By Kim Adley
Have you ever visited somewhere and felt like everywhere you looked there was charm and grace oozing all around you? I know, it sounds too good to be true, but that is exactly how I felt on a recent trip to the picturesque town of Niagara-on-the-Lake (NOTL) in southern Ontario, Canada.
After a whirlwind stop in Niagara Falls to see the magnificent Horseshoe Falls lit at night and play a few slot machines at the Fallsview Hotel Casino, I escaped the touristy madness of Clifton Hill and took a 20-minute drive north along the scenic Niagara River Parkway to the quiet, well-preserved 19th century village of Niagara-on-the-Lake. I stayed at the perfectly located, 155-year-old Victorian Prince of Wales Hotel, one of three upscale properties that are part of the Vintage Hotel Chain. The hotel is elegant and makes you feel like royalty with afternoon high tea and a signature rose on your pillow for turn down service.
Just outside the hotel lobby is walkable Queen St. This flower-filled, tree-lined main street exemplifies why NOTL is often described as “the prettiest town in Ontario.” It is home to eclectic shops filled with unexpected treasures, diverse cafes, fun pubs, historic B&Bs and elegant 5-star hotels. The town literally has something for everyone’s dining taste and shopping desires. It was all so tempting . . . but I needed to remember that I was here for more than just the shopping!
NOTL sits at the mouth of the Niagara River and on the shores of Lake Ontario. This unique location provides the climate and fertile soil that has made this historically an area for agriculture, but in the last 30 years, the region has exploded with vineyards to become the heart of Canada’s Wine Country. This very special “terroir,” (a vintner term referring to the climate, geology, soil, elevation, precipitation, and temperature), provides the perfect place to grow grapes for diverse and delicious wines. The area boasts more than 20 wineries nestled amid farms and orchards that produce award-winning vintages using international grape varietals with an acclaimed distinct “Niagara taste” which I was determined to experience for myself.
The area offers many options to explore the NOTL wineries: self-guided maps, food and wine tours, biking wine tours and small group limousine tours. I opted for the signature Wine Country Trolley Tour offered exclusively through my hotel. Our trolley driver and native NOTL resident provided excellent narration throughout the charming old town area while passing historic buildings, charming cottages, a beautiful lakefront park and the oldest golf course in North America. We then proceeded along Lakefront Drive to visit three wineries, each with its own unique personality and specialty wines.
Our first stop was mid-sized Strewn Winery. This 10-acre property has evolved from a local fruit cannery to a winery and has a spacious tasting center, restaurant and cooking school. Here, our tasting included a surprisingly crisp and not too sweet Riesling and a slightly oaky Chardonnay that I felt certain would pair well with chicken or fish.
Just a quick drive away was the Konzelmann Estate Winery, the region’s only lakefront winery. This beautiful property had its beginnings in Germany where winemaker Frederick Konzelmann, emigrated from in 1984 to purchase a lakefront peach orchard. He brought with him the German grape vines to start a winery but had to wait 4 years for the vines to yield fruit. In the meantime, Konzelmann made peach wine that is still the estates’ #1 seller today. It was featured on my tasting tour and is light, refreshing and perfect for sangria.
Our third stop delivered us to a small winery called Palatine Hills Estate Winery. Named after the historic hill in ancient Rome, this winery has history as well. The vineyards were once battlefields during the War of 1812. War relics have been unearthed between the vines and tell a vivid history of the region. The winery is fun and relaxed and showcases a vintage motorcycle in the center of the tasting room. We were offered 5 wines for tasting, including a delicious Ice Wine. Ice Wine is a sweet, intense dessert wine made from frozen grapes and is a specialty of the region. Delicious!
The wine hosts at each tour stop were true ambassadors for Canada’s Wine Country, keeping guests engaged with stories, tasting guidance, and most of all, making guests feel welcome. They taught me that unique to the wines of this region are the letters VQA (Vintner Quality Alliance Ontario) stamped on all the wine bottles. This stamp certifies that the wine is made from Ontario-grown grapes in accordance with the VQA high standards and is a truly local product.
Autumn is here, and it’s harvest time in wine country! Things will be bustling with the beloved process of winemaking. I think it’s a good time to plan my return and raise my glass once again to the wineries of NOTL.
If you go:
Prince of Wales Hotel — vintage-hotels.com
Wine Country Trolley Tour — vintage-hotels.com
Wine Country Ontario — winecountryontario.ca
The Niagara Grape and Wine Festival (September) — niagarawinefestival.com
Taste the Season (Weekends in November) — wineriesofniagaraonthelake.com