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Aug 16, 2007 02:44 PM

My favorite Ontario Wineries

I am moving back to Toronto after 18 months abroad. I used to take pride is making all my Quebec friends and family discover quality Ontario wines to match fabulous Quebec cheeses... So after reading a nice summary post on good places to find fresh food in Toronto I was inspired to recycle an old email that I typically send to people if I don't have the time to accompany them. Again it's been almost two years since my last "Niagara Tour" so the information might be a bit obsolete but I can at least assure you that where I say it's good... I've tried it personally and many friends alike and... it's good! Actually more suggestions would really be welcome. The best part to remember about Ontario wineries is that if they are on the "official" wine route and or if there is parking for buses... DON'T GO. My best finds have always been word of mouth and places that are not advertised and that don't sell to the LCBO. By the way, Malivoire is always looking for people to pick grapes in January for their ice wine cuvée and I dream of the day I will go because dinner (and plenty of wine) is on the house and it is supposed to be a really wonderful experience. The downside is it has to be minus 8 Celsius for three days in a row so it is a bit unpredictable, especially if you have to sleep over (wine helping) and show up for work in Toronto the next day. Hope you like my suggestions and please make others... I am moving back in September.

*Lakeview Winery (excellent and cheap red gamay, impressive starboard) More into table wines...

4037 Cherry Avenue, Vineland

*Stratus (ultrapremium white and red - for the connaisseur) Haven't been yet but it is supposed to be already producing cult wines. Only winery on this list located in Niagara instead of Beamsville. Ask questions about architecture, etc.

2059 Niagara Stone Road, Niagara

*Lenko (premium everything, I recommend the Late Harvest Vintage similar to Ice wine for one third the price, the raspberry wine (similar to ice wine), the 2002 unoaked chard, and everything else you fancy). One of the best wineries of Ontario. Will run out of late harvest and raspberry VERY SOON

5246 King Street, Vineland

*Malivoire (excellent Gamay, chard, ice wine, rosemary cooking syrup, house signature rose is ok) One of the best wineries of Ontario as well.

4260 King Street, Vineland

*Tawse (new kid on the block, opened spring 2005, ask for Brad and say Marjorie sent you, and taste those UNBELIEVABLE Chards (Beamsville Bench assemblage is best). Cabernet Franc very good as well but not for that price ($40). Incredible Riesling (the 2002 and 2003 Carly's Block" Estate ones. Ask questions about architecture, etc.

3955 Cherry Avenue, Vineland

Featherstone (good reds, very young, promising winery - they have peppery wines
3678 Victoria Avenue, Vineland

Marynissen (excellent reds to drink in 10 years for the collector
RR6, Concession 1, Niagara on the Lake

Ridgepoint (supposed to have amazing merlot but we were not allowed to taste
3900 Cherry Avenue, Vineland

Kacaba (pronounce Kassaba - we have to go back to assess with a fresh palate - supposed to be premium winery
3550 King Street, Vineland

Angels Gate (we were disappointed but it was our last stop so we have to go back there with a fresh palate as well
4260 Mountainview Road, Beamsville

Thirteen Street (we positively cried of deception about their pinot but everyone else says they are to die for including Canoe, Jamie Kennedy, Susur, Rain, Luce, the Fifth, Harbour 360 and Avalon so I guess you be the judge
3983 13th Street, Jordan Station

Flat Rock (terrible wine but worth the trip for the view and architecture and I think they will have a restaurant or something eventually
*Vineland (Excellent wines, I love the Chenin Blanc and the Cab Sauv... Beautiful boutique, world-acclaimed restaurant (featured in Gourmet magazine) and now event 2 bed and breakfasts which are always sold out!

3620 Moyer Road, Vineland

*My personal recommendations

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  1. Fabulous and timely as I'm off to Inn on the Twenty this weekend for a little wine and romance. Our tour (package purchase) includes Strewn, Konselman, Hillebrand and Caroline Cellars. On our own, we're planning to hit Stratus, East Dell and...whatever else we can afford/stomach/have time for.

    Now my question - where do you eat lunch for under $15/person in Jordan/Vineland/NOTL? Veggie options would be great too!

