There’s a wine trail growing in the Niagara USA region that’s been in stealth mode to us Canadians for awhile and I’m here to let you in on the secret scoop on what I saw over this weekend to uncover what all this buzz is all about.
When you talk about the Niagara Wine Trail, most people will think about Canada and this is namely because the wine region developed on the Canadian Niagara side much earlier and with much help from the government. And for me, I’ve always been oblivious to the fact that there was a wine trail in the other side. It does make sense though if you think about it. What makes the Niagara region perfect for vineyards is really the escarpment which naturally protects the area from frost by Lake Ontario. It’s a micro climate of sorts. One inch of snow anywhere outside becomes only one foot of snow in the area and it’s typically 5 degrees warmer as well. So really vineyards can thrive on both sides of the border. For Niagara USA, it’s taken a bit longer to get kick started but from my adventures exploring the region, I can happily say that you’ll be surprised by what you find here.
Before I delve into the wineries we checked out, I must admit that I’m far from being a connoisseur. I’ve done quite a few wineries over the years in Niagara Canada, Napa and Porto but I’m a newbie at best. My palette tends more towards the sweeter side with Rieslings and wines with fruitier tones to be my favorite.
The wine trail itself is merely 10 years old or less. To give you an idea, there were 5-6 vineyards in the region in 2005 and now there are over 20 vineyards so to say that area is growing is an understatement. Not only that, the trail itself has now been extended all the way from Niagara County to Orleans County and Monroe County.
Over the course of the weekend, we got a chance to visit 3 fantastic and extremely unique wineries. I was honestly expecting larger mega-wineries like the ones we have on the Canadian side (i.e. Inniskilin, Jackson Triggs etc.) but I’ll tell ya that it was way better that it wasn’t like that. The real big takeaway from our tour of the Niagara Wine Trail is that despite it’s young age, each of these wineries have been able to carve out very unique specialities that give them the edge in their respective areas. Niche is the key for these boutique wineries and they’ve done exceptionally well to deliver.
Arrowhead Spring Vineyards
The first vineyard we visited was Arrowhead Spring after a nice long drive across country roads. As you’re driving in you’re greeted with sweeping views of the vineyard that covers 25 acres of land and a two nice little houses, one for the owners and the other for tasting. It truly felt like we were visiting our best friends living out in the country.
We were greeted by the owners, Robin and Duncan Ross who were gracious enough to talk to us about how the winery came to be, their future plans and also gave us a quick tour of the facilities. It was quite the inspiring story to hear about Duncan’s passion of making his own wine, winning the local amateur competition to draining their savings to buy the land in 2004, getting licensed in 2005, planting the vineyard in 2006 and officially opening in February of 2008. It was a true story of entrepreneurship. In talking to Robin, their passion and knowledge for winemaking and sustainability really shone through. They even have their own wind turbine which powers half of the vineyard. With their current trajectory of growth and success, they’re also looking to build a brand new production facility along with 10 more acres of vineyard.
Robin also took us down below to the winemaking facilities below the tasting room where we got to see all the equipment they use along with the barrel room use for aging the wine. We even got a taste of some wines still going through the aging process so it was quite interesting to taste the difference.
As far as I know, this was the only winery we visited that offered guided tours. For $25 and group sizes of 4 or more, they do a tour of the facilities, the wine making process, a full tasting, cheese pairings and also comes with a keepsake glass.
For the wine tasting itself, we tried several signature bottles including the Unoaked Chardonnay, Reserve Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Meritage Reserve and both the Cabernet Franc and Vidal Blanc Icewines. Yes we had quite the tasting! Their specialty definitely lies in the dry wines. Despite being dry, I thought they all had a nice finish to them.
I really enjoyed this winery. This was my first boutique experience and really loved how it allowed for a more intimate experience. It never got overcrowded there so we were never rushed and everyone working there was all very knowledgeable and friendly.
Oh and don’t forget to say hi to Ian. He’s the family’s dog and just loves to play frisbee so if he comes up to you with one, just give it a nice throw.
Becker Farms & Vizcarra Vineyards
Our next stop was Becker Farms & Vizcarra Vineyards. Where Arrowhead Springs was boutique, quiet, calm and collected, Becker Farms & Vizcarra Vineyards was by contrast a huge carnival.
What I didn’t realize before coming down was that a lot of farms in this region stared off as orchard farms but in the past 10 years have added a winery component to their offerings. I was honestly a bit confused at first because I thought Becker Farms was separate from the Vizcarra Vineyards, but after getting there, I realized that it was really one and the same place.
