With over 5,500 hectares of vineyards, the Niagara Peninsula is the largest and oldest wine region in Canada. Located in Southern Ontario, it is bounded by Lake Ontario to the north, the Niagara River to the east, the Welland River to the south and the city of Hamilton to the west.
The local wine industry did not really take off until the mid 1970’s when Donald Ziraldo and Karl Kaiser obtained the first winery license in Ontario in almost 50 years to establish Inniskillin Estate. Since then, the industry has grown rapidly and the quality of the wines has reached a very high standard considering such a young winemaking tradition.
Niagara wines first gained international recognition in 1991 when a bottle of Inniskillin ice wine was awarded the Grand Prix d’Honneur at Vinexpo in Bordeaux. While the region continues to produce icewines of outstanding quality today, Niagara’s diversity of wines is truly remarkable.
Niagara is particularly well suited to cool climate grape varieties such as Riesling, Chardonnay, Gamay Noir, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc, although more than 30 varieties are grown here. The moderating effects of Lakes Ontario and Erie and the protective influence of the Niagara Escarpment, create a moderate temperature zone during the spring and summer growing seasons, making Niagara a prime grape growing region.
In 2005, the industry recognized Niagara’s diverse terroir with the establishment of two regional appellations Niagara Escarpment and Niagara-on-the-Lake, as well as 10 sub-appellations. Today, there are 88 wineries in the region, 51 in the Niagara Escarpment (also known as The Bench) and 37 in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Wineries to Visit
During my week in the region, I had the chance to visit 13 wine estates. Here are my impressions of each of these visits.
Flat Rock Cellars
Located atop the Niagara Escarpment on the Twenty Mile Bench appellation, Flat Rock Cellars offers a beautiful view of the vineyards and Lake Ontario. Established in 1999, Ed Madronich’s family-owned winery has 80 acres of vines planted primarily with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Riesling with a small parcel of Gewürztraminer. The first commercialized vintage dates from 2003. Everything is done by hand in the vineyard, which is certified sustainable. From the arrival of the grapes in the cellar to the bottling, all the transfers are done by gravity. I had the chance to taste a lot of the wines produced by Flat Rock and I must say that the wines are of a very high quality and rather affordable. If you like chardonnay, pinot noir and riesling, a visit to Flat Rock Cellars is a must! flatrockcellars.com
Westcott Vineyards is a family estate created by Grant Westcott and Carolyn Hurst. They planted 26 acres of pinot noir and chardonnay vines, with a little bit of riesling. The first vintage was in 2012. In 2018, the estate acquired an additional 28 acres by purchasing the Butlers’ Grant winery. The estate’s philosophy for making great wines is to produce quality grapes and low yields and to be low interventionist in the winery, including the use of only native yeasts for fermentation. The wines have been vinified since 2018 by Casey Kulczyk, a true chardonnay and pinot noir enthusiast. The pinots and chardonnays are vibrant and complex. The traditional method sparkling wines are also very good. A domain to follow for pinot and chardo lovers. The prices are very reasonable considering the quality of the wines. westcottvineyards.com
Rennie Estate was created by Graham Rennie, a businessman with a passion for wine who acquired in 1997 a vineyard located at the Beamsville Bench on one of the best sites of the Niagara Escarpment (vines were already being cultivated in the early 60s). In 1999, Graham decided to replant Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. The vineyard now covers just under 49 acres. The first vintage dates from 2010. A big fan of appassimento wines, Graham traveled to Italy to learn about best practices and then invested in research to develop his own drying room adapted to the Canadian climate. There is no winery on site so the wines are produced at nearby Malivoire and also sold there. The wines are vinified by Shiraz Mottiar, Malivoire’s winemaker. The production is confidential, but of premium quality. I really liked the chardonnay and the pinot noir, while the appassimento reds are stunning and made for aging. Wines to discover urgently if you don’t know them yet. And as for Graham, it was really great to meet him. He is a true wine enthusiast who has followed his dreams to produce very unique wines! rennieestatewinery.com
Founded by businessman Moray Tawse, an avid fan of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from Bourgogne, Tawse is undoubtedly one of Niagara’s most renowned wineries. Tawse has been named Winery of the Year four times since 2010. The winery opened its doors to the public in 2005 with the goal of producing Burgundy-style wines that express the Niagara Escarpment terroir. The 197 acres of vineyards are managed organically and biodynamically and the wines are Ecocert certified. The reds are de-stemmed before pressing and the whites are gently pressed in whole clusters. The aromatic whites are fermented in stainless steel and the Chardonnays in French oak barrels using wild yeast. All red wines are fermented in oak barrels and aged in French oak for 12 to 18 months. The architecture of the winery has been carefully designed to be environmentally friendly. The wine moves gently by gravity from pressing to cellaring. A geothermal energy system has reduced the use of traditional forms of energy by 80%. I have had the chance to taste much of the portfolio of wines produced at Tawse and I have to say that balance and elegance are the common threads in their wines: good sparkling wines at a very affordable price, superb Riesling and Cabernet Franc, a very nice Gamay as well as some very elegant Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Special mention for their Meritage cuvée, a blend of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Tawse also produces cider and spirits. A winery not to be missed on your next visit to the Niagara region. tawsewinery.ca