    3 Replies
    1. re: LemonLauren

      Zooma Zooma. My husband and I had lunch there in July and each of us had a beer for under $30. 
      It's in Jordan Village, right across the street from Inn on The Twenty

        1. re: LemonLauren

          I ususally try to balance a couple of the big places (eg Chateau Des Charmes) with a couple of smaller places (eg Legend Estates.)

          If you're going to be in Jordan I'll reccomend Creekside Winery which is pretty small, near the town and very nice.
          Some of their wines (especially "Laura's Blend" if they still it and the Sauvignon Blanc) are great.
          There is a small restaurant there which I don't think is too expensive but I can't swear to it.

    2. I would have to disagree on the Flat Rock comment, I think their Pinots are amongst the best in Niagara. Their Rieslings are not bad either.

      Of course that is only my humble opinion. I've visited there 5 times and each tasting renewed my enthusiasm for their wines.

      Tawse does have unusually good Chardonnay's, but perhaps a bit difficult to justify their $40 price tag given other wines available at that price point, but I don't think they will have any trouble selling out their wines.

      I tasted the most recent Stratus Red and White and have been very underwhelmed compared to their first vintage. The building is beautiful however.

      Lailey has a nice tasting room and very friendly service the 3 times I've been there.

      1. Most Niagara wineries produce a couple of good wines and lots of mediocre plonk. But Creekside produces consistently good reds & whites and is my favorite.

        Vineland Estates make good whites and a Cab Franc at a reasonable price. Georgeous tasting room and restaurant with a beautiful patio. Food is very good too. Definitely worth the drive for a romantic lunch or dinner.

        Flat Rock make a good Reisling in the Pfalz style, similar to several other Naigara wineries. Personally I think this style of Reisling has the potential to become Niagara's signature white, and do to Niagara what Sauvignon Blanc did to New Zealand.

        1. The thing that bugs me about Creekside is that many of the wines they've made in recent vintages are not actually Ontario wines, in so far as they were made from grapes imported from California, Europe and even Australia.

          The justification for making wines from bought-in grapes has been the short crops in some recent vintages. that's fair enough from an economic rationale.

          However, when you go on Creekside's website, and when you visit the tasting room this isn't actually made very clear to you. For example, their site right now shows pictures of bottles with the VQA designation on them, even though the winemaking notes about these wines indicate otherwise. The last time we were at Creekside we tried a surprisingly good Shiraz and a decent Pinot Gris, only to realize when we looked at the bottle labels' fine print that they were not made at all from Ontario grapes. The person at the tasting bar confirmed this, but only after the fact. We also overheard people remarking how good the Shiraz was for an Ontario wine, and the staff didn't bother to clarify the issue.

          It might sound like I'm being a bit uptight about it (after, wine is something one is supposed to actually enjoy, right? ;-) ), but I think it's important. Niagara still is an emerging wine region, and making and selling wines that aren't from local vineyards just undermines the region's credibility, especially when the origin of the product is obscured (even if the obfuscation is not deliberate).

          13th St. did the same thing a couple of years back with a Niagara/California non-vintage blend they called Reds. They made it really explicit that it was a one-off (on release of the wine, and to customers visiting the winery). In fact, they almost treated the bottling as a winery fundraiser, explaining to people that it was an attempt to have a bit of fun with some good quality imported grapes, and to buffer some of the decline in revenues they were expecting as a result of the winter freeze in the vineyards.

          1. Here are my thoughts about Niagara, and my favourites:

            * Generally speaking, the wineries on the Beamsville Bench are much less touristy and way less over-run than those down in Niagara on the Lake.

            * Wineries that focus on a few core grape varietals usually (but not always) tend to produce better wines than those who do a grab-bag of everything.

            * Wines made from grape varieties that traditionally come from cool climate points of origin (i.e., Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Riesling) are usually a better bet than those made from Bordeaux varieties, or worse, Southern European varietals like Syrah, Viognier, etc. With the exception of wines produced in warm years like 2002 and 2005, these types of wines tend to be dominated by vegetal and green aromas and flavours, and rough, unripe tannins.

            * Although it's not a absolute rule, I agree with blackpearl's comment about wineries that accept bus tours ;-) Generally, the bigger the parking lot and the more bus spaces, the more the focus is on volume and turnover, as opposed to quality and something of a human-scale experience.

