OUT OF THE CITY AND INTO THE FIELDS ride the mounted seven. Our aluminum stallions are 21-speed bicycles, and our empire is the wine country of the Niagara Peninsula, where southern Ontario is pinched between two Great Lakes and the winters are as gentle as lambs, if you consider -20°C mild.
Our itinerary is a slow-paced daylong pedal through the flatlands, pausing at small and large wineries to sample the best of their cellars and casks. If the setting would not quite fulfill Shirley Valentine’s yearning in the film of the same name — “a glass of wine in a country where the grape is grown, sittin’ by the sea” — the vistas of vines and peach orchards and the green Niagara Escarpment are pleasant enough on a summer day.
A Niagara bike tour is equal parts vacation, libation and education, a chance to meet vintners and vendors who prove to be refreshingly frank about their Cabernets. We’ll learn how to breathe while drinking, why two-thirds of the grapes on some vines are discarded before they ripen and what it means when a label promises a hearty red, redolent of — as one bottle we sample claims — “blackberry, leather, rhubarb and coconut.”
We are led by an eager navigator named Jeff Weir from Niagara Wine Tours International of Niagara-on-the-Lake, one of dozens of companies that escort tens of thousands of visitors annually on similar circuits by bus, van and bike. Our group includes a pair of recently affianced Australians, a husband and wife on active duty in the Canadian Forces and my own lovely bride Natasha, who, as we rumble along a rugged woodland track on our way to our first tasting, helpfully points out to the Australian woman a little brook babbling near the trail.
This distraction sends the poor tourist crashing, flailing and wailing into a thicket of saplings and brambles, a spill that causes no serious injuries and turns out to be the only wipeout of the trip. From this point, our route sticks to smoothly paved surfaces, my wife concentrates on sipping, not scenery, and the Aussies keep well away from her.
Any illusions that Canadian winemaking is performed in ivycovered castles by Burgundians in berets are shattered at the very first stop. Rising from the plains is the huge, hypermodern hangar of the Jackson-Triggs Niagara Estate Winery.
Having endured nearly 15 minutes of non-stop bicycling, we are delighted to spend an hour walking through this winery behind a knowledgeable guide named Jonathan Medhurst, who looks hardly old enough to legally drink.
In truth, Medhurst is 27. He leads us into the vineyard and explains why it is profitable to snip off and discard many of the grapes while they are still as green as peas, thereby concentrating all the natural sugars into the fruit that remains. And he points out the giant propellers that blow warm air down onto the vines when the temperature approaches the -20°C boundary between dormancy and death. All of Niagara’s newly pressed prosperity, he says, depends on its relatively tepid microclimate.
“When you look at these bushes,” announces Medhurst, “you see $50 bottles and $8 bottles.” Everything depends on the grapes themselves: how many, how plump, how sweet.
Although he cannot possibly remember the glory days of Canadian wine — the bouquet of Baby Duck, the nose of Spumante Bambino — young Medhurst admits that Jackson-Triggs’ corporate progenitor, the Château-Gai unit of the Labatt beer empire, was a “pretty atrocious wine division,” pumping out “some nasty stuff.”
Those days are gone forever, replaced — at Jackson-Triggs, at least — by mass-market Cabernets and Chardonnays, fermented in 30,000-litre stainless steel rotating tanks. Medhurst shows us how these mega-vats are chilled by external tubes of glycol, and he admits that even some of the finest wines may have been sweetened with cane sugar and clarified with powdered egg whites or the livers of fish.
“We learned that from the French,” he says.
Yet this does not diminish the Ontario vintner’s passion to take on the world with the best wines that can be crafted from the grapes this soil feeds. What matters, says Medhurst and everyone else we meet, is what is inside the bottle — not a cute animal on the label, not the appellation of some motley cru and certainly not how much it costs.
“Never confuse price with quality,” the young man declares when, after one hour and 15 minutes of pedalling and prattling, we finally get to drink something other than water. In a pine-panelled salon that leads conveniently into the Jackson-Triggs retail store, Medhurst offers what he calls “a structured tasting.”
This begins with a 2006 Sauvignon Blanc that we are told is “very fruity and highly herbaceous,” proceeds to a 2003 Proprietors’ Grand Reserve Chardonnay (born in wooden casks), which, to my simpleton’s palate, tastes far smoother and oilier and more delectable, and concludes in a fine, earthy red called Meritage that, I must admit, I’ve been buying and enjoying for years.
Back on the bicycles now, heading for a sandwich and a salad and more Meritage at a picnic table at a vineyard down a concession road, then to a tiny establishment called Caroline Cellars. Many of Niagara’s wineries are like Caroline: family-run, producing only a few cases of each variety, and housed in, well, a house.
