NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE – Alan Doyle is mugging for the audience at the Jackson-Triggs Ampitheatre on a warm summer night under a full moon.
“I started playing this one when I was touring with Great Big Sea, back in 1951,” he says with a laugh.
His new band, The Beautiful Gypsies, immediately launches into a frenzied, Newfoundland-meets-Nashville tune with powerful guitars, a splendid violin and a swirling accordion backed by drums and bass.
Doyle has perfected the “aw shucks” Canadian approach, and it suits him well. Toss in a generous dash of Maritimes/Newfoundland music with lyrics about lost fishermen signing their goodbyes on an ice floe and a sprinkling of hits such as “When I’m Up I Can’t Get Down,” and you’ve the perfect recipe for a summertime singalong under the stars.
I’d heard about the amphitheatre and it always buzzed in the back of my mind as something that would be a great treat but I’d never gotten around to it until last Friday night, when my wife and I headed down the QEW for a fantastic evening that included a winery tour, a four-course wine cellar dinner with excellent food and then the concert.
We had a terrific winery tour with Del Rollo, Director of Hospitality at Jackson-Triggs. Rollo was once a sommelier at the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto and can talk about the technicalities of wine with the best of them. But he says it’s important not to be “a cork dork” when he or other guides are showing people around the winery.
Standing on a second floor balcony overlooking the winery’s fine patio and out towards the brilliant green vineyards, Rollo tells us Jackson-Triggs basically was born out of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
“It was the late 1980s and Ontario wasn’t making the best wines,” he said. “Suddenly we were facing a flood of imports (because of free trade), so we either had to mature quickly and try to match the competition or run away.”
Around about that time, Allan Jackson and Don Triggs matched their talents (Jackson was a wine expert and Triggs a business guy who was working at Chateau Gai) and purchased the wine division of Labatt’s, which Triggs had been running. They former Cartier Wines, which bought the well-known Inniskillin brand and later changed its name to Vincor.
It was around this time that Ontario wineries were ripping out the old native “labrusca” vines and replacing them with classic “vinifera” vines that grow well-known varieties of grape such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. Not everyone was convinced those grapes would work in Niagara, but Jackson and Triggs were determined.
Their first vintage under the Jackson-Triggs label was in 1992 and the wine sold quickly, Rollo said. So they had a good product. What they didn’t have was a nice winery to show folks around in.
“The one they had was basically next to a Loblaw’s and a train station,” Rollo told us with a laugh.
Some folks suggested they build a French-style chateaux but they wanted something modern and bright that said “new world.”
That’s exactly what they got in 2001, a bold and open design that feels earthy (they make generous use of wood and local stone, and there’s plenty of natural light) yet still fresh.
Rollo pours us each a glass of their “Entourage” sparkling wine, with a mix of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and just the right amount of bubbles. It’s not as toasty as many classic Champagnes, but it’s a very good wine that would go with a variety of foods and, naturally, tastes great on its own.
Rollo thinks more Niagara wineries should be making bubbly, owing to the area’s limestone soil and coo climate; both features the area shares with the Champagne region of northern France.
Rollo shows off the huge vats that the wine is made in. But the best part is down in the cool cellar, where he explains how champagne is made and how (I hadn’t heard this before) there’s a bit of empty space in a bottle of sparkling wine once it’s gone through its carbonation and aging, space that is filled with more wine or, in some cases in France, cognac.
He also talks about how Jackson-Triggs uses both American oak and French oak barrels for its aging, depending on what kind of wine they’re looking for. American oak is more porous than French, which means wine aged in American oak gets more of that woody flavour. I knew that much from many winery tours over the years, but Rollo was the first person to suggest I run my fingers over both a French and American oak barrel so I could feel the difference in texture. Sure enough, the French is smooth and the American barrel much rougher to the touch, which means more contact with the aging wine.
“We aim for a mixture” of barrel types, Rollo tells us. “We don’t want to be known as Chateau two-by-four.”
We get to try some lovely Sauvignon Blanc, which tastes similar to the New Zealand style that’s become the signature for SB lovers. We also sip a way-better-than-I-expected sparkling merlot. Having bubbles in a cold glass of red wine feels strange but Rollo says it’s excellent on a hot day when you’re barbequing a juicy steak.