Founded by a group of Quebecers with a passion for wine (including Champlain Charest), Queylus now produces some of the most sought-after wines of the Niagara region. The first vintage released was in 2010. Located at the top of the Niagara Escarpment, the estate cultivates nearly 30 acres of vines and grows primarily pinot noir, cabernet franc, chardonnay and merlot. Made for a long time by Thomas Bachelder, one of the country’s most talented and respected winemakers, the wines are now in the hands of Kelly Mason and Brooke Husband who continue to craft premium quality wines. The Pinot and Chardonnay wines are just stunning (especially the 2017 Chardonnay la Grande Réserve cuvée Champlain Charest). As for the Bordeaux-style blends, they are of great elegance. queylus.com
Cloudsley Cellars wines are truly some of my favorites in the region. I had the opportunity during my visit to taste the entire range of wines and Cloudsley produces some of the most delicate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir on the Niagara Escarpment. After working for many years in the wine importing business, Adam Lowy decided to create his own estate in the Twenty Mile Bench appellation. A big fan of Bourgogne wines, he decided to grow only Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. All the wines are fermented with native yeasts. The range of wines is absolutely delicious. Purity and elegance are the first two adjectives that come to mind to describe Adam’s wines. Special mentions for the 2018 Wingfield Vineyard Chardonnay and the 2018 Parke Vineyard Pinot Noir (but again, the entire lineup of wines is amazing). cloudsleycellars.com
Leaning Post Wines
Leaning Post Wines is definitely one of the highlights of my visit to Niagara. The winery, founded by Ukrainian-born couple Ilya and Nadia Senchuk, produces wines of exceptional quality with minimal intervention. After working as a winemaker for 12 years in the Niagara region, Ilya with his wife Nadia decided to start a virtual winery in 2009 (the date of the first vintage) before purchasing an old farmhouse in 2011, which they renovated and now use as their winery. Located in Winona on the western edge of Niagara’s wine country, Leaning Post opened its doors to the public in 2013. Today, it produces wines from a variety of appellations: Lincoln Lakeshore, St Davids Bench, Twenty Mile Bench, Beamsville Bench and Niagara Lakeshore. I was really impressed by all the wines tasted and by Ilya’s constant innovation spirit: the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are superb, the Riesling complex, especially The Geek, aged in a solera system, the Gamay delicious. I was also absolutely charmed by the Syrah, which should not be ashamed of the comparison with some wines from Côte-Rôtie in the northern Rhône Valley. As you can see, I have nothing but nice things to say about Leaning Post Wines, authentic and engaging winemakers, an irreproachable philosophy in the vineyards and in the cellar, a desire to innovate constantly (Ilya confided to me that he planted Dolcetto vines, I can’t wait to see the result!!!) and vibrant wines full of character. leaningpostwines.com
Located in the community of St. Davids in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ravine Vineyard has been a farm for many years. Owned by the Lowrey family since 1867, the first vines were planted two years later, making it one of the oldest vineyards in the region. The cultivation of fruit trees was nevertheless the main activity of the estate. It was not until the second half of the 20th century that fruit trees were gradually replaced by vines, and in 2004 that more noble grape varieties such as cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, chardonnay and riesling were planted. The estate now has nearly 35 acres of biodynamic (certified organic) vineyards located in the Niagara sub-appellation called St. Davids Bench. The first vintage was released in 2006. Ravine’s tasting room is located in a heritage home, Woodruffe House, built in the early 19th century. The estate also has an excellent restaurant where I had the chance to eat, as well as a very nice store featuring local produce. As for the wines, they are vinified by the oenologist Lydia Tomek. I particularly liked their riesling and cabernet franc as well as their traditional method sparkling wine. ravinevineyard.com
Located in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Big Head Wines is a family owned and operated winery that really impressed me with its innovation and the high quality and diversity of its wines. The Lipinski family, Andrjez the founder and winemaker and Jakub his son who is in charge of operations, are originally from Poland. The family immigrated to Canada in the early 90’s and Andrjez has been producing wine in the region since 1998. All wines are vinified following carbonic maceration with native yeasts, and their line of “RAW” wines made only from single varietals, are vinified in concrete tanks only, with whole bunches and are not filtered in order to express the purest expression of the varietal. The first vintage dates from 2011, the year in which Big Head started as a virtual estate. It’s not easy to choose between the wines because Big Head produces more than 40 different wines, and I enjoyed so many of them, but since I have to choose, I must admit that I really liked the RAW range, and in particular, the Riesling, Pinot Noir, Malbec and Syrah. In the regular range, I also really appreciated the viognier, the gewürztraminer and the ice wine made with riesling. A domain to discover urgently! bigheadwines.ca
