JIM BYERS PHOTO
Colaneri winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake looks like something out of Tuscany. Great wines, too.
NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE – A wonderful B and B with a Florentine co-owner. An organic Italian gelato place run by the same woman and her husband. And a winery where they make their vino in the Italian style in a series of buildings that look like they were shipped from a sleepy hillside in Tuscany.
Sure, you can go to this pretty southern Ontario town and indulge yourself in British (and faux British) hotels and plays and bars. There’s nothing wrong with that.
But you also can bypass George Bernard Shaw and the Prince of Wales Hotel and the British-style pubs and indulge in a weekend of la dolce vita. Or take a tour of a winery built in a faux French castle or a sleek and modern architectural gem or a hillside spot with a killer patio overlooking Lake Ontario and the smoky Toronto skyline in the distance.
I spent two days (and a bit) on the Niagara peninsula this past week, sipping wine and eating and driving through gorgeous, sleepy countryside just now waking up from a long winter’s nap. I’ll have more to say in the pages of Star Travel in a few weeks, but in the meantime here are a few thoughts.
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Toscana di Carlotta B and B in Niagara-on-the-Lake
The first night was at La Toscana di Carlotta , an Italian-themed B and B almost directly across the street from the Prince of Wales and just a half block down from my favourite coffee place in town, Balzac’s. It’s a brilliant idea to have a Tuscan-style B and B in this British-styled town, I think, so kudos to Carlotta and her husband, Zuhair Kashmeri.
Kash, as folks call him, was a top-notch Globe and Mail reporter for years and also editor of NOW magazine. He’s been in the hospitality business for several years now, having met Carlotta while on holiday in Costa Rica, where she was working in the tourism biz.
One thing led to another, and they decided to move to Niagara-on-the-Lake and open a place with touches of Carlotta’s home in Florence. With the help of her delightful mother, she and Kash are now running a lovely four-bedroom place with Italian art on the walls and Italian books and furniture, some of it brought over from the old country.
They make an incredible breakfast with yogurts, jams, fresh juices and warm bread, but also with Italian faves. One of the menu items is a serving of three pieces of perfectly toasted crostini; one topped with a type of Italian salami, another with porcini mushrooms and the third with sweet, delicious roasted peppers. They’ll also serve up a fluffy omelette Italy style, sometimes filled with thinly sliced potatoes with rosemary. Mine had sweet Italian onions that were wonderful. I skipped the desert, but they also serve up an Italian-style apple tart, Kash told me as I stuffed my face on Thursday morning.
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Gelato pops are one of the great treats at Gelato di Carlotta in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
I had a chance to try their gelato, too, which they serve on the main street in NOTL at a place calledIl Gelato di Carlotta . It’s all organic, with no emulsifiers or white sugar used and no additives or artificial flavours. The gelato maker is a master brought over from Milan, and they churn out incredible varieties that include lemon, coconut and chocolate and orange, with big chunks of oranges inside.
Keeping with the Italian theme for a minute, I discovered Colaneri Winery in southwest Niagara-on-the-Lake, not far from the French-style Chateau des Charmes. They’ve built a magnificent series of buildings on a small rise that you approach by driving up a road lined with cypress trees, much like you’d see in Italy. The buildings are pale yellow and gold and there’s even a belltower at one end.
If you didn’t know better, you’d probably swear you were in a village just outside Siena and not in southern Ontario. Inside they serve up fantastic wines, many of them made in the Italian style by first drying the grapes. Whatever the process, the final product is simply outstanding. I loved the ripe, luscious Pinot Noir, especially.
They have major expansion plans in the works, so keep an eye on the construction and see what’s coming. In the meantime, however, it’s still a great spot. And I’m told they have a fabulous patio out front in summer, with bright pink bougainvillea and flowering Mandeville and large tables with umbrellas.
