At last count, there were over 75 wineries in the Niagara Peninsula. Even for me, who lives here, you just can’t get to each and every one of them comfortably in a year.
What follows is Part III of four tours, or well-traversed routes in wine country, that I seem to travel a lot.
The St. Davids Shuffle
Take the QEW to the Glendale cutoff and turn right towards Niagara-on-the-Lake. Then take the road less travelled, York Road, and drive for a few kilometers until you hit Chateau des Charmes. This is where a visit to the St. Davids area of Niagara, the so-called banana belt where grapes ripen the earliest and red wines rule the roost. St. Davids (and the western part of Niagara-on-the-Lake) is all about charm with such a distinct feel from winery to winery whether it’s the larger Chateau des Charmes Wines or the smaller Ravine Vineyard to the more out of the way wineries of Coyotes Run or Five Rows Craft Wine. Not all the wineries on this tour are technically inside what is known as St. Davids, but they all sure a similar passion for staying outside the hustle and bustle of the road more travelled.
Here are the highlights of a tour worth taking:
Chateau des Charmes:
Where: 1025 York Rd., Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Tastings: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Tours, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Winemaker: Paul Bosc
It’s impossible to miss Château des Charmes, a magnificent winery that combines the stateliness of a French château with the New World charm of a historic hotel. It’s a bold statement by visionary pioneer and founder Paul Bosc Sr., who was among the first to plant vinifera grapes in the late 1970s and was instrumental in transforming Niagara’s wine industry. Step through the doors of this magnificent winery and step right into the new tasting room where you’re invited by friendly staff to taste through a complete portfolio of wines that has long established reputation for excellence. Chateau des Charmes makes fabulous wines across all varietals and blends. Of special note are the excellent sparkling wines, Old World styled Chardonnays and big red wines from estate fruit.
Make sure you try: Chateau des Charmes Paul Bosc Vineyard Equuleus 2007 — This is the winery’s flagship red, a classically styled blend of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Cabernet Franc and 25% Merlot produced in only the best vintages. The spice and oak notes jump from the glass in this tightly wound wine with cassis, plums and other dark fruits following. It’s beginning to open up on the palate with ripe, rich dark fruits that fold into hedonistic chocolate and spice flavours. This is a big, concentrated wine that will reward with patience in the cellar.
Ravine Vineyard Estate Winery
Where: 1366 York Rd., St. Davids.
Tastings: Seven days a week from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Winemaker (consultant): Peter Gamble.
After Chateau des Charmes, continue on York Rd. and in the centre of St. Davids you see an inconspicuous sign on the left hand side of the road for Ravine. It’s a tiny oasis where everything has come together so perfectly. It is steeped in history, farming a small 20-acre patch of superb vineyards (with more being planted), and employs a winemaker with a proven track record. And, finally, the wines. And, oh, the wines! The entire portfolio is sensational. Ravine Vineyard Estate Winery is a discovery for the senses. A winery that, right out of the gate, is sought after by wine connoisseurs looking for the very best ultra premium wines that Niagara can produce. Critical to the feel of the property is the winery’s historic tasting room. Woodruff House was once a forgotten landmark in St. Davids that was originally built in 1802 but torched by American invaders during the War of 1812. Ravine owners, Blair and Norma Jean Harber, bought Woodruff House and moved it to the property and reconstructed the gorgeous building very close to the original site.
All estate grapes from this organically-certified winery are hand-picked, sorted, vinified in separate batches with most varietals (not the Riesling, of course) barrel fermented before being aged in French oak barriques.
Make sure you try: Ravine has an outstanding portfolio of wines right through the whites and reds. One wine that has been sought after consistently is the Riesling. Ravine Vineyard Riesling 2008 — I’ve been following the evolution of this wonderful, small-batch St. Davids Riesling as it has developed, slowly, in the bottle. This is always a fascinating wine with 20% of the fruit botrytised and then made in a sussreserve style. The end result is an even better effort then the 2007 Riesling. Peach, wild honey, grapefruit and lime combine with gorgeous minerality and zingy acididy. It’s a balanced wine, low in alcohol, that comes in layers.
Coyote’s Run Estate Winery
Where: 485 Concession 5 Road, St. Davids
Tastings: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Winemaker: David Sheppard
Heading back up York Rd., a right turn from Ravine, look for Queenston Road, go right, then right on Concession 5. This is where you’ll find Coyote’s Run. It’s far away from the busy highways and fancy surroundings of other “main street” wineries but, make no mistake, there is some very fine juice being made here by some of the friendliest folks — owners Jeff and Patti Aubry — in Niagara. Coyote’s Run specializes in its single-vineyard Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays from both the Red and Black Paw vineyards. All are stunning examples of terroir-driven wines. Red Paw vineyard produces a more feminine, fruity wine while wines from the Black Paw vineyard are more earthy and masculine. This is especially evident in the wonderful Pinot Noirs made at the estate. Now, with the first release of the Red Paw Chardonnay 2009 to go with the Black Paw Chardonnay 2009 you can also see profound differences is these wines as well. The entire wine program at Coyote’s Run, located at the base of the St. Davids Bench, in one of the warmest microclimates in Niagara, is impressive through the full range of the portfolio. The winery makes some interesting and unusual wines not commonly found in Niagara such as a delicious Pinot Blanc, a Pinot Gris/Pinot Blanc blend and a single-vineyard Syrah. They have also just bottled their first bubbly that won’t be available for sale for at least two years.
Make sure you try: Coyote’s Run Black Paw Chardonnay 2009 — A tight nose, which is typical for the Black Paw vineyard in all varietals, of soft apple-citrus and stylish oak-spice undertones. This wine is evolving but shows focus, delicate fruit and nice spice and oak chiming in. A more elegant chardonnay that will reward with time in the cellar.
Five Row Craft Wine:
What: Five Rows Craft Winery.
Where: 361 Tanbark Rd., St. Davids
Tastings: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekends only
Winemaker: Wes Lowrey.
Five Row Craft Wine is about as out of the way as it gets in Niagara. From Coyotes Run, get back to York via Queenston Road and turn left. And take another quick left at Tanbark Rd., down the hill and watch for the red winery sign at the entrance to the vineyard on the right. It may be out of the way, and perhaps lacking the opulence of some of the other wineries, but what they do have will impress you.
The Five Rows in the name of this new winery refer to the original five rows of Pinot Noir that were planted following a pullout of orchard fruit and juice grapes. The family still harvests old-vine Pinot from those five rows.
Wilma and Howie Lowrey and their son Wes, fifth-generation fruit and grape farmers on a 64-acre St. Davids property, run the small craft winery that, at its peak, will only produce 500 cases of wine. And not only do mom, dad and son run the winery, they do all the work from tending the vines, to nurturing, harvesting, making, bottling and selling the wines. When you visit, it’s a sure bet that one them will greet you in the small converted barn that acts as tasting room, winery and shipping depot. The plan is to make only single-varietal wines including Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon icewine as well as their signature wine Pinot Noir. They will all be made in very small batches, with each bottle hand-labelled and numbered.
Make sure you try: Five Rows Craft Wine Pinot Gris 2008 — Only 57 cases of this white were made. Wes Lowrey likes to barrel ferment a portion of the grapes to give his wines complexity and added mouthfeel. There’s plenty of spicy apple and melon notes on the nose. In the mouth this is a gorgeous and vibrant wine with fresh apple-citrus fruits, subtle spice and a clean finish.
Written by Rick VanSickle
Rick VanSickle is a freelance wine writer who works, lives and plays in Niagara.