With this being a fall weekend, there were huge crowds out to ride the tractor out to pick their own apples, take their kids to the petting zoo, lug fresh pumpkins home for carving, drink a pint of beer or cider, enjoy some live music while drinking beer cider, eat fresh BBQ’d chicken, snack on doughnuts and buy delicious pies home. Wow that was a long sentence. But yes they do ALL of that in conjunction with the wine tasting that happens both outdoors under a tent or in the tasting room.
We almost didn’t know where to start when we got out of the car. Spanning 340 acres of land, the family has really done a tremendous job at diversifying and building a very thorough offering of activities, food and drink, all under one farm.
I had the pleasure of meeting Andres Vizcarra, the son of owners Oscar and Mindy Vizcarra. Through Andres, we got a great tour of all the facilities. I was surprised to hear that Becker Farms has been around for 120 years with it being passed along from generation to generation.
We of course started off with the wine tasting under the tent and had the chance to try the Riesling, and their signature fruit wines which I was very impressed with. The Berry Patch Pink was really something I’ve never had before and overflows with the flavor of hand-picked strawberries. It’s safe to say that the Vizcarra Vineyards are best known for their more modern fruit infused wines.
But certainly the wines weren’t the only focus here. The tour with Andres took us through the entire main grounds without going into the orchard and I was incredibly impressed with the scale of everything they’ve built so far. There are many orchards in Toronto with kid friendly activities but Becker Farms has truly outdone anything else I’ve seen.
Just explore the photos below to see everything they have to offer.
And in case you’re wondering, their pies are amazing. I brought one home and as a matter of fact, I’m eating a slice right now :D
Leonard Oakes Estate Winery
The last vineyard on our trail was Leonard Oakes Estate Winery in Orleans County. Although not quite the glitz and show that Becker Farms & Vizcarra Vineyards put on, these guys have put quite a different spin on the orchard + winery combo. This farm has been open since 1919 with the winery open in 2008. So just like Becker Farms, this one equally had a lot of history to it and like Vizcarra Vineyards, this winery is also paired with LynOaken Farms on the same property.
Upon arrival, we were greeted by Wendy Oakes Wilson where she was kind enough to take us around the property. As part of LynOaken farms, we walked out to the orchard which is right next to the wine tasting room and it’s here we learned that they had planted 300 varieties of apples, all of which are not the standard grocery store variety. For one reason or another, certain apples had fallen out of favor and lost in the history books. What LynOaken Farms has done is turned this into an educational experience where visitors can learn about the history of apples and how they are grown. I was truly amazed by the rows and rows of oddly named apples like “Sweet Winter Penock”, “Florina” and “Gilpin”. They also encourage open tasting in the orchard which is great. So it’s safe to say they got the apple thing down.
Back in their pavilion, we also got a chance to taste their doughnuts which were especially moist, firm yet just the right amount of poof.
Back in the wine tasting room, Wendy welcomed us to the large and spacious bar for a little wine tasting. The wines here tended towards the drier side but enjoyed the fruity tones and pucker you got from the tasting. We were able to taste the Blanc D’Orleans, Vignoles, Reserve Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc which were all quite good. We also tried the ice wine which I enjoyed and is as good as any other I’ve had. What was really “yummy”, as Wendy put it, was the Steampunk Cider. Ranked #2 by the New York Times for American dry cider, there was just the right amount of apple, sparkle, fresh and tangy all at the same time. Made from 13 different dessert apples, the Steampunk Cider was definitely the highlight of the winery just in terms of being something very different and unique.
Addresses and map
I don’t know if you can tell but there’s some serious wine making across our border in Niagara USA. I loved the more personalized and boutique experience of Arrowhead Spring Winery. The full package experience of food, drink and fun of Becker Farms & Vizcarra Vineyards was quite the experience and particularly great for families. Lastly, LynOaken Farms & Leonard Oakes Estate Winery impressed with its array of 300 types apple trees and its Steampunk Cider. Combining a wine trail trip with outlet shopping seems like a match made in heaven especially if you want to do an overnight to extend your customs quota. If you’re coming from the state side, make sure to add the Niagara Wine Trail to your itinerary.
To see the other half of our trip to Buffalo and Niagara, see what kind of antics I was up to in the city of Buffalo that really surprised me.
This trip was sponsored by the Greater Niagara Region of New York State, however the opinions expressed in this post are my own.