I didn’t do any wine tasting except with my meal, but I had a truly magnificent dinner at Ravine Vineyards , just a mile or so down the road from Colaneri. I feasted on homemade cavatelli pasta with sage that was topped with pears that had been poached in maple sap (not syrup) and also with house-made pancetta. Wow; one of the tastiest dishes I’ve had anywhere on the planet. I also had a monstrous lamb shank that was moist and savoury and perfectly cooked, plus a glass of their terrific Meritage blend and some of their Cabernet Franc. It might be my favourite restaurant in the province, partly owing to the food and partly because of the view of the vineyards in the fading light of day.
Here are some other winery highlights:
Southbrook Vineyards : Sensational red wines in a gem of a building. The emphasis here is on organic wines served in a beautiful, modern building where they reuse rain water and have angled the building to take advantage of the sun and protect their outdoor patio from the worst winds. The staff is knowledgeable and friendly and they make a great range of wines. They also have a small café on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. It’s on Niagara Stone Road, just a couple minutes off the QEW. Highly recommended.
JIM BYERS PHOTO
The patio at Angels Gate winery in Niagara Region.
Angels Gate : Their sparkling wines are outstanding; as good as Spain or Italy or California or even France, for that matter. I also liked their Pinot Noir. But it’s the view that’s the real killer here. The winery sits on a hill with vineyards cascading down towards Lake Ontario and magnificent views of the lake and the Toronto skyline. I can’t imagine a better place to spend a summer evening than their back patio.
Diamond Estates: This is a great place to learn how wine is made. They do tours of the massive and hugely impressive wine-making area, with towering vats that can hold 100,000 bottles of wine and a series of panels that explain the local climate and soil. Diamond bottles several lines of wines, the most famous being the introductory style Twenty Bees and also the fine East Dell wines. I especially enjoyed the East Dell Black Label Cabernet Franc. They also do a higher-end line of wines under the Lakeview Cellars label including a world-class Cabernet Sauvignon I got to taste. And take home. It’s only two minutes up the road from Southbrook so it’s easy to find.
Stoney Ridge: This beautiful spot in Vineland is now owned by Toronto sports broadcaster Bob McCown. The gardens might be the best of any Niagara winery, and the wines are just as good. I really loved the Pinot Gris; very dry with a nice acidity. They also make an Italian-style Pinot Grigio, as well as Merlot and Cabernet Franc and terrific Chardonnay, both oaked and un-oaked. McCown makes regular appearances, so if you’re a fan it’s worth stopping by. They also have a great selection of cheeses, including a tasty one rubbed with espresso and even a cheddar cheese with sticky toffee for dessert lovers. Try the cranberry wine, too.
Malivoire: If you EVER get a chance to talk with owner Martin Malivoire, do it. The man is a sheer delight; a committed and opinionated and entertaining fellow who freely admits he was wrong when he suggested Bordeaux-style varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot wouldn’t grow well in Niagara. He’s also something of a Renaissance man who flies a helicopter in his spare time and also designed many of the elements in the snazzy tasting room, including the overhead light fixtures and the tasting bar. He also helped design the colourful, distinctive mural behind the bar; a terrific feature. I quite liked his reds and the white wine he calls “melon,” which uses the muscadet grape famous in the Loire Valley of France. His Gamay Noir is like summer in a glass; deeply pink/light red and bursting with berry flavours but not sweet. He makes a couple styles of rose’ wines, as well. His Ladybug rose is the most popular in Canada, but I preferred the bone dry and just barely pink rose’ from his Moira vineyard.
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The views are magnificent from the Sheraton on the Falls hotel in Niagara Falls, Ontario.
I also made it to Niagara Falls proper for a little bit, staying a night at the Sheraton on the Falls . The American Falls were practically across the street from my room and I had a marvellous view of the U.S. side, as well as a good view looking down to the Horseshoe Falls and the Canadian side of things.
I missed Jamie Kennedy’s appearance in the Sheraton’s dining room by a night, but his restaurant is there all the time for folks wanting a real treat from one of North America’s top chefs.
I had a nice room on the 16 th floor with a gas fireplace and a sofa bed and two queen-size beds, plus a large bathroom with plenty of counter space. The view was spectacular, and they thankfully have small windows you can open for fresh air and great photos.
I sometimes forget just how lucky we are to have Niagara so close to home. But I’ll be back soon enough, I suspect.