Local vintners are just waiting for you to drop by

james morris for metro toronto


The Barrel Room at Malavoire

It’s not like me to drink in the morning. But sometimes you’re influenced by the company you keep. And the situations you find yourself in. So here I am across the table from two old friends — a prominent chef/sommelier and a recent Cordon Bleu graduate. To my right is a guy who has just poured us six glasses of wine. Each. And it’s only 10 a.m.

james morris for metro toronto

Chef and sommelier Jean-Pierre Challet contemplates the subtleties of Stratus Red and Stratus White.

Jean-Pierre Challet, one of Toronto’s best chefs, is our guide for today’s Niagara winery tour. A board member for the Ontario Sommelier’s Association, he is dedicated to heightening the food experience through enlightened pairings.

“Good wines should be sold by the glass,” he says. “Otherwise, how can people discover what they like?”

Sharing knowledge and experience is his raison d’être. We’re about to spend the day learning how, in wine, philosophy affects flavour.

At Henry of Pelham, where the first six glasses are poured, their credo reflects a strong sense of connection to the land. “You can’t make good wine from bad grapes. Fine wine is grown — not made.” This is Dan Speck talking. He’s a co-owner and director of marketing, and his family has owned and farmed the estate since the late 1700s. It took about 200 years for them to seriously turn their eye to the grape, but this generation’s efforts are paying off.

Back in the tasting room, we raise the Cuvee Catharine Brut to our lips. Which brings us to the first line of snobbery — Cuvee, what now? How do you get to know a wine? How do you choose the right bottle for the meal or the occasion?

I’m not a wine expert. I find the language of wine to be a little off-putting. It tries to put into words things that can’t accurately be described. Yet there is good and bad wine.

“All that matters is what you taste,” says Challet. “If you have a tongue, you have a palate. What you like is up to you.” The trick is in paying attention to what you’re drinking, and remembering what you like. At a tasting, it’s all about focusing on flavour. Sip, swoosh and spit.

With your attention solely on what’s going on in your mouth, it’s hard not to have an opinion. In this case, the Cuvee is a Champagne-like sparkling Chardonnay/Pinot Noir blend that makes my tongue very happy. Put a tick mark beside that one.

Down the road at Lailey, it’s a similar story told differently. Here, wine tours are crafted on the fly to meet the interests of their visitors. Working on a much smaller scale, winemaker Derek Barnet is a craftsman in the truest sense.

His knowledge of the ground and the grape sings in the bottle and makes for an interesting vineyard tour. Down in the cellar, they draw off samples from the barrel and encourage you to spit on the floor.

Stratus has a different approach. Their philosophy combines a zealous dedication to environmental stewardship — which most immediately finds expression through the architecture and technology of the winery — with a passion for the integrity of the grape, and rejection of what they seem to see as the industry’s slavish dedication to varietals. Each year they produce a red and a white. Each year’s output is a unique assemblage that depends on the conditions of the growing season and the particulars of the crop.

Malavoire shares a bit with Stratus in that both use gravity filtration to better pamper the product. Whereas Stratus has to lift the grapes to the top of their facility for hand sorting, Malavoire is built on a hill. The complex of Quonset huts hugs the hill with a unique architectural appeal. The wines are lighter to the eye than at the other wineries, but every bit as flavorful. Here, the emphasis is on the move to organic designation. The spirit shows in the quality of the output. It was all good to me.

In his thick French accent, chef Challet ponders why Canadians are so slow to see the quality that’s in their own backyard. His conclusion? “I don’t know. Maybe people just need more opportunities to explore.”

I agree. Niagara wine country is only an hour outside Toronto. The landscape is dotted with high quality vintners, who are just waiting for you to drop by.

All that’s required is you designate a driver, pick three or four names off the Official Guide To The Wineries Of Ontario, and start developing your palate.

Your taste buds will thank you.

winery tours

james morris for metro toronto

Niagara vinelands in early spring.

  • There are many ways to get to know the flavour of the Niagara wine region, but if you’re planning a tour, remember, you either need to find a designated driver or book with a tour company that takes care of the transportation for you. Do a quick web search of “Wine tours Niagara” for a whole spate of options.

  • Visit the Wines of Ontario site, www.winesofontario.org, to download a copy of their official guide. Or give them a call at 1-800-263-2988 and they’ll be happy to mail you one.

  • The Stratus Winery, www.stratuswines.com, is located in the town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, and is open for visitors throughout the year.

  • Malavoire Wines is located on the Beamsville Bench, just south of the QEW between Grimsby and St. Catharines. For more information, visit www.malavoirewineco.com.

  • Lailey Vineyard is located on the Niagara Parkway in Niagara-on-the-Lake. For more information about tours and directions, visit www.laileyvinyard.com.

  • Henry of Pelham Family Estate is located on the Short Hills Bench, just south of St. Catharines. For tour information and directions, visit www.henryofpelham.com.

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