During weekends in November, Wineries of Niagara-on-the-Lake hosts thousands of visitors from far and wide for Taste The Season.
With Lake Ontario to the North, the Niagara River to the East and the Escarpment to the South, Niagara-on-the-Lake is a very small place. So, you may be surprised to learn that there are 28+ wineries there for you to enjoy. Vineyards and orchards stretch as far as the eye can see and it is a very pretty site.
In the words of The Wineries of Niagara-on-the-Lake,
Taste The Season is the ‘must-do’ event in Niagara-on-the-Lake wine country. Not only can you savour up to 28 seasonally-inspired VQA wine and food pairings, it is also the ideal time to stock up on wines available only at our cellar doors! Each winery has a unique personality, which you will see when you step up to our doors and taste in our wines.
Armed with our passports, over 3 days, I had the pleasure of sharing Taste The Season with my foodie bestie Tracy, my mom Teresa and my dear hubby, David. I have indicated my favourites with a ✪.
DAY 1 – BUBBLES WITH MY BESTIE
Niagara College Teaching Winery – Niagara College was the first stop on my Taste The Season adventure. It seems just yesterday that the teaching winery building opened but in reality I believe it was 2010. How time flies! Our host, Grayson, is a student in the Viticulture Technician program and he explained that the college has 38 acres of vines that are split 50/50 with Cabernet Franc and Chardonnay. When visiting this winery be sure to also pop into the Teaching Brewery across the road to try some Niagara College beer.
The pairing was fantastic. The ragout was warm, fatty and delicious. The Pinot is smooth and not very tanic.
- Food: Pinot Braised Ontario Beef and Root Vegetable Ragout
- Wine: 2009 Dean’s List Pinot Noir
Colaneri Estate Winery – It is impossible to miss this majestic looking winery. From the road it looks like an Italian villa on steroids with more wings than you can count. While driving up the lane-way through the vineyard you will notice the beginnings of what I am sure will be an impressive fountain. Once inside, the wine shop is just as impressive as the exterior. Floor to ceiling bottles, dark-wood and regal decor. And, I appreciate the way that the wine shop overlooks the tanks in the tank room. I am excited to see the finished product! I also this food pairing. The sliders were piping hot and I appreciated that the bread was home-made. The Syrah (somewhat rare in Niagara) was peppery – which I LOVE in a red – and very smooth. This wine was one of my favourites despite being served in a plastic cup.
- Food: Beef Slider Marinated in Award Winning Syrah with Caramelized Onions and Sundried Tomatoes
- Wine: 2009 Visione Syrah ✪
Coyote’s Run Estate Winery – This was my second visit to Coyote’s Run – my first being during The Pinot Affair. One of my favourite things about Coyote’s Run. I do not know much about the winery; but what I do know is that I seem to favour their wines that grow in their Red Paw vineyard (named for the red soil, rich in iron, found there). This time around they were pairing their 2010 Cab Merlot with a delicacy from one of my favourite restaurants – The Smokin’ Buddah in Port Colborne. I am glad that I tried the wine before taking a bite of the spring roll. Both were good, unfortunately the strength of the flavours in the spring roll over-powered this subtle merlot. Something so flavourful would have been better paired, in my humble opinion, with a more robust wine.
- Food: Vietnamese Beef Spring Roll ✪
- Wine: 2010 Cabernet Merlot
Chateau Des Charmes – Having never been to France I cannot say whether or not Chateau Des Charmes looks like a chateau. But, in light of the obvious French name I can only believe it does. Although it was my second visit, I had not actually tried their wine before – the first time I was there it was extremely busy and we opted to head somewhere else. Anyways, the Taste The Season event was on their back patio. Chateau Des Charmes had partnered with The Pillar and Post Cannery for their food pairing and I am happy they did. The taco was mouth-watering, the heat of the chipolte coupled with the coolness of the creme fraiche was a great combination. This small but mighty dish was well paired with this robust Merlot.
