Ron Subotin bends vines to prepare them for their first crop of grapes in Grand Forks, B.C., an area traditionally considered unfit for vineyard.
Photograph by: Nathan VanderKlippe, National Post
The visitors smile and shoot uncertain glances at one another as they stand in the subdued light.
They hesitantly obey their host's urging to hold hands and form a circle. "Feel the power," the host coaxes.
The guests are huddled inside a pyramid at British Columbia's Summerhill Pyramid Winery near Kelowna, B. C. Here, at Canada's largest certified organic vineyard, owner Steve Cipes insists ageing within the structure's confines "clarifies" the wine.
But if the visitors do not universally accept this unorthodox approach to ageing, they are at least entertained.
And, they say during the tasting exercise that follows, the wines of Summerhill Pyramid are quite delightful.
Flash eastward to Ontario, to Canada's own deep south. Floating like an oversized lily pad upon the waters of Lake Erie, Pelee Island has been producing cultivated grapes since the 1860s and is the site of Canada's earliest commercial vineyard.
Today, Pelee Island Winery is heir to this legacy. There's an on-site park where visitors can pick up a bottle of wine, buy a steak to barbecue and then sit back and enjoy the gentle breezes of a summer evening.
Two unique winery experiences at two far-flung points in Canada.
With its harsh winter climate, Canada's wine-growing regions are pocket-sized in contrast to the massive regions typical of other wine-producing nations. B.C.'s Okanagan, Similkameen and Fraser valleys and a small area of Vancouver Island, and Ontario's Pelee Island, Lake Erie North Shore, Niagara and Prince Edward County are the only designated viticultural areas in the country.
Small grape-growing regions also exist around Toronto and in parts of Quebec, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.
Because Canadian wineries are characteristically small, often family-run operations, and because of restrictions on the trading of alcohol among the provinces, many of this country's finest handcrafted and estate wines are available only where they are produced.
The only way the average Canadian will ever sample them is to visit the wineries.
ONTARIO: LAKE ERIE
Forget for a moment that Niagara is the best-known of Canada's wine regions, representing about 80% of the nation's production. Cast your eyes westward along the shores of Lake Erie, where family-owned estate wineries have been joining the well-established Pelee Island Winery to build a strong alternative destination for lovers of good food and drink.
Among them is Sprucewood Shores Estate Winery, a family-operated business where a modern Italian villa-style retail centre overlooks the vineyards and offers stunning lake views.
Nearby, Viewpointe Estate Winery offers special food pairings and culinary demonstrations that highlight the ethnic diversity of the region.
While new players regularly enter the field, at last count there were 13 area wineries. There is normally a charge for a tasting of perhaps three vintages, although some wineries waive the fee for customers who buy a take-away bottle or two.
And it's always a good idea to do that when you happen across one you really enjoy because few wines from small estate wineries are available at liquor stores.
Rich soils and a long growing season have spurred the industry but visitors are sampling the region's many other charms, too. Among those not to be missed:
Jack Miner Bird Sanctuary, Kingsville Thousands of visitors come to the 162-hectare sanctuary to view, feed and help band the migratory birds -- including greenhead mallards and wood ducks -- and visit the Jack Miner Museum.
Point Pelee National Park, Leamington Perhaps the best place in Canada to view the migratory birds, enjoy beautiful sandy beaches and a wetlands boardwalk.
Colasanti's Tropical Gardens, Ruthven An oasis of domestic and tropical plants, plus animals to delight the kids, including alligators, lemurs, snakes, rabbits, Guinea pigs, Pygmy goats, reindeer and llamas.
Town of Amherstburg Features a charming waterfront downtown and Fort Malden, one-time meeting place for Chief Tecumseh and General Brock.
VISIT A FRUIT AND VEGETABLE STAND
A bounty of fruits and vegetables grows in the region's mild climate. Leamington is Canada's tomato capital.
The Niagara vineyards stretch along Lake Ontario's south shore.
Nearby are gourmet restaurants, country inns and B&Bs that marry fine wine, fine food and top-drawer hostelry. Inns and bed and breakfasts are set close to, and sometimes within, the vineyards themselves.
Restaurants and dining patios overlook the graperies. Tours include lunch or dinner or bicycle treks around the region.
Chauffeur-driven visits can include a picnic lunch or a stopover at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Luxury buses and minivans are available for larger groups.
For the driving enthusiast, there are two particularly interesting routes.
Highway 8 begins in Hamilton and meanders through Stoney Creek before changing names to Regional Road 81 through Grimsby, Beamsville, Vineland, Jordan and St. Catharines, home to the Niagara Grape and Wine Festival held every September.
Or start at Niagara Falls and drive north along the Niagara Parkway to Niagara-on-the-Lake. You'll pass several wineries and several more are easily accessible from side roads.
PRINCE EDWARD COUNTY
East of Toronto and jutting out into Lake Ontario is Prince Edward County. Winters are colder here and vintners bury the vines to protect them.
But the calcium-rich limestone has helped produce excellent examples of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris. The region became Canada's newest designated viticultural area in 2007. (This method of identifying the origin of wine and its grapes helps to create industry credibility.)
Of particular note, Huff Estates Winery offers a luxurious country inn among the vines. Nearby, the Grange is dominated by a lovingly restored barn that serves as restaurant and tasting room, in a beautiful pastoral setting. The Norman Hardie and Sandbanks Estate wineries offer plainer surroundings but there's been no skimping on the product.
The Okanagan is B. C.'s oldest and largest wine-growing region, and an area that shows just how true the province's motto -- Beautiful British Columbia -- really is. Several wineries offer patios and restaurants with stunning views of the valley, including the region's largest winery, Mission Hill, and the previously-mentioned Summerhill Pyramid.
Whether it's the mystical influence of the pyramid, a one-eighth scale model of the Great Pyramid at Giza, or whether it's strictly the terroir and the talents of the wine-maker, Summerhill's wines are impressive.
Tastings are free and generous. Cipes Ice sparkling wine is a more-than-serviceable alternative to much more expensive French champagnes. Even though a dash of icewine is used for the dosage (an ingredient or mixture used to adjust sweetness), the wine feels rich rather than sweet.
The Okanagan's southerly reaches are desert country, leading to the incongruity of grapes growing among cactus. The region is home to Nk'Mip Cellars, North America's first aboriginal-owned-and-operated winery, which is also a deluxe resort with spa and nine-hole golf course.
Quebec's wine industry is a product of several micro-climates, the use of winter-hardy hybrid grapes and the determination of wine-loving Quebecers. Most of the vineyards are centred in the Eastern Townships south and east of Montreal, around Lake Champlain and nestled among the region's mountains. Quebec is also renowned for its ice cider.
NOVA SCOTIA & P.E.I.
In Nova Scotia, the moderate coast along Northumberland Strait and the Annapolis Valley provide adequate protection for the grapes. The industry has been boosted by a fall wine festival. On the northern shores of that same Northumberland Strait also lies Prince Edward Island's only winery at Little Sands, Rossignol Estate.
Wine Tour Accommodation Web sites
- Bed and breakfast www.bbcanada.com
- Ontario country inns www.ontariosfinestinns.com/index.html
- Accommodation in Southern Ontario www.soto.on.ca/index.html
- Prince Edward County pec.on.ca/Welcome.html
- British Columbia B&Bs www.innsite.com/browse
-BC.html Lodging in B. C.: www.lodging.bc.ca
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