Sunday, October 15

Trip report: Niagara wine region

On Friday afternoon, my lovely wife and I rented a car and drove 150km to the Niagara wine region, just South around Lake Ontario from Toronto. Normally, the drive takes about 2 hours; it was more like 3 and a half today because of Friday-afternoon traffic leaving Toronto. Not quite stop-and-go, but it came close a couple times.

We stayed at Down Home B&B, our first non Harbour House Niagara visit (it was full up; odd, since there was nothing particularly special going on in town this weekend). Quite a pleasant room, with good breakfasts and a comfortable bed -- though the room got hotter than optimal sleeping temperature. We ate at the always-spectacular Charles Inn on Friday night; spinach salad and beef tenderloin for Her, parsnip & pear velouté and trio of duck (grilled breast, leg confit, and foie gras) with wild mushrooms accompanied by a glass of Lailey's Pinot Noir for me.

Saturday was spent lesiurely touring wineries, starting with Reif Estates (decent Cabernet Sauvignon from 2002 recently released; we bought 2 bottles) and heading from there to Frogpond Farm which has the distinction of being the area's only certified-organic winery. We bought 2 bottles of their 2002 Riesling, and 2 of their 2002 Cabernet Merlot. A short drive from Frogpond is Coyote's Run, who won best Pinot Noir of the year at 2006's Cuvée in February -- but they've since sold out of it entirely. Sigh. We had to make do with 2 bottles of their 2004 Meritage (which is an invented word, by the way, used by non-French wineries to describe Bordeaux-style blends). Right around the corner is Chateau des Charmes, a relatively old winery with a distinctly new facility and a decidedly anachronistic label. Tastes of their Aligoté and Sauvignon Blanc didn't impress -- very light wines, without much nose at all -- but their Gamay varietal, which they call 'Droit' for its unusually straight growth (Gamay's usually pretty gnarly), was quite nice and we left with 2 bottles of it and one of their 2004 late harvest Riesling we'd had in the past and liked. At that point, with both of us hungry and unwilling to wait much longer for food, we made our last winery stop at Lailey. We arrived at the same time as about 4 other cars. The tasting bar was packed, and they didn't have any of their Canadian Oak wines open, which was a disappointment since they're almost the only ones in the region who are using it and we'd been looking forward to trying some out. The 2003 Cabernet Franc and 2004 Cabernet blend were good, though, so we got a bottle of each.

Our trunk full and our stomachs empty, we headed back into town. There being few other options, we ate at the Churchill Lounge of the Prince of Wales Hotel -- fish & chips for Her, a burger for me. Uneventful and unremarkable, aside from some truly dreadful muzak and subpar tea. A quick walk through the slightly tourist-trappy ("it's not tourist-trappy! it's Quaint!" She says, from over my shoulder) main street of Niagara-on-the-lake took us to Greaves Jams, where we bought at least a 3 month supply of various wonderful sweet fruit preserves. It's a necessary part of every Niagara trip. A 3 month supply weighs about 15 pounds, and we were 10 minutes from the car at that point, so we left our box of jam behind the counter and told the nice lady we'd be back in 10 minutes or so.

We forgot about our jam.

Now, we did have good reason to. It was 3:30pm by this point, and we only had until 5:00 to finish up at Hillebrand's Buyers' Weekend event, 15 minutes out of town. We're members in their wine club -- they send us 2 bottles a month, one red one white, and we get discounts on tours and tastings at the winery -- and one of the perks of that membership isthat we get first crack at their new vintages and a few rare back-list wines at a Buyers' Weekend once a year. You wander around a big tent with a wine glass and a notebook, and when you find one you like you mark yourself down for a half a case. Or more, if you're feeling particularly enthused. We found some we liked -- a 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon, well-integrated tannins underneath a nose of ripe red fruit, with a wonderfully soft mouthfeel and just enough acidity. A half-case of that, and 2 bottles of a really nice 2004 Vidal icewine, rounded out our purchases for the day.

We finished at Hillebrand around 4:45, and we had to hurry back into town to get to our 5:00 dinner reservation at the Stone Road Grille, aka REST. When we were partway there She remembered our jam, and so we had to drop in at the restaurant, tell them we were going to be late, go get our jam, and scoot back to the restaurant... luckily, they didn't mind and we enjoyed a wonderful meal: butternut squash soup and a mushroom risotto for Her, lightly-battered calamari and the biggest pork chop I've ever eaten for me. The nicest thing about the evening was that REST's wine list had a very pleasant surprise -- a half bottle of Lailey's Canadian Oak Cabernet Sauvignon! A great bottle, and the perfect size for the evening. After our late lunch and early supper we were both pretty full, so we just went back to our room and read books for the evening. A quiet end to a busy day.

This space will be replaced tomorrow by an account of our trip to Fielding Estates for their Crush event -- picking, processing, and tasting wine for 4 hours on a beautiful early fall Sunday.

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