Wandering wine country

Oct 3, 2007 at 12:00 am

We were a motley crew, four cyclists on back roads in Ontario farm country. Two of us were experienced riders, the other two on borrowed bikes. Did I mention we were tipsy?

Ontario farm country is perfect for grapes. Apparently, Lake Erie and Lake Ontario provide a microclimate that keeps summers from getting too hot and winters from getting too cold. Its latitude, between 41 and 44 degrees north, is the same as the world's most famous wine regions: southern France, Italy, California and Spain. Also, the soil, a mix of loam, gravel and clay, is appropriate for growing classic European vines.

Who knew?

There are more than 100 wineries in the province, and about a dozen clustered on the Lake Erie North Shore in southwestern Ontario, where my friends and I recently focused our self-organized bike tour of Ontario wineries.

Unfortunately, you can't bike across the Ambassador Bridge anymore, so we used racks on two cars. It's amazing how quickly Windsor turns to farm country. Driving Route 20 along Lake Erie, you soon hit the charming town of Amhertsburg, which is home to historic Fort Malden and has a great view of Bob-Lo Island.

Our base of origin was a friend's cottage in the little town of Colchester. The four of us parked, de-racked and were on the road in no time.

First stop: Erie Shore Winery, a few miles east on County Road 50. The winery was unpretentious — the opposite of what a Miller-swilling newbie might expect, with a tiny (not tony) tasting room, in which the actual winemaker served us samples of several whites and reds. We loved the rich Baco Noir.

Thirst far from sated, we moved east to Colchester Ridge Estate Winery (CREW). Simply put, we loved it. Here, the tasting room was filled with the outsized personality of Veronica, our host, who also happened to be a chocolatier, generous with samples. She was not the least bit irritated when one from our group went "exploring" among the barrels. By the time we left, we felt as if we had made a friend and deemed CREW's 2006 Chardonnay the trip's official "fun wine": It was fruity, smelling something like banana popsicles. It was so good, we actually bought full glasses, along with two bottles to take back to friends waiting for us at the cottage.

After the warmth and homespun flavor of CREW, we were culture-shocked at our next stop, Viewpointe Estate. Aptly named, the winery takes full advantage of the Lake Erie shoreline. With a large banquet space and regally appointed decor, it felt way too stuffy, so we quickly moved on to our cottage, although not before returning to Veronica's. Our last stop of the day, Sprucewood Shores Estates, was almost a bust. We pedaled up after 5 p.m., but persuaded them to sell us a bottle and vowed to return the next day.

It seems we aren't alone in our affection for the Canadian grape. Only a few wineries make it across the border to Detroit, but the ones that do are well-liked. Dan McCarthy, owner of Eastern Market's Cost Plus Wine testifies, "Pelee Island wine sells really well." Despite connoisseurs' best efforts to introduce Americans to richer, stronger wine, he says, sweet wines remain the most popular, white zinfandel being the American perennial best-seller. That's why Ontario's lighter offerings, like the Rieslings and semi-sweet merlots, are the province's most-purchased wines at McCarthy's shop. (Ice wine, made from grapes left to freeze on the vines, is also a hit in the States, although the relatively high price keeps it off the best-seller list).

That evening, we couldn't resist drinking down the wine we bought that day. Later we all took a walk to a little bar for pizza and to watch the Tigers game. The next morning, we awoke to another beautiful fall day. After breakfast of some leftover pizza, coffee and the Sunday paper, we high-tailed back to Sprucewood.

That winery was worth the return visit. The accommodating server — a native Canadian who actually lives and teaches in Dearborn Heights — answered all of our ignorant wine questions cheerfully. I felt I learned something, such as the difference between cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon (franc grapes survive cold winters better). We stayed a long time, buying several bottles of Pinot Noir to take home. When all was said and done, the day-and-a-half trip felt like a weekend Up North, merely 45 minutes from Detroit.


Visit winesofontario.org for info.

Kelli B. Kavanuagh is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]