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Fields of grapes provide a leafy backdrop to a flight of wines at Stratus.
Tasting pods at Reif Estate Winery feature a Plexiglas barrier and personal glasses.
Lately, my brain has been making a strange internal comment to everything I do. “During the Pandemic,” it adds, as if I didn’t already know, and with that helpful capital P to boot. So I’ll be mowing the lawn. “During the Pandemic.” Or grocery shopping. “During the Pandemic.” Even a stroll on the boardwalk has become an Event. No wonder my journal has become so full these last three months. “Went for a walk today. During the Pandemic.”
So my subconscious kept poking me when my wife and I planned an overnight drive from Toronto to Niagara-on-the-Lake, paired with cycling and wine tastings, to celebrate our nascent 20th anniversary. Our first journey more extensive than a take-out pizza curbside pickup since — you know.
I needn’t have worried. Aside from the Karate Kid mantra as we entered and exited hotel common areas, tasting rooms, restrooms or stores — mask on, mask off — the experience was remarkably akin to the Good Old Days of 2019.
The biggest difference, mentioned by everyone in the region’s wine-making industry, was the importance of reservations. Even at Stage 3 reopenings, wineries can’t accommodate the crowds that would have once wandered in on a Saturday afternoon. They can take limited walk-ins, but if you want to guarantee a tasting your best bet is to book ahead, on a weekday if you can.
'Wine by the barrel,' I quipped, feeling like Steve Coogan in one of those Trip movies
We cycled along flat roads from our base at the Prince of Wales hotel in the old town to Ravine Vineyard Estate Winery, one of several family-owned businesses in the region. The new event and conference space is fallow for now, but we dined outdoors beneath a voluminous white tent, accompanied by Neil Carson, a local cover-artist phenom whose vocal styling could be described in vintners’ terms as carrying notes of Lennon, Garfunkel, Neil Young and the Beach Boys.
Niagara wineries are using a variety of techniques to enhance cleanliness and social distancing. At Stratus, they’ve created a new position of CSO, or Chief Sanitation Officer. At Ravine, the wooden tables are covered with glass, with menus and wine lists visible underneath. Orders are delivered to a large cask at one end of the table – “Wine by the barrel,” I quipped, feeling like Steve Coogan in one of those Trip movies — and we carried it the last two metres to eat.
From Ravine, a short ride along the Niagara Parkway took us to Reif Estate Winery, another family-owned business, its heritage proudly announced by the German flag in the driveway. Marketing director Andrea Kaiser pointed out that wineries, like the LCBO, were deemed an essential service and were never ordered to close. However, tastings only came back in Stage 2, with reservation information doubling as a handy method of follow-up in case a COVID case popped up.
Inside the airy tasting room, a half-dozen “tasting pods” have been set up, with Plexiglas barriers between employees and guests to allow for mask-free communication. Rather than re-use glasses, Reif and several other wineries have opted for branded plastic tumblers that guests can use for their tasting and then bring home. Highlight of the tour: Vinea, Reif’s 20 per cent ABV Cab Sauvignon-brandy-secret-ingredient blend that can be enjoyed on the rocks or as a cocktail mixer.
The Prince of Wales, a cozy three-storey inn, proved a lovely way to ease back into hoteling. Several amenities were missing from the room – hair dryer, iron – but a note informed us that they could be ordered from reception, while a checklist specified other items – TV remote, coffeemaker, etc. – that had been given a thorough cleaning.
I even braved a dip in the hotel’s small saltwater pool, though I was the only guest there at the time. I had accidentally packed my teenaged son’s bathing trunks, which were a bit snug, but since the pool room featured a large mural of Prince Albert in even tighter pants, I felt justified.
The following morning it was off to Stratus, where the lobby features a whimsical bicycle with all-cork tires, and the retail area’s floor has been marked with looping, circular patterns to help direct traffic flow without the harshness of a one-way-only arrow.
Estate director Suzanne Janke took us to the edge of the vineyard to explain issues of canopy control and non-chemical insect management, like the pheromone-laced twist ties attached to the trellis to dissuade the grape berry moth, which likes to burrow into the fruit. (There was also non-chemical human management in the form of a metal placard at the edge of the field: “Please do not eat the fruits of our labour.”)
Stratus featured the most unexpected tasting menu, including a 2018 icewine red. I’d never heard of a red version of the Niagara classic, and found it far less syrupy than the whites, with a pleasing smokiness reminiscent of a well-aged port.
Also on the menu, the 2016 Stratus White and Stratus Red, featuring a year-specific blend of grapes – the red was 40 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon, 24 per cent Merlot, 23 per cent Cab Franc, 11 per cent Petit Verdot and 2 per cent Malbec. Our lunches and wine tastings were picked up by the wineries, but we happily paid for a dozen bottles to bring home, including a box set of the Stratus Red and White for $88.40.
Next up was lunch at the Good Earth Food and Wine Company. We’d been told to expect a little piece of heaven, and the open terrace dining surrounded on three sides by vineyards did not disappoint, with honeybees in the nearby lilacs providing a droning backdrop to our conversation. Proprietor Nicolette Novak insisted – really insisted! – that we try the daily special, a cold corn and peach soup, and though the name sounded dodgy, the taste was magnificent.
The last stop was a late addition to the tour, as we’d heard that the venerable Cave Spring had recently opened a new vineyard tasting room in addition to the one on Main Street in Jordan Station. Tucked away on Cave Spring road, it features two converted barns, one done in gleaming white, the other all old dark wood, with a loft from which you can see Toronto shimmering in the distance. When social distancing becomes a thing of the past, one can imagine some truly beautiful weddings happening here.
Thomas Pennachetti, vice-president of sales and marketing, plied us with all manner of wines, including several superb Rieslings. Best of the bunch was the Blanc de Blancs Brut, a sparkling white with an impressively crisp, dry taste. If you did host a wedding there, this would be your Champagne. Like all Cave Spring wines, the bottle features the northern goshawk, one of a number of raptors you can watch riding the currents of warm air that make this microclimate excellent for growing grapes. Yes, even during the Pandemic.
If you go
Price of Wales Hotel: vintage-hotels.com/princeofwales/
Ravine Vineyard Estate Winery: ravinevineyard.com
Reif Estate Winery: reifwinery.com
The Good Earth Vineyard and Winery: goodearthfoodandwine.com
Cave Spring Vineyard: cavespring.ca
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