Wine AND Waterfalls?!

There are plenty of things I love about being Canadian. Free healthcare, fresh water clean enough to drink pouring bountifully out of the taps, evergreens and prairies and mountains as far as the eye can see, being able to say the word “hoser” in a sentence and not be judged for it… We have a pretty spectacular country.

I’ve always been a Vancouver girl at heart, devoted to my yoga pants and green tea lattes, having perfected the art of polite passive aggression and laid-back snotty eco-consciousness like only a west coast girl can. I’ve got the eye roll perfected that comes along with an east coaster’s “Toronto is the centre of the universe!” declaration, and I have an umbrella that goes with every outfit. I am a Lulu Lemon-loving, wheatgrass-shooting, Cactus Club-frequenting, This One Time at the Roxy-uttering Vancouverite. I’m practically a piece of smoked salmon, I’m so west coast.

But here’s the thing: Toronto has bewitched me. I’ve fallen in love with its amazing restaurants, its cultural diversity, its barking-mad cab drivers and mouthy bartenders. People wouldn’t be caught dead running around in workout gear here, and I’ve gotten some of the dirtiest looks of my life for asking for a wedge of lemon to squeeze in my Perrier. It’s cosmopolitan and brash and fast-paced and just a tiny bit rude. It’s sort of the shit. But my very favorite (sorry, I mean favourite) thing about Toronto? It has its very own wine country, an hour and a half’s drive away from the city!!!!!!!!!!

Nestled in the lovely town of Niagara-On-The-Lake lies a lush little grid of wineries offering everything from pinot noir to cabernet franc, gorgeous red blends and some seriously decadent icewines. I’d heard tell of this magical land from my new fellow wino Torontonian friends, but me being the California wine snob I am, I just couldn’t fathom a tiny town in Canada that could take some of those Santa Barbara winemakers to school. I’ve never been happier to admit I was wrong!

I, actress/besty Cindy “Buzz” Busby and new besty/costar Joe “Baby Joe Fever” Dinicol (he gave himself that nickname, something to do with scarlett fever. Or rickets. Can’t remember.) decided to book a tour with Crush Tours to really get a lay of the land. They’ve got a bunch of great tours to choose from, but the one that sounded most appealing to us gluttons was the tour that included a visit to three wineries, a three course meal with wine pairings, and transportation to and from local hotels in the area for a thrifty $150. But we got to wine country early by accident, so we decided to check out a couple other wineries to kill time. And by accident I mean I planned it that way.

Our first stop was Marynissen Estates, a quaint little spot off the beaten track that’s been making wine since the 50’s. Unlike some of those lah-dee-dah places in Cali, Marynissen is way unpretentious, and its tasting room aficionados encourage you to try their offerings to your heart’s content. And at 50 cents (yes, like the rapper!) a taste, why in heck wouldn’t you try them all? They’ve got a couple of perfect summer whites including a Fume Blanc, a smooth unoaked Chardonnay, and a fun blend called the Summer Solstice (that’ll set you back a whole $14.80), but their reds smacked me upside the head like only a good wine can. A sexy Cabernet/Merlot blend, big fat Syrahs, and– the whammy– a simply beautiful Cabernet Franc. Now, I’ve been known to go off on tangents about Cab Francs in the past, turning my nose up at them in disgust and declaring them the equivalent to drinking a haystack. But it turns out, I just don’t like California Cab Francs. Because this one rocked my little world.

After stopping at a store to get a bag of popcorn for the lightweights, we arrived at picturesque Ravine Vineyards. A working farm since the 1800’s, Ravine is a stunning piece of property on 34 acres, situated at the highest point of elevation in the area, which means better drainage, better soil, and all-around better wine. The place pays serious homage to its roots, and its tasting room is located in one of Canada’s top 50 most architecturally significant houses, built way back in 1802! (Best to leave that Ouija board at home, me thinks.) All of their grapes are hand-harvested, which means there’s a lot of pride at this place. And their wines are quite lovely and elegant, especially their Redcoat blend, the Reserve Merlot, and– once again– their Cabernet Franc. It wasn’t a slam-dunk like Marynissen, but it’s worth going just for the scenery alone. And the ghosts.

Spot the ghosts!

We slipped into one more before we had to meet our tour guide, because I’d heard through some idiot grapevine that it wasn’t to be missed. Château des Charmes is aesthetically gorgeous in a Real Housewives sort of way (botoxed, too much jewellery), and it’s hard to miss. Just look for the monstrous mansion right off the highway. Unfortunately, their wines are all for show, too, most of them too young and just not refined enough to be drinkable. The only thing I liked was a Savagnin Icewine, but for $70 a bottle, that better include your very own unicorn.

On to the tour: after checking in to our hotel (the lovely White Oaks Resort), we boarded our little tour van and took off to stop #1. Pondview is a very charming, very humble winery that’s just the complete opposite of Chateau des Charmes. Their reds reign supreme here, and there’s even a Cabernet Franc Rose for a rosy $15. But the bestest thing they’ve got is a “chocolate shooter”, a delicious Cabernet Sauvignon Icewine served in a chocolate cup. Know what winery wins? The one with shooters!

