Until the 1980s, Canadian wine was something of a joke. The industry’s most popular product was a sticky, fizzy concoction called “Baby Duck”, and other varieties were commonly called “block-and-tackle” wines, after a widely reported witticism of a member of the Ontario legislature: “If you drink a bottle and walk a block, you can tackle anyone.” This sorry state of affairs was transformed by the Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA; w vqaontario.ca), who have, since 1989, come to exercise tight control over wine production in Ontario, which produces around eighty percent of Canadian wine. The VQA’s appellation system distinguishes between – and supervises the quality control of – two broad types of wine. Those wines carrying the Provincial Designation on their labels must be made from one hundred percent Ontario-grown grapes from an approved list of European grape varieties and selected hybrids; those bearing the Geographic Designation (eg Niagara Peninsula, Pelee Island) can only use Vitis vinifera, the classic European grape varieties, such as Riesling, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. As you might expect from a developing wine area, the results are rather inconsistent, but the Rieslings have a refreshingly crisp, almost tart flavour with a mellow, warming aftertaste – and are perhaps the best of the present range, white or red.
More than twenty wineries are clustered in the vicinity of Niagara-on-the-Lake. Most of them have showrooms, others offer guided tours and just about all of them have tastings. The town’s tourist office carries a full list with opening times and prices.
Vineyards and shops
Peller Estates Winery 290 John St East, 2.5km from Queen St 905 468 4678, w peller.com. With a vineyard and a large modern showroom on the edge of town, Peller has produced a clutch of much-praised vintages. They also do a good line in one of Canada’s specialities, icewine, a sweet dessert wine made from grapes that are left on the vine until winter, then hand-picked at night while frozen. The picking and the crushing of the frozen grapes is a time-consuming business and this is reflected in the price – from about $50 per 375ml bottle. Tour and samples $15. Daily 10am–9pm.
Stratus Winery 2059 Niagara Stone Rd, just southwest of town 905 468 1806, w stratuswines.com. Handily located not far from the centre of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Stratus winery has pioneered a more environmentally friendly approach to wine production. Tours and guided tasting $20. Daily 11am–5pm.
Wine Country Vintners 27 Queen St 905 468 1881, w waynegretzkyestates.com. The best wine shop in town, it carries a variety of Peller-associated wines and offers shuttles to the Peller winery as well. Mon–Sat 10am–8pm, Sun 11am–6pm.