Many years ago when Anna Hyman was visiting a friend’s family in Ontario they would drive past acres of farm land, with maybe an occasional winery putting in an appearance. Today, as she discovered, it is more likely to be acres of grape vines interspersed with a little farm land.
Wine of sorts has been made in Ontario at least since the early explorers discovered wild grape vines growing. Over the decades experiments were made, new vines from Europe were introduced, but with little success. Until, however, Johann Schiller, a German soldier, moved to the Niagara region in 1811 and bought land. He had made wine in his home country, and having acquired hybrids from Pennsylvania began successfully to produce wine.
Unfortunately he died four years later and his sons had no interest in making wine. But luckily in 1864 Justin de Courtenay, a Frenchman who had been trying to produce red wine in Quebec bought the land for wine production. He succeeded to such an extent that his Gamay wine was a prize winner in the Paris Exposition of 1867. He formed his own company, introduced new grapes and became the largest wine producer in Ontario.
Today Ontario produces super wine
Producing the right grape varieties for wine proved difficult, the climate was not right for many vines; nevertheless by 1890 there were 35 commercial wineries in Ontario.
During the next 70 or so years there was a shift away from the sweeter dessert style of wine in favour of dryer wines.
With the introduction of more French and hardier hybrids, plus general advances in wine production skills, came a marked improvement in the quality of the wine.
Today Ontario produces superb wine (incidentally southern Ontario is on the same latitude as southern France).
The growers have realised that there are a number of varietals which can grow happily in the province.
The Niagara region, which has three different climatic and terroir zones, and now boasts some 55% of Ontario’s VQA (Vintners Quality Alliance) wineries, is no exception.
The soil is mineral rich and fertile and the microclimates provide ideal growing conditions for grape varieties such as Riesling, Chardonnay, Gamay Noir, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc.
Don’t miss the iconic Falls
We were in the region not only to see the iconic Niagara Falls - up close and personal - but to learn more about its glorious wines, and experience for ourselves its reputation for first class cuisine.
We hit the deck running. Straight off our Air Canada flight at Toronto’s Pearson International airport, into our minibus for the 120kmm drive to Niagara on-the-Lake and the very comfortable and friendly Shaw Club Hotel (which incidentally serves fantastic breakfasts) and straight out to dinner at the very elegant Two Sisters Vineyards.
The Two Sisters Vineyards
The Two Sisters Vineyards is a comparatively young vineyard, only started by the two sisters in 2007, but already producing award-winning wines under the direction of winemaker Adam Pearce.
Even though Fall was settling in it was still gloriously warm that September evening as we wandered through the manicured grounds down from the terrace to admire the rows of vines, before returning to dine al fresco whilst enjoying idyllic surroundings and sunset.
Dishes with a strong Italian influence
It was a memorable dinner produced by Chef Justin Lesso and his colleagues in the vineyards’ Kichen76; strong Italian influences combined with good local produce and a talented chef resulted in beautifully cooked full of flavour dishes. Kitchen76 is open for both lunch and dinner; though the lunch menu puts more emphasis on pizza and pasta dishes.
Meeting the Olsons
And it was at the Two Sisters Vineyards that we were to meet two people who were to play a significant role in our appreciation and enjoyment of the food and wine of the lovely Niagara region: Chef Tutor, Michael Olson, and his delightful wife, the TV celebrity chef, Anna Olson.
We met up again with Anna and Michael Olson the next day at the Vineland Estates Winery set in the glorious undulating countryside of the Niagara Escarpment, a few minutes helicopter ride or 30 minutes’ drive from the awe-inspiring Niagara Falls.
Vineland Estates Winery
The original building, a Mennonite farmhouse, along with barns and outhouses dates back to the 1840s. The original farmhouse is now an excellent restaurant, whilst a barn has been converted into a stylish wine tasting area and a too tempting shop selling gourmet food items.
A stunning lunch and a Riesling with the wow factor
We stopped to watch a trailer load of grapes being off-loaded before beginning their transformation into the impressive wine Vinelands produces, some of which we sampled during lunch on the restaurant’s terrace. The food cooked by Executive Chef Justin Downes and his team was stunning as were the wines. Riesling is not my favourite wine but then I had never experienced Niagara Riesling before, and this was a Riesling with the wow factor.
After lunch Anna and Michael introduced us to Jordan, the town where they had met and first worked together, before taking us on to the Upper Canada Cheese Company (or cheesy heaven as I prefer to call it) for a tasting.
Cheesy Heaven at the Upper Canada Cheese Company
Upper Canada Cheese Company produces its award-winning cheeses from milk from local Guernsey cows, the flavours varying according to the season and what the cows have been fed on. The cheeses are then aged in the company’s cellars.
The cheeses are delicious: Niagara Gold, washed rind, semi-firm, mellow and nutty flavoured; Comfort Cream, creamy, camembert-style and buttery; Maple Smoked Comfort Cream, a smoked version of Comfort Cream, but less ripe; Guernsey Girl, slightly salty and evidently great for grilling or frying; Nanny Noir, camembert-style but rolled in vegetable ash and Nosey Goat Camelot, semi-firm, slightly salty goat cheese – probably my favourite of them all.
Along with the tasting counter is a shop with all sorts of cheese related products and other gourmet goodies.
Whitty Farms and butter tarts
The Olsons had been trying to explain butter tarts to us. Realising that no amount of verbal descriptions could quite capture these sweet delights there was nothing for it but find somewhere that actually made and sold them. The answer was Whitty Farms shop, conveniently close to, and indeed partnered with, Thirteenth Street Winery.
