks Butterfly Conservatory More than 2,000 species of butterflies call this glass-enclosed rainforest setting home, giving flight to the idea that Niagara Falls is home to culture as well as kitsch. 2405 Niagara River Parkway, Niagara Falls, 1-877-642-7275, www.niagaraparks.com
Niagara Fallsview Casino and Resort The latest addition to the Niagara Falls skyline, Fallsview Casino boasts gaming, upscale retail boutiques and fine dining at 17 Noir, which has quickly established itself as one of the region's top restaurants. 6380 Fallsview, Niagara Falls. 1-888-FALLSVUE, www.discoverniagara.com. CW