Cheers to the freakin' weekend!

Stop #2 on our wine tour was Pillitteri Estates, known as the world’s largest producer of icewine. And boy, do they like to let you know it. For a full half hour, we were treated to a mundane tour of their “awards room”, complete with bottles of their prized icewine encased in glass viewing boxes (which, when they’re not even letting you taste them, is rather sadistic) and even a special viewing of the family’s even specialer private dining room. Our monotonous Pillitteri employee went so far as to explain the designs on the chair backs, which were inscribed with a sort of strange iron Pillitteri family “tree”. I’m all for gloating about family history (My dad’s been to jail!), but this was a little ridiculous. When it came time to finally taste their golden wines, I’d lost my alcohol appetite. Which is saying a lot for me, guys.

Luckily, stop #3 was another winner. Peller Estates is quite a well-known name here in Canada, having won Best Canadian Winery of the Year in London’s International Wine and Spirit Competition. I’ve always been a little leery of the big wineries, since quantity usually trumps quality at those places, but here’s a second:  I was wrong again! I simply adored everything we tasted, from the Ice Cuvee Rose to the Baco Noir.. and, yes, the Cabernet Franc was once again bloody fabulous. The tasting room’s stunning, too. And so are the boys working there. Just saying.

Dinner was served at the Riverbend Inn, a quiet and quaint little place that seemed like a happy hour hotspot for seniors. And the food wasn’t a whole heck of a lot to write home about, but at that point I don’t think any of us could have spelled our names if we tried, anyway. As much as I loved our Crush tour guide, I’d be more inclined to rent a limo for the day and plan my own tour for next time. But that’s ’cause I’m a control freak.

Do yourself a favor and drive a little further to see Niagara Falls in the morning, which is most definitely amazing and totally gorgeous and worth seeing in person at least once in your life. It’s also worth mentioning that the Canadian side of the falls trumps the American side. It kinda made me swell with pride. Again. Oh, Canada, I love you!

Smug, aren't I?


23 Comments Add yours

  1. mark says:

    Top image is what i imagine your cellar to look like.

  2. Ryan says:

    Hey, I found this blog through our mutual friend Celina the Perogy Master. It’s a lot of fun, and I am very jealous of your foodie adventures! I have only been a Torontonian for about a year, but I’ve never met anyone from here that actually identifies it as the centre of the universe. That’s more of a sentiment that other people assign to Torontonians. Or maybe I’ve just managed to avoid those folks. At any rate, glad you’re enjoying the city. It can be a bit harsh, but when it’s in a good mood, it really opens up.

  3. Mike says:

    Probably not time for you to go, but the Finger Lakes region of NY has some great wines too – only about 2 hours from Niagara Falls. Beautiful country, some nice tucked away towns and small places to stay.

  4. Jon says:

    Niagara-On-The-Lake is one of the few things I miss about living in Niagara Falls – it was always a great way to spend an afternoon or weekend, just driving through all the small towns along the lake shore and seeing what one could find.

  5. Peter says:

    Agreed that the Canadian Falls in Niagra are the prettier, but should you happen to accidently wander to the southern suburbs of the greater Toronto area — which is to say, central New York State — consider a wine tour in the Finger Lakes region of New York state. Along with being fantastically gorgeous this time of year and renowned for spectacular waterfalls, the Finger Lakes is home to some fantastic established vineyards whose wines are seldom seen out west. I’m a particular fan of the classiness of Lamoreaux Landing , the terrific Reislings of Konstanin Frank, , and the unpretentious charm of Wagner Vineyards and the Ginny Lee Café . And you could make include a stop to see the many waterfalls around Ithaca and have dinner at Moosewood . (The service is inconsistent, but the food is reliably delicious.)

  6. Jeremy says:

    Welcome to Ontario!

    Niagara is a great region to visit. I get pretty bored of Southwestern Ontario’s countryside, but Niagara is always a breath of fresh air. And the falls are definitely amazing to see over and over again. If you have the chance to visit them again, they light the falls up at night with a light show for a few hours. Pretty cool to see. And you are right, the Canadian falls completely school the American falls.

    In case you haven’t visited one yet, the bigger LCBOs in Toronto typically have entire aisles dedicated to wines from the Niagara region. When you don’t have the time or effort to do tours of the region you can still come away with some great finds there.

    There are a lot of wineries scattered to the East of Toronto as well, but I don’t think that most of them are up to par with Niagara.

  7. Andrew says:

    “Chocolate shooters..,” even Wonka did not have those.

  8. Sharon says:

    I second Peter’s suggestion. The Finger Lakes Region of New York is simply breathtaking, especially during the fall foliage season – which is right around the corner. Oh, and the wine ain’t bad either!

