My Canada, 81/150: The oenophile’s escarpment

What little I know about wine, I first learned because I’ve lived much of my life within a couple hours’ drive of the Niagara wine region.

As a theatre nut, starting in my university years, I went yearly to the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake (which gets its own post later in this series). With those yearly (or more) visits, I did my first winery tours and tastings in the Niagara area.

There has been much corporate buying-and-selling in Niagara’s wine country — not to mention an escalating up-the-ante in terms of fanciness of tasting rooms and restaurants attached to vineyards — but I remember from those early days a trio of wineries founded by families who had made wines in their “old countries” and imported their craft, and grape varietals, to the new world: Pillitteri (Italy), Château des Charmes (the Bosc family from France) and Konzelmann (a German family who, to this day, make a reasonably priced Chardonnay that I humbly submit is equal to Chardonnays triple its price).

The wine business in Niagara is complex and ever-shifting. The modern era — where the native grapes were removed in favour of European-bred grapes that made far better wine — began in the mid-1970s, when Donald Ziraldo and Karl Kaiser founded Inniskillin Wines and were granted the first winery licence (since 1929) from the Liquor Control Board of Ontario.

A spate of small wineries in Niagara developed when farmers who grew grapes for the first commercial producers made their own wine on the side for personal use, and then they started selling these wines made from their own vineyards. My favourite of these is Marynissen which, although no longer owned by that same same family, strives to produce the same kind of interesting, high-quality wines — particularly reds, which are not always the strong suit of Niagara. When I worked as a publicist for the Stratford Festival, I once sent a knowledgeable and particular American wine writer heading to Niagara to Marynissen, saying, these are the reds you want. He wrote an effusive note of thanks after his trip, declaring these were, indeed, the region’s best.

81 Niagara wine MarynissenEvery time I’ve gone to Niagara, it seems there are new wineries springing up and many  are now owned by large wine conglomerates. The Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA) categorizes this area’s wineries into three districts (Niagara Escarpment, Twenty Valley, and Niagara-on-the-Lake) and in 2016 lists 85 wineries among its VQA members in those districts. Forbes Magazine recently listed the Niagara wine region as one of the Top Twelve Underrated Wine Regions.

I have my favourites: Malivoire, which uses gravity to move the grape liquid through the wine process (because pumping can “bruise”); Frogpond, which makes wine to organic standards and has a lovely, casual mixed-use farm setting with chickens running about a fenced orchard alongside their vineyards; Henry of Pelham nearer to St. Catharines, Ontario, run by brothers, Paul, Matthew and Daniel Speck, whose father started planting varietal vines in 1988 on land deeded to his great-great grandfather at the end of the 18th century; 13th Street Winery, also near St. Catharines, which produces an excellent  dry sparkling rosé; Cave Springs Cellars in the village of Jordan, which consistently produces some of Ontario’s best Riesling and also runs a great restaurant, On the Twenty; and Creekside Estates.

I also am a fan of Vineland Estates, whose wines’ beauty is matched by the winery’s setting in a gently rolling vineyard, where you can dine on an extended deck that, on a clear day, gives you a view across the Niagara peninsula.

81 Niagara wine
The deck at Vineland Estates restaurant. Photo: John Lederman

Niagara’s climate is temperate enough to support not only grapes for wine but the so-labelled “soft fruits” or “tender fruits” such as peaches, apricots, nectarines, and plums that won’t grow even an hour’s drive north of this area.  This is due, in large part, to the geographic wonder of the Niagara Escarpment, defined by the Niagara Escarpment Commission, a government agency in charge of regulating the reserve area, as “a massive ridge of fossil-rich sedimentary rock which began its formation 450 million years ago as the outer rim of a shallow sea known geologically as the Michigan Basin.” It is 1,675 feet at its tallest and curves 450 miles from Niagara north to Tobermory, at the  tip of the Bruce Peninsula.

The entire escarpment area is a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve, “designated for its unique landform characteristics and the presence of a provincial land use plan to guide development in its area. It is one of only 16 biosphere reserves in Canada.”

This protective ridge, at its southern tip in Niagara, creates an ideal grape-growing micro-climate. Here’s the explanation from the Commission:

“As the ground warms up in spring, cool air is drawn inland from Lake Ontario. Flowing in a circular pattern down the Escarpment and along the ground, this cool air delays bud burst on the vines, preventing potential damage by late spring frosts. In fall, the air circulation works in reverse. Air is warmed over the lake and moves inland along the ground. When it reaches the Escarpment it rises, drawing more warm air in behind it and giving the region the long, warm fall days needed to develop optimum sugar content in the grapes.”

The world marks Earth Day each year on April 22 and these biosphere reserves (there are 669 in 120 countries) are key zones to protect environmentally sensitive or unique parts of the planet. For Canadians, it’s an excellent day to pour a glass of Niagara wine, or hike on the escarpment’s Bruce Trail, and be thankful someone had the foresight decades ago to set up environmental land-use protections, so both wine and wildlife can flourish here for many years to come.

Main photo: Kelley Teahen

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