Okay, let me explain. I am not guzzling wine in some sort of pity party, lamenting my singleness and crying while watching Nicholas Sparks movies. No, far from mourning the romance of Valentine’s Day, I’m celebrating it. Or, more specifically, I’m celebrating the month of February. Because February means it’s time for the Niagara region’s annual Days of Wine and Chocolate festival. Wine. Chocolate. I can think of no combination that could make me happier on a cold February afternoon.
I headed out to Niagara-on-the-Lake this past weekend with my good friend and fellow writer Amanda Lee. We had high hopes to cram in as many wineries in the region as we could without overindulging our insides too much on decadent desserts and vintage blends. This may not surprise you, but that is a very hard mission to achieve at an event like this.
With 28 wineries participating this year, offering everything from ice wines to sparkling rosés, and rich treats such as chocolate-dipped profiteroles filled with milk-chocolate-orange mousse (from Palatine Hills Estate) and banana-chocolate tarts drizzled with caramel (from Pondview Estate Winery) at each stop, it wasn’t long before my teeth ached from the sugar and my head was fuzzy from the wine. It was glorious!
I adore wine. I came to love it a bit late, after the insistence from a university roommate years ago that I learn to share a bottle with her as we watched The Bachelor together every Monday night. Today, I am by no means a wine connoisseur, but I do know my grapes, what’s full-bodied, what’s dry and what goes well with a takeout order of pad thai. But most of all, I just know what tastes good to me—I like my wines red and rich and heavy, smoky and robust. No light table wines for me. I want the heady stuff, and I found plenty of it in Niagara. So much so that I came home with six bottles.
Ontario’s wine business is booming, and our VQA regulators ensure our wines meet strict industry standards. Our LCBO (Liquor Control Board of Ontario) stores are filled with rows of Ontario wines, many of them stamped with VQA approval. And while most of my trips to the LCBO consist of sticking local and stocking up on big-name Ontario brands, such as Jackson-Triggs and Trius (Trius Red ranks as one of my absolute favourite big-name wines), I love it when you can sample the small stuff not found on store shelves—and that’s exactly what’s so great about an event like Days of Wine and Chocolate.
Amanda and I gave ourselves a mission to only visit the small wineries that have no or minimal LCBO distribution (with the exception of a stop at Trius for me to pick up Red, of course). Because this is the true advantage of attending an event like this. It’s your opportunity to try wines that don’t have mass distribution, that can’t be bought in your local LCBO, that truly showcase the diverse nature of Ontario’s wine industry.
Palatine Hills Estate was our first stop, but also almost our last thanks to the samples after samples the staff kept pouring for us. It’s a small, simple place, with no fancy décor or restaurants—just pure winemaking. The samples had lured us in, but it was after we stepped away from the dessert table and headed to the full tasting bar that we were fully charmed. In addition to the “passport”-listed samples, we tested their Romeo—a sweet, burst-in-your-mouth sparkling rosé—as well as their mild Juliette sparkling wine mixed with a sweet but not too sugary Vidal ice wine, and a luxurious full-bodied 2007 Merlot that I simply had to bring home with me.
At Lailey Vineyard, we indulged in mocha-espresso cookies paired with a 2011 Cabernet-Merlot (again, a couple of bottles had to come home with me). Both were delicious, but it was our chat with the staff that truly stood out. We learned about their Redacted dessert wine (so named and labelled as a cheeky response to limits imposed on them by the VQA) and how when they were preparing the dessert-wine pairing, they altered the cookie recipe to incorporate more cocoa, in order to further complement the wine.
Our afternoon also included stops at Konzelmann Estate Winery for a chocolate-hazelnut ganache and Fresco Secco Sparkling Riesling, Pondview Estate Winery for a banana-chocolate tart drizzled with caramel and paired with a 2011 Select Late Harvest Vidal, and Sunnybrook Farm Estate Winery, for a crisp pear wine paired with a triple chocolate-pistachio biscotti. But again, it was when we began to chat about the other options that the experience truly became memorable, like taking a sip of Sunnybrook’s spiced apple wine, which smells and tastes like liquid apple pie thanks to notes of cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. We finished the day up at Trius, where their Brut rosé (not available in the LCBO despite being from a big-name winery) was paired with caramel-chocolate kettle corn.
Days of Chocolate and Wine is running every weekend for the month of February. If you’re planning to take a trip to Niagara for the festival, check out my tips for attendees: Getting Sweet in Niagara on Travel+Escape.