I am going to Niagara, I told my friends.
Oh, you are going to see Niagara Falls. How exciting.
Sure, I will head there as well since they are close. But I am really going for the wines.
Wines? Are you kidding? They do wine there?
Indeed, for many it might still be surprising to find wine production in rather cool climate regions like Canada. Yet, the country’s wine regions are among the strongest growing globally. This not only includes the Niagara area but also Prince Edward County, the other noteworthy wine region in Ontario as well as regions in British Columbia like the Okanagan Valley.
The Niagara region is actually where the Canadian wine-making story began in the mid 1970s and today it is the premier wine growing region in the country.
Today, the area bordered by Lake Ontario and the Niagara river is home to more than 80 wineries distributed over three different areas: Twenty Valley, Niagara-on-the-Lake, and the Niagara Peninsula.
An excellent point to start your wine journey through Niagara is the gorgeous village of Niagara-on-the-Lake. The area was named the number one Canadian food and wine destination by Tripadvisor and is home to some 30 wineries.
Fun fact: The Niagara wine region is the only one in the world where you find conditions that allow to make excellent red wines thanks to the warm summer months whilst temperatures in the winter are cold enough to make ice wine.
In fact, wines produced in Niagara spans the whole range from light Riesling to powerful Cabernet Franc, and anything between. This is thanks to different elevations and a variation in soil types, different temperatures, and the amount of rainfall. In addition, nearly all local wineries also produce ice wine from a range of different grape varieties.
Just recently, Ontario’s Niagara peninsula was recognized by the 2019 Decanter World Wine Awards with the most gold medals in Canada.
Wineries in Niagara vary from large estates to small, family-led boutique wineries and from those already existing for some decades to fairly recent additions.
A good number of the Niagara-on-the-Lake wineries also have an excellent food offer, so here you have yet another reason to seek them out!
How to get to Niagara-on-the-Lake
Niagara on the Lake is located on the Niagara Peninsular in south-west Ontario, a one and a half hour drive time from Toronto.
Assuming you are coming from the Canadian side through Toronto (the nearest international airport) there are basically three options how to travel to Niagara-on-the-Lake.
The fastest option to travel to Niagara-on-the-Lake is to have your own car; which I would recommend as this gives you the freedom to roam around and discover the many attractions of the area.
Driving from Toronto or Pearson International Airport to Niagara-on-the-Lake you need to take Queen Elisabeth Way (QEW), then exit to Country Highway 55 and follow Niagara Stone Road until you reach the town.
The second option getting from Toronto to Niagara-on-the-Lake would be to take a train and/or bus. Go Transit operates a connection with a train departing from Toronto Union Station to Burlington from where you have to switch on a bus to Niagara-on-the-Lake. The journey takes about two hours.
The third option would be to arrange a day trip with a private tour operator or local taxi services offering flat-rates. This would normally also include driving around Niagara-on-the-Lake visiting local wineries and other attractions on your list.
How best to visit Niagara-on-the-Lake wineries
There are two main options if you want to visit Niagara-on-the-Lake wineries.
The first, as mentioned above it to have your own car available and go on a self-guided tour.
All Niagara-on-the-Lake wineries are open to the public typically from 10 am to 5 pm (though this can vary between single wineries and during seasons so if you want to visit a particular winery, make sure to consult their website prior to your visit).
If you prefer not having to drive yourself (which indeed could proof tricky in case you want to do wine tastings), there are several wine tour operators in the area offering a range of different winery tours.
Guided wine tours at Niagara on the Lake
There is an abundance of wine tour operators in the Niagara-on-the-Lake area and it is difficult to really recommend a particular one. However, should you look to book a guided winery tour I suggest to consult the following tour operators.
Grape Escape Wine Tours – offers various packages including a morning and afternoon half-day tour, a half-day tour including either lunch or dinner along with bicycle wine tours (also including a visit to a brewery).
Niagara Vintage Wine Tours – offering again various packages including half-day tours, full-day tours with either lunch or dinner plus wine pairing, a food, beer and wine tour and a full day brewery, distillery, wine, cider and pizza lunch tasting tour.
Grape and Wine Niagara Tours – offering amongst others a wine and cheese afternoon tour, a lunch or dinner tour and a chocolate and wine tour that will also get you to visit Canada’s largest chocolate factory along with several local wineries.
