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You Can Sip Wine And Stuff In This Magical Niagara Wonderland! (or something like that)

By Rick VanSickle

Sometimes it takes a staycation in the very wine region where you live to appreciate what you truly have.

Also in this Niagara Wine Report: The NOTL wine, chocolate and cheese event is back, Wines in Niagara takes the No. 4 spot in website rankings, new wines from Kacaba, and Vintages highlights.

Niagara wine

It’s easy to get a jaded view of your own backyard when you are bombarded with images from social media feeds based primarily in Toronto showing carefully curated photos and stories of the unrealistic portrayals of the people, visitors and businesses who work and play in what it is collectively called Niagara Wine Country.

This wine region seems to be a magnet for all manner of Instagram accounts, each vying to provide a steady diet of young, beautiful, (mostly) white women scampering through the vineyards in high heels, sipping giant-sized wine spritzers on patios, and getting perilously close to open water while maintaining complete composure. Accounts like @Visit_Niagara and @Narcity (and they certainly aren’t alone, hello @BlogTO) continue to offer an endless stream of other people’s selfies, staged photos and, in the case of Narcity and BlogTO, mind-numbingly banal, cookie-cutter stories often taken straight from the about pages on websites or paid for by a “client.” You know the kind of deep stories and headlines I’m talking about (they are all variations of this theme): “This Niagara Winery Looks Like A Fairytale & They Pair Bubbly Wine With Junk Food Snacks.” And it doesn’t end there: “They also have glam picnics and a private cabana (popcorn emoji, clinking wine glass emoji, etc.).”

Screenshots of the Visit Niagara Instagram feed (two photos above).

These feeds view Niagara from the latest iPhone lens of others, carefully curated to offer a skewed vision of what they think Niagara should be if we got rid of all the other people (that’s means people like me and likely those of you who are reading this right now) who don’t live in their imaginary world of vineyard selfies, icewine slushies and gorgeous women who appear to out-number men on a ratio of 9:1 and have an uncanny ability to navigate through vineyards without spilling one drop of wine (which isn’t easy!). Niagara is NOT that, at least not ALL that.

Screenshot of a post by Narcity.

I’m not certain when this explosion of clickbait social media feeds began, or, quite frankly, who is benefiting from the schlock they are spoon feeding their followers, but the most recent over-the-top account, @Visit_Niagara (which has quickly built up a base of 38,500 followers) seems to have the backing of most of the region’s tourism groups and city councils who obviously buy into this kind of marketing tactic, which surprises me.

Maybe it’s just not cool anymore to promote Niagara Wine Country as a family-friendly, all-age, all-gender, and all-race playground that is much more than what is being dished out by many of the self-aggrandizing tastemakers of today.

Our little staycation a week or so ago, though hardly Instagram worthy by today’s standards (as you can see in these photos), was nonetheless a genuine Niagara experience. When you live here, you can lose sight of what is special about wine country.

Our out-of-town guests joined us for two nights at the On Seven Residence, a B&B that is housed on the edge of the On Seven Estate Winery’s vineyard in the heart of Niagara-on-the-Lake. With its quiet location, stunning views, and well-appointed amenities, the “cottage” provided the perfect staging point to explore much of what the region has to offer.

Friday night was for staying in, chatting, take-out pizza from Pillitteri’s BarrelHead and, yes, a rousing first game of Scrabble beside a cosy gas fireplace. And, of course, a delicious bottle of On Seven The Pursuit Chardonnay the host kindly left for us chilled in the refrigerator.

Up early Saturday, the more adventurist of us (that would be the female contingent) headed for the Bruce Trail to cancel out the pizza from the night before, while the males continued their Scrabble tournament at (where else?) the Churchill Lounge at the venerable Prince of Wales hotel in downtown Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Yes, this gorgeous hotel is a tourist trap with its grand façade, historic reputation and pricy (but tasty) cocktails, but it is still irresistible even if you have been there dozens of times.

We sat down, plunked the Scrabble board on the table, settled into the high back leather chairs with a view to main street and horse and carriage rides and promptly ordered giant-sized Caesars. We were the first customers of the day, which, I confess, caused a few raised eyebrows among the staff. And play on we did!

We circled back with the hikers a couple hours later and played tourist in downtown NOTL, which was surprisingly crowded for a Saturday in early January. In one store, out another, a beer at The Exchange Brewery, and in and out of more stores (ugh). So many stores. We were struck by the diversity of the visitors; a far different diversity portrayal of what Instagram would have you believe. By a very large margin.

The possibilities of how to spend the rest of Saturday are endless in wine country. Afterall, you are surrounded by wineries, local breweries, and craft distillers, not to mention a dizzying array of restaurants from one end of the region to the other.

But We Are Canadian, so Wayne Gretzky Estates — home of the Great One, outdoor skating and whisky cocktails rink side — seemed appropriate.

We did not have a reservation, or skates for that matter, but we definitely had our eyes on the big table by the bar, the one with the giant-sized heater overhead, the one likely reserved for Gretzky himself when he’s in town. Some fast talking with the host and that coveted table was ours (thank you!).

The place was rocking. Kids on skates, adults laughing, mixers mixing, beers a flowing, millennials looking anything but Instagram ready (by today’s standards) … a wonderful conglomerate of families, young couples, groups of men, women, mixed, millennials, Gen X, Z, Gen whatever, boomers, grandmas, grandpas, and everything in between of all colours and ethnic origin. It was a heartening scene. Our cocktails of choice were equally diverse.

