As seen in The WineBuzz – By Paris Wolfe

Three sparkling wine glasses

The Niagara Peninsula has a firm grip on the world’s ice wine market. In recent years winemakers at more than half the 45 wineries are putting serious energy into another market — sparkling wines. During a recent trip over the northern border we sampled a breadth and depth of styles that mimic the world’s great bubblies – Champagne, Prosecco, sekt and cava.

A three- to four-hour drive from Northeast Ohio, the area northeast of Niagara Falls makes a great midweek break or weekend getaway. After abbreviating the workday, we drove 185 miles from Geneva, Ohio, to our weekend headquarters, the elegant Oban Inn & Spa in Niagara-on-the-Lake.   The Inn neighbors the 143-year-old Niagara-on-the-Lake Golf Club and overlooks the seasonal moods of Lake Ontario.  Two blocks away the heritage district of Niagara-on-the-Lake is a 19th-century village with small shops and restaurants.

Naturally, food is attracted to wine and myriad dining options range from fast food to four-star.  We started with dinner at Backhouse Restaurant. Hidden in a strip center, the outside of Backhouse is so understated that we thought it shuttered.  Inside we were welcomed by owner/chef Ryan Crawford, while the sommelier poured Jackson-Triggs sparkling merlot into a flute.  An open-fire in an open kitchen warmed a room filled with colorful paintings by Ontario artist Melanie MacDonald.

Backhouse restaurant Niagara on the Lake

Crawford describes his food as integrated, cool-climate cuisine; much of it grown in his own three-acre garden.  Food is so hyperlocal that even the sourdough bread – made with the chef’s 19-year-old starter — arrives with two butter selections, one made from fresh, grass-fed, organic, Jersey cream and the other a cold-barrel-churned 84 percent butterfat cream. TMI? Why not?! 

The next morning we walked off our toasted granola breakfast before making the 25-mile drive to Megalomaniac Winery in Vineland. There, at 10:30 a.m. we tasted wines with French winemaker Sebastian Jacquey.   While the entire region is part of the Niagara Peninsula appellation, the area’s geography gives it 10 sub-appellations which reflect subtle differences in terroir. Megalomaniac falls into the 20-mile bench.

Simon Jacquey at Megalomaniac

Jacquey makes a variety of wines including two traditional method sparklers. The playful pink Bubblehead is a brut blend of Pinot Noir grapes. Meanwhile Sparkling Personality is a well-balanced sweeter Riesling, much like a German sekt. A reserve sparkler is in the works.

With no GPS signal or paper map I aimed my the car in the direction of our next stop — 13th Street Winery — until I found signs pointing the way. Next time I’ll bring back-up maps.

Poised at a tall tasting-room table surrounded by the owner’s prodigious art collection we sampled three traditional bubblies created by another French winemaker, Jean Pierre Colas. A native of the Chablis region Colas knows a bit about growing and working with Chardonnay grapes, something evident in a 100 percent Chardonnay 2016 Blanc de Blanc sparkler. He combines Chardonnay with pinot noir for a brut 2012 Premier Cuvee and a slightly fruit-forward non-vintage Cuvee Rose. A charcuterie board here served as lunch.

13th Street Winery tasting room

Wines aside the establishment is also known for its bakery and seasonal gift shop. Visitors should chose at least one of four butter tart selections – a regional specialty that’s a bit like pecan pie with or without the nuts.

By 2:30 p.m. our schedule, like our GPS, was off. Fortunately retail consultant Peggy Thorne at Henry of Pelham was patient with us. After a cellar tour this well-educated wine expert insisted we try the signature Baco Noir before she poured three award-winning, traditional method sparkling wines – a rose that was 70 percent pinot noir and 30 percent Chardonnay, a Cuvee of 70 percent Chardonnay and 30 percent pinot noir and a 2013 Vintage Blanc de Blanc of Chardonnay.

Henry of Pelham pink sparkling wine

Back at Oban Inn we refreshed before the final stop, Peller Estates Winery, which would include dinner. This second-floor Estate Room offers an elegant tasting bar to members of Peller’s Wine Club and to those who are willing to ask and pay the tasting fee.  

The winemaker here – Katie Dickieson – doses her bubbles with a bit of ice wine for a sweeter, fruitier approach to the category. By this point in our tasting day we were certain the region had something for any bubblehead. 

Succumbing to palate fatigue – we’d tasted at least two-dozen wines in eight hours – we selected from the special event menu and dined sans vino. The specially priced, three-course Fabulicious is scheduled for a rerun in February.

While we’d paced ourselves and minimized sampling, sleep came easy. And, morning came early. After a brisk November walk near Lake Ontario and Oban’s complimentary warm breakfast, we bundled up and power-shopped NOTL village. We hit upscale clothing and shoe stores, fudge and apothecary shops, Christmas and tchotchke emporia. My Irish friend admired Celtic goods at a specialty merchant, while I waxed indecisive over a sale display of French tablecloths.

Our penultimate stop was Pillitteri Estates Winery a few miles from the village and best known for extensive and expansive ice wine production. There, after pouring ice wine samples, the host reluctantly poured the Market Collection Sparkling White. While he was humble about the injection-method carbonation the wine was pleasant, slightly sweet and tres affordable at $13.50 CDN (less in US dollars).

Pilliteri wine bar

We wrapped up the trip at conglomerate Lakeview Wine Co. with three final sparklers, a Riesling, a rose of Riesling and Gamay and a cuvee of Chardonnay/Pinot Noir.  

If you can’t get to the Niagara region any time soon, Heinen’s grocery stores are onto the growth in the sparkling wine category and the quality of Canadian bubbles and added several to their shelves.