- Food: Chipolte Braised Beef Mini Soft Taco with Tomatillo Salsa and Goat’s Milk Creme Fraiche ✪
- Wine: 2009 Cabernet Merlot
Ravine Vineyard Estate Winery – I have been wanting to stop at Ravine Vineyard for a very long time, especially since they were recently named as one of the top 20 Wineries in the world by wineaccess.ca. The winery entrance can be easily missed by blinking as you drive downtown St. Davids (trust me on that one) so keep your eyes open for the sign. The driveway is short, but that’s because St. David’s borders the escarpment and Ravine sits on the edge. The historical home has been preserved and delicately transformed into the wine boutique, tasting bar and artisan marketplace. Beside the old house is the new restaurant where I have yet to eat but am extremely excited to do so. Ravine was serving their own 9 hour smoked ribs from Berkshire pigs raised on site. They were juicy, meaty, sticky and got my finger-tips extremely dirty – everything that you would want out of a good rib.
- Food: Nine-Hour Smoked Ribs ✪
- Wine: 2010 Cabernet Franc
The Ice House Winery – Not only had I never been to The Ice House Winery before Taste The Season, I had not even heard of it. And, shame on me! I am an icewine lover — LOVER and I absolutely enjoyed my time at this little gem. The lane-way is long and once you get to The Ice House itself it looks like what I’d imagine a Nova Scotia cannery on the water to look like – ramp and all. Once inside, the space is intimate and cozy with the tanks along the north-facing wall and the bars on the south. Owner, Karen, was at the bar and it was a pleasure to chat with her while sipping on the most innovative wine I had during Taste The Season. The Ice House Winery not only served their delicious Ice Vidal but served it as a smoothie. Yes, it was a little chilly outside but that did not matter in the slightest. I will, absolutely, be back to the Ice House Winery. They stole the show for me and I took a bottle of the Northern Ice Vidal home to make smoothies of my own.
- Food: Fiesta Maize
- Wine: 2007 Northern Ice Vidal Slushie ✪
Riverview Cellars Estate Winery – This quaint winery is located exactly as it sounds, alongside the Niagara River on the Parkway between Niagara-on-the-Lake and Queenston. By this time of the day I was asking for just a drop of wine and a half-serving of food. It is incredible how full one can actually get on eating multiple morsels of gourmet food or “traveling tapas” as I call it. The curry was delicious and I wish I could have eaten more. Funny, however, that I had more than enough room for the Maple Caramels that we bought from the front of the house. Leave it to my sweet tooth.
- Food: Vegetable Curry
- Wine: 2011 Riesling
Inniskillin – This was a day of firsts for me and visiting Inniskillin was no exception. The parking lot was very full, as I am sure it usually is considering the popularity of this winery. I was grateful for the employee out-front of the first building (of many) that we encountered; she let us know where the Taste The Season event was happening. It was in a gorgeous space, different from the wine boutique location, with a large bar, lots of space for dining and and impressive floor to ceiling windows on one side. Inniskillin was also serving icewine but they have their own tasting glasses specifically designed by the owners of the winery. Our server, Carol, explained that they are crystal and shaped as your mouth is shaped. The shape of the glass combined with the proper way to hold the glass ensures that you taste the full complexity of the icewine because it doesn’t hit the tip of your tongue first (this is where our intense sweetness taste buds are). Instead, it you get a mix of acidity and saltiness from the sides of your mouth, the sweetness from the tip AND the “warm fuzzies” from the alcohol on its way down. They served the icewine with sticky and sweet, house-made, asian chicken wings.
- Food: Asian Inspired Chicken Wings
- Wine: 2008 Vidal Icewine
MaryNissen Estates Winery – Tucked off of the parkway on Concession 1 is MaryNissen winery. Modestly built, when you enter the wine boutique there is a humble bar on the left, a till on the right and a private tasting room to the back. But, do not be fooled by the winery’s modest appearance; it is quite mighty. You may not know this but MaryNissen is home to the oldest commercial planting of Cabernet Sauvignon in Canada – it was planted by John MaryNissen in 1978. Taken from the MaryNissen website, here’s a fast fact for you,
[John] was the target of some criticism at that time as the “experts” of the day told him he was foolish to plant [Cabernet Sauvignon] as they would not survive our harsh winters, Yet that same year, John was named the Grape King of Ontario, an honour bestowed upon the Grape Grower of the Year.
John sure showed them. I will certainly be returning to MaryNissen to try a glass or two of their Cab Sauv.
