Photography - Tatiana Soldatova
There are few better ways to spend a weekend around the GTA than remembering that we have a wine-fuelled adult playground in our own backyard. And while anytime is the right time to take a jaunt down to Niagara wine country, one can have some particularly good fun in the month of May when the Wineries of Niagara on the Lake put on their annual Sip and Sizzle event. The premise is seemingly innocuous enough: 24 wine makers sign up to offer samples of grilled food and wine at each of their stations.
The right way to enjoy such a great event is to selectively plot out your visit of this diverse spectrum of vineyards over a number of days through the month of May, thus allowing you to savour and enjoy the experience of each distinct vineyard, wine, and snack. Alternatively, if you’re like myself, you can find a fearless partner, hop on a couple of bikes and see how many vineyards you can hit up in a single day without dying. Fortunately, the food pairings keep your energy and constitution up as you romp from joyous location-to-location sipping on some of Ontario’s finest wines.
The day started innocently enough with a nice 20-30m bike ride from St. Catharines to our first stop at Small Talk. While their “Goodnight” Cabernet Sauvignon was maybe an aggressive opener to our morning, it paired well with the little charcuterie bite and was surprisingly smooth at 11am. Things quickly took a wrong-turn at Albuquerque when we actually took a wrong turn at the East and West Line, but we soon realized the error of our ways and made it make to Lakeshore Road. We’d plotted out an aggressive 13-vineyard jaunt along Lakeshore Rd, turning around at NOTL, and cutting a line down Niagara Stone Rd.
Palatine Hills had a lovely (though a bit sweet for my taste) Riesling that paired well with an Edamame dumpling. From there, we were a stone’s throw from one of our favourite stops of the tour – Konzelmann Estate - with their frighteningly drinkable 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon and unfortunately just frightening veal cheek gnocchi (sounds good on paper… nope). Hinterbrook gave us a nice light break with a splash of the crisp Venus rose and a spring salad, although their spartan furnishings were a bit…eerie? Of this lag, Strewn may have stolen the overall show with a surprisingly full-bodied 2015 Pinot Blanc Terrior and a zucchini/pork/cheese trio that may have been so good I stole seconds when no one was looking.
And then it was lunch… and I was as amazed, as you probably are, by how much wine one can drink in a morning.
We bought some cheese at Jackson-Triggs and enjoyed a good share of samples out on their gorgeous, grape-side patio. I can’t say I cared much for JT’s 2016 Grand Reserve Riesling or the beef soba that came with it, but the samples of delicious sparkling cuvée and old vine chardonnay did me just right. We dashed over to Stratus, who are apparently doing incredible things with their wine, however, I wasn’t in love with their Kabang red or the overall “cool-Swede” vibe going on inside. After a quick stop for more Riesling (seriously Canada, we can do better) at Joseph’s Estate, we biked up to Vignoble Rancourt. In addition to running their sip and sizzle out of their garage (bonus points for being down to earth), their feature wine was the 2013 Noble Rouge, which based on my music project shared with Modern Mississauga editor Jay Kana, I had to buy 2 bottles – one for me, and one for the band.
It was about the time that we shuffled out of Rancourt that I noticed two things. First, we had been drinking for quite some time and my comfort on a bike was rapidly dropping. Second, I had been buying wines at nearly every stop we made and my backpack straps were starting to aggressively dig into my shoulders. I struggled to maintain balance on my bike… entirely from the top-heavy factor of the carry bottles, of course.
This helped slow the overall pace and aggressiveness of the wine-crawl down. At Pillitteri we sipped on their Travis Pinot Grigio, however, the real winners there were the delicious Ice Wines we took in. By the time we made it to Trius, we were exhausted. As much as we wanted to push for the final two stops of Diamond Estates and The Hare, the lavish looking Trius restaurant pulled us in for more incredible Chardonnay and an absolutely top-notch food experience. And just as I sat lazily into my chair and watched the sun pass lower into the sky, I realized that I still had a backpack full of 12 bottles of wine and a 15km bike ride home. Eek!
Beyond having an absolute blast, experiencing a ton of different local vineyards, eating and drinking our faces off, and getting a little bit of exercise in, I took the following away from our experience which I hope will help you on your upcoming Niagara trip:
1. 13 vineyards is too much for one day. Apparently 11 is the number.
2. Ontario is known for its Riesling, but I think it all tastes like sweetened foot
3. Ontario is less known for its Chardonnay, and this is a bloody crime
4. If you’re going the bicycle route, consider saddlebags to save your shoulders
5. If you’re uncomfortable on a bike, hire a limo
6. Most vineyards are generous with their pours
7. These generous pours provide a further push for point #5
You can’t go wrong spending a weekend or even a day down in Ontario’s wine country, but if you have the opportunity next May, the Sip and Sizzle provides a particularly fun way to experience wine tasting. Regardless of whether you want to be a civilized sipper or a hot mess on a bicycle, the Niagara region has something for everyone. However, be fully warned that much like this author, you will easily see $500 disappear into what you’ll sadly, but quickly realize is a delicious, wonderful, and dangerous new hobby.