Niagara Wine Country is open for business – and maybe better than ever – in this new normal
I made my first trip to Niagara this past week. I haven’t been back since early 2020, and I didn’t realize how much I absolutely missed Wine Country.
Only an hour and change (when the traffic gods bless you) from Toronto, or a blissful 12-minute plane ride (when you want to get your wine country getaway off to a bougie start) Niagara is indeed my happy place. Immediately I can unwind, relax, breath deeper and just be way more chill than I am in the big city.
As you might expect, there’s been a ton of Covid related changes since I was there last: hours at many places are drastically reduced, reservations are mandatory, and limits have been placed on number of visitors at a time. But surprisingly, I didn’t find these adjustments overly difficult, or hampered my experience. In fact, in many ways, I think the experience was actually even better than visits in Before Times.
Most Niagara wineries are trying – to great success – to make the new normal as easy and inviting as possible. Outdoor spaces give an air of exclusivity, pre-booked tastings are more interactive, and the limited shoppers in winery boutiques makes for a calm, less hurried and more relaxed experience.
Of course, there’s also been a few non-Covid changes. Locust Lane winery, which took over the old Mike Weir place, opened, Cave Spring has a new tasting space and visitors’ grounds, Back 10 Cellars, like many other wineries, created a fun and intimate outdoor tasting pavilion, and Flat Rock Cellars’ launched self-guided vineyard walks.
The following itinerary can certainly be accomplished in one neat and tidy day, but I like to have a few drinks at dinner, so I spent the night.
My travelling companion and I hit the highway looking for wine adventure.
Normally I revel in getting a delicious and healthy breakfast sandwich from The Bench Kitchen, but they’re currently closed on Mondays (a recent Covid reaction, it would seem). Disappointed but undeterred, we tried the brunch café, Revalee. It turns out that it is now only open on weekends. Finally, we looked to Root 8, again closed on Mondays.
I can’t recommend these restaurants enough, so I was super bummed to miss out on their deliciousness. However, my intrepid travelling pal wisely brought a granola bar, which we split and carried on to our first winery visit.
We arrive early at the newly opened Locust Lane winery, a joint project of Toronto-based investors which includes the event-space owners, Berkeley Group.
They set up shop in the old Mike Weir winery – a spacious, airy building with impressive north-facing wall-to-wall windows offering spectacular views of Lake Ontario and on a clear day, Toronto. A stunning setting, Locust Lane is already taking booking for weddings next year and has plans in the works for glamping on their 50 acres of property.
We take advantage of our early arrival to grab some photos, including from the inviting balconies that flank the building. A perfect location for lounging in the afternoon sun with a glass of something delicious.
At our arranged time of 11am, we get a special visit from winemaker Jeff Innes who hosts us for a private tasting. With a mandate to create approachable, affordable wines, we gather at the large tasting bar to taste through eight wines including a snappy sparkling Riesling and smoky Pinot Noir. With nothing priced higher than $25, the wines are priced to sell to good homes and cellars.
Locust Lane, 4041 Locust Lane, Beamsville. 905-351-8631
After a quick, meandering drive through the Bench, we arrive at Vineland Estate, one of Niagara’s oldest wineries. Here we enjoy a tasting and tour of the old, and possibly haunted, cellar.
Originally the Mennonite farmstead of the Moyer family in the 1800’s, some say a few family members never left. Spooky.
The magnificent original structures still stand, making this place an Instagram-worthy destination for weddings, celebrations and visitors. The three timber and stone buildings onsite underwent a careful refurbish in the 90’s, with a focus on honouring the original design and heritage.
We settle in to taste a fun range of wines in the Carriage House, a building normally reserved for private events. There’s a fun pink sparkler, called Frenzy, made with Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, that’s juicy and flavourful. We sampled the fan-favourite Pinot Grigio, which I think would make a lovely (and affordable) choice for garden parties. And of course, Cabernet Franc. A savoury red wine that’s an Ontario calling card, certainly one my personal favourites, and also a preferred grape for Vineland winemaker, Brian Schmidt.
Voted one of the most romantic restaurant wineries, we have a glorious lunch on Vineland’s sizeable patio. With a partial covering, we opt for a roomy table near the railing to better our view of the rolling vineyards giving way to Lake Ontario.
Carefully observing Covid protocols, the restaurant team is in masks and gloves, and request visitors to also wear masks anytime away from the table. Understandably, servers also cannot take picture for guests vying for a memorable snap, so have your selfie stick on the ready.
Executive Chef George Ward took over the helm after Justin Downs – Vinelands’ long reigning exec chef – left last year. The food is exceptional.
The menu is short with only four offerings for appetizers, mains and desserts. (There’s nothing suitable to vegans, though there is fish for pescatarians.) But ingredients are sourced locally with supreme attention to detail and flavour.
The three-course lunch menu is $45, and wine pairings are an additional $30-$40, with discounts for wine club members. They also offer a selection of cheese, charcuterie and oyster shared plates, which I think would make for a swanky afternoon snack break to ease the nerves of the weary wine traveller. I note that for next time.
