NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE Niagara and the wine region is one of the best city getaways in North America; an easy drive from the Greater Toronto Area. But staying the night can get expensive, and you don’t want to taste wine all day and then get behind the wheel.
Solution? The special GO Transit train and bus to Niagara.
I had the opportunity to try it out the other day, taking the train from Union Station in Toronto. We glided past quiet suburbs and pretty ravines on our way to St. Catharines, a trip of about 90 minutes. From there we were able to get a bus to Inniskillin Winery, where we had great wines and a fantastis lunch and then Jackson-Triggs, where we had another winery tour and tasted more lovely wines. That part of the trip was arranged by GO for the media, but anyone can take the train to St. Catharines and then cycle (they take bikes on board the train) to the wineries or take a cab, or arrange a private tour with any number of Niagara based companies. As a part of the summer service there is a connecting GO bus from St. Catharines to Niagara-on-the-Lake, a fantastic town for dining, theatre (it’s the home of the Shaw Festival) and wine-tasting.
You also can take the train all the way to Niagara Falls, which is a good base for not only wineries but also nightlife, casinos, golf and the natural beauty of the falls. The train station in Niagara Falls is close to downtown, just a few minutes by cab or on the WeGo system, which is a convenient way to get around town without a car.
The Niagara train service with GO runs from Friday July 3 to Monday Sept. 7, and then on Thanksgiving weekend from Friday Oct. 9 to Monday the 12th. Service is once a day on Fridays and three times a day on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays.
Fares from Union to Niagara Falls or Niagara-on-the-Lake are $18.15 one-way or $36.30 for a day pass for adults and students. Seniors and kids pay $9.10 for a single ride and $18.15 for a day pass. They also have group passes available.
GO also has seasonal train service to Barrie from Saturday, June 27 to Labour Day Monday, Sept. 7 at a cost of $13.15 for adults.
The trains that go to Niagara have two coaches set aside for bicycles. The regular GO Train coaches on the Barrie seasonal route can hold up to 4 bikes each.
There are a million great experiences you can have in Niagara. I love the food and the patio at Ravine Vineyard in St. Davids and also enjoy the Italian design and wines at nearby Colaneri. On my recent trip we had lunch in the cellar at Inniskillin, where Estate Chef Tim MacKiddie, an enthusiastic and engaging young man, plied us with fresh halibut served with local ramps and wild garlic, as well as risotto with smoked mushrooms and smoked cheddar cheese. It all came with excellent Inniskillin wine, including a nice Pinot Noir and a slightly sweet Ontario Pinot Gris; something I’d never had before.
It was a pretty high-end lunch, but they also have a great café outside with burgers and other casual fare, where you can sit under bright red umbrellas and admire the vineyards under the summer sky.
We had a nice tour of the facilities at Inniskillin, one of the pioneers for Niagara wine. The winery was established in 1975 at a time when few people thought good wine grapes could be grown in Ontario. But co-founder Don Ziraldo and Karl Kaiser plowed ahead, knowing the Niagara micro-climate was on their side and figuring that classic grapes such as Riesling and Chardonnay could flourish here.
They were winning world awards within a few years, and now Niagara is a fantastic wine region with exceptionally good wines to offer; especially white wines and lighter reds such as Gamay Noir but increasingly with good Syrah, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, such as those at Colaneri, Kacaba and Ravine.
We were told how Inniskillin’s world-famous ice wines (they label it Icewine, all word one, in case you were wondering) can only be harvested when the temperature is minus 8 Celsius or below, and that they need several days in a row with temperatures in that range to pick the frozen grapes. The work usually is done in the middle of the night, making for a rather bone-chilling experience. They only get one to three drops of juice from each grape, which is why the cost is so much higher than “regular” wine. But it’s worth it, especially for dessert or poured (in small amounts) over grilled peaches or on a scoop of ice cream.
We also did a tour at Jackson-Triggs, where a fun and knowledgeable tour guide taught us to swirl our first sip of a new wine around in our mouths like a dose of Scope, thereby getting our palates used to the flavours before engaging in serious tasting. We also learned that 16 Celsius (plus Celsius, not minus) is the ideal temperature for storing barrels of wine, and that the ideal humidity level is 75 per cent. The barrels at Jackson-Triggs rest on a bare dirt, so that way the rainwater seeps into the soil and helps build humidity. Clever.
I knew previously that North American wines called “Meritage” were modelled after Bordeaux blends, with mixtures of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot, plus perhaps other grapes. What I didn’t know is that the phrase comes from a marriage of the words “merit” and “heritage” and that it’s pronounced mahr-eh-tidge and not with a French accent as mahr-eh-taj.
I must admit I hadn’t had much luck finding Jackson-Triggs products I liked in the past. But we tasted their reserve Sauvignon Blanc and their reserve Meritage and I found them both delicious. The Sauvignon Blanc had, to me, more of a New Zealand-like tang than many of the ones I’ve had from California; perhaps due to our cooler weather. I also found the Meritage red a wonderfully rich blend that’s right up my alley.
Each can be found at the winery in Niagara for about $25. Not cheap, but it’s excellent wine and you’re supporting a local product.