            I'm not and never have been impressed with most of the large-scale operations, places like: Peller Estates, Inniskillin, Hillebrand, Jackson-Triggs (although apparently the head winemaker of J-T's Okanagan Estate, which produced some amazing wines, has now taken over the Niagara winery), Chateau des Charmes, Magnotta, etc.

            Some of these wineries actually produce some good wines (for instance, both Inniskillin and J-T's icewines are exceptional), but many of them also produce an ocean of wine that is overpriced and inferior compared to more affordable offerings from international regions that produce wines from similar grapes. Many of these wineries insist on making wines from grapes which just don't perform consistently in the region. They use machine harvesting. And they crop their estate and contracted vineyards at really high tonnage levels, which in Niagara's already marginal climate means really poor quality grapes. Even worse is the many wineries who continue to produce wines made from imported grapes, which is frankly an embarrassment for an emerging wine region (see previous post on this subject!).

            The six wineries below are my overall favourites. In my opinion they are the ones most focused on quality, and stand out clearly above all the others:

            * Malivoire: almost everything they produce is very good to excellent. Their Pinot Noir is great, although it typically takes a couple of years to sort itself out in the bottle (both their Estate and Moira Vineyard bottlings are some of the best in Canada, let alone Niagara). Their Gamays are excellent (the Courtney Block Gamay is one of the best in Niagara, alongside Thirteenth St.'s and the single vintage of Gamay that Stratus produced in 2001), and the Moira Vineyard Chardonnay is very good. Their icewines are outstanding: almost never over-the-top sweet, and with a bit of added complexity that many other Niagara icewines don't have. We helped harvest last year's Cabernet Franc icewine (to be released in late Fall), and the '04 Gewurtztraminer icewine, which is phenomenal, but sold out unfortunately. Also good is the Ladybug Rosé.

            The icewine harvest at Malivoire is really fun. I highly recommend it if you don't mind being outdoors after midnight, in the dead of winter!)

            * Thirty Bench: In the mid- to late-nineties Thirty Bench was one of the best producers in Niagara, with a treasure trove of old vine Bench vineyards, including a variety of blocks of Riesling, some dating back to the early 1980s, and managed by Deborah Paskus (who became really well known for her Tempkin-Paskus micro-cuvée Chardonnay). They were producing outstanding, opulent Chardonnays, and impressive Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Bordeaux blends (in vintage years that allowed the Bordeaux varietals to ripen). Then she left. Then the wines turned really inconsistent, sometimes nasty...

            Andrés bought the winery in 2004 (which I thought would be a bad thing) and to their credit, did exactly what I thought someone should do: bring in a really outstanding vineyard manager, dramatically reduce the number of wines they produce, and hired what (based on the 2005 vintage wines) what may possibly be the most talented young wine maker in the country: Natalie Reynolds. The turnaround in the quality of the wines has been unbelievable. Her 2005 Rieslings were all wonderful, including both the base Estate Riesling (which if I remember right, is around $18 a bottle) and the single vineyard wines. And, despite my belief that Niagara's climate isn't well-suited to create consistently good Bordeaux-style wines, for $22, the 2005 Red Blend is one of the better Bordeaux varietal-based wines I've had from Niagara in a long while: dark, rich, almost jammy in its intensity. Do tread with caution though on older vintages: some are very good, some not.

            * Hidden Bench: they just opened earlier this summer, with 2005 being the first declared vintage year. Harald Thiel has spared no expense in setting up his winery, hiring another really talented winemaker (Jean-Martin Bouchard, who made wine at Penfolds and Torbreck in Australia, and worked in Alsace and Germany), buying up one of the best vineyards in Niagara (the Rosomel Vineyard) and planting a large part of his estate vineyard as one of the few high-density blocks in Niagara (in a fashion similar to what is seen in Burgundy and Bordeaux).

            Nearly every wine on initial release is outstanding (with the exception of the 2006 Rosé, which I found to be a bit whacky, due to a high percentage of what was probably fairly unripe Syrah): the estate Riesling and Chardonnay are both great, and the Nuit Blanche, although pricey at $40, is mind-blowing: A Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc blend that sees a few months aging in oak, this wine is for me, a benchmark for Niagara: serious complexity, like a top-flight Pouilly-Fumé crossed with a Bordeaux white wine.

