By Waheeda Harris
A visit to Ontario’s wine country is the perfect way to spend an autumn day or an overnight escape to the area of Niagara locals call “the Bench” on the edge of the Niagara escarpment. Here you’ll find memorable vintages, a relaxed drive, and several distractions for your palate.
Start: St. Catharines, ON
End: Beamsville, ON
Overnight: Jordan Village, ON
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1. Kick off the journey by heading along Pelham Street North, which leads out of St. Catharines to the vineyards. Make your first stop at Short Hills Provincial Park to see the trillium, Ontario’s provincial flower, and hike paths lined with sugar maples and black oak trees showing off dazzling shades of yellow, orange and red. (15 min, 8 km)
2. Less than five minutes from the park is Henry of Pelham Family Estate, one of the first vineyards to produce wine from 100% Ontario-grown grapes. Make sure to taste the critic’s choice: Reserve Baco Noir or Reserve Cabernet/Merlot. Visit the Coach House Café & Cheese Shoppe for some pairing items and take advantage of the vineyard picnic areas. (3 min, 1.3 km)
3. Saunter along Highway 69/669, through the Rockway Conservation Area (a source of high quality salt in the province) and head towards the village of Jordan. Park and wander into Flat Rock Cellars, a winery with a tasting room overlooking the vines. Taste the award-winning 2007 Rogue Syrah or other worthy appellations of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Riesling. (10 min, 7 km)
4. Before the day is done, visit Cave Spring Cellars on the main commercial strip in Jordan Village, well known in the pages of Wine Spectator magazine for its must-buy Riesling vintages. The tasting room is in a historic building dating to 1871. After finding a new favourite libation at the limestone bar, wander the streets of this wee town, discovering the several examples of 19th-century architecture. (4 min, 3.5 km)
5. Plan a late morning visit to Vineland Estates Winery for a tasting in the converted barn. This is also home to the Vineland Estates Winery Restaurant, a CAA/AAA Four Diamond award winner and chosen by Wine Access as one of the best vineyard restaurants in the world. (8 min, 5 km)
6. Take time at elegant Malivoire Wines on the way to Beamsville. This modern winery features a cozy tasting room and plenty of Guilty Men, their popular red varietal. Steps from the entrance, the vines are currently being harvested to be made into Malivoire Gamay, Chardonnay and Ladybug Rose.
Need a roadside snack? Look for the El Gastronomo Vagabundo food truck (often parked at Flat Rock Cellars), offering Middle Eastern–, Mexican- and Asian-influenced eats.
For a locally brewed pint and casual offerings, find a spot amongst the locals at the Jordan House Tavern—on the patio in warmer temps or by the fieldstone fireplace on a cooler nights.
Stop for tapas or a meal at August Restaurant in Beamsville. The menus at this boîte are inspired from seasonal, locally sourced ingredients and the creative team of Chef Beth Ashton and Gardener Mark McKerracher.
Park yourself at the Jordan House, a historic stone building with contemporary rooms that are simple and sophisticated. For a bit more romance, make a reservation for a room with a fireplace and whirlpool bath at Inn on the Twenty.
It’s easy to meander the smaller roads of the Niagara bench region via car, but given that the total distance covered is only 30 kilometres (you could drive from start to finish in an hour without stops), many visitors choose to do it as a cycling trip.
Pick up a copy of Crush on Niagara by Andrew Brooks (Whitecap Books). A Niagara wine tour guide and certified sommelier, Brooks offers up purchasing tips and a comprehensive list of wineries.