I choose a red pepper bisque (and honestly, I’m tempted to lick the bowl – good thing I spit during our earlier wine tasting). My main is a rich and juicy duck confit with balsamic onion jam and parsnip purée, a slightly more autumnal offering, but excellent nonetheless. My travelling partner opts for an heirloom tomato salad and local trout with rutabaga. We shared homemade sour dough bread with ricotta, black olive tapenade and sliced hot pepper. Try as we might (and we really tried), we were both so stuffed neither of us could manage desert.
Vineland Estates 3620 Moyer Rd., Vineland 1-888-846-3526
At this time, Cloudsley is only open to the public Friday through Sunday, so do note that when you plan your trip. We were lucky enough to get another private appointment, which is a nice perk of my job.
We had an appointment to arrive at 3pm but got delayed. As you’ll read in the tips below, it’s a good idea to build a buffer into your timeline. Either way, proprietor and winemaker Adam Lowry is kind and gracious enough to still welcome us despite our tardiness.
Cloudsley, which is named for Adam’s mother’s maiden name, opened in 2017 and specializes in terroir-driven, premium Chardonnay and Pinot Noir – two of Ontario’s top performing varietals. Sourcing fruit from grape growers around Niagara, Adam runs a super-small operation. In fact, it’s only him and his assistant, Matt.
His tasting room is also his cellar, fermenting space, fork-lift garage, and everything-else area. But that’s what makes it cool: it’s rare that visitors get to peel back the curtain to see the insides a real working winery, so this is a fun and special treat. Get on your Blundstones!*
(*Boots not mandatory but they do make you look the part.)
Cloudsley Cellars, 3795 Victoria Ave., Vineland 905-562-8877
A 5-star boutique hotel in the centre of Niagara-on-the-Lake (although, to be fair, NOTL is so small everything is in the centre of the town).
It’s more of a campus than a traditional hotel with various buildings all within the same block. A selection of accommodations include: private one- and two-bedroom guest houses on Gate Street, stately walk-up suites above the Gatehouse restaurant and event space, and luxurious rooms with private patios and fireplaces in another adjacent building.
Currently, there is some construction going on; it looks like they’re building an entirely new hotel. The sawing and hammering do get going at a prompt 7am, but it’s not really that much of a bother. Even though there was a fully stocked Keurig in my room, and the hotel offers complimentary, continental breakfast room service, I use the early morning wake-up to grab a coffee from Starbucks next door and take a quiet walk through NOTL’s picturesque streets.
124 on Queen Hotel and Spa, 124 Queen St., Niagara-on-the-Lake 1-855-988-4552
A fantastic, casually elegant Italian pizzeria and pasta house, Ruffino’s is the newest incarnation in this unlikely strip mall location.
Owned and run by Chef Ryan Crawford, this inviting space was once Backhouse – a sleek farm-to-table, upscale restaurant that Ryan ran until Covid got the better of it. He quickly pivoted the restaurant into the family-friendly Ruffino’s casting a wider net of appeal for locals and tourists alike. Still keeping with the theme of farm fresh vegetables, ethically sourced meats, and a focused wine list full of local and international treasures, consider this space a must-visit.
We gorged ourselves on in-season stuffed zucchini blossoms, lobster mushroom risotto with seared halibut, late-summer grilled vegetables, brown-butter gnocchi fritti, and kale-pesto penne. (Don’t worry, meat lovers, there’s a solid amount of chops and steaks and Bolognese to quell your carnivorous cravings.)
Ruffino’s 242 Mary St., Niagara-on-the-Lake 289-819-0179
We take advantage of a gloriously sunny day and grab coffees to walk by the lake.
Before heading home, a stop by Stratus is required.
Sleek, angular, and elegant, the towering black monolith is a standout on the winery row filled with swirling chateau-like structures. The gleaming building is Canada’s first LEED-certified, as any of the staff will quickly let you know.
Here they focus on blends – or assemblage – with a belief that the sum is greater than its parts. With signature wines simply labelled “Red” and “White” the blends’ proportions and grapes fluctuate from year to year.
In line with Stratus’ highly designed aesthetic, the winery has implemented swirly floor designs to indicate safe social distancing. So much nicer than those institutional feet stickers you see everywhere else.
Stratus currently offers tasting flights on the designer terrace or in a private room. I’m partial to the semi-private tents on the back lawn for a slightly exclusive experience. Of course, reservations are necessary.
Stratus Vineyards, 2059 Niagara Stone Rd., Niagara-on-the-Lake 905-468-1806
Note: I could have easily turned this day trip into a full weekend. There are plenty more must-visit wineries and excellent restaurants. Alas, I needed to get back to the city. Stay tuned for my itinerary for a long weekend getaway, coming soon to this website.
Many thanks to Wine Country Ontario for help with this trip. If you are looking to build your next wine tour, check out their website for helpful resources.