Niagara-On-the-Lake (NOTL) is located about a half hour north of Niagara Falls and an hour and a half south of Toronto), at the point at which the Niagara River meets Lake Ontario. This location, by the deep lake, sufficiently moderates temperatures to give the region a short, but still productive growing season for a wide range of grapes. Cold Novembers, meanwhile, provides a unique opportunity to produce some of the best, most sought-after ice wines in the world.
NOTL, however, offers much more than wine. Typically referred to as the “Prettiest Town in Canada,” it is a small, but lovely walking city and is the home of some very good restaurants and the annual George Bernard Shaw Festival. We had 24 hours (1:30 PM Tuesday to 1:30 PM Wednesday) to do it all.
NOTL Ice Wines and Beyond
Our first priority was to taste at as many of the region’s top wineries as possible. The high-level summary was that we found an amazing number of superb ice wines, a handful of very nice red and white varietals and two absolutely world-class (not to speak of highly environmentally friendly) wineries.
As for the ice wines, Vidal is by far the most popular, and certainly one of the most consistent ice wines. One reason is that it is a cool weather grape with skin that is thick enough to protect it from the rigors of freezing. Others include Riesling, Chardonnay and occasionally, reds (whose thin skins make freezing more problematic). Of the reds, Cab Franc (the most consistently good red in the region) is most popularly used for ice wines, with occasional use of Cab and Shiraz.
Some of our favorites are the Pilliteri (09 Vidal, 07 Chard and 07 Shiraz); Konzelmann 09 Vidal and 08 Cab); Peller 07 Signature Series Riesling; Megalomania 07 Coldhearted Riesling; Inniskillin 07 Oak-Aged Vidal and especially Cab Franc; Jackson Triggs Proprietor’s Reserve Vidal and Grand Reserve Riesling, Cab Franc and best of all, Gewürztraminer; Lailey 07 Vidal VQA and Coyote Run 08 Riesling.
Non-ice wines were, for our taste, somewhat less consistent and less impressive. Although we did try a range of white varietals (Sauv Blanc, Chard, Riesling, Pinot Grigio, Gevertz, Vidal, very few excited us. We did, however, fare somewhat better with reds. We had some decent Cabs, Cab Francs, Merlots and especially Bordeaux-based blends, although only a few (see below) really rang our bells.
There was, however, one red varietal in which we were, unfortunately, almost universally disappointed with the local wares. We found almost all of the local pinots (except for that from Tawse (see below) to be acidic and too lightly extracted. By the time we hit our second to last winery (Konzelmann), we were amazed to find a more balanced and fuller bodied Pinot. Only after expressing our surprise did we learn that the grapes for its WineMaster’s Collection 06 Pinot were sourced from Argentina!
Tawse and Stratus—Two Wineries Apart
This being said, we were extremely impressed by the facilities, commitments to sustainability, the people—and especially the wines—of two wineries—Tawse and Stratus. Both wineries were modern and designed to incorporate sustainable practices, such as gravity-fed processes and energy conservation and reuse. Stratus, meanwhile, is LEEDS Silver-certified. Tawse is organic and biodynamic and is planning to install solar panels.
Their most important distinctions, however, are the wines. Although both certainly had wonderful ice wines (especially Tawse’s 08 Quarry Road Chard and 09 Twenty Mile Bench Riesling and Stratus’s 08 Riesling and Semillon), both also offered very nice single individual varietals. Whites included Tawse’s 010 Riesling and 09 Robyn’s Blend Chard and Stratus’s 08 Sauvignon Blanc and Chard and its 09 Gevertz. Single varietal reds were exemplified by Tawse’s 08 Van Bers Cab Franc and David’s Block Merlot. Stratus’s particularly by its 08 Merlot and 07 Cab Franc.
Both also field some very nice premium blends. While Tawse limits its blends to a Meritage (currently 08), Stratus currently offers four: Its 07 Signature White (Sauv Blanc, Gevertz, Riesling, Chard and Semillon) and Red (Cab, Merlot and Cab Franc) and two 08 ice wines, its White (Riesling, Semillon and Vidal) and Red (Cab, Cab Franc, Mouvedre and Syrah) Tawse, believe it or not, even had nice fruity, but tart locally-grown Pinot (its 09 Grower’s Blend) which we enjoyed sufficiently to order at dinner.
Overall, no trip to NOTL would be complete without stops at both Tawse and Stratus.
A Taste of NOTL Food and the Culture
Although one could easily justify a trip for the wine alone, it would, in our mind, be a mistake. While our time in NOTL was limited, we did manage to squeeze in three lovely meals—two at what I would almost consider to be destination restaurants:
- Treadwell, which is scenically located on the water in Port Dalhousie, where we thoroughly enjoyed lunch of housemade gnocchi with wild mushrooms and a large charcuterie plate which included chicken liver mouse, pork pate, salami and smoked duck breast.
- Stone Road Grill, somewhat inauspiciously located in a NOTL strip mall, far surpassed its site in décor, service and especially food. We fully enjoyed the PEI mussels with red pepper cream sauce, the Albacore Tuna pork belly and wild mushroom and the roasted chanterelles. All went very well with a bottle of 09 Grower’s Blend Tawse Pinot.
On a more modest, but still delicious note, we needed a fast (but good) lunch before heading off for our final hours at Niagara Falls (see our next blog). After our tasting guide at Status gained our complete trust, we entrusted the choice of our last lunch restaurant to her. She recommended Stone Road Grill (at which we ate dinner), Epicurean (which looked very interesting, but had too long a line) and the somewhat less centrally-located Old Winery, which specialized in crispy-crust wood-fired pizzas. After seriously debating between their “Chardonnay” pizza (almond pesto, chicken, roasted peppers and ricotta) and their “Gamay” (tomato sauce, sausage, spinach, mushrooms, hazelnuts and truffle oil), we selected and fully enjoyed the Gamay.
But as attracted as we were to the region’s wine and food, we were also attracted to its culture. Every summer and fall for the last 50 years, NOTL has held its Shaw Festival. Although specializing in plays by George Bernard Shaw, it includes dozens of other playwrights, from old masters to promising newcomers. Since our short visit allowed us to select only one play (not to speak of a limited number of plays from which to choose at one specific date and time), we chose Heartbreak House, one of Shaw’s masterworks. Although ostensibly a romantic farce, the socialist social critic could not help but to incorporate multiple layers of meaning and commentary on matters such as the spiritual bankruptcy of Victorian England’s class-based society, the vacuity of aristocrats, the relative moral virtues of idealists versus capitalists, the follies of romanticism and what he felt was Britain’s misguided entry into World War I.
Although the second act was a bit long and in our view, overly farcical, it was, overall, a fun and thought provoking evening.