Niagara-on-the-Lake (NOLA) is a lovely, historic town on the shore of Lake Ontario. It is located about a half-hour north of Niagara Falls and an hour and a half south of Toronto at the point at which the Niagara River meets Lake Ontario.
It is the home to Ontario’s wine region, the George Bernard Shaw Theater Festival, and a number of credible, if not especially memorable, restaurants. The Victorian-era, tourist-centric town retains its charm even with the crush of tourists who deluge the town during festival season.
British-American loyalists established a new settlement in British-controlled Canada in the 1780s when they escaped from the newly independent United States. In 1813, the Americans captured the town and burned it down upon their retreat. Rebuilding began shortly thereafter in a period to which the oldest of downtown’s brick buildings date.
The current tourist-driven segment is dominated by restaurants, fudge, chocolate, and ice cream shops; Canadian specialty foods and crafts stores; galleries; and especially the large Prince of Wales Hotel.
Although the entire town is packed with very beautiful English-style gardens, Queen Street, the main commercial street, is especially scenic, with lovely mini-gardens in front of restaurants, along curbsides and even cradling public benches.
The street, meanwhile, ends at a lovely bandstand and park on the shores of Lake Ontario.
We usually take in a play or two at the George Bernard Shaw Theater during our irregular visits. Unfortunately, neither of us was intrigued by the schedule for the one evening at which we would have been able to take advantage of the Festival. The good news Is that we were able to find more than enough wineries (most of which we visited on previous trips) to occupy our one full day in town and more than enough restaurants to occupy our evenings.
A visit to Niagara-on-the-Lake would not be complete without indulging in wine tasting. The region’s soil, geography, and climate create ideal conditions for growing grapes. The moderating effects of Lake Ontario provide a longer growing season and protect the vineyards from extreme weather. And its cold November provides a unique opportunity to produce some of the best, most sought-after ice wines in the world.
While we appreciate some of the region’s Cabernet Francs and Merlots–particularly Inniskillin’s 2017 Cabernet Franc at a reasonably priced about ($22 U.S.) and 2016 Montague Vineyard Merlot, we love its Icewines (spelled as one word for complying Niagara Peninsula wines).
Icewines come from grapes that are picked and immediately pressed at night, after three straight days of minus 8-degree Centigrade (17.6 Fahrenheit) temperatures (often in January or February). They can surpass 40 brix (very sweet) and yield wine with residual sugar levels of a minimum of 100 grams of residual sugar per liter, and sometimes up to 230.
We enjoyed so many that we had to buy them. But that then presented finding a way to carry them around for the next three weeks of our trip and then finding a way to get back to California (a task that is greatly complicated by a law that prohibits wineries from shipping to U.S. residences). But it was worth the effort.
Among our particular favorite Icewines were:
- Inniskillen 2017 Riesling, its 2017 (and as a special treat, 2007) Sparking Cabernet Franc, and our favorite of all, 2017, oak-aged Gold Vidal (which tastes almost like a nice sweet sherry);
- Reif Estate’s 2017 Vidal;
- Pilliteri 2015 Reserve Vidal;
- Konzelmann 2016, and especially 2012 Vidal
- Pellar Estates’ 2017 Signature Series Vidal Blanc;
- Trius Winery (owned by Pellar) 2017 Showcase Late Harvest (not an Icewine) and 2016 Vidal Icewine;
And speaking of Pellar-owned wineries, we also stopped at its Wayne Gretzky winery. While we didn’t especially enjoy its wines, we did enjoy the Gretzy memorabilia and brief overviews of his incredible hockey career. And since we were there, Tom also sampled a few of Gretzy’s distilled spirits. These included a Grappa-like distilled Vidal, an 80-proof ice cask rye-based (with some malted rye and corn) Ice Cask whiskey (with a bit of sweetness from aging in Icewine barrels), its very strong 99 Proof whiskey and its very, very easy drinking Gretzky Cream, made with its whiskey and fresh, full Ontario cream (a beverage that would give Bailey’s Irish Cream a run for its money, if it were available in the U.S.
And speaking of alternate Pellar-owned beverage makers, the Ontario branch of the company’s No Boats on Sunday cider company (also on the Trius/Gretzky campus) produces a crisp, 5 percent alcohol, Macintosh-based apple cider. (The company’s Nova Scotia and British Columbia operations produce their own ciders from other apples.)
Our biggest wine treat, however, came on our drive back to Toronto. A half-hour drive outside of Niagara-on-the-Lake took us to Tawse Winery, one of our favorite of the Niagara Bench wineries that we discovered on our previous trip. After trying to beg off on tasting dry white wines, we succumbed to our host’s entreaties to try at least one of the Chardonnays. After a taste, we agreed to taste another, and then another. By that time, we had placed ourselves in the hands of our host to select those that he thought we would enjoy. He selected winner after winner after winner, from whites, to reds, and onto Icewines. Although we enjoyed all eight wines that we tried, our particular favorites were :
- 2013 Quarry Road Chardonnay;
- 2012 Lauritzen Pinot Noir;
- 2013 Riesling Icewine; and our favorite of the entire tasting; the
- 2013 Chardonnay Icewine.
Tawes is a must-stop destination for exploring the best of Ontario wines.
- Grill on King, (now closed) is a casual restaurant at which we had a quite credible saganaki with Kefaloteri cheese flamed in Metaxa, calves liver with bacon and caramelized onion relish port sauce, and spice-rubbed, hickory-smoked baby-back ribs with BBQ sauce. Both dishes, which were tasty, came with beets, perfectly cooked (i.e., not overcooked) vegetables and a choice of potato. The 2014 Duck View cabernet/merlot blend reserve came with a number of recommendations from our helpful server of a number of Niagara Peninsula wineries that were particularly worthy of stops.
- Two Sisters, a winery restaurant at which Tom had a very generous serving meal of braised rabbit with creamy polenta and (again), a selection of perfectly-cooked vegetables. Joyce was less lucky with her mozzarella, gorgonzola, pear, prosciutto, toasted walnut, arugula and honey pizza. While the crust was nice, the tastes didn’t really come together. Neither did the service, where it took about 15 minutes for our server to arrive and an unconscionably long wait for our food, even though the restaurant was only about one-quarter filled. Our wine, however (2013 Two Sisters Merlot) was quite nice and worked well with the dinner, especially the rabbit.
Niagara-on-the-Lake had many lovely B&Bs. On one trip we stayed at the Findley House Bed and Breakfast. This is a nice little B&B with 3 rooms. You selected breakfast items from a menu. They served so much food that we ordered half portions on the second day). Our roomy accommodation was in a perfect location–within walking distance of “downtown”. If you stay multiple nights, your rooms are not made up. Not a big deal for us however.