As the awards suggest, Niagara wines are a fiercely competitive business. Winemakers include small producers like Lenko, giant mass manufacturers and — increasingly — a number of well-financed operations backed by foreign money and expertise. Just three km up the road from here is Peninsula Ridge Wine Estates, which Norman Beal, a former oil commodities trader in the U.S., opened in 2000, investing $7 million in the venture. Beal convinced winemaker Jean-Pierre Colas to leave Domaine Laroche in Burgundy, where his chardonnay had won Wine Spectator’s White Wine of the Year in 1998 — the vinous equivalent of Time magazine’s Newsmaker of the Year award. (Do whatever it takes to buy the 2002 Peninsula Ridge Sauvignon Blanc — it’s one of the best on the planet.) The winery also has one of the most romantic restaurants in the region.
And what a region it is. Horizon-reaching rows of leafy vines, weather-scarred farmhouses, wispy peach trees and limestone bluffs. But the land isn’t just beautiful; it’s also a great environment for growing grapes. About 450 million years ago, an ancient body of water retreated and left behind the escarpment, a ridge of limestone that cuts across the Niagara Peninsula, roughly parallel to Lake Ontario. The strip of land between the escarpment and the lake is prime grape-growing country, with a micro-climate sheltered by the escarpment and warmed in winter by the lake waters.
Scores of new winemakers have shot up in the area over the past decade. Typical of the breed is Lailey Vineyards, which makes opulent, buttery chardonnays and spectacularly rich cabernets. Donna and David Lailey grew grapes for other wineries for more than thirty years; then in 2001, they partnered with Derek Barnett, winemaker at Southbrook, a small winery north of Toronto, to make low-yield, hand-harvested premium wines from their 20-acre vineyard. Their winery, clad in oak, looks like a barrel. Inside the tasting room, I meet two delightful young women who are studying viticulture at Niagara College and Brock University. As they pour samples, they laugh and talk about their studies, the wines and the region.
Tasting wine works up an enormous appetite. Fortunately, nearby Strewn Winery has a marvellous restaurant, Terroir La Cachette. The restaurant’s Mediterranean hues of sunshine yellow, azure sky and terra-cotta are a balm to the senses, as is the view outside of the meandering creek and rolling vineyards. Chef Alain Lévesque uses fresh local ingredients in Provençal dishes such as roast spiced duck magret with cassis coulis and pork tenderloin stuffed with pecans and dried fruit and glazed with maple sauce. The flavors dance with wines from Strewn and a score of other local wineries. It’s a great way to end a day of tasting — and to build up reserves for tomorrow. After a weekend of tasting, I’m heading home with a case of terrific icewines in the trunk. They’ll be perfect with Helen Lenko’s apple pie recipe.
Valley Ho! — Even massive forest fires haven’t stopped the spectacular rise of Okanagan wineries.
From the September/October 2003 issue.