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 IV of well-traversed routes in wine country, that I seem to travel a lot.
The Jewels of Niagara Stone Road:
Niagara Stone Road and the wineries that come one after another on the major road leading to Niagara-on-the-Lake is about as close to Napa Valley as you can get. Big, beautiful architectural wonders that pop out of the vineyards like works of art.
Niagara Stone Road is a feast for the eyes that provide a day of spectacular wine tasting you won’t soon forget. All the glamour wines from Niagara’s most recognizable wineries are here including Stratus, Southbrook, Hillebrand, Pillitteri and Hillebrand.
It’s as simple as getting off the QEW and following the signs for Niagara Stone Road, finding the first winery on the route (Southbrook) and continuing on the same road until you can’t carry on any longer. It’s Niagara’s no brainer tour where you can taste and shop until you drop (don’t forget the designated driver!).
Here are the highlights of a tour worth taking:
Where: 581 Niagara Stone Road, Niagara-on-the-Lake
Tasting: Monday to Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday 11a.m. to 5 p.m.
Winemaker: Ann Sperling.
Trust me, you can’t miss the Southbrook Vineyards winery. It has been the talk of Niagara since owners Marilyn and Bill Redelmeier moved the winery from Richmond Hill to Niagara and erected the landmark purple wall that defines the landscape of the property and, perhaps, the region.
The Redelmeiers wanted to make a statement when they made the move to Niagara and they certainly have done that. With their roots in agriculture, they travelled a path from cattle, to a farm market, to making VQA wines and fruit wines.
The two contiguous 75 acre parcels of land in Niagara-on-the-Lake are farmed organically and biodynamically. The wines, also some wonderful fruit wines, are made in several tiers with the showcase Poetica Chardonnay and Poetica Cabernet-Merlot at the top of the heap.
The experience inside the LEED-certified winery is extraordinary with floor to ceiling glass in the spacious tasting room and all around the winery.
Make sure you try: Southbrook Poetica Chardonnay 2007 — This vintage of the Chardonnay may well prove to be as good as the stunning 1998. It’s a dramatic wine with tropical-pear fruit aromas to go with butterscotch cream notes. In the mouth it shows opulence with creamy and juicy fruit enhanced by oak and vanilla spice. A wonderful wine that may achieve a perfect score with some time in the cellar.
Where: 1249 Niagara Stone Rd., Niagara-on-the-Lake
Tastings: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily in the summer.
Winemaker: Craig McDonald
Continuing along Niagara Stone Road toward the historic old town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, you’ll see Hillebrand on the right-hand side. It looks more like a small town than a winery.
The Hillebrand wine program is one of the most extensive in Ontario and has been guided by some of Niagara’s most notable winemakers. J-L Groux (now at Stratus) established the Trius brand, Natalie Reynolds (now making extraordinary Riesling at Thirty Bench, another Peller winery) took the Chardonnay program to new heights, and Darryl Brooker, who put his stamp on the Showcase portfolio, Who knows what former Creekside winemaker, Craig McDonald, will bring to the table.
Here are the main tiers of wines available at Hillebrand.
Artist Series: These are VQA wines are made from grapes grown across Niagara and crafted in an approachable, fruit-driven style. Each bottle label features the original work of an Ontario artist. There is also a Limited Edition Artist Series.
Showcase: These are hand made wines in small quantities that are made to express the character of the soil and the personality of the hand-selected fruit. They are aged in single barrels and made in limited quantities. Most of these wines are only available at the winery.
Trius: This label was created in 1989 and was an instant success. The classic Trius Red is made from the estate’s best Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes. Over the years, the Trius family has evolved to include the best selling single varietal red and white wines which showcase the unique, rich terrior of Niagara.
Make sure you try: Trius White 2008 — Trius White is a crazy blend of several white varieties that somehow all comes together in the bottle. The nose is pretty with a lot of stuff going on — apple, citrus, pear, tropical fruits and lychee. The mouth shows a blast of fruit with creamy-nutty notes that kick in on the long finish.