Which wineries to visit in Niagara-on-the-Lake
Niagara-on-the-Lake is still a relatively small wine-growing area with less than forty wineries located at close range from the town and each other.
That said, it is unlikely that you will be able to cover all wineries during one visit.
Which of the wineries you want to see largely depends on your own taste and the styles of wine and different winery experiences you prefer.
However, to give you some indications as where to start your Niagara-on-the-Lake winery tour, below are ten of the area’s most interesting wine estates I’d highly recommend to put on your list.
10 excellent Niagara on the Lake wineries you should not miss
Inniskillin is not only one of the oldest and largest wine estates in Niagara, it is also one of the few Canadian wineries present in multiple regions including Niagara and the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia.
The winery is particularly renowned for their excellent ice wines and whilst I am not a huge fan of this category, I actually liked their Riesling ice wine.
In addition to ice wine, Inniskillin also produces a wide range of premium dry wines as well.
Their beautiful tasting room is located in one of the estates historic buildings, the Brae Burn Barn.
Since it was pouring with rain the day of our visit, unsurprisingly the large outside seating area was deserted. And whilst we had played with the idea to take advantage of the Grill & Smokehouse which during July and August is open daily (and on weekends only in September) offering house-smoked meat along with local cheeses and of course wine, for obvious reasons we change plans.
Stratus Vineyards is known to produce excellent bold reds as well as putting a high focus on sustainability in their vineyards and cellar. It is one of the few Canadian wineries using gravity in their production process, thus limiting the impact of mechanized practices on grapes and wines. They also have a LEED certification, again quite rare for wineries globally.
However, one of the main reason the winery was on my list was its modern architecture. If you follow my blog, you will know I adore quirky modern design and the sleek contemporary lines of the winery totally fall into this category.
The modern look and feel continues inside the tasting room with a bold black, gray and white colour scheme.
All that said, you will come for the wine of course and you will not be let down. They are really excellent.
If you want to go a step further, Stratus runs regular ‘Food & Wine Lab’ tastings. This one hour tasting session is all about the chemistry of food and wine; thus you will learn how specific tastes can change your perception of wine. Whilst I stated these tastings are regularly offered, they take place on select dates only and you need to book in advance.
Andrew Peller is largely credited to be one of the leading pioneers of wine making in Ontario and Peller Estates today is regarded as one of the best wineries in the area.
Peller wines include a large range of dry white, rose and reds along with the signature ice wine range and sparkling.
I particularly loved their sparkling Ice Cuvee, a Champagne-style bubbly with a small quantity of ice wine added that creates a light sweetness which comes as a classic or rose.
Peller Estates offers a large range of wine tasting experiences. Since we stayed for dinner in their excellent fine-dining restaurant, we chose to just sample some of their wines at the tasting room.
However, I would highly recommend to go and try their Greatest Winery Tour where you will taste different wines at different locations throughout the winery from their lovely patio to the vineyard and the amazing 10Below Icewine Lounge, the only location in Niagara-on-the-Lake where you can sip ice wine in a real ice lounge at -10°C year round.
As mentioned before, the winery offers different dining options too.
Operating over the summer months and weather permitting only is Barrel House Grill where you can expect a casual setting and mainly grilled meat and burgers.
Meanwhile, the Winery Lounge offers platters and sweets alongside a selection of cocktails.
But the real gem is The Winery Restaurant where you will be treated to an innovative yet deeply locally rooted farm-to-table menu including highlights like the totally delicious signature lobster linguini or bison loin.
Trius Winery is another one of the earliest in the area, looking back at a history spanning more than three decades.
The winery can be truly seen to be a trailblazer of Canadian wine since in 1991 the winers’s Trius Red red wine, a Bordeaux-style blend was the first ever Canadian wine receiving the award for ‘Best Red Wine in the World’. Today, Trius Red is still recognized as one of Canada’s most iconic wines.
Over the years, Trius has expanded its range of wines and today include produces whites, rosé, reds and ice wines. They also have one of the largest sparkling wine underground cellars in Canada which you can explore during one of the various interactive wine tours taking place at Trius.
In addition to wine, there are two restaurants on site.
The Trius Brut Bar is where you can sample the winery’s award winning bubbles along with platters and pizza.
Trius Winery Restaurant, offering lunch and dinner, is a place where the connection between wine, food and place are celebrated. The restaurant offers multi-course tasting menus with wine pairing based on traditional farm-to-table food along with a choice of a-la-carte dining.
