A sampling of Ontario’s wineries

There’s a revolution going on at your local liquor store. Stacked alongside the Beaujolaises and Chiantis, shelves are piled high with Ontario wines – names like Inniskillin, Hillebrand and Magnotta – relative upstarts re-shaping the way Canadians spend their beverage dollars.

Running the gamut from large commercial operations to small family-run farms, Ontario’s 36 wineries year after year receive accolades for their product, particularly the vintages. As the largest producer of table and sparkling wines in Canada – 36 million litres bottled each year, worth in excess of $257 million – Ontario has even established the Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA), an association system regulating all wines grown in the province’s three grape-growing regions (Niagara-on-the-Lake, Lake Erie’s north shore and Pelee Island).

The best part is most of these wineries are opening their doors to the public for tastings and other wine-related events. Many of them are taking the wine tasting experience a little further, offering cordon bleu cuisine (whether it’s for breakfast, lunch or dinner), deluxe accommodation… even a dash of culture. A wine neophyte, I was invited last fall to join a oup of experts (wine and food correspondents for the likes of Chatelaine and Canadian Living) to sample some of Ontario’s finest from the Niagara region.

But this was to be more than just a tasting in a stuffy hotel. We were going whole hog, sampling the wines at the wineries themselves, following a part of the highly acclaimed Wine Route established by the Wine Council of Ontario.

First stop was Cave Spring Cellars, tucked away in the quaint pioneer settlement of Jordan, adjacent the Niagara Escarpment and just 25 kms from the Falls. Founded in 1986, Cave Springs is a shining example of the rise in popularity of Ontario’s wines. In just 12 years, their production of wine has grown from a modest 500 cases to an astounding 35,000 cases a year. Varieties produced (all of them available from the winery’s own shop) include award winning Chardonnays, Rieslings and Cabernets.

A tour of the winery and cellars is a must. Huge storage casks line the walls of the cool underground cellar, reputedly the largest in Ontario. Once above ground, spend some time wandering around Jordan itself. While it’s pretty small (the length of a city block), its heritage buildings house a variety of interesting stores, including an art gallery, a book store dedicated to wine-related topics, antique stores… even a shop devoted to Teddy Bears.

Finish your tour with a visit to the winery’s restaurant, On the Twenty. Not only was it Ontario’s first winery-based dining room, it’s amongst the best – and the view is breathtaking. As you enjoy the unique fare (check out the Chardonnay-smoked trout), ponder this thought: much of what you’re eating has travelled no more than a few miles to your plate. Chef Michael Olson (who will also whip up a tasty granola and yoghurt breakfast on demand – ask for the recipe) even grows on-site many of the herbs he uses in his cooking. In fact, the restaurant could almost be mistaken for a Mediterranean greenhouse, there’s that much plant life around the place. To cap it all, On the Twenty has been selected as the Ontario Hostelry Institutes Restaurant of the Year. For reservations, call (905) 562-7313.

For those wanting to spend more time at Cave Springs, the winery has its own accommodation – the Vintners Inn, located across Jordan’s quiet, tree-lined main street. For rates and other information, call 1-800-701-8070. For details about winery tours, call (905) 562-3581.

Next stop, Henry of Pelham Family Estate Winery. As the name suggests, this is a family affair, and a visit is likely to result in your bumping into at least one or two members of the clan. Located near St. Catherines, the winery is centred around a 150 year-old tavern – a tavern built, in fact, by one Henry Smith, a great-great grandfather of today’s owners.

Smith owned and operated the tavern (it doubled as an inn) from 1842 until his death in 1856, and it’s been in the family ever since (a family cemetery nearby is the final resting place of Smith and many members of his family). In its heyday, the Inn was famous for the hospitality of its owner, along with its dances and social gatherings, a draw for revellers across the Niagara region.

Today, the wonderfully restored Inn houses the winery’s offices and serves as the centre for tastings. Among the wines you can sample are a variety of award winning Rieslings, Chardonnays and my personal favourite (not just because the price is right), the Vidal.

Perhaps what really sets this winery apart is the special events it hosts each year. The highlight is undoubtedly the annual Shakespeare in the Vineyard. This year sees the production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (July 18 and 19), certainly one of the most magical and uplifting of the Bards many works. Food and wine are available before and after the performance, presenting a great opportunity to sample the winery’s vintages. Tickets are just $5, and all proceeds go to the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Ontario. For reservations, call (905) 684-8423 or (905) 688-0517.

One final note: Be sure to take a designated driver along for the ride. While the pros don’t swallow their wine samples, most of us amateurs do.