Three Gretzky Old Fashioneds made with Gretzky Red Cask Whisky, old fashioned simple syrup, bitters, and orange zest, one Espresso Martini made with Gretzky Ice Storm Vodka, hand crafted coffee liqueur, simple syrup, and espresso. One 334 Club made with Gretzky Whisky Oak Aged Red, blackberry hibiscus simple syrup, orange juice, bitters, and club soda. And one mocktail that hit the spot for the designated driver.

Niagara in the early part of January can be a crapshoot for dining. Many businesses that cater to tourists simply shut down for a week or so to give staff a breather in what is normally a slow time of the year. We lucked out with a reservation at Barbea Wine Shop and Snack Bar, the more casual side of Chef Ryan Crawford’s oasis of goodness in Niagara-on-the-Lake that also includes Ruffino’s Pasta Bar. Crawford has an uncanny knack of staying ahead of the curve in the hospitality business by adjusting to the changing landscape. When Covid hit, he flipped quickly to a take-out food and bottle shop operation. He flipped BackHouse, the popular original restaurant pre-Covid, to Ruffino’s and added Barbea, a creative small plates restaurant with a few large booths and plenty of space to belly up at the bar. He has also built what might be the largest bottle shop in Ontario with a giant-sized selection of Ontario wines along with international wines you just can’t get at the LCBO.

On this our final night, the six of us settled in for a tasty feast featuring an array of shared small dishes which included warm marinated olives, chorizo and almond dates, calamari aioli Nero, Arbequina olive oil bread, potatoes brava, sauteed fall greens and oysters. Our shared mains included dry-aged striploin and Charlie Baker wood oven chicken with gravy and almonds. And, of course, dessert, a trio of churros paw-paw caramel, Basque cheesecake, and crema Catalan orange.

We washed it all down with a couple of bottles of wines, including the Via Barrosa Albarino 2021 (white wine from Spain), and the Moraza Rioja Alta Unoaked Tempranillo 2020, also from Spain.

It was a joyous evening with attentive service and a comfortable vibe all around us. The restaurant cliental on this night was a mix of wine industry professionals, tourists and regulars that showed more diversity in one small, comfy-cosy room than the entire feed of any of today’s “lifestyle” Instagram accounts.

Wine, chocolate, and cheese

For four weekends in February, 20 Niagara-on-the-Lake wineries are participating in the annual Chocolate and Cheese event.

Guests can choose from an individual tasting pass (16 tastings for per person, $75) or a couple’s pass (16 tastings per couple, $75). The passes offer you access to all properties with a maximum of eight winery tastings in one day. Both passes are for a maximum of 16 tastings. If you want to visit all 20 properties, you can add extra tastings to your passes. A couple tasting at eight wineries in one day would use one couple’s pass completely. An individual would need at least two days to visit all wineries. But whether individual or couple, you can also spread your visits out over the four three-day weekends and just visit two or three wineries at a time.

The dates are Feb. 3-5, Feb. 10-12, Feb. 17-19 and Feb. 24-26 and tastings will be available from 11 am to 5 pm. When purchasing passes, you will be asked to indicate the wineries you wish to visit and on what date (you are no longer required to book a specific time for your visit).

Chocolate & Cheese passports are available here. Reservations close at 6 am the day before event date. There are also designated driver passes available at a discounted rate available on the ticketing website.

Tooting our horn (sorry)

We don’t like to toot our own horn over at Wines In Niagara, but we are rather proud that this little website is now ranked at No. 4 on Feedspot’s Top 30 Canadian Wine Blogs and Websites list. That’s one spot higher than the last year’s rankings. The list is based on traffic rank, social media followers, domain authority and freshness. You can view the full list here.

New wines from Kacaba

Kacaba Cabernet/Syrah 2020 ($25, winery, 90 points) — Drawing from the warm and ripe 2020 vintage, winemaker Vadim Chelekhov blends 60% Cabernet Franc and 40% Syrah with 17 months of oak aging in American and French barrels. It has an attractive nose of ripe black cherries, raspberries, black currants, subtle herbs, and rich spice notes. There is some tannic structure on the palate with anise, wild red berries, meaty notes, pepper, oak spices, and a lifted, vibrant finish.

Kacaba Cabernet Franc 2019 ($33, 92 points) — This is from the estate’s “Escarpment” series of wines and the wine is aged for 12 months in American and French oak barrels. It begins with textbook Niagara Cab Franc aromatics of black raspberries, bramble, roasted herbs, a touch of pepper and anise with lightly toasted spice notes. It’s smooth on the palate with ripe red berries, cigar smoke, leather, licorice, herbs, and spice in a juicy yet vibrant style through the lifted finish. Nicely integrated now but will improve with a bit of cellaring.

Note: Please excuse the stemware in the photo above. I tasted and filed this story from the Gulf Coast of Florida and used what was available to me here.

Niagara wines at Vintages stores this month

The selection of Niagara wines at Vintages stores across the province is sparse in the first month of the new year. See screen shot of themes and release dates for all Vintages releases for 2023 above.

On Jan. 7, only three Niagara wines made it to Vintages shelves, including Lakeview Cellars Riesling Icewine 2019 ($35 for 200 mL), Marynissen Chardonnay 2020 ($ NA) and Konzelmann Reverse Series Merlot/Shiraz 2019 ($25).

And here’s what coming to Vintages stores on Jan. 21 (online and flagship stores only):

• Konzelman Vidal Icewine 2018 ($40 for 375 mL)
• Burnt Ship Bay Reserve Red 2019 ($20)
• Icellars Reserve Red 2019 ($34)
• Jackson-Triggs Grand Reserve Merlot 2019 ($26)
• Trius Reserve Baco Noir 2021 ($27)