Founded in 2008 by Bill Redelmeier, Southbrook was the first winery in Canada to obtain organic and biodynamic certification for both its vineyard and winery in 2010. Located in Niagara-on-the-Lake, the property consists of 60 hectares including 24 hectares of vineyards. Southbrook’s facilities are LEED®-Gold certified, featuring numerous green initiatives in water management, energy conservation, use of sustainable materials and resources and indoor air quality. The wines are elegant and approachable, and I have particularly enjoyed their skin-macerated wines, their chardonnay, their rosé and their premium cuvée called Poetica, made of cabernet sauvignon with a very small portion of merlot and petit verdot. southbrook.com
Located in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Stratus Vineyards is a winery that has impressed me with its commitment to sustainable viticulture, its state-of-the-art equipment and, most importantly, its exceptional quality wines. Stratus was founded in the early 2000s by David Feldberg with the goal of producing some of the best wines in the region. To achieve this, more than ⅔ of the estate’s vineyards were replanted, the planting density was changed as was the variety of grape varieties. The estate officially opened to the public in 2005. Stratus now owns 54 acres of vineyards spread over 40 plots on which the estate grows 16 grape varieties (11 red – 5 white). The gravity-flow winery was the first in the world to achieve full LEED certification. All wine transfers are done without pumping and the barrels in the cellar are kept at a constant temperature by geothermal energy. French winemaker Jean-Laurent Groux, a native of the Loire Valley, has been making wine in the Niagara region for the past 30 years! I have had the chance to taste most of the wines produced by Stratus and they are all of very high quality. Special mention goes to the Stratus Red and Stratus White, which are absolutely delicious Bordeaux-style blends. I also really enjoyed their unfiltered chardonnay, gamay, semillon and 100% petit verdot. A must visit winery if you plan to visit Niagara. stratuswines.com
Located on the Niagara River sub-appellation in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Two Sisters has quickly built a fine reputation for the quality of its wines. The vineyard was planted in 2007, but it wasn’t until 2014 that the estate opened its doors to the public. The first commercialized vintage dates back to 2010. The family estate created by sisters Angela Marotta and Melissa Marotta-Paolicelli now has 130 acres of vineyards, mainly planted with Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Chardonnay, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc. The estate has a beautiful tasting room and a restaurant featuring Italian cuisine. The wines are made by Adam Pearce and are all of very high quality. Two Sisters is best known for its red wines made from Bordeaux grapes. While their Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon, Merlot and Bordeaux blends are very well made (special mention for the Eleventh Post, the most accessible and affordable), I especially liked their traditional method sparkling wines as well as their Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. As for their signature cuvée, Stone Eagle, it is superb, if your wallet allows it ($140). twosistersvineyards.com
Where to stay?
While in the area, I was lucky enough to stay at 124 on Queen, a boutique hotel with a brand new spa in downtown Niagara-on-the-Lake. The newly renovated rooms are beautiful and the staff is very attentive. It is without a doubt one of the most comfortable places to stay close to the vineyards. 124queen.com
Several wineries offer accommodations in the heart of the vineyards, including Vineland Estates, Alvento Winery and 13th Street.
Other recommended accommodations include Riverbend Inn and Inn on the Twenty.
Where to eat?
Niagara is also a destination where the fine-dining offer is constantly growing. During my stay in Niagara-on-the-Lake, I had the chance to dine at Treadwell Restaurant. I can’t recommend this design restaurant enough, with its relaxed atmosphere and delicious cuisine. The all-local wine pairing (at my request) was also top notch. A restaurant not to be missed in downtown Niagara-on-the-Lake. treadwellcuisine.com
Of course, many wineries offer fine-dining experiences. The Restaurant at Pearl Morissette is one of the most famous. Personally, I particularly enjoyed my dinner at the restaurant at Ravine Vineyard. Some of the wineries’ restaurant to check are, amongst others, Trius, Two Sisters Vineyards, 13th Street Winery, Honsberger Estate, Vineland Estates, and Peller Estate.
I haven’t had a chance to eat at any of these restaurants (hopefully next time), but I’ve heard great things about The Good Earth Food and Wine in Beamsville and Dispatch in St. Catharines.
To learn more and plan your visit
I couldn’t finalize this article without emphasizing that Niagara is a top wine tourism destination. Whether you’re here for a weekend or your next vacation, the local wineries have everything in place to welcome wine lovers in the best conditions.
If you want to learn more about Niagara wines or plan a visit to the region, I invite you to visit winecountryontario.ca.
This article is a collaboration with Wine Country Ontario.