There are few better ways to spend a balmy summer evening in southern Ontario than sipping a glass of Niagara wine on a patio. One of the best known wine regions in Canada, Niagara produces wines that consistently win domestic and international awards and accolades. But what many people don’t know is that the Niagara wine region is actually two regions that are all but next door to one another: the Niagara Escarpment and Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Many people say that, in general, Niagara-on-the-Lake is home to the bigger names and larger producers in Canadian viticulture, while the Niagara Escarpment has smaller boutique wineries, but that distinction doesn’t always hold true. Many Escarpment vineyards are now national brands, while smaller family-owned producers are increasingly common in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Thankfully, the two areas are just a few miles apart, and it’s easy to visit both on the same trip. You can plan your visit, download helpful maps, and read about every vineyard in both regions with this helpful online guide.
If you hear locals talking about “The Bench,” they’re talking about the Niagara Escarpment. Situated between the natural wind buffer of the escarpment hills and the shores of Lake Ontario, this wine region has fantastic views and delicious wines. The microclimate is moderated by the protective ridge, which traps the warm breezes from the lake in autumn to naturally extend the growing season, and the higher elevation and milder temperatures help to protect the delicate grapes from unexpected frost that would negatively affect production.
You’ll find 53 wineries and 27 restaurants here. Here are some of the region’s most exceptional vineyards.
Creekside Estate Winery
Creekside Estate Winery is known throughout Ontario for its bold, powerful red wines. Its 2016 syrah was named Ontario’s best red wine in 2016. That’s just one of the numerous awards and distinctions the winery has racked up over the years. Their patio is a great place to sample wine and have lunch, and Creekside’s kitchen serves up delicious charcuterie platters and gourmet sandwiches. It also happens to be this author’s favorite winery in the area!
Henry Of Pelham Family Estate Winery
Owned and operated by three brothers on a 300-acre family farm that dates to the 1800s, Henry of Pelham is one of the Niagara Escarpment’s most recognized names. The winery is home to Canada’s largest underground barrel cellar and is one of only six wineries in Ontario to be certified by the Wine Council of Ontario for following sustainable winemaking practices from soil to shelf. Their sauvignon blanc and riesling are particularly well regarded and frequently appear on regional restaurant menus.
Rosewood Estates Winery
Rosewood is more than just a winery — it’s the original meadery in the Niagara area, and it has deep roots. Founder Eugene Roman’s father kept bees as a teenager in Ukraine! The grapes are tended to as carefully as the bees, and just as much care goes into the wine, which is hand-sorted, whole-cluster pressed, cool fermented, and free of additions. While you’re there, be sure to check out their No Bad Days sangria, which comes in a fun, camping-friendly bag.
Peninsula Ridge Estates Winery
This gorgeous estate on the west side of the Niagara Escarpment is home to a Queen Anne-revival-style mansion that hosts a superb restaurant and tasting room. Peninsula Ridge Estates Winery produces 10 white wines, 12 red wines, and two varieties of ice wine. Some bottles to keep an eye out for include the Beal Vineyard Cabernet Rose, Wismer Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc, and Beal Vineyard Reserve Merlot. Bring along your camera — this is one of the area’s prettiest wineries.
Sue-Ann Staff Estate Winery
Sue-Ann Staff — a fifth-generation grape grower, 2002 Ontario Winemaker of the Year, and one of the top four women in wine according to the International Wine & Spirit Competition — makes wine on her family’s 200-year-old estate, the Sue-Ann Staff Estate Winery. In addition to their primary wine lineup, the vineyard also produces the affordable Farm Girl Fancy label, which is priced around $15 a bottle. While there, you can also pick up deluxe charcuterie boxes to go, which are perfect for picnics.
