A crowd of tourists is gathered around the tasting counter at 13th Street Winery in St. Catharines, 20 kilometres from Niagara-on-the-Lake. Originally from neighbouring Michigan, they are interested in Riesling and Chardonnay, the region’s signature varieties, which are among the most popular white grapes cultivated in Ontario. During their tasting session, other visitors visit the gallery. The estate’s owners, who are also art lovers, have allowed Canadian artists to use the space to show their work, which only adds to the charm of visiting the winery.
Jean-Pierre Colas, the head oenologist who has dedicated himself to the 13th Street Winery since 2009, admits that whenever he hears French being spoken, he runs over right away. “It’s like I have some kind of radar that can hear Québécois from far off!” The Burgundy native, a resident of Ontario for 15 years, often travels the 401 for a visit to Quebec. He has many friends amongst our province’s chefs, sommeliers and restaurateurs. Quebec tourists in Ontario are seen as having a very European palate that can appreciate a wine’s minerality, balance and style.
To really investigate the area, the best place to stay is Niagara-on-the-Lake, a charming town that is close to several vineyards, and then work your way out from there.
As you travel the wine routes of Niagara, which covers 84 vineyards, you will also realize how many great restaurants there are in the area… and how little time you have in which to try and sample all of them!
“Gastronomy has exploded here in the last 10 years,” notes Suzanne Janke, Sales Director at Stratus winery, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary. “You could easily spend two weeks in the region, having two excellent meals a day, without covering all there is to offer in terms of fine dining. We’re also seeing a notable surge in Quebec tourists, perhaps because of the growing number of great restaurants and increasingly good wines.”
In Ontario’s wine regions, it’s not only the tourists who are loyal. In restaurants, ranging from the smallest café to the fanciest restaurant, wine lists are almost entirely composed of local products, even though they may be several pages long. The VQA (Vintners Quality Alliance), which is practically the only game in town, guarantees that the grapes are grown in Ontario and that 85% of the grapes used must be the stated varietal.
At Treadwell—an excellent restaurant in Niagara-on-the-Lake with a father-and-son duo as chef and sommelier, Stephen and James Treadwell respectively—the team guides you through each dish and explains the philosophy behind every wine. Their understanding of the winemakers behind the wines is clear, as is their enthusiasm. The restaurant’s already-impressive, lengthy wine list becomes even more so when you consider that all of the wines are local. What’s more, the wine lists of many fine restaurants in the area are almost all composed of VQA wines.
“We’re really proud of our producers,” affirms sommelier James Treadwell. “We’ve been making wines in the peninsula for 40 years and the quality has constantly improved. We have a great terroir and our wine-growers know how to get the most out of it.”