Even the most casual wine drinker knows there’s a world of wineries beyond Bordeaux and Burgundy, Tuscany, Rioja, Napa, and Sonoma. But even those who know their way around the wines of Austria or South Africa may not be hip to what’s growing at Ontario’s Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Recognized as a distinct district within the greater viticultural region of the Niagara Peninsula, Niagara-on-the-Lake is about 14 miles from the Falls and a 45-minute drive from Buffalo. Perched between the Niagara River and Lake Ontario, the area has been producing wine for decades and is a popular destination for day-trippers, as well as retirees looking to escape the hubbub of nearby Toronto.
Winemaking in Ontario dates to the early 19th century. For years, vineyards were dedicated to Labrusca, a grape native to North America. While fine for jelly or a sweet sip, the berry does not lend itself to making fine wine. But the landscape began to change in the 1950s, with the introduction of more sophisticated varietals, such as Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Noir, and Merlot. Today, there are dozens of wineries in the area producing an array of palate-pleasing bottles, from crisp aperitifs to dinner-worthy reds, to the local specialty, Ice Wine, which is made from grapes that have been allowed to freeze on the vine before harvesting, resulting in a sweet, intensely flavored beverage.
Winery tours and tasting room visits are key to the Niagara-on-the-Lake experience. But it’s not all swirl, sniff, and sip here. Once a provincial capital, Niagara-on the-Lake was captured and razed by the Americans in the War of 1812. Fort George, headquarters of the British Army during the conflict, was reconstructed in the 1930s and is one of several sites history buffs will want to hit. And fans of live performance can get their fix at the Shaw Festival. Originally devoted to the work of Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, the organization—the second largest repertory theater in North America—presents a range of shows from the classics to the contemporary.
Of course, half the fun of any getaway is just wandering around and soaking up the atmosphere. And in that regard, Niagara-on the-Lake doesn’t disappoint. With its tree-lined streets and historic buildings (including the Victorian-era Prince of Wales Hotel), boutiques, antique shops, and galleries, the town is meant for moseying. And when hunger hits, the only snag is selecting where to eat. For solidly satisfying Greek food in a simple setting, there’s Fournos. If seared foie gras or halibut with potato fondant are calling your name, nab a table at Treadwell, which has followed the farm-to-table credo since 2006.
Between its wineries and restaurants, shops and historic sites, Niagara-on-the-Lake packs a lot in a pretty small package. It may not be a hop, skip, and a jump from where you live, but isn’t getting away from it all what travel is all about?
[Updated on 12/05/2023]
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