Digging Deeper into the Wines of Niagara-on-the-Lake

By David Lawrason

This feature was commissioned by Wineries of Niagara-on-the-Lake.

I have been visiting wineries in Niagara-on-the-Lake for almost forty years. My focus has always been on the wines – less so the many fine restaurants, the charming town, the mighty Falls or the festivals – as much I enjoy all these attributes as well. I have been watching vineyards and winemakers mature, trends develop and the wines inexorably improve.

In April the wineries of Niagara-on-the-Lake were all set to bring you the 2020 version of Dig Our Roots – an annual weekend-long celebration with a raft of special events designed to get people flocking to NOTL tasting rooms. But we all know what has happened to everyone’s best laid plans at this time, and those tasting rooms and restaurants are closed until further notice, which could be disastrous if this issue continues through the summer, as some wineries have been seeing over 300,000 visitors per season.

A winery tasting room in Niagara-on-the-Lake

“While we have had to cancel the annual celebration of our winemaking region, we are heartened by the interest that so many Canadians have shown for how the pandemic is affecting our winery community here in Niagara-on-the-Lake,” said Andrea Kaiser, Chair of Wineries of Niagara-on-the-Lake. “We truly appreciate the support being shown in buying local and supporting our farms.”

“In response, our winery members have made it easy for people to enjoy their favourite VQA wines in the comfort and safety of their own home with offers of free shipping. In these uncertain times it is amazing to see not only local communities but Canadians work together to support each other,” she added.

Click here to see a list of NOTL wineries offering free shipping in Ontario.


Andrea is one of the daughters of Karl J. Kaiser, renowned winemaker who helped modernized Canadian winemaking, and one of the many second and third generation members of this close-knit wine community. But this is more than a nice story. History means experience, and experience means local knowledge, and local knowledge means better wine. While we wine writers cheered the changes in early days of the modern wine industry, we were years away from understanding the terroir of Niagara-on-the-Lake and where it fits in the global matrix, let alone understanding differences within Niagara.

 The Geography

So, I would like to explain what I have learned about this sub-region, through its wines. Some basic geography, as is always the case, informs the discussion. Sitting at 43.25-degrees latitude, Niagara-on-the-Lake is a moderate to cool wine region on latitudinal par with an area just south of Bordeaux, France which sits at 44.8 (Yes, it is actually south of Bordeaux).

But there is a basic difference between Niagara and Bordeaux that doesn’t show up in the growing season, which is actually quite similar in both places. Bordeaux is a maritime climate, bathed year-round in the warmth of the Gulf Stream, while Niagara is a continental climate, prone to bone-chilling, vine destroying winter temperatures.

Thank goodness then that we have that huge mass of water off-shore called Lake Ontario that is both a saviour and complicator. It’s a saviour during the winter because the lake – deep and ice-free – is a furnace that tempers the predictably frigid winters, more so in Niagara-on-the-Lake than most parts of Ontario. It means vines do not have to be buried as in other wine regions north of the Lake. Still, in some years, wicked -20C temperatures can endanger all vines. Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Syrah are three varieties that really don’t like the cold, but they actually ripen well in NOTL when they make it through the winter.

A vineyard in the Spring with a view of Lake Ontario

In the spring, cold Lake Ontario complicates by delaying bud break, but the Lake gives back in the fall. Summer warmed waters extend the growing season that allows later ripening grape varieties – like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cab Franc – to get to where they need to be. And the closer the vineyards are to the lake the better for these varieties, which is why separate VQA sub-appellations were created in 2005 to help communicate these factors.

Niagara-on-the-Lake is officially a sub-regional appellation of the Niagara Peninsula. You will see this designation on some labels, meaning the grapes were grown somewhere in the area east of the Welland Canal, west of the Niagara River and south of the Lake Ontario. But the Niagara-on-the-Lake sub-region is further divided into four sub-appellations – Four Mile Creek (the largest producer of wine grapes in Canada), St. David’s Bench (the warmest in Niagara), Niagara Lakeshore and Niagara River.

To the casual visitor who can drive from one side of the region to the other in 15 minutes, the parsing may not seem all that important. And the land is virtually flat and uniform except for a slight elevation on the St. Davids Bench which defines the Lake Iroquois shoreline of another era. But what is not apparent to the naked eye is the crucial distance from the lake and/or the Niagara River, which is a rather mighty mass of water flowing fast and creating ‘air drainage” as well as water drainage.

So What Does this Mean in the Wines?

First and foremost, it means that certain grape varieties better fit the landscape, and to my mind they are unquestionably the red Bordeaux varieties – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and ‘Meritage’ blends thereof. And one only needs to look at the wineries that have endured with Bordeaux reds as proof. This style has been the signature of early adopters, and many of the wineries that have opened in more recent time.

In my view this is not the land of pinot noir–a bit too warm with grapes tending to over-ripeness and strong tannin, although one will always find individual exceptions in certain vineyards and vintages (which play a major role in Niagara). There are some good gamays from the region, and also good syrah/shiraz from certain wineries particularly in the Niagara River and St. Davids Bench sub-appellations.

The whites are a bit more difficult to sort out sub-regionally. Chardonnay does well everywhere in Niagara, as it does almost everywhere around the world. Although expect a riper, fleshier style in NOTL. Riesling is ubiquitous, but in my mind does not hit the heights of the cooler Niagara Escarpment sites, again with some exceptions. Sauvignon Blanc may be the single best white variety, but again winter threats limit grower enthusiasm. And difficult Gewurztraminer seems to be strong in the Niagara Lakeshore sub-appellation as well.

And finally there is Icewine – the most famous wine of Niagara-on-the-Lake. Ontario is the world’s largest producer and most of the Icewine is being made in Niagara-on-the-Lake by wineries large and small. Since first made in 1984 from the hardy vidal grape at Inniskillin, styles have evolved to include other white and red grapes, and sparkling versions.

Icewine grapes at Inniskillin

So all in all it is a complex and intriguing region. The Niagara Peninsula is not one idea. Niagara-on-the-Lake is a somewhat narrower idea within Niagara Peninsula, but still not one idea either.  And it has now amassed a body of work and experience going back well over 30 years, with many mature vineyards now in their prime.

As a casual tourist visitor to the tasting rooms and restaurants when they re-open – as they surely will – this may not seem particularly significant. But to local savvy wine enthusiast such intricacies become critically important.

This feature was commissioned by Wineries of Niagara-on-the-Lake. As a regular feature, WineAlign tastes wines submitted by a winery or region. Our writers independently, as always, taste, review and rate the wines – good, bad and indifferent, and those reviews are posted on WineAlign. We then independently recommend wines to appear in the winery or regional profiles. Wineries, wine agents and wine regions pay for this service. Ads for some wines may appear at the same time, but the decision on which wines to put forward in our report, and its content, is entirely up to WineAlign.