Beyond the falls: exploring Niagara-on-the-Lake

Niagara is famous for its thunderous falls, which are well worth visiting. But head just 20 minutes north of this world wonder and you’ll find a picturesque area that sits on the southern shores of Lake Ontario, inspiring the region’s name: Niagara-on-the-Lake.

The microclimate here is similar to that of Burgundy, France, thanks to the lake and its location along the Niagara Escarpment. Vinifera grapes, which are grapes for making wine, were first planted here about 40 years ago and newer wineries are taking a more sustainable, eco-friendly approach to growing and production. The popularity of the industry has launched a vibrant scene of restaurants, cafés and breweries to explore as you make your way between vineyards. Here are some suggestions to inspire your next visit to Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Hinterbrook Winery

Hinterbrook Winery, Niagara on the Lake, Ontario
A “vertical tasting” at Hinterbrook Winery, which uses solar power and geothermal heating and cooling for an eco-friendly operation

Unlike some of the larger operations in the Niagara region that purchase grapes from other growers in order to meet consumer demand, Hinterbrook is an estate winery. This means that they grow all of the grapes used in their winemaking on their property, allowing them to keep a closer eye on how the grapes are handled. And while vines and barrels are common implements of winemaking, they have an unexpected addition to their operation that you’ll notice even before you step foot in their tasting room: a 1,000 square foot solar panel that helps to power the winery’s operations. Hinterbrook also takes advantage of geothermal heating and cooling in its buildings, making it even more eco-friendly.

We were able to experience Hinterbrook’s wines through a “vertical tasting”, which consists of sampling the same wine grown and produced in separate years. We tried Hinterbrook’s 2016, 2017 and 2018 sauvignon blancs. The 2016 vintage was markedly different with an almost savoury, mineral quality to it while the 2017 and 2018 years were much fresher and fruitier — closer to the more popular sauvignon blanc style.

Southbrook Vineyards

You’re probably already familiar with organic farming, but have you heard of biodynamic farming? In addition to chemical and pesticide-free growing practices, biodynamic growing is a holistic approach that thinks of the farm as a single living entity. That could mean using sheep to “mow the lawn” and produce the manure (i.e. sheep poop) that’s used to fertilize crops, along with growing animal feed on the property too.

Southbrook Vineyards , Niagara on the Lake, Ontario
Southbrook Vineyards is not only organic but biodynamic — a holistic farming approach that includes producing manure and animal feed within the farm

Canada’s first certified biodynamic vineyard can be found right here in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Southbrook Vineyards specializes in organic, biodynamic wines and a visit to its winery is a fun lesson in farming. Their building is also LEED certified and signage around the winery helps you learn more about its eco-friendly practices.

One of Southbrook’s more unique offerings is its orange wine — a tart and palatable wine that’s made of white wine grapes fermented with its skin. Its patio overlooks the vines and is a great spot to enjoy this unusual pour.

Exchange Brewery

Tired of wine yet? Niagara-on-the-Lake is also home to some great breweries to change things up. One of its newest is Exchange Brewery, located in a former telephone exchange building on the historic Queen Street strip, inspiring its name.
Their tasting room looks small, but head upstairs to a more elegant second level and a rear patio that’s perfect for catching a few rays with your beer. A tasting flight is recommended – and bonus, it comes on a cute rotary phone-inspired board.

A flight at Exchange Brewery on its rotary phone-inspired board

Exchange Brewery is known for their Belgian style of brewing and barrel aging, which lends to sour and eccentric brews like the Oud Bruin, a tart Flemish-style ale which took home a gold medal at the Ontario Brewing Awards in 2017. But this brewery gets a gold medal from us for their eco-friendly practices. Instead of throwing away spent malted barley and wheat grains, they give them to a nearby farm, Stewart Haven Farms, to feed their dairy cows.

Avondale Dairy Bar

Operating since 1955, we appreciated Avondale’s classic offerings on a hot summer day, such as banana splits and sundaes, which can be harder to find at ice cream shops in recent times. There are a few ways that Avondale keeps things modern: a pay-by-weight system that lets you pick how large or small your servings are and plant-based ice cream offerings for vegans. Our favourite variety, the peanut butter and chocolate-covered pretzel (say that three times fast), was definitely worth the lengthy lineup.

 Backhouse

Backhouse, Niagara on the Lake
“Megg’s Egg” from Backhouse

Don’t let its nondescript location in an otherwise unremarkable plaza fool you. Backhouse is one of Niagara-on-the-Lake’s top fine dining establishments. The best seats in the house are at the chef’s table overlooking the open kitchen. Here, you can watch your meals taking shape as they’re carefully assembled by cooks and chefs. The wood-fired grill has a hand-cranked level that chefs adjust to control the heat and char on the items being cooked.

You’ll need to order one of the tasting menus to earn your seat at the chef’s table, but it’s well worth the splurge. One of their signature items, Megg’s Egg, is a soft and delicate egg white mousse served in a cracked shell, sitting in a nest of hay. Paired with excellent regional wines, this is a great spot to celebrate a special occasion.

All images: Andrea Yu

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