It is at Caroline Cellars that winemaker Justine Lakeit pours a 2004 Riesling and teaches us what she calls “the reverse whistle,” encouraging us to “activate the retro-nasal passage” by sucking in some air to enliven the liquid on our tongues. Moving from white to red and from dry to sweet, as is the custom, we sample a 2003 Merlot, a 2004 Pinot-Cherry “fun blend” and a 2004 Plum Wine that I pronounce, eight glasses into the day, to be “like candy for grown-ups.”
At our next stop, as luck would have it, we encounter the duly crowned Grape King of Canada (circa 1978) relaxing on his porch. If Noah was the first tiller of the soil and planter of vines in the Bible, John Marynissen was the first vintner in Niagara to rip out the old Concord grapes and pledge the roots of European Cabernets and Chardonnays to the Ontario soil. Today, Marynissen Estates Winery sells 80 percent of its products at its own retail store and the rest in direct shipments to restaurants.
I ask Marynissen, who is 83, about the fantastically expensive imported wines that are sold across Canada.
“A $150 bottle?” he replies, as we sip his 2002 Cabernet Merlot. “To me, it’s not worth it. It’s like going to a hotel room and paying $500 or $600 a night. You’re afraid to close your eyes, because then you won’t enjoy the money you’re spending.”
If Marynissen is the Noah of Ontario winemakers, our next halt — the four-hectare Frogpond Farm, complete with sheep and chickens — is the newest testament. Frogpond is the area’s first certified organic producer, fertilizing the grapes with pure manure, avoiding chemical pesticides and delivering a Riesling and a Cabernet Merlot that taste just delicious.
Barely needing to flick the gearshift while cycling on the peninsula’s level roads and encouragingly sober even after all these whites and reds, we arrive at Riverview Estate Winery for a taste of the 2005 Baco Noir (“red plum, blueberry and spicy notes”) and the 2005 Rosé (“raspberry, strawberry and cotton candy”) and to spend a few minutes with a delightful gentleman named Pat O’Hara, who describes his task as “serving free wine to people on holiday — how can you bugger that up?”
O’Hara’s wine-drinking years go back a lot further than Jonathan Medhurst’s; back, he says, to “those bottles of Chianti in the straw holders you put a candle in then tried to be cool and light your cigarette with the candle and not notice that the wax was dripping on your pants.”
By now, my elbow is almost as weary as my thighs, but it is difficult not to obey when O’Hara encourages us to take another swig and “squish it through your teeth and pretend it’s Listerine.”
Listerine, of course, has about twice the alcohol of Baco Noir, but O’Hara understands well the subtleties of the subculture.
“You can get more pleasure,” he tells us, “out of one glass of wine properly presented than that guy in the corner drinking a bottle and a half.
“It’s like cooking — you don’t spend your life doing macaroni and cheese. Wine’s a food. Get the pretentiousness and all that stuff out of your head. You can throw a chicken in the oven and call it ‘roast chicken.’ But the fun is what you do with it. Wine is the same. It’s all in what you do with it.”
At the Reif Estate Winery, whose inherited expertise stretches back to 17th-century Germany, we are met by a fine 2005 Chardonnay, the 2005 Cabernet Merlot and the 2004 Vidal Icewine that, here and elsewhere, is the crowning pride of Niagara. (The winemakers wait until the grapes are frozen and shrivelled on the vine before picking them.) We also are met by Barb Worth, who remembers her own entree into the world of wine, “in the era of Moody Blue and Lonesome Charlie.”
“Back then,” says Worth,”I would have picked something that was bubbly and sweet. Now, I read the back of the bottle and consider what I’m using it for — is it a gift, is it for a special occasion, or is it for my own dinner?”
Here is the whole game reduced to its root: what’s in the bottle, who grew and selected and crushed the grapes, what is the best that this wine can be, and what are your intentions for it?
I recall what John Marynissen told me, back on his wide, wooden porch: “If you compare all the wine-growing areas of the world, we all grow the same grapes. But what is really important is that we all have our own taste.”
Now, after 5½ hours, six scattered wineries, 17 vintages, and 25 kilometres in the saddle, we are beginning to give off aromas of blackberry, leather, rhubarb and coconut ourselves. We pedal back to home base in Niagara-on-the-Lake along a green and winding cycle path, with the river on our right, gliding past the bastions of Old Fort George in the early-evening silence.
The fact that it is raining like the seventh chapter of Genesis drowns our spirits not at all. We are the cycling sippers of Ontario, and we’ll run to the wine store to test our new knowledge just as soon as it doesn’t hurt to walk.