            * Tawse: I like Tawse, but I agree with the comments here that their price/quality ratio is a little bit out of whack. The Chardonnays are huge, opulent wines, sometimes even over the top in their buttery, creamy, oakiness. At $40-$48 a bottle from a winery that's only had a few vintages under its belt, they better be good ;-) Deborah Paskus made the wines for the first few years; Pascal Marchard (a Quebec-born Burgundy winemaker) is now the consulting head winemaker. In all likelihood the wines will continue to improve.

            * Thirteenth St.: I think 13th St. should always be near the top of one's list for wineries to visit in Niagara, with one small proviso: I love the guys at Thirteenth St., but I think they've suffered a bit from some tough years: the short crops of recent years necessitated a lot of wineries producing wine to sell with whatever grapes winemakers could find, and 13th St. was no exception, producing wines from a variety of non-Estate sources (including the Reds wine made in part from grape must shipped in from California; as I said above, at least to their credit they were really upfront with people that this wine was not VQA). This, combined with the three owners' desire to experiment, seems to have got them into the habit of producing a large number of wines from a wide variety of grapes, some of which are quite successful, others less so. And, they haven't had enough of a Pinot Noir crop since 2002 to produce a still table wine version of Pinot (they've been reserving their Pinot Noir grapes for their sparkling wine production).

            I'd caveat all this by saying that regardless, you'll almost certainly never, ever get a bad bottle of wine from 13th St., and that they are some of the more talented and dedicated winegrowers and winemakers in the region. I've just found that usually their best wines have been ones that play to the strengths of the region, and the winery: especially the wines that are made primarily or entirely from their estate vineyards (the Funk and Sandstone vineyards). One exception is that anything they've bottled as far as Riesling is concerned has always been good. My favourites: the sparkling wines (some of the best in Niagara), a great Gamay, and a very good, opulent Estate Chardonnay. In warmer years the Bordeaux blends can be good as well.

            The other things about 13th Street that I've always really appreciated: they're some of the friendliest people around, and their prices are very, very reasonable.

            * Stratus: hmm. I always hesitate recommending Stratus, and here's why: the wines are very pricey and, even when they are good, do not provide great value for the money. And the recent red vintages were disappointing.

            Also, the great, sometimes exceptional wines made at Stratus in the first few vintages were in fact not really made at Stratus: the facility, as stunning as it is, was not built in time to be used for the first few vintages (note though, they were mostly made with estate vineyard grapes though I believe). And despite the misconception on many people's part that current winemaker J-L Groux has always been the winemaking mastermind at Stratus, it was actually Ann Sperling (the winemaker at Malivoire up until 2005) who made the wines in the early (and in my opinion, best) years.

            The 2002 Reserve Chardonnay was worth every penny at $55: I poured this wine in the company of some hardcore Burdundy fanatics and they were blown away by it. The 2002 Red and Cabernet Franc were outstanding (and still are; I still have a number of bottles in the cellar). And the 2001 Gamay was one of the best Gamay-based wines I have ever had: more like a complex, earthy Burgundian Pinot Noir than a Gamay!

            I was just at Stratus last weekend: the 2006 Riesling (made from Beamsville Bench grapes) is very good, but not cheap at $35 a bottle. The Riesling Icewine is very good. The 2004 red wines are IMHO not that impressive: a lot of green bell pepper notes, and a lack of concentration (especially at $44 a bottle for the Red). I'll be saving my Stratus red wine "dollars" to see what they produce from the warmer 2005 vintage. The 2004 White on the other hand (sold out) is very distinctive.

            The winery is beautiful though, so if you are going to be in NOTL I'd still recommend going to check it out.

            * Le Clos Jordanne: my hands-down favourite in Niagara. Singularly dedicated to the production of estate wines made only from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, Le Clos Jordanne is a fascinating attempt to push Niagara onto the world winemaking map.

