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Getting Sweet in Niagara

by Tammy Burns

I run my tongue over my teeth, the gritty feel of sugar lingering in my mouth. I’m on my sixth dessert of the afternoon—a banana-chocolate tart drizzled with caramel sauce and paired with a 2011 Select Late Harvest Vidal from Pondview Estate Winery. I’d say that I should slow down (my stomach has long passed sugar overload), but my tastebuds are insisting I keep going. There are still so many samples waiting to explore, each one sounding more delicious than the one before.

Every weekend in February, Niagara-on-the-Lake celebrates its Days of Wine and Chocolate festival, an annual event honouring the region’s best wine and desserts—and of course, it’s all done with the romance of Valentine’s Day floating in the air.

From chocolate chili brownies to crème brûlée mousse to a dark chocolate cup with candied strawberries, all washed down with ice wines and sparkling wines and various reds and whites, the festival is total indulgence for those with a lust for wine and a serious sweet tooth.

Getting Sweet in Niagara

If you’re headed to Niagara-on-the-Lake this weekend for a Valentine’s Day escape, or perhaps later this month for a girls’ getaway, here’s how to get the most out of the Days of Wine and Chocolate experience.

Map it out

Niagara-on-the-Lake is simultaneously easy to navigate and confusing. It’s easy because the lines and concessions are all numbered, and they criss-cross over flat farmland that leaves your view unobstructed for miles. However, the endless vineyards can leave you feeling a bit lost as you turn down various sideroads, wondering if you’d already driven past this spot and are really just going in circles.

Grab a map from one of the wineries or the Niagara-on-the-Lake Chamber of Commerce, and note the locations of the wineries that top your list (your “passport” to the Days of Wine and Chocolate indicates what wines and samples are being offered at each winery, so you can pick what sounds most delicious before you venture out).

Stay small

I adore the VQA wines on offer at the LCBO, but a trip to Niagara is your chance to try the things you can’t easily find at your local liquor store. We chose to bypass the big names (with the exception of Trius, as I have a ridiculous fondness for their Red blend) in favour of smaller vineyards that don’t offer mass distribution and which many people haven’t even heard of. And often, these are the places where you make the most interesting finds.

At Lailey Vineyard (where the sample was a 2011 Cabernet-Melot and mocha-espresso cookie), we learned the story behind their intriguingly named Redacted dessert wine. The wine passed all the criteria set out by the VQA to qualify as ice wine—except its fruity taste doesn’t match the traditional flavour. Since the VQA regulates how ice wine can be labelled, Lailey was limited in the terms and descriptors it could use. Hence, Redacted was born, with the label simply redacting out any terms monitored by the VQA. Talk about fun and cheeky (and delicious, by the way—I bought a bottle).

Getting Sweet in Niagara

At Sunnybrook Farm Estate Winery, we sampled their crisp pear wine that made me think of summer the moment I took a sip (paired with a triple chocolate-pistachio biscotti). But we then eyed the shelves and moved on to their other treats, such a spiced apple wine that tastes like liquid apple pie and a plum burgundy wine that explodes in your mouth with sweetness—unique flavours I would never stumble across in the LCBO.

Venture beyond the freebies

I witnessed far too many people popping in, grabbing their all-inclusive samples of chocolate and wine, and venturing out the door without actually exploring any of the other wines on offer. This is an issue with the set-up of some wineries—the samples are often located at a separate table or close to the entrance, which doesn’t help to pull people further inside. That’s why you need to take some initiative and go exploring.

Sure, the samples are a great introduction, but if you want to really find some of the best wines, you need to head over to the tasting bar. Chat with the staff, order a taste or full flight, and find out what else the winery is known for. At Palatine Hills Estate Winery (sample: 2011 Riesling-Gewürztraminer with chocolate-orange mousse-filled profiteroles), we were lured away from the sample table and found ourselves going through what felt like the entire wine menu. We tasted a sparkling wine mixed with Vidal ice wine, a sparkling Blanc de Noir rosé, and an award-winning 2007 Merlot, all with bites of cheese and crackers in between—and I ended up leaving with two bottles (not of the featured sample) tucked under my arm.

Getting Sweet in Niagara

Slow it down to sip

With 28 participating wineries, it’s impossible to visit them all in one afternoon (and as I learned the hard way, sampling too many desserts in one go can give you quite the sugar hangover). What’s more, rushing through the experience will mean you miss out on some of the best parts about exploring Ontario’s biggest wine region, whether it’s learning about winemaking from staff or testing out some small-name blends.

My advice is to spend the weekend there so that you can fit in more options without feeling like you have to rush. Niagara-on-the-Lake is filled with lovely little bed-and-breakfasts; a few years ago I stayed at the absolutely charming Victorian Suites Inn, where all the rooms are named for types of wine, and I awoke each morning to a basket of croissants, muffins, scones and locally made fruit preserves sitting outside my door.

Go with the girls (or boys)

Don’t dismiss the event if you don’t have a date. Sure, Days of Wine and Chocolate is marketed as a couples’ event—it’s held in February for Valentine’s Day, and the sample tables are often decorated with sparkly red hearts—but it’s not meant to exclude those who are single. My friend and I headed to the festival for a girls’ afternoon and had a great time without ever feeling like we “should” be there as part of a couple. Because, really, who needs a date when you have wine and chocolate?