Domestic affair: Touring Canadian wine country

You no longer have to go to Europe or California to sip great vintages or get up close and personal with rising winemakers.

It’s easy to drive right by Daniel Lenko Winery. But when I backtrack to the modest brick bungalow off Niagara’s Regional Road 81, I can tell I’ve found the right place. The muddy driveway is packed with the BMWs and Mercedes of Toronto collectors, who drive down here to snap up the winery’s cult wines as they’re released.

When I pull open the side screen door, I’m enveloped in the sweet aroma of baking apple pie — and in the chatter of 20 or so people sitting and standing around the kitchen table. An older man — who turns out to William Lenko, Daniel’s father — is peeling apples over the sink. Daniel’s mother, Helen, is just shutting the oven door. A grey-haired woman with rosy cheeks, she comes over to welcome me: “Come in, come in, dear. Just step over the dog there. Don’t bother with your shoes — it’s linoleum. Now where ya from? Take a seat. Take off your coat. Here’s a glass. Go ahead, get right in there, taste Danny’s wines.”

You can’t help but feel like family. When a couple arrives right behind me, the woman looks around doubtfully at the kitchen party and asks, “Is this the right place?” Helen shepherds them over to the empty chairs beside me. Directly across from us is the star of the gathering — Daniel Lenko, a farm-strong 35-year-old in a white T-shirt and jeans, who smiles and chats as he pours his wines for the people gathered in his kitchen.

This is how a wine lover like me has always dreamed of buying wine — directly from the person who has made it. Even 10 years ago, this was difficult to do in Canada. Talking to winemakers or taking a vacation in wine country meant going to the Napa Valley of California or France.

Today, wine aficionados can spend several days visiting Lenko and scores of other winemakers in Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula. In many cases, you can taste wines produced in such small quantities that you still won’t find them in liquor stores. In several other cases, you can sip the handiwork of European winemakers, who are using their knowledge of viticulture to raise Niagara’s mass-produced wines to new levels.

A few tips can help you get the most from your sipping. First, wear dark clothing. Even if you’re an expert spitter (and it’s a good idea to spit if you plan on visiting several wineries) the person next to you might not be. Second, designate a non-drinking driver. And third, pack a picnic lunch in a cooler-there are some beautiful spots to eat at the wineries. The additional benefit of the cooler is that it gives you a place to store the wines that you buy, so they don’t cook in the trunk while you’re sipping inside the winery.

Your reward for all of these preparations is the chance to sample an enormous spectrum of wine varieties and to learn more about the people behind the wine you’re sipping. In his farmhouse kitchen, Daniel Lenko jokes, “If you don’t buy my wine, we’ll take you out back in the field and rough you up.” The tipplers chuckle, lapping up his personality along with his wine.

The young winemaker came by his love of wine naturally. His father planted vines 44 years ago and for years supplied many Niagara wineries with their fruit. In 1999, Daniel decided to go one step further and start making wine himself. The awards that he’s collected since then cover the kitchen walls.

As the awards suggest, Niagara wines are a fiercely competitive business. Winemakers include small producers like Lenko, giant mass manufacturers and — increasingly — a number of well-financed operations backed by foreign money and expertise. Just three km up the road from here is Peninsula Ridge Wine Estates, which Norman Beal, a former oil commodities trader in the U.S., opened in 2000, investing $7 million in the venture. Beal convinced winemaker Jean-Pierre Colas to leave Domaine Laroche in Burgundy, where his chardonnay had won Wine Spectator’s White Wine of the Year in 1998 — the vinous equivalent of Time magazine’s Newsmaker of the Year award. (Do whatever it takes to buy the 2002 Peninsula Ridge Sauvignon Blanc — it’s one of the best on the planet.) The winery also has one of the most romantic restaurants in the region.

And what a region it is. Horizon-reaching rows of leafy vines, weather-scarred farmhouses, wispy peach trees and limestone bluffs. But the land isn’t just beautiful; it’s also a great environment for growing grapes. About 450 million years ago, an ancient body of water retreated and left behind the escarpment, a ridge of limestone that cuts across the Niagara Peninsula, roughly parallel to Lake Ontario. The strip of land between the escarpment and the lake is prime grape-growing country, with a micro-climate sheltered by the escarpment and warmed in winter by the lake waters.

Scores of new winemakers have shot up in the area over the past decade. Typical of the breed is Lailey Vineyards, which makes opulent, buttery chardonnays and spectacularly rich cabernets. Donna and David Lailey grew grapes for other wineries for more than thirty years; then in 2001, they partnered with Derek Barnett, winemaker at Southbrook, a small winery north of Toronto, to make low-yield, hand-harvested premium wines from their 20-acre vineyard. Their winery, clad in oak, looks like a barrel. Inside the tasting room, I meet two delightful young women who are studying viticulture at Niagara College and Brock University. As they pour samples, they laugh and talk about their studies, the wines and the region.

Tasting wine works up an enormous appetite. Fortunately, nearby Strewn Winery has a marvellous restaurant, Terroir La Cachette. The restaurant’s Mediterranean hues of sunshine yellow, azure sky and terra-cotta are a balm to the senses, as is the view outside of the meandering creek and rolling vineyards. Chef Alain Lévesque uses fresh local ingredients in Provençal dishes such as roast spiced duck magret with cassis coulis and pork tenderloin stuffed with pecans and dried fruit and glazed with maple sauce. The flavors dance with wines from Strewn and a score of other local wineries. It’s a great way to end a day of tasting — and to build up reserves for tomorrow. After a weekend of tasting, I’m heading home with a case of terrific icewines in the trunk. They’ll be perfect with Helen Lenko’s apple pie recipe.

Valley Ho! — Even massive forest fires haven’t stopped the spectacular rise of Okanagan wineries.