For two years in a row now, we’ve taken a summer weekend trip up to Niagara-on-the-Lake (NOTL for short) in Ontario, Canada, and primarily for two reasons. The first is the incredible Shaw Festival, which is a several-months-long celebration of great theater held there each year (it will have its own post soon), and the second is the amount of fantastic wineries scattered throughout the region.
As we’ve gotten more into the serious business of wine, we have learned about the effects of climate and location on different varietals, which is what makes our annual excursion to explore Canada’s wine so different from our yearly trips out west to Central Coast. At the end of our three days of wine tasting, we brought home 16 bottles of wine, and a whole mess of stories and adventures.
One of the things that made this wine weekend so great was that we got to take two wine-tasting newbies with us: my parents!! Since they turned 60 at the end of 2010, we decided to reward them for their dedication to a new decade with a birthday trip to NOTL. The catch, of course, was that they were going to have to join us for some wine escapades. Little did I know, we were about to create two monsters… But I’m getting ahead of myself 🙂
Our first stop was Lailey Winery. We were graciously given free tasting tickets to several of the wineries along the Niagara Parkway (which runs along the Niagara River) by our B&B hosts, Chris and Jen, at the Historic Pacific B&B in town.
As you can see from the sign, one of the spotlights at Lailey (and most NOTL wineries) is their icewine. Icewine is something thats rather unique to the northern climate, as it requires very specific criteria to be classified as such.
Among the rules set by the VQA (the organization who oversees winemaking in Canada), icewine grapes must be harvested at temperatures below -8 degrees Celsius, and they cannot be harvested any earlier than November 15. The wines also have to meet certain sweetness requirements, and anyone who wants to make icewine has to register with the VQA and take yearly ‘continuing education’ courses on it.
Because of these stringent guidelines and the way the icewine is processed, it takes a lot of grapes to make a little bit of icewine, and you wind up with very sweet and syrupy products that are typically also very expensive (icewine bottles can easily range from $70-100 and up). For us, the icewine is a little too sweet to drink on a regular basis, but as a taste at the end of a wine sampling, or as the topping to an ice cream sundae dessert, icewine can be just perfect.
So, at Lailey, after sampling their chardonnay, cab franc, and pinot noir, we had a few sips of their vidal icewine. (Icewine is typically of one of three varietals: vidal, Gewurztraminer, or riesling, although Ontario is seeing an increase in cab franc icewines as well.)
My parents were a little skeptical at first, but they really liked the Lailey 2010 Riesling, and they picked up a bottle, which we all shared at the B&B the next evening. We got the chardonnay, which was super crisp and pear-flavor-y. I love pears, and the pears in the NOTL region are awesome.
Next stop was the Reif Estate Winery, along the same stretch of road. This was where things started really getting good!
Our sommelier for this round of tasting was Pia, and if you should find yourself in NOTL, and at Reif, you should definitely look for her. This is a girl who truly knows her stuff, and loves to share it. My dad is a very basic beer kind of guy (and only one kind of beer, and that’s Miller Lite), and he is a little weird about being open-minded when it comes to wine and new foods or drinks, so I have to give Pia all the credit in the world for really working with him to find something he liked!
And believe it or not, she managed to pull of this amazing feat! She first won him over with their gewurtz riesling, which had a nice pineapple-y aftertaste to it. And then, when he complained that he can’t stand red wines, she found the red wine to defy all expectations: the Mennaz wine from Reif’s Jera Collection, a set of wines that celebrates the essential parts of the harvest (Mennaz, meaning humanity). My dad was so thrilled to finally find a red that wasn’t like any other red wine he’d ever had, so my parents picked up a bottle.
We got a bottle of ‘The Magician,’ a shiraz/pinot blend that was sooooo pepper-cherry delicious! Shiraz is not something that grows particularly well in the NOTL region, but pinot definitely is, so we were interested to see what they could do with this blend, and we loved it! Can’t wait to crack that bottle with some yummy pork this fall.
Tour groups are definitely welcome at Reif – while we were there, a bus of German tourists was visiting, and our wine consultant Pia greeted us in English and them in German! We truly enjoyed this winery, with delicious wines and great prices, too!
Next stop was Inniskillin, a winery with the unique aspect of two locations… across the country from each other. In addition to their NOTL winery, they have a location in Okanagan, which is in British Columbia. This has led to their East-West line of wines, which uses grapes from both vineyards.
But so was their cab franc. Cab franc is one of those wines that’s nearly impossible to find in Pittsburgh, but plentiful in NOTL. And since we only make it up there once a year… well, we bought the cab franc. And we picked up a tiny little bottle of their cab franc icewine as well.
My parents bought the icewine three-pack sampler. They are crazy about the sweet stuff (or at least my mum is). Canadian wine tasting is just perfect for them, although I don’t know how well they’d fare at Zinfest with us next March 🙂
Our final stop of Thursday was the majestic Peller Estates, which boasts a huge tasting room and a full restaurant (as food/wine pairings are a highlight of their winemaking).
Here, we sampled their riesling and vidal icewine, but also their meritage, which is more commonly seen in west coast wineries of Sonoma and Paso Robles (as it must be made of Bordeaux-blend wines), but has been done quite well by many of the Ontario wineries. Their meritage is a blend of cab franc, cab sauv, and merlot. Yummy!
So, that wraps up day one of our wine-tasting adventure! Two more days of awesome wineries to go through, so check back soon.