Whitty Farms shop sells an astonishing array of fresh fruit and vegetables alongside fruit juices, preserves, ice creams and baked goods – that just happened to include butter tarts.
Into small pastry cases is poured a mixture of butter, sugar, syrup and egg which is then baked until barely set. Depending on preference they may or may not include nuts or raisins. They are incredibly sweet and, at the risk of never being allowed back into Canada, they are too sweet for me, but in all truth I don’t have a sweet tooth.
Thirteenth Street Winery
Thirteenth Street Winery, actually on Fourth Avenue, came as something of a surprise.
Housed in a beautifully restored old farmhouse we found not only a tasting bar but also an elegant Gallery Room with floor to ceiling windows.
At its centre a massive solid wood table and on the walls interesting modern art exhibits. And it was seated round the table that we learnt more about Niagara-style wine making from award-winning French winemaker Jean-Pierre Colas.
Having worked his way up from pruning vines, to cellar man and gaining experience with houses like Domaine Laroche he left his native France to gain further worldwide experience before eventually settling in Ontario.
He swiftly realised that that the region had fantastic potential for wine production.
His aim, as he put it, to produce wines with elegance and balance. By using the best grapes, from the best vineyards he is achieving his aim making glorious reds - Gamay Noir, Cabernet Franc, Syrah and Pinot Noir along with tantalising whites -Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, and Gewurztraminer.
One of Canada’s most iconic products must surely be Maple Syrup. At our next stop at White Meadow Farms’ Maple Sweet Shop at Pelham, we were to discover more about this sweet treat. White Meadow Farms produces four grades of 100% pure maple syrup. The grades relate to the weather at the time the sap is collected, giving each grade its own unique flavour:
Light has the mildest of maple undertones and is a light gold in colour with a delicate, sweet almost buttery flavour; Medium has a more distinct maple flavour and a rather more golden colour; Amber takes its name from its colour – a luscious dark amber with a definitely stronger maple taste; and finally Dark, almost black with a very pronounced flavour, more usually used for glazes on cooked meats, in a marinade or even as a substitute for sugar in certain recipes, as opposed to the other grades more suitable for pouring over desserts and pancakes.
Drill a hole and the sap starts flowing
Often described as liquid gold, maple syrup is only produced in very select areas which have the right temperature and the right varieties of maple trees. The sap is a sweetish watery fluid which includes various essential acids, vitamins and minerals. During the growing season it moves throughout the tree feeding it. By drilling a hole into the tree some of the sap starts to flow from it, and when a tap is inserted, along with a container of some sort, sap can be collected. This only occurs at certain temperatures during the year – and lasts for approximately only four to six weeks.
The container has to be emptied at least once a day and by one means or another taken to an evaporator for boiling. Boiling is a lengthy process as the liquid has to be extensively reduced down – some 40 pails of sap equates to one pail of maple syrup – before it reaches the finishing and filtering and bottling process. Making maple syrup is lengthy, difficult and complicated; the finished product fully justifying its description of ‘liquid gold’.
However, Ontario and the Niagara region are noted for something else that could also be described as ‘liquid gold’ – luscious ice wine.
Inniskillin Winery on the outskirts of the pretty town of Niagara-on-the-Lake on the Niagara Parkway was the brain child of Donald Ziraldo and Karl Kaiser. In 1974 Ziraldo had planted a vineyard of European vines - Riesling, Chardonnay and Gamay. A year later he and Kaiser, a chemist and home wine maker, joined forces founding Inniskillin Wines. Its licence, in 1975, was in fact the first post-prohibition license issued in the region.
Why was the winery called ‘Inniskillin’ I wondered. Evidently it refers back to Ziraldo’s original vine nursery which was on a farm owned in the 1800s by a Colonel Cooper and named for his Irish Regiment - the Inniskilling Fusiliers.
Luscious Ice Wine
The first harvest was in 1977 with the company producing red and white table wines; but the first ice wine did not appear until 1984.
German and Austrian vineyards had been producing Eiswein for some while and in 1983 it occurred to Kaiser and three other Ontario wineries that with the harsh winters if grapes were left on the vine to freeze that they too could produce ice wine. That first December two of the wineries lost their crops to the birds.
The solution, for 1984, was simple – net the vines. Success. Inniskillin became one of the first wineries in Canada to produce ice wine and the first, to do so in commercially worthwhile quantities.
They were so successful that in 1991 their 1989 Vidal ice wine won the Grand Prix d’ Honneur at that year’s Vinexpo.
Today the company produces award winning VQA table wines along with the delicious ice wine. One of the original buildings, the Brae Burn barn, has now become a sophisticated visitor centre with a restaurant, tasting bar and shop. On site is also a Demonstration Kitchen where talented Estate Chef Tim MacKiddie holds sessions on different cooking techniques, when not in his kitchen preparing dishes for visitors.
Wineries continue to grow
The number of wineries in the Niagara region continues to grow. They, along with lovely rolling countryside, the wide choice of superb restaurants and local produce, convinced me, that the next visit has to be much, much longer so I can even more appreciate everything that Niagara and Ontario has to offer.
Shaw Club Hotel: www.niagarasfinest.com/properties/shawclub
Two Sisters Vineyard: www.twosistersvineyards.com
Vineland Estates Winery: www.vineland.com
13th Street Winery: www.13thstreetwinery.com
Inniskillin Winery: www.inniskillin.com
For visitors using self-catering accommodation we can heartily recommend the wonderfully fresh produce on sale from Inn The Pines, Farmgate, St Catharines: www.innthepinesonline.com
Ontario and Niagara: www.travelontario.co.uk, www.niagarafallstourism.com/about/niagara-on-the-lake and www.seetorontonow.com/