Wayne Gretzky Estates Winery & Distillery
Situated directly next to Trius (and accessible via a walkway between the two estates, hence you do not need to re-park next door), this winery is owned by legendary Canadian ice hockey player Wayne Gretzky.
The reason it was one of the must visit wineries on my list was a different one however.
The main reason I wanted to visit Wayne Gretzky Estates was that it both a winery as well as a distillery. If you follow my blog, you will know whisky is a new passion of mine. Unfortunately, we made it to the winery only in late afternoon with not enough time left to explore this part of the estate as much as I had wished for.
Still feeling rather sad about this, and really recommend when you visit to plan enough time for both parts. Next to a whisky tasting, there is also a mixology class teaching you about whisky-based drinks.
Alternatively, you can also go on a wine, whisky and beer tour or simply head to the tasting room for a flight of wines.
As for the food options, the Whisky Bar Patio serves casual comfort food whist on select dates the winery hosts a wine and whisky dinner.
Reif Estate Winery
The cute little winery was founded in 1982 as one of the earliest wine estates in the area by Ewald Reif who origins from Germany.
The winery is particularly know for their full-bodied reds and of course you will also see a range of ice wines here too.
Don’t miss the Sensory Wine Bar where you can experience a wine and chocolate pairing or a blind tasting.
Weather permitting there is also an outdoor kitchen offering pizza or you can just settle down in one of the many chairs to have a picnic.
Also part of Reif Estate is a Bed & Breakfast located in a lovely Victorian Mansion directly next door to the tasting room.
Château des Charmes
Chateau des Charmes was founded in 1978 by Paul Bosc, a fifth generation French winegrower originating from Alsace. Quite a visionary and thanks to extensive experience gained through various positions in the wine industry, he planted the first commercial vineyard dedicated exclusively to European grape varieties, something that was seen as difficult – if ever – to succeed in the cold Canadian climate.
In addition, the chateau-style winery and visitor centre completed in 1994 was the first in the area specifically built to provide a superior visitor experience.
The wine range includes whites, reds, rosé, sparkling and off course ice wine.
The story of the winery goes back to 1978 when Rick and Frieda Lakeit with the help of Rick’s mother Caroline bought land and grew grapes which in the beginning were sold to other winemakers.
Finally in the year 2000, the couple decided to built its own winery named after Rick’s than late mother.
Though many of the local wineries are small, family-owned estates, the family feeling is nowhere more evident than when approaching the wooden barn hosting the tasting room and the winery’s restaurant ‘The Farmhouse Cafe’.
At Caroline Cellars most of the wine tastings are free (limited to four wines per guest), whilst there are some specialty wines that demand a tasting fee.
The winery produces a full range of white, red, rose and off course an ice wine as well.
The Farmhouse Cafe is open for lunch on a daily basis and offers comfort food, sandwiches and burger with several of the ingredients sourced directly off the farm.
Southbrook Vineyards is Canada’s first organic and biodynamic winery, and one of a growing number of wineries around the world working with animals in the vineyard to limit mechanical interference. In the case of Southbrook, there vineyards are maintained and fertilized by grazing sheep.
Southbrook winery was created in 1991 by the Redelmeier family, whose roots in the Niagara area are much older though. Current owner Bill Redelmeier’s grandfather purchased the in 1941, then called Don Head Farms and essentially a working farm. Later on, a farm market was added who also gave the estate its current name.
The winery specializes in Bordeaux-style red wines and Chardonnay but also produces an elegant ice wine, orange wine and cider.
Konzelmann Estate Winery
Konzelmann Estate Winery is another Niagara winery with strong links to Germany. Indeed, winemaking in the Konzelmann family started off in the late 19th century in the small town of Uhlbach in Germany.
The Konzelmann wine business flourished in Germany yet Konzelmann Estate’s current owner Herbert Konzelmann decided to pursue his own success in Canada, emigrating during the 1980s .
Today, Konzelmann Estate produces a large range of different reds, whites, rose, sparkling and ice wines.
The winery offers various wine tasting tours of the estate, including a quite unique ‘Junk Food Tour and Tasting’ where you will taste four different junk foods paired with Konzelmann wines.
Have you visited Niagara-on-the-Lake wine country yet? Do you have a favourite winery you’d recommend visiting? Let me know about your experiences.