            Their entire line-up for their first vintage (2004) was great, even exceptional, especially considering that the vines were no more than three to four years old at the time. The top Grand Clos Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wines are complex and delicious. The single vineyard bottlings really demonstrate how the different soil types and micro-climates of the winerie's various vineyards affect what ends up in the bottle. Even the entry level wines are good, and comparatively speaking, blow away most similarly-priced bottles of village or generic Bourgogne.

            LCJ is a joint venture between Vincor and the Burgundy Negociant Boisset. While the big showcase winery designed by Frank Gehry has yet (and may never) be built, the investment in the vineyards and winemaking has been at a level previously not seen in Niagara. LCJ's vineyards were I believe the first to be planted to the kinds of density levels found in Burgundy (with the vine and row spacing so tight that it necessitates vineyard management and harvesting by hand, as opposed to with the aid of heavy machinery).

            The only sad news is that you can't visit the winery yet, and you can't buy direct from them. Due to bizarre Ontario winery licensing laws they aren't allowed to sell direct to the public yet (something apparently due to regulations stipulating that an operating winery has to be situated in a working vineyard in order to be able to sell direct to the public).

            Other wineries that I think also have real potential, or excel at a few specific bottlings within their portfolios, include: Daniel Lenko (I still think it's madness to try and grow Syrah and Viognier in Niagara, but Lenko's wines made from these grapes have been surprisingly good!), Flat Rock Cellars (good, but not great yet in my opinion), Fielding Estate, and Coyotes Run. I've always heard good things about Lailey's Cabernet Franc, Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, but every time I've gone they've always been sold out, and I haven't been that crazy about what was left on offer. I also like Henry of Pelham's Reserve (a good value) and SFR Riesling wines.

            Norman Hardie out in Prince Edward County also makes excellent Niagara Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines.

            4 Replies
            1. re: cybergod

              Wow, great post cybergod!!! are you actually Tony Aspler?

              I have to mirror your thoughts on the "bigger" wineries trying to make a little something to satisfy everyone's tastes. What essentially happens is you get a grab bag of mediocre wines and a real diservice to the reputation of Niagara as a region. I guess sometimes short-term monetary gains trumps long term development for the industry as a whole. It's really too bad. Think of all the old-world wine regions, they concentrate on growing what's best for the local climate. I think experimentation is good, but we have proven through so many vintages in the past 20 years what works here in the cool climate and what does not. I think the problem is a lot of people may have never had the opportunity/luck to taste truly "great" wines and therefore are willing to buy anything that doesn't taste too disagreeable. I will count myself amongst those before several wine-trips abroad in the past few years. Now I am a lot more selective about my Ontario wine purchases.

              Unfortunately because of the LCBO monopoly cheap good quality foreign (e.g. French, Italian etc) wine is not available. The basic 3 euro Bordeaux red from a Monoprix in France can trump many of the so called "reserve" Ontario Meritage blends, but we don't have access to those cheap wines!!!

              So cybergod, what are your top picks for a reasonably priced Ontario wine? The above mentioned wines are all north of $30.

              The only Red I can think of is maybe a J-T Meritage, Thirteenth Street Gamay (not widely avail).

              Whites: Cave Spring Reserve Riesling, Fielding Estate Sauvignon Blanc (sold out)...

              Not too many cheaper ones stand out in the recent vintages. BTW, do you think wine writers have been "grade-inflating"? There seems to be too many wines scoring in the 90's and 4 stars, must be a marketing thing. A 90 for Ontario wine means very little to me anymore.

              1. re: doctorandchef

                Hey doctorandchef,

                I'm not Tony Aspler, but wouldn't mind working his beat ;-)

                Good point about the price points of my suggestions. Here are a some reasonably priced Niagara (and one PEC) wines I like:

                * Riesling: despite some recent bottlings that push the $20-$30 mark, I think many Niagara wineries still make decent, affordable Rieslings that usually sell in the $15-$20 range. My benchmark for an affordable, very good Riesling has always been the Dr. Loosen "L" Riesling (my favourite German Riesling winery), and many Niagara Rieslings now hold up well to it in comparison. I like the Cave Spring Reserve too, and I also quite like the Henry of Pelham Off-Dry Reserve (I think they're now calling it the estate series as of 2006). Likewise, Thirty Bench's Estate Riesling is a steal at $18 a bottle.