  9. Robin Sharp says:

    If you go back again (and you should!) you should visit Tawse. They’re my favourite! They’re biodynamic (they use sheep to thin out their vines – so cute) and the people who give the tastings are really into their jobs. Last time I was there they took us down to the cellar just because we asked a question about barrels.

    They also make an ice wine that blew my mind. I thought that I hated ice wine because it reminds me too much of Manischewitz, but it turns out that I just hadn’t had the right one yet. Tawse makes a Chardonnay ice wine that tastes like caramel. It’s soooo good.

  10. Robin Sharp says:

    … and it’s $36/bottle, which is reasonable.

  11. Amanda says:

    If you want another secret wine region: two hours to the east of Toronto lies Prince Edward County, Canada’s best kept secret. Sandbank Provincial Park beaches are the prettiest in Ontario – no competition. And the wineries are cozy and quaint and completely unpretentious – and also pretty darn good.

  12. kitten says:

    And now I am thirsty. And on the hunt for ice wine, which is a new thing to me.

  13. Ben says:

    Welcome to the neighborhood!

    I second the recommendation of the Finger Lakes wine trail, and definitely agree that the Canadian Falls are far superior (I’ve grown up in Western New York and only been to the U.S. Falls once).

    But how could you post about Niagara Falls and Toronto without even a passing mention of “Wonderfalls” (may it rest in peace)?

  14. Christine says:

    I went to Niagara Falls for my honeymoon and discovered Niagara on the Lake. We wound up skipping all the touristy places (e.g. Maid of the Mist) and practically lived at the Inniskillin Winery. I think we’ll save our last bottle of ’07 Vidal ice wine for our 5th anniversary (we just celebrated our 2 year). Wish I had a bottle of the $200 cabernet franc from the tour right about now! (heaven!).

  15. Karyn says:

    For my 19th birthday present, my grandmother took me on a wine tour of Niagara-on-the-Lake. By the third winery, she was telling me, “now, you don’t need to try all of them…” I was by no means drunk, but it was just her grandmotherly way of taking care of me. It was a great introduction to wine though!! I loved listening to the people at the wineries tell how they made the wine.

  16. MK says:

    Who the heck told you Chateau des Charmes? They donated wine to a theatre I worked at a few years ago and the stuff was undrinkable.

    For the best tasting experience around, check out Daniel Lenko Estate. His tasting room is his kitchen, and when I was there I was served crackers by his dad. The wines are great too. Royal DeMaria makes the best icewine in the world. Pricey but worth going to taste. Divine. Sunnybrook Farm Estate makes some fantastic fruit wine. And I love the wines made by Cattail Creek Estates. Check them out!

  17. Nannig says:

    I was lucky enough to have fantastic friends who took me on a wine&falls tour when I was visiting Toronto too, and I recommand Vineland Estates Winery, with fancy buildings and nice wines, and Organised Crime Winery for the awesome (yet English) lady owning the place and the cool labels (I’m not fan of Alsace style white so you’ll taste and see for the wine). Nearby that last one is Fielding Estate Winery, more “industrial” yet has decent wine and a nice ice wine!

  18. Jaime says:

    I’m definitely an American Girl through-and-through, but I’ve always wanted to go to Canada. I’m from Rhode Island which is sort of close to Canada, but I’ve never had occasion to take the trip. I think I could live happily there, honestly, with everything I’ve heard about how lovely it is. My grandfather’s parents came from Canada in the early 1900’s and spoke only French (I never met them, they died before I was born), and so I sort of want to visit just to see where that part of my family came from.

  19. Cécile says:

    Interesting. I’ve never heard of this “icewine” you’re talking about. Especially because in my language, it’s “vin de glace”, which sounds like it’s a special wine to have with an ice-cream. Is it really worth trying ? xxx

  20. Marie says:

    I lived in Toronto for 4 years in the name of education, and scoured the city for tasty treats at every opportunity. I never made it into wine country, but if you’re still up for some noshing, I’ve got some within the city limits. The St. Lawrence Market (a tad cliche, perhaps, but you can make a meal on the cheese & pastry samples, and that is all kinds of awesome), Ravi Soups on Adelaide (I think I miss their Porcini Bisque & Roasted Veggie Wrap more than anything else in TO), and Clafouti on Queen W by Trinity Bellwoods (grab a croissant and then search the park for an elusive white squirrel). And, if you want to do some cooking, there’s an adorable farm up at Steeles & Keele that has the most amazing everything.

  21. Shelley says:

    I hope you get a chance to go back! I was just there for my birthday and visited Reif Estate. It was flat out amazing. The most memorable red was The Magician, a Shiraz – Pinot Nior blend. I would go back just to get more of that wine.

  22. Christy says:

    “This One Time at the Roxy”. Good lord, made me laugh! I’m from Kamloops and even I have a Roxy story! And, yeah, we BCers still make fun of the Toronto is the centre of the universe thing……

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