Niagara-on-the-Lake is much more than a wine-growing area. It’s a fully fledged tourist destination, with 39 wineries, 21 restaurants, shopping opportunities, theaters, golf courses, spas, and more. Since 1962, the area has hosted the Shaw Festival, which celebrates the world of George Bernard Shaw, his contemporaries, modern playwrights inspired by his work, and stories written about Shaw’s lifetime (from 1856 to 1950). At least a dozen productions are staged each year, and visitors who love theater and wine will find Niagara-on-the-Lake to be the perfect destination. As you’d expect, local wine is served at the theater bars! And, naturally, you can buy wine by the glass or the bottle at these local wineries and many more.
Big Head Wines
One of the newer wineries in the area, Big Head Wines operated as a “virtual winery” before establishing a physical presence at Hunter Farms. They focus on raw wines, wild fermentation, and the appassimento winemaking method (kiln drying of the grapes) and produce small-batch artisanal wines, including vidal and riesling dessert wines.
Ferox winemaker Fabian Reis was born into a traditional winemaking family in Stuttgart, Germany. Just how traditional? He is a sixth-generation winemaker, and his family winemaking roots date to 1893. That heritage shows in the quality of Ferox’s products, including their signature specialities, intense Meritage blends, and single-varietal Bordeaux-inspired wines. However, their peach fruit wine, made with local Niagara peaches, is equally irresistible.
Frogpond Farm Organic Winery
The charmingly named Frogpond Farm Organic Winery, established in 2001, has the distinction of being Ontario’s first organic winery. It’s a working farm complete with chickens and lambs, and the focus is on environmentally sound and sustainable practices. Frogpond produces riesling, cabernet Franc, merlot, gamay noir, chardonnay, pinot grigio, vidal, chambourcin, and more. While there, be sure to keep an eye out for Widu, the friendly farm dog!
The Ice House Winery
In 2005, Niagara gained its first commercial ice wine establishment when Jamie Macfarlane, who began his winemaking career in Cote d’Or, France, opened The Ice House Winery. Since then, The Ice House has won international acclaim. Their 2017 Signature Series Vidal Icewine won the 2020 Monde Selection Gold Medal, and their Northern Ice 2016 Vidal Premium Icewine won the 2020 Monde Selection Grand Gold. However, despite the accolades, they are anything but formal. Their ice wine slushies are some of their bestselling products!
Southbrook Vineyards has the distinction of being Canada’s first certified organic and biodynamic winery. Classic reds and whites are popular here, but the real showstopper is their orange wine. Don’t worry — there is no citrus flavor! Orange wine is a type of white wine made by leaving the grape skins and seeds in contact with the juice. The result is a deep orange wine with a touch of pink that’s absolutely delicious.
What To Know Before You Go
The Niagara Escarpment and Niagara-on-the-Lake are about 30 minutes north of Niagara Falls and situated on the shores of Lake Ontario. Guests crossing the border from New York to Ontario can do so in Niagara Falls at the Rainbow International Bridge and then take Route 102 or 420 northward toward their first destination.
From Toronto, the Niagara wine regions are about a 90-minute drive. There is a small airport, the Niagara District Airport, situated between Niagara Falls and Niagara-on-the-Lake that offers flights to and from Toronto. However, most international visitors either fly into Toronto or Niagara Falls, New York. While Niagara Falls doesn’t connect directly to the VIA Rail train network, long-distance buses departing from the city usually connect to a station somewhere along their route.
While many wineries are open year-round, most modify their hours in winter and cancel most special programming, such as tours and talks, leaving just the tasting room and store open for guests. Full hours resume between spring and autumn, and summer is the busiest time to visit.
The legal drinking age in Ontario is 19 years old. If you’re driving back to the United States following a wine tour, remember that there are restrictions regarding importing alcohol (and those under the American drinking age of 21 will have to surrender any alcohol they have).
Ontario runs a VQA, or vintners quality alliance, which maintains the integrity of the area’s wines by ensuring claims of origin are accurate and meaningful. If you see the VQA label on a bottle of Ontario wine, you can be assured that the wine was grown and produced in Ontario.