Most people know Windsor-Essex, Ontario, as a place where cars are made, but it’s also one of Canada’s three largest wine-making regions. Grapes love this warm and sunny part of the world—and birds do too; thousands pause here to rest their wings on long migration journeys. As a food and travel writer—and a big nature lover—I’m keen to explore this wine country at Canada’s most southern point, so I hop on the train from Toronto to Windsor for a weekend getaway.
Flower (and Wine) Power
Balmy seven months of the year, Windsor-Essex is at the same latitude as Northern California and Tuscany. I arrive during a heatwave and am grateful that my first stop, North 42 Degrees Estate Winery, does Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc slushies. Take note, 7-Eleven!
I join co-owners Suzanne Dajczak and Martin Gorski in the Serenity Peace Garden. Swallowtail and cabbage butterflies flutter around us, while buzzing bees gorge on lavender. The couple built this sanctuary—with its Baltic labyrinth honouring their Polish roots—to mark the 200-year anniversary of the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812 between the US and Great Britain.
“Americans liberated my father from a concentration camp, and Martin’s mother is from the States,” says Suzanne. “Creating this place, where people can reflect on peace, was meaningful to us.”
I could relax all day under the powder-puff mimosa blooms, looking out for the bald eagles, woodpeckers, red tail warblers, bluebirds and orioles often spotted here. But soon, Adriano and Pina Ciotoli, of culinary adventure company Windsor Eats, arrive with a bicycle, helmet, map and a picnic of breads, cheeses, charcuterie and sun-ripened peaches for my self-guided winery tour. Time to flit!
Family Winery on the Beach
“We have Canada’s oldest commercial winery in this region, but for the longest time there were only two wineries in Essex County, so people didn’t consider it a wine destination,” says Tanya Mitchell, one of four sibling co-owners of Sprucewood Shores Estate Winery, my first bike tour pit-stop.
In the past decade that number has grown to 18. Byoffering yoga by the vines, live music on the grounds, and paddleboarding on Lake Erie, the Mitchells do a great job boosting tourism.
Tanya pours me a Riesling in her tasting room. “With the warm days and cooling effect of the lake at night, Riesling grapes love our climate,” she says. I agree, as I sip this crisp and citrusy white.
Heard It on the Grapevine
After a picnic lunch by the beach, my next stop is the Oxley Estate Winery, which offers something I’ve never seen before: wine and music pairings.
According to our tasting card, the 2015 Chardonnay, “lush with notes of ripe peach, lychee fruit and almond oil,” is best sipped with “Sweet City Woman,” by the Stampeders. The 2015 Pinot Rose, with its “ripe raspberry and blood orange” notes works with Nazareth’s “Sunshine”.
“Jody Goslin, our Master Taster, hears music when she tastes food and drink,” explains co-owner Ann Neydon Wilson. The synesthete works songs each wine evokes into her tasting notes. “Some people load the music onto their smartphones,” says Ann, chuckling. “They listen as they taste.”
The Fauna on Pelee Island
Sunday morning I visit Pelee Island Winery’s Kingsville location, which is a 5-minute walk from the Woodbridge House. Before even tasting the wines, I fall in love with the labels. They represent the nature on nearby Pelee Island, where the grapes grow: flying squirrels, monarch butterflies, frogs—and a whole series of indigenous birds.
For lunch, I take a glass of sparkling Lola rosé out onto the patio—it’s a refreshing and summery pink. Every Sunday, a local food truck parks here. This week it’s Chef Rob Lyle’s ROBS Culinary Motion. His roasted potato, mushroom and rosemary wood-fired pizza base, with its 18-hour slow-roasted and smoked pulled pork topping and secret-recipe barbecue sauce is a-ma-zing! After the final bite, I wondered if my summer has just peaked.
My B&B host, Cathy, kindly drives me to my final destination, Point Pelee National Park. On the way, she points out quirky lunch spots I’d like to try on my next trip: Mettawas, a 19th-century train station turned Mediterranean restaurant by the Chrysler Canada Greenway trail, and Birdie’s Perch, a 1960s double-decker bustaurant selling everything from Lake Erie perch Po’Boys to Kawartha dairy ice cream.
The last hour of this trip is all about natural highs. Surrounded by the lush Carolinian forest and vast, sparkling wetlands where bulrushes sway and lily pads float like orchid-littered stepping stones, I make my way round the boardwalk. I pause to photograph swallows; scan for throaty yet elusive frogs; and watch in wonder as a hummingbird hovers just inches away. The air is alive with chirps, croaks and birdsong.
I feel like I’m in some jungle oasis, not rural Ontario, and it’s definitely not the wine talking.
There is a taxi stand at Windsor train station, and taxis meet every incoming train, or can be pre-ordered so that you can reach your accommodation hassle-free. Windsor is also one of ten Canadian VIA Rail stations with a Discount Car and Truck Rentals kiosk at the station for easy ordering of rental vehicles. Customers can pick up their car at the VIA Rail parking lot.
Windsor Eats offers self-guided and group winery bike tours, which include the bicycle and helmet rental as well as a meal, starting at one of the wineries on the day’s itinerary. Grapevine Tours offers minivan tours of wine country for groups of 2-12, with pick up from your residence, hotel, B&B or marina, anywhere in Essex County or Windsor.
I’m already looking forward to next weekend, when I’ll be continuing my wine-touring adventures in Prince Edward County.