In Buffalo, you’re within striking distance of several different Niagara wine regions that are particularly celebrated for ice wine, an expensive sweet wine that can thrive only in certain climates (Canada, especially Ontario, and Germany are among the world’s biggest producers). Many other well-regarded wine varietals are made here as well, including Riesling, Pinot Noir, chardonnay, and cabernet. Most prominently, there’s the Niagara Wine Trail in Niagara County, NY—just east of the falls—and Wine Country Ontario, north of the falls.
We’re focusing here on the latter, as we combined our visit to Niagara Falls with a stroll through the flower-filled streets of quaint Niagara-on-the-Lake, a great place to base yourself for a day (or three) of wine tasting. Ideally you rent a bike there and go winery-hopping (see How to Burn It Off), but there’s also nothing like driving your car down a quiet country road, all farms and vineyards and vast sky, the wind in your face (and a designated driver behind the wheel).
Good to know: Ice wines are pricey because they’re rare and labor-intensive: The grapes have to be naturally frozen on the vine at -10°C (14°F) for three days before they can be hand-harvested and then pressed while still frozen. Only the water (not the sugars) in the grapes freeze, so pressing them yields just a tiny amount of highly concentrated, very sweet juice—which is then fermented slowly to become wine.
Where: Pick up a “Wines of Ontario” map of the region, choose wineries at random, or ask around for locals’ favorites—that’s how we stumbled upon the family-owned, super friendly Caroline Cellars (1028 Line 2, a.k.a. Bradfield Rd., map), where tastings are free (Rieslings, Gewurztraminer, and Cabernet Sauvignon are strengths); and the excellent, LEED Gold-certified Southbrook Vineyards (581 Niagara Stone Rd., map), where vineyards are maintained (and fertilized) by grazing sheep and the biodynamic, organic wines include a terrific Chardonnay and Cab-Merlot blend.
Of the Niagara ice wines we tried, we particularly liked the Vidal ice wine at the lakefront Konzelmann Estate Winery (1096 Lakeshore Rd., map) and the Riesling ice wine and sparkling Ice Cuvée at Peller Estates (290 John St E., map), which also has a highly rated restaurant (and a number of cool winery experiences and tours, including some that take visitors to an igloo-like bar called the 10Below Icewine Lounge). Small bottles of ice wine tend to start around $25; larger bottles hover around $35-$50.
When: Most wineries in this area are open daily from 10am-11am till 5pm-6pm during summertime, with more limited hours in winter. Call ahead to confirm.
Alternatively: To see (and taste) more of this beautiful wine region, drive about 30 minutes west toward St. Catharines, which lies between the eastern lake region and the steeper slopes of the western bench region of the Niagara Peninsula. In the Short Hills Bench appellation, just southwest of St. Catharines, you'll find Henry of Pelham Family Estate Winery (1469 Pelham Rd., R.R. #1, map), a decades-old family-owned vineyard with a variety of tours and tastings available. Don't miss trying the Riesling, sauvignon blanc, and Baco Noir varietals, said to have a distinctive flavor profile thanks to the unique terroir here.