Sunday, June 03, 2007

The Celebrated Niagara Escarpment

When you think about wines of the Niagara Peninsula, you think icewines -- luscious, world-class icewines. You might also think a climate cold enough for great icewines would produce a few good cool-weather whites, such as riesling, but that's about it.

Well, part of the joy of traveling is learning new and interesting things about different parts of the world, some of which prove prior assumptions wrong. Just last week, having finished our tour of the Finger Lakes area, Kathy and I moved on to the Niagara peninsula where I was pleasantly surprised to find many different wines of high quality, reds included. And for that, winemakers practically get on their knees and bow in thanks for something called the Niagara Escarpment.

Ontario produces the largest percentage of Canada's homegrown wine from about 15,000 acres of vineyards, and the Niagara area is its epicenter. The Niagara peninsula is the largest single viticultural area, accounting for 80 percent of the country's grapes. With numbers like that, you know the area has something serious going for it.

The locals say their climate, during the growing season, is comparable to that of Burgundy or the Loire Valley in France. It's a temperate climate for much of the year made possible by Lake Ontario to the north, the Niagara River to the east and the Niagara Escarpment to the south. The escarpment is a 575-foot high ridge that stretches in an east-west direction for 550 miles.

What this does is moderate climate conditions and extend the growing season by delaying the first hard frost. Offshore breezes that moderate the peninsula's weather actually get recirculated across the peninsula because they are buffeted back toward the lake by the escarpment. When other nearby areas are hit with frost in the fall, the circulating air of the peninsula makes it much harder for cold air to settle in low-lying areas -- hence the farmers' affection for the escarpment.

More than 50 wineries populate the Niagara peninsula, providing plenty from which to choose for those walking the wine. In my book, a good place to start is with two of the region's best known wineries, the only two whose wines are generally available back home in Connecticut -- Inniskillin and Peller Estates.

Our first stop was at Inniskillin, perhaps the region's best known winery thanks to its surprise win in 1991 of Vinexpo's (Bordeaux) highest award, Le Grand Prix d'Honneur, for its 1989 icewine. I've been drinking Inniskillin's vidal and riesling icewines for years, as often as I could afford to, that is. Icewines, of course, are not cheap.

But I never had a chance previously to try their other wines, and there's a lot to try. Their inexpensive wines include a lot of vinifera, such as pinot griogio, riesling, pinot noir, merlot and gamay noir. Those I tasted were a bit thin, but largely decent table wines.

Many of the reserve wines, in contrast, showed a lot more stuffing. For example, the Founders' Reserve Pinot Noir 2004 had wonderful earth and smoke aromas that would match very well with grilled foods. The Reserve Meritage 2002 had very good black fruit in a medium- to full-bodied package. The Brae Burn Shiraz had interesting pepper notes, very French in style, but not quite the body I hoped for.

The icewine tasting, as you might expect, was just an absolute delight. In icewines, Inniskillin offers a vidal, a riesling, a sparkling vidal, an oak-aged vidal and a cabernet franc. All were delicious, though I found the riesling had the best balance and the most interesting finish.

One of Canada's first estate wineries, Inniskillin is a terrific place to visit with a couple of different tour options and different bars set up for tasting table wines vs icewines. Operating out of a couple of grand-scale barns, Inniskillin has not lost its sense of being a farm business despite its success.

Peller Estates
Peller Estates also has many fine wines to try, but, in contrast, you are more likely to feel like you are visiting a country club than a winery. Peller has probably the grandest, most posh winery facilities in the area -- perhaps in Canada. You sort of feel antsy for a moment about stepping inside in jeans and sneakers.

But the staff is decidely not stuffy. In fact, the winery offers so many different levels of tours, tastings and other events that there is something for everyone. If you like things plain and simple, you may want to avoid this winery. But I would recommend that everyone else simply must experience Pellers Estates.

Again, you'll find an interesting and varied lineup of wines, and, again, you'll find the wines at the Reserve and Founders' Series levels really excel. Of those I tasted, the Reserve Merlot 2002 was a real standout with its earthy complexity and great finish. The 2006 Riesling Icewine also was fantastic.

Just one other point, if you are not on a tight budget you might want to try the Peller Estates restaurant. It's simply a wonderful dining experience, with top-notch service and fanatastic, imaginitive foods that seem French-influenced but local in character. As I said, it's quite expensive, but if you can afford one "special occasion" dinner, you'll love Peller. The vineyard views alone while dining make the experience unforgettable.


Anonymous James McNally said...

Glad you enjoyed Niagara. If you're ever back, I recommend making the village of Jordan your home base, and making visits to Cave Spring, Henry of Pelham, Vineland Estates, Flat Rock and Fielding Estates. All good, and Jordan is not quite as touristy as Niagara on the Lake.

3:21 PM  
Blogger JD said...

James, thanks for the tips. We wanted to experience Niagara-on-the-Lake at least once, but would definitely be up for something with fewer tourists next time.

10:38 PM  

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