Located just an hour and a half south of Toronto by car, Ontario wine country provides a wealth of worthy wineries for oenophiles to enjoy—not to mention farm-fresh restaurants, cozy inns and stunning natural scenery. These tips will ensure a seamless tour of Ontario’s wine country to help you maximize your visit.
1.) Make Niagara Falls the first—or last—stop on your tour and take in the dramatic natural wonder, the most powerful waterfall in North America. Along the Niagara River, the Niagara River Recreational Trail runs 35 miles, ensuring plenty of opportunities to snap some great shots of both the American and Canadian Falls. Just wear a raincoat to protect against the infamous mist.
2.) Hire a car and driver, like Niagara Airbus or Niagara Wine Tours International, rates vary based on how long you plan to tour, but the price tag ensures you’ll be able to taste as many wines as you like, without having to get behind the wheel—or get lost. Plus, local drivers regale passengers with colorful bits of local legend as you wind through the Niagara Peninsula, especially concerning the War of 1812 where many battles were fought in the area.
3.) From Niagara Falls, head to Flat Rock Cellars, occupying a prime spot on the Niagara Escarpment called the Twenty Mile Bench near the village of Jordan. The boisterous and opinionated President, Ed Madronich, makes for a great tour guide (if you’re lucky enough to catch him). The 98-acre property features a glass-enclosed, hexagon-shaped tasting room with views straight across Lake Ontario (on a clear day, you can see Toronto’s famous CN Tower). While Flat Rock welcomes walk-ins, call ahead for a Reserve Tour ($10 CAD), you’ll walk through the vineyards and barrel room and have a private sit-down tasting of Flat Rock’s award-winning wines, including expressions of Chardonnay, Riesling and Pinot Noir.
4.) For a tasty lunch, head to Ravine Vineyard on St. David’s Bench. Its restaurant, Ravine Vineyard Bistro, is located on a fifth-generation, family-owned farm property that dates back to 1802. Fun fact: Chef/proprietor Paul Harber’s grandfather, Blair Fowler, invented the Harber-Lite folding lawn chair in 1946. The rustic Bistro offers local-ingredient-packed dishes from chefs Harber and Collin Goodine, like roasted beet and chèvre salad or baked apple and chestnut soup with peppercorn crème fraîche. The must-try dish is the popular brioche burger, topped with Pine River aged cheddar, smoked bacon and jalapeño. The restaurant is happy to pair dishes with Ravine’s signature wines, like its 2010 Sand & Gravel Cabernet Franc, 2009 Estate Reserve Unfiltered Chardonnay and 2009 Riesling Icewine, made by Winemaker Shauna White. Don’t miss the onsite organic garden, live music on Friday, Saturday and select Sunday nights and a wood-burning oven that can roast up to five pigs, a popular local summer pastime.
5.) For a modern, upscale wine tasting experience, make a stop at the 62-acre Stratus Winery. Practicing sustainable low-yield viticulture, Stratus was the first fully LEED-certified winery in the world. And no detail has been overlooked in the tasting room: interior designer Diego Burdi created a sleek, chic black-and-gray space complete with a massive, masterful painting, “Constellation Series,” by Richard Halliday, a Calgary-born artist. Flights are $10 CAD, and include a taste of Stratus’s four signature assemblage wines. “Assemblage wines are intended to capture the most complex and intriguing flavors of our vineyard each vintage,” says Suzanne Janke, director of hospitality and retail. Since Stratus Winemaker J-L (Jean-Laurent) Groux believes in the age-old theory that the sum is greater than the individual parts, “our goal is to capture the best expression of our vineyard each year,” says Janke. Tours of the winemaking facility are by appointment only, and private tastings pair stellar wines with local cheeses from Fifth Town Dairy.
6.) No visit to Ontario wine country is complete without a stop at Inniskillin—perhaps the region’s most famous winery, which arguably put Canadian wines (particularly icewines) on the map. The Inniskillin property offers a myriad of activities, most taking place in the historic, 1920s-era Brae Burn Barn: There’s a tour center, a wine tasting bar, a demonstration kitchen and a wine boutique. From June through October, visitors can sample inventive snacks created by Executive Chef David Penny at the winery’s “Market Grill” series (call for availability). Dishes are paired with a variety of Inniskillin’s well-known icewines, including Vidal- and Cabernet Franc-based selections for a $5-15 CAD fee.
7.) After a tour and tasting ($10-15 CAD) on the scenic 25-acre vineyard at Peller Estates Winery—one of the largest wine producers in Canada—dinner at the winery’s restaurant is a must-try. Located in a chateau-style building, the lavish experience includes a seasonally focused five-course tasting menu with wine pairings ($120 CAD), but Executive Chef Jason Parsons justifies the splurge. Signature dishes include salmon jerky with butternut squash ravioli, lobster linguini in a Chardonnay cream sauce and cider-glazed Nipissing Farm quail with maple baked beans, all paired with wines from the estate.
8.) Often called “the loveliest town in Ontario,” Niagara-on-the-Lake offers historic charm, a quaint main street dotted with boutiques and even a supposedly haunted tavern—The Olde Angel Inn, which traces its roots back to 1789. Stop by the casual, English-style pub for a pint after a long day of wine touring: The entire town, it seems, turns out in force for live music, hockey games and sing-alongs most nights. Who knows, you may well bump into the resident ghost, Captain Colin Swayze, who is said to have been killed in the basement of the inn during the War of 1812.
9.) If tasting wine isn’t enough, try one of the wine-centric treatments at the Shaw Club Spa (niagarasfinest.com/properties/shawclub) in downtown Niagara-on-the-Lake. There’s a pampering 55-minute vinotherapy facial ($105 CAD) incorporating antioxidant-rich extracts from grape seeds, stems, vines and leaves; or opt for the red wine wrap, said to improve circulation with a grape-skin scrub followed by a warming, red wine-based hydrating body mask ($110 CAD).
10.) For bed-and-breakfast-style overnight accommodations, the charming Harbour House Hotel in Niagara-on-the-Lake offers 31 rooms—many outfitted with sunken baths and cozy fireplaces—and a tasty sit-down breakfast. A fireplace in the lobby encourages mingling among guests, as does the wine and cheese hour, held daily from 4–5:30 pm nightly. Established in 1864, the Prince of Wales hotel (vintage-hotels.com/princeofwales/)—renamed in honor of a visit from the Duke and Duchess of York, who were later crowned King George V and Queen Mary—is another great option, offering Victorian charm in spades, along with a spa and onsite restaurant.
Located just an hour and a half south of Toronto by car, Ontario wine country provides a wealth of worthy wineries for oenophiles to enjoy. Click here to get the full guide to visiting.