Pillitteri Estates Winery
What: Pillitteri Estates Winery
Where: 1696 Niagara Stone Rd., Niagara-on-the-Lake
Tastings: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily
Winemaker: Aleksandar Kolundzic is taking over from Dr. Marc Phillip Bradshaw
Keep travelling down Niagara Stone Road and you’ll see Pillitteri Estates Winery on left hand side of the road. It may not have the glitz and glamour of some of the other landmark wineries along the route, but, make no mistake, this family winery has history, tradition and a solid track record up and down its portfolio.
Charlie Pillitteri has travelled the world to open up markets for his family’s extensive icewine program. While most wineries have cut back on icewine production for various reasons, Pillitteri has maintained production, over 90% of which is exported. This winery boasts the most diverse portfolio of icewines in the world and the largest estate producer — 30,000 cases in 2008 — of these wines in Canada.
Under the creative mind of winemaker Marc Bradshaw, who recently resigned from the winery, Pillitteri has established the best sweet wine program in Canada. Bradshaw holds the record for most icewines made in one vintage — 13 of them, all in an amazing array of styles.
Bradshaw’s parting gift to the winery is a stunning new portfolio of high-end wines called Exclamation — two Cabernet Sauvignons, a Cabernet Franc, Merlot and barrel fermented Chardonnay produced from the spectacular 2007 vintage (except one of the Cabs, which is from 2006). These wines are spectacular and should not be missed.
Bradshaw’s experimentations in the winery, under watch from Charlie Pillitteri, have helped Pillitteri establish itself as one of the world’s most recognizable producers of icewine with over 500 medals garnered at various competitions in the world.
And it is also a leader in innovation. Along with traditional single-varietal icewines such as Vidal, Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, Bradshaw has introduced Shiraz and Sangiovese icewines as well as a sensational sparkling Cabernet blended icewine, and both a red and white blended icewine that keep the family business at the forefront of inventiveness.
Make sure you try: Exclamation Merlot Reserve 2007 — This reserve merlot from the spectacular 2007 vintage, is something to behold. Earth tones, bramble fruit, currants, spicy and meaty notes on the nose. It erupts on the palate with black cherry, small wild berries, kirsch, herbs, mocha spice and a lovely smooth texture. The tannins hint a long life.
Where: 2059 Niagara Stone Road, Niagara-on-the-Lake
Tastings: 12 to 5 p.m. 11 to 5 p.m. daily.
Winemaker: Jean-Laurent (J.L.) Groux
Another stunning winery that you can’t miss just down the road from Pillitteri on the right-hand side of the road.
Stratus boasts one of the sleekest tasting rooms in Niagara with a stunning retail display. But everything done at this modern winery revolves around two wines — the Stratus Red and the Stratus White. All other wines flow from those two grand cuvees.
Stratus winemaker J.L. Groux presides over the portfolio of fine wines attributes the remarkable success of the program to nature and the gentle manner in which the grapes, juice and wine are treated from the vineyard to sorting to crushing and all the way to the bottle.
Groux is only partly right. Nature provides the raw product but it takes an artist like Groux and the entire team at Stratus to craft some of the most fascinating wines in Niagara. It starts at the top with a desire from the owner, David Felberg, to make the most enjoyable singular red and white wines they can from the best grapes grown at the Niagara-on-the-Lake estate. All other wines made at the world’s first LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified winery flow from that premise.
Make sure you try: Stratus Red 2007 — The flagship red assemblage, the one voted by its peers most likely to succeed, and the reason Stratus makes wine in the first place. It lives up to its billing. Though young, it’s already showing a a decadent nose of persistent black fruits, cinnamon and cloves. It’s big, vibrant and powerful in the mouth yet maintains some youthful restraint. You sense with the long finish that this is a long-lived and glorious wine.
Rick VanSickle has been a newspaper journalist for over 30 years and is currently the city editor at the St. Catharines Standard and writes a weekly Niagara wines only column for the newspaper. He has been a committed lover of wine since his early 20s. Rick is focused on Niagara wines with a weekly column now appearing in the St. Catharines Standard and Welland Tribune. He also writes about wine on his own blog, Wines in Niagara.
Written by Rick VanSickle
Rick VanSickle is a freelance wine writer who works, lives and plays in Niagara.