By Paris Wolfe
Wineries in the Niagara Peninsula of Ontario, Canada have made a name for themselves for their brilliant, world-class ice wines. Now, winemakers at more than half the region’s 45 wineries are putting serious energy into making shimmering, potentially world-class sparkling wines.
During a recent trip over the northern border, we sampled a breadth and depth of sparkling-wine styles that mimic the world’s great bubblies: Champagne, Prosecco, Sekt and Cava.
A three- to four-hour drive from Northeast Ohio, the area northeast of Niagara Falls makes a great midweek break or weekend getaway. After abbreviating the workday, we drove 185 miles from Geneva, Ohio, to our weekend headquarters, the elegant Oban Inn Spa Restaurant in Niagara-on-the-Lake. The Oban Inn neighbors the 143-year-old Niagara-on-the-Lake Golf Club and overlooks the seasonal moods of Lake Ontario. Two blocks away, the heritage district of Niagara-on-the-Lake is a 19th-century village with small shops and restaurants.
Naturally, food is attracted to wine, and myriad dining options here range from fast-food to four-star. We started with dinner at Backhouse Restaurant. Nestled in a strip center, the exterior of Backhouse is so understated that we thought it was shuttered. Inside, we were welcomed by owner/chef Ryan Crawford, while the sommelier poured Jackson-Triggs sparkling merlot into a flute. An open fire in an open kitchen warmed a room filled with colorful paintings by Ontario artist Melanie MacDonald.
Crawford describes his food as integrated, cool-climate cuisine, much of it grown in his own three-acre garden. Food is so hyper-local that even the sourdough bread, made with the chef’s 19-year-old starter, arrives with two butter selections: one made from fresh, grass-fed, organic Jersey cream, and the other from a cold-barrel-churned, 84 percent-butterfat cream.
The next morning, we walked off our toasted granola breakfast before making the 25-mile drive to Megalomaniac Winery in Vineland. There, we tasted wines with French winemaker Sebastian Jacquey. While the entire region is part of the Niagara Peninsula appellation, this area’s geography gives it 10 sub-appellations that reflect subtle differences in terroir.
Jacquey makes a variety of wines, including two methode traditionelle sparklers. The playful pink Bubblehead is a brut blend of Pinot Noir grapes. Sparkling Personality is a well-balanced, slightly sweeter Riesling, similar to a German Sekt. A reserve sparkler is in the works.
With no GPS signal or paper map, I aimed my car in the direction of our next stop, 13th Street Winery, until I found signs pointing the way.
Poised at a tall tasting-room table surrounded by the owner’s prodigious art collection, we sampled three traditional bubblies created by another French winemaker, Jean Pierre Colas. A native of the Chablis region, Colas knows a bit about growing and working with Chardonnay grapes, evident in a 100 percent Chardonnay 2016 Blanc de Blanc sparkler. He combines Chardonnay with pinot noir for a brut 2012 Premier cuvée and a slightly fruit-forward, non-vintage cuvée Rosé. A charcuterie board here served as lunch.
Wines aside, the establishment is also known for its bakery and seasonal gift shop. Visitors should choose at least one of four butter-tart selections, a regional specialty that’s a bit like pecan pie, available with or without the nuts.
On our next stop, retail consultant Peggy Thorne at Henry of Pelham took us on a cellar tour and suggested we try the winery’s signature Baco Noir before she poured three award-winning, methode traditionelle sparkling wines, all labeled Cuvée Catharine: a rosé of 70 percent Pinot Noir and 30 percent Chardonnay; a cuvée of 70 percent Chardonnay and 30 percent pinot noir; and a 2013 Vintage Blanc de Blanc of Chardonnay.
Back at Oban Inn we refreshed before the final stop of the day, Peller Estates, which would include dinner. The second-floor Estate Room offers an elegant tasting bar to members of Peller’s Wine Club, and to those who are willing to ask about it and pay the tasting fee.
The winemaker here, Katie Dickieson, doses her bubbles with a bit of ice wine for a sweeter, fruitier approach to the category. By this point in our tasting day we were certain the region had something for any sparkling-wine enthusiast.
Succumbing to palate fatigue – we had tasted at least two-dozen wines in eight hours — we selected from the special-event menu and dined without wine. The specially-priced, three-course “Fabulicious” menu is scheduled for a rerun in February.
While we’d paced ourselves and minimized sampling, sleep came easy. And, morning came early.
After a brisk November walk near Lake Ontario, followed by the Oban Inn’s complimentary warm breakfast, we bundled up and power-shopped NOTL village. We hit upscale clothing and shoe stores, fudge and apothecary shops, and Christmas and tchotchke emporia. My Irish friend admired Celtic goods at a specialty merchant while I waxed indecisive over a sale display of French tablecloths.
Our penultimate stop was Pillitteri Estates Winery, a few miles from the village and best known for extensive and expansive ice wine production. There, after pouring ice wine samples, the host poured the Market Collection Sparkling White, which was pleasant, slightly sweet and quite affordable at under $15.
We wrapped up the trip at Lakeview Wine Co., a division of Diamond Estates Wine & Spirits, with three final sparklers: a Riesling; a rosé of Riesling and Gamay; and a cuvée of Chardonnay/Pinot Noir.
This trip left no doubt: Sparkling wines clearly are on the ascendancy in this wine region better-known for its ice wines.