Even better than our wine tour was a five-course “Savour the Sights” dinner in the cellar with wine pairings. something you can arrange when you buy your amphitheatre ticket.
We were treated to a heaping plates of local charcuterie and artisan Canadian cheeses to go with Ace Bakery baguettes and house-made bacon-maple preserves, along with a glass of the Entourage sparking wine. They then served an Atlantic salmon taco with Napa cabbage, jalapeno, tomato and lime crème fraiche, which was one of the highlights of the night (and I don’t usually like salmon).
Our next course was a very nice east coast crab cake (they made it a bit of a Maritimes menu owing to Alan Doyle playing at the amphitheatre four times that week) with a pea and arugula salad, matched with a lovely glass of the 2014 Grand Reserve Sauvignon Blanc.
After that came a glass of the 2014 Grand Reserve Merlot with a grilled Ontario pork loin and smoked pork shoulder, which was served with PEI potatoes “gratin,” local beans, Norfolk mushrooms and candied garlic. A splendid main course.
Then there was a red wine chocolate cake with cherry parfait, chocolate ganache, pinot poached cherries and almond custard, served with a luscious 2015 Reserve Vidal Icewine; one of Ontario’s best wines.
The food was outstanding and the company (we sat at one of four long tables, each with maybe 16 guests) wonderful. A great setting, too, with wine barrels all around and a just-right temperature.
From there it was out to the amphitheatre for the show. It’s a wonderful spot, with a stage covering that reminds me a little of the Sydney Opera House but backed by a deep forest of trees. There are maybe 13 rows of seats, so you’re never far from the stage. They also have a food truck and a wine tent, with glasses of excellent wine for $8 that you can take back to your seat. (Oh, Ontario, you’ve come a long way.)
The opening act for the night was Ontario singer-songwriter Donovan Woods. He tells a great story and strums a nice guitar. And he writes wonderful, very Canadian-sounding lyrics about everyday issues.
He told the story about being part of a series of text messages from friends of his who work for an armored car company back in Sarnia. He liked what they were saying, so he used the notes to write a song called “Truck Full of Money.”
“I don’t have a job, so I look for songs,” he said with a laugh.
He also said he wrote a song for Tim McGraw and sometimes travels to Nashville “to play for famous guys and tell them what it’s like to have problems.”
He also put in a brief plug for a cable and Internet company, telling the audience he likes to use Rogers’ Roam Like Home package on the road to save on his phone bill.
“I don’t know why I’m up here talking about cell phones, but I am,” he said.
After he finished we were treated to Doyle and his fantastic band, which included a lively fiddler, a wailing guitar player and a guy on accordion and keyboards, plus a drummer and bass player.
Doyle did most of the talking and sang lead on all the songs, leading the audience on sing-along versions of his biggest hits, such as “When I’m Up I Can’t Get Down.”
He also played some quiet, poignant tunes, including one beauty about a group of Fogo Island, Newfoundland fishermen who set out one day and found the ice shifting, leaving them marooned to die on the empty sea. Apparently they carved their names into the ice with a gaffe, along with the words “Laying Down to Perish.”
Doyle tells the story well and plays the mandolin during the song he wrote about the incident, also called “Laying Down to Perish.” At one point, he sings about “living isn’t easy, and dying isn’t hard.”
It’s a sad song, but Doyle is smart enough to know how to crank up the volume after a downbeat tune, and pretty soon the audience is bouncing around like schoolkids waiting for recess after a three-hour class.
We bedded down for the night just a few minutes up the road at the fine White Oaks Resort and Spa, directly across the road from the massive new outlet shopping centre. The hotel is bright and clean and our room had comfortable beds, a mini-fridge, a good-sized TV and lots of space. I also really liked the toiletries in the bathroom (and I see a hundred different types every year).
At breakfast, my wife and I had fresh fruit and great omelettes in a room overlooking a nice garden. Sadly, there was no Jackson-Triggs sparkling wine at breakfast. Maybe next time.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: www.jacksontriggswinery.com
DINING AT THE WINERY: The Savour the Sights five-course dinner is available for $157.62 per person, plus tax.
MUSIC AT THE WINERY: Concerts are held at the amphitheatre from June to September. Upcoming acts include Gordon Lightfoot, The Sheepdogs and The Jim Cuddy Band.