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Wine 101: The smart way to tour Niagara's wine country

Sure, you can check out Niagara-on-the-Lake’s wineries on your own. But when you take a specialized tour, it becomes more of an education.

Of course, choosing the right tour is the key.

“When we opened in 2005 there were only a handful of wine tour companies in the area, and none were offering professional, educational wine tours,” said Niagara Vintage Wine Tours co-owner Gabriela Fuccillo. “At the time, my husband Chris and I were working at Pillitteri Estates. As the winery manager, Chris spent his days on the tasting room floor, and experienced firsthand the types of tours being offered. Groups would come in and taste the wines, their guides offering information that wasn’t accurate — or simply no information at all — and he just knew he could do it better. So he decided to start a tour company.”

Their goal was to provide a more informed and professional tour. Today, guests are exposed to a wealth of information on everything from the region itself to the growth cycle of the vines to how many grapes go into a single bottle of wine.

Tours, which are led by sommeliers and industry professionals, include half-day events which feature three wineries and a cheese and charcuterie tasting seminar; full day tours which include a three-course gourmet lunch; plus dinner tours and culinary wine and beer tours.

During each tour, “we like to showcase a smaller winery, a medium sized winery and a larger winery,” said Fuccillo. “We set the itinerary with the educational focus in mind. We want you to see how the different structures operate, which gives you a really good overview of the industry as a whole.”

What to expect

If you’ve never taken a wine tour before, it’s good to know what to expect.

With Niagara Vintage Tours, each tour starts and ends at a designated pick-up point. If you’ve stayed overnight, your tour guide will pick you up from your hotel. Coming over from Western New York? A pick-up point will be designated on the Canadian side of the border. “When people are staying on the American side, our pick-up point is usually at the Crowne Plaza,” said Fuccillo. “We get a lot of people who walk right over the bridge.”

Tour sizes typically range from two to 12 passengers, but a 24-passenger bus is used for corporate events and the half-day tours on Saturdays.

“We try to keep our tours pretty small, because it’s really hard to keep the tour educational with large groups,” said Fuccillo.

At the beginning of each tour, guests receive a pocket Sommelier book that includes a history of the region and a tasting guide. Guests are encouraged to take notes during each tasting to remember which types of wines they enjoyed and why.

Travelogue: A day touring Niagara

I recently joined Niagara Vintage Wine Tours on a full-day tour. Here’s a log of my journey, including some of the tips and fun facts I picked up along the way.

8:45 a.m.

Tour guide Jeremy Miron and I left Niagara Vintage Winery Tours promptly to pick up the other tour guests. Ramona of Portland, Ore., newlyweds Alex and Katie of Pittsburgh, Pa., and Ryan and Kat of Toronto, Ont. rounded out our group.

9:30 a.m. 

With all passengers in tow, we headed toward our first stop: Konzelmann Estate Winery. During the 15-minute drive, Jeremy gave us a history lesson on the area and how Niagara-on-the-Lake (NOTL) has grown into the wine-producing region that it is today.

Fun fact: NOTL wine country used to be peach country. Due to disease, the peach trees stopped producing viable fruit and had to be pulled from the ground. Grape vines have since taken their place.

9:45 a.m.

Arrive at Konzelmann Estate Winery. Bypassing the front door, Jeremy took us directly to the vines. He discussed their growth, how air and water temperature influence the growing process, and the correlation of vine age to wine flavor.

Did you know? Vines will start producing fruit after two or three years, but the fruit isn’t viable until about year five. Jeremy compared vines to kids. “You don’t really trust sending them off to school until they are a little more stable, a little bit more socially acceptable, not so bitter and have a little bit of a better balance.”

10:15 a.m.

Formal tasting. We were shown the proper way to taste wine (there are seven different steps!) to experience the full flavor, and the factors that indicate whether a wine is good or has gone bad.

Did you know? When tasting and drinking wine, always handle your wine glass by its stem. Heat from your hands can affect the temperature of the wine, which ultimately affects the wine’s flavor.

Among other wines, we sampled Konzelmann’s most famous: peach wine, which carries on the region’s old growing tradition.

11 a.m.

Back to the tour bus for the short ride to our second winery, Pillitteri Estates, the world’s largest producer of icewine. On the way, Jeremy filled us in on some stats: Pillitteri produces 20 percent of the world’s icewine, and  the NOTL region as a whole produces 70 to 80 percent of the world’s icewine. In fact, most wineries in the NOTL region produce one to three types of icewine; Pillitteri produces 15.

11:15 a.m.

Full tour of Pillitteri Estates. From growing to production to aging, we were given an in-depth look at how a grape is turned to wine. A visit to the Pillitteri wine barrel cellar ended the tour. Jeremy introduced us to the parts of the barrel, the difference between types of barrel wood, and how the wine aging process works.

Noon

In-depth tour over, it was time to taste some wine.

Fun fact: Wine drinking doesn’t always have to be an upscale occasion – many junk foods pair well with wine.  For instance, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups go very well with Pinot Noir. Jeremy likes to call them "Pinot Butter Cups."

12:45 p.m.

Arrive at The Charles Inn for lunch. Each group within the tour was seated at their own private table. I shared my meal with Ramona. Over a leisurely three-course meal, we chatted about the difference between Oregon and Niagara region wines, among other things. The food was absolutely delicious. My Truffle Mac & Cheese was upstaged only by the Crème Brule that followed.

2:45 p.m.

Completely stuffed, our suddenly quiet group digested as we traveled to the third winery. Jeremy kept the conversation going — providing fun facts about the town of Niagara-on-the-Lake as we passed by the many theaters, quaint shops and eateries that line Queen Street, NOTL’s main drag.

Did you know? Niagara is a Native Indian term for thundering water.

3 p.m.

Arrival at Between The Lines Winery, a small boutique winery that places heavy emphasis on cold weather climate wines. We closely examined each wine we tasted, discussing the different flavors we were experiencing.

Did you know? When tasting wines, flavors beyond “grape” often emerge.  Some common flavors we included in our tasting notes included flowery, spicy, earthy, peppery, cherry, charcoal, pear and honey. However, it’s not because these flavors are added to the wine. Personal memories connected to smell and vision play a part in the flavors we taste, and each person’s tasting experience is unique.

3:40 p.m.

Arrive at final winery, Southbrook Vineyards. Jeremy pointed out the vines, which were visibly smaller than those we’d seen throughout the day.  This is because Southbrook is an organic winery.

Our tasting included information on biodynamic and organic agriculture and how Southbrook maintains their certifications.

After the tasting, I wandered the grounds to get a closer look at the vines and came across a very stoic looking sheep dog! Apparently his flock was grazing elsewhere at the time – doing their part to maintain the biodynamic nature of the property.

4:30 p.m.

Full of great knowledge, delicious food and fantastic wine, we climbed back into the tour bus for the ride home. To the very end, Jeremy was a wealth of knowledge about the region, the wine making process, and even the drinking traditions we still uphold today.

Did you know? The reason people share “cheers” before drinking is because long ago, when cups were made of pewter and more durable than the glass we use today, "cheersing" would knock some of the liquid from an individual’s glass into the others…this is how people knew they weren’t getting poisoned.

Cheers!

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