                * I used to really like Peninsula Ridge's Sauvignon Blanc, but now I think they're making a lot more of it (volume-wise), and as a result, it's not quite as good as i was in past vintages; either that, or I've just decided that $18-$20 can get you a better bottle of Sauvignon from other wine regions in the world.

                * Chardonnay: when I was at The Citizen for dinner a couple of weeks ago I had what I think is an unoaked Chardonnay Musqué (in a dry style) by the glass that was interesting; I don't know what the retail on it would be. Speaking of Chardonnay Musqué, Malivore's take on it is a dead-ringer for a Moscato D'Asti: off-dry and slightly sparkling. Awesome, and awesomely inexpensive (around the $15 dollar mark I believe). Generally, I find less expensive Niagara Chardonnays often either just bland, or too full of tinned fruit flavours (think fruit cocktail, with that weird syrupy metallic taste). There are a few in the $20 range that are decent, but not so exciting that I'd actually want to drink any of them regularly (I'd rather spend the extra money for a really interesting Chardonnay, or drink something eclectic and different from another wine region in the under $20 price bracket).

                * Both Malivoire and Norman Hardie (from PEC grapes) make great, inexpensive Melon de Bourgogne wines: outstanding with oysters on the half shell.

                * Rosé: I tried the 2006 Cave Spring Rosé at The Citizen as well, and I thought it was quite good. Simple, but tasty nonetheless. Not sure what the retail on a bottle would be, but I imagine it would be around $15. Malivoire's Ladybug Rosé is also around the same price point and is very good. Hidden Bench's 2005 Rosé is a giant fruit bomb of a wine, and is $18.

                * For reds it really is slim pickings. For $16 a bottle Malivoire's Estate Gamay is a great value. And even though it crosses the $20 mark, the 2005 Meritage Blend from Thirty Bench I mentioned previously really is a terrific wine, better than many Bordeaux and California wines in that price range. Le Clos Jordanne's 2004 Village Reserve for $25 also was comparatively (to Burgundy) good value.

                * Late Harvest dessert wines. There are a few wineries that do terrific late harvest wines and price them at somewhere between half and one-third of what a bottle of their icewine costs. For example, Cave Spring's Riesling and Cabernet Franc Late Harvest/Indian Summer wines are usually great every vintage.

                And yes, beyond whether Ontario wine writers highly recommend an Ontario wine or not, I find it hard to "judge" their judgements. I can never figure out whether some writers are scoring wines just vis-à-vis their peers, or in reference to those from other regions as well. I think that many are genuinely rooting for the local industry, and as a result tend to rate the wines more highly than sometimes they perhaps deserve.

                1. re: cybergod

                  I don't know if I agree about reds. Maybe my palette is underdeveloped or feminine, but I love a spicy red, and I really enjoyed a Cave Spring 2005 Gamay and Henry of Pelhman 2005 Gamay this weekend - bought the 2006 HoP as they were clear out of the 06 in the store. I also enjoyed the Flat Rock Pinot, 2004, and am going to age it a bit and see if I enjoy it even more in a few months (years). We also bought a 2005 Baco and 2004 Merlot at Konzelman, and the later was quite heady and deep - more my partner's taste. We also grabbed some Marynissen Cab Merlot 2005, which we love for the compromise of the full body that my partner loves, and the spicy fruit forward nature that I prefer. All these bottles were under $20, and most were under $15.

              2. re: cybergod

                Thank you for mentioning Thirty Bench Rieslings. I think these are the best quality and value out there that I've had. They are all interesting and yummy. The Estate is a total winner at $18. I do think this last year's Red blend was really good as well.

                I have to say that most Vineland Estates Rieslings are respectable as well. They are not super-complex, but good value and reliable.

                I have to say I found Flat Rock way over-rated. Not worth it at all, although I do appreciate their efforts.

                The recent Stratus White is really excellent although not a bargain as you point out. I don't find the Red as bad as you described and think it's quite good for the region, but not nec. the price.

                Anyone out there tried Peller's Ice Cuvee (sparkling with a little ice wine thrown in). I've had it a couple of times and really like it as a champagne-style wine for less than $30. It's very drinkable & better than most of the bubbly I've had from Ont.