When my friend Hayley first suggested we do a bicycle wine tour, my initial response was “yeah, that’d be awesome!” But then my rational self made an appearance and started questioning if mixing alcohol while balancing oneself on two wheels was really a smart idea. I allowed those thoughts about 5 minutes of attention and then we booked our tour. Our destination? Niagara-On-the-Lake.
Niagara-On-the-Lake is a picturesque town in Southern Ontario with a downtown centre oozing with old-town charm. Only a short 1hr+ drive from Toronto, visitors can explore historic sites, play golf or catch a show at the Shaw Festival. Scattered throughout the surrounding area is a flourishing wine region, the birthplace of Ontario’s wine industry. With over 30 wineries and counting (many of which have won international awards), the Niagara Wine Region is not to be missed, especially if you’re a wine lover.
Hayley and I booked an afternoon bicycle tour with cheese pairings with Grape Escape Wine Tours. Our tour would span about 5 hours and consist of visiting 4 award winning VQA wineries (meaning their wines are made from 100% Ontario grapes) all while using our own pedal power to get us to and from each winery.
After our quick journey from Toronto, we met up with our tour guide and the rest of the group at Kurtz Orchards Country Market. We selected our bikes, adjusted the seats, and strapped on our helmets. Although this was billed as a ‘leisurely bike ride’, we opted to follow the ‘safety-first’ mentality considering the activity we were about to partake in.
Reif Estate Winery
The first stop on our tour was Reif Estate Winery, a family estate founded by Ewald Reif back in 1977. We parked our bikes at the bike rack and headed inside for a tour of the facilities. Spanning an area of 125 acres, Reif Estate Winery produces a large variety of white, red, and dessert wines. Our tour took us through the entire wine process from the vine to bottling and finally the tastings. Before sipping some samples, we were taught how best to sample a wine – through sight, smell, touch, and taste. It’s all about paying close attention to your senses and taking things slowly. We were given samples of their Cabernet Merlot and Late Harvest Vidal both of which were met with approving smiles by Hayley and I. We were then given some free time to purchase bottles to take home and to explore the grounds even more. I opted for the latter, strolling through the Estate’s sensory garden, the first in the region.
Back on our bikes we headed towards stop #2, Riverview Cellars.
Riverview Cellars Estate Winery
We walked into Riverview Cellars and practically had the whole place to ourselves. It was a nice change and gave a more intimate, personalized feeling to the experience. Located alongside the Niagara River, Riverview Cellars officially