- Food: Phenomenal Pasta Primavera
- Wine: 2009 Bottoms Up
Reif Estate Winery – Walking into Reif (pronounced R-EYE-F not R-EE-F) was like walking right into Santa’s wine workshop – floor to ceiling mirrored shelves and a wine bar that stretches for miles. It really is quite beautiful both inside and out. The Taste The Season event was happening in a private barrell room in the back. The lights were dimmed and many patio-like wooden tables and chairs were set around the room with wine bottles on each table – a nice touch. This sweet and savoury meatball was a great way to end day one.
- Food: Sage and Apple Turkey Meatball in a Chardonnay Cream Sauce
- Wine: 2010 Chardonnay
DAY 2 – MERRIMENT WITH MOM
Southbrook Vineyards - It is hard not to notice Southbrook when driving into Niagara-on-the-Lake, this uniquely designed building beckons passers-by to stop and taste. And, it is no wonder that the building is so intriguing, it was the first winery to ever receive Gold LEED Certification (learn more about LEED). It is also one of the few certified organic wineries in the Niagara Region. Inside, the wine boutique is modern and relaxing; I can only imagine the view of the vines during the winter when they are covered in snow. Taste The Season was happening not in the tasting room but in the lounge on the far side of the winery. I really liked the full kitchen bar that is built in the room, one could host a mean cocktail party there. I did enjoy the parsnip soup although the maple syrup threw me off a little bit at first. And, I was surprised by the Cabernet Franc as it was not as “manly” as I usually expect Cab Franc to be.
- Food: Maple Parsnip Soup
- Wine: 2010 Triomphe Cabernet Franc
Cattail Creek Estate Winery – I drive past this winery almost every time I head into Niagara-on-the-Lake and did not stop until Taste The Season. Inside is small and quaint with a modest tasting bar and some pretty bold flavours. I did enjoy the Taste The Season pairing but was incredibly intrigued by the Chocolate Strawberry Cab Franc and Chocolate Orange Vidal late harvest wines. Being a fan of all things overly sweet the Strawberry was my favourite. It smelled and tasted like the strawberry burst shampoo I used when I was 5 years old. My mom, on the other hand, appreciated the sweet (but not as sweet) taste of the Orange Chocolate. Both of us left with a bottle of our preference.
- Food: Wild Mushroom and Pancetta Ragout topped with Crispy Onions
- Wine: 2009 Estate Pinot Noir
Trius Winery at Hillebrand – Trius (then Hillebrand) was the first winery I visited after moving to Niagara in 2008. My husband and I were on our way into Niagara-on-the-Lake to visit the shops and decided to stop for a tour and taste. We had a great time and returned the next May to celebrate our wedding anniversary. We did the Art of the Red Blending Experience together and brought home two bottles of anniversary wine. Needless to say, this is a special winery to me. For Taste The Season Trius was showcasing their Chardonnay and a white bean chorizo cassoulet – neither of which really hit the spot with me. But, what I did find is even more exciting (to me).
They have a great table of Christmas trinkets and on that table I found some milk chocolate almond gingerbread caramels ✪ – absolutely worth the $10 for 4.
- Food: White Bean, Chorizo and Root Vegetable Cassoulet
- Wine: 2010 Trius Barrel Ferment Chardonnay
Pillitteri Estates Winery – Having visited this winery earlier in the summer – see: 23 Reasons to Visit Pillitteri – it was a pleasure to return again. In the winter the family encloses the patio and this is where they hosted Taste The Season. The combination of wine and mac and cheese is not one that would come to mind right away, but it was surprisingly good. Naturally, after the pairing, we headed inside to the tasting bar. Talk about our lucky day, Pillitteri is one of the few wineries in the world that make a Merlot Icewine and they do not usually taste it – but we got to. Delish!! … We also tried to Gewurztraminer Riesling fusion and the Protagonist (which is the same blend as the fusion but not as sweet). The highlight for me, however, was the opportunity to try the Savignon Blanc Icewine. A 750ml bottle sells for $150 and for good reason, it is divine. My mom left with a bottle and I have my fingers crossed that she’s planning on corking it at Christmas. It was a great way to end day 2.
- Food: Chef Leighton’s World Famous Mac and Cheese
- Wine: 2010 Merlot
DAY 3 – SIPPING WITH MY SOUL MATE
PondView Estate Winery – Hubby and I were first introduced to PondView during Savour Niagara where they were sampling their Cabernet Merlot (among others). So when we saw PondView on the Taste The Season passport it was our natural first choice for the afternoon. The building is inviting and the interior is warm with lots of light coloured wood. The bar stretches the whole way across the back of the boutique and shelves with wine lining the walls. They were serving a Chardonnay with a salmon tart. The pairing was really nice, but it was not the highlight.
For me, the highlight was the chocolate icewine shooters; Cab Franc icewine filled dark chocolate shot glasses!
We were instructed to sip the icewine first and when the chocolate glass became half full to pop the rest of it into our mouth. It was a little bit of heaven! Oh, and hubby indulged in a tasting of “his” Cabernet Merlot. It was definitely a successful first stop.
- Food: Diced Sweet Roasted Red Pepper and Creamy Smoked Salmon Tartlet
- Wine: 2010 Bella Terra Barrel-Fermented Chardonnay
Stratus Wines – Since visiting Stratus earlier this year I cannot get their 2008 Sauv Blanc ✪ out of my mind (see Stratus: LEEDing the Way). It is one of my favourite wines in all of of Niagara (right up there with the Thirty Bench 2011 Riesling). For Taste the Season Stratus had partnered with James and Stephen Treadwell, owners of Treadwell Cuisine in Port Dalhousie and paired with the food their 2009 Tollgate Red. Out of curiousity, we wanted to know why the name Tollgate. It turns out that, in the “olden days” there used to be a tollgate right around where Stratus sits now; definitely a story behind that label that I can appreciate. I’m actually curious to know more. After Taste of the Season we went to the tasting bar so hubby could try Stratus Cab Franc; I skipped the bar despite the Sauv Blanc whispering sweet nothings in my ear.
- Food: Beef Brisket with Kozlik’s Crunchy Mustard ✪
- Wine: 2009 Tollgate Red ✪
Sunnybrook Farm Estate Winery – Sunnybrook is Canada’s first fruit winery; plum, raspberry, apple, cherry, peach, pear, blueberry … any fruit that grows in Niagara could wine up in a bottle. From their website,
Studies show that fruit wines are low in histamines and tannins, and high in antioxidants and minerals. If grape wines give you a headache, you may be able to enjoy our fruit wines!
We pulled up to the cheery blue wooden building and immediately felt like royalty as Taste The Season pass-holders had our own entrance. The iced apple wine tasted like a cool, alcoholic version of apple juice and the apple tart had some great spice for a chilly fall day. I was incredibly happy to learn that not only does Sunnybrook do a pear wine they also may be doing a pear icewine this year. My fingers are crossed.
- Food: Apple Tart
- Wine: Iced Apple Wine
Strewn Winery – Strewn was my final Taste The Season stop before heading to the beautiful Oban Inn for my next Lux adventure. Nestled on the south shore of Lake Ontario, you will find this family-run winery , restaurant and cooking school. I was captivated as soon as I got out of the car by the red roses in full bloom with the most delicate sprinkling of frost. The food and wine pairing was set up in the tasting room that flanks the impressive cooking school kitchen. I was excited to learn that the cooking school often runs weekend couple’s cooking classes – that sounds (and I’m sure tastes) really good! Strewn’s pairing of Late Harvest Riesling and an assortment of finger foods was nice – my favourite was the caramelized onion and beet marmalade. As it turns out, they were also serving complimentary mulled wine at the tasting bar and so we had to partake. It tastes like spiced hot apple cider but is red wine through and through. If you are comfortable in the kitchen you could put together some mulled wine c/o googling a recipe. For the quick and dirty type you can go to Strewn and buy the spices and wine for $13.
- Food: A Seasonal Sweet and Savoury Trio
- Wine: 2006 Late Harvest Riesling
This year I had to send my regrets to Diamond Estates, Hinterbrook Winery, Jackson-Triggs, Joseph’s Estate Wines, Konzelmann Estate Winery, Lailey Vineyard, Maleta Winery, Palatine Hills, Peller Estates, and Stonechurch Vineyards. I admire those people that can get to all 28 wineries in two days – I could not do it even if I wanted to.
If you missed Taste The Season this year don’t fret. The next Wineries of Niagara-on-the-Lake event happens in time for Valentines Day in February. It is called Days of Wine and Chocolate:
Explore the decadently sweet and savoury art of wine and chocolate pairing. Visit our wineries to taste up to 28 VQA wines matched with chocolate-infused dishes – from classically sweet flavour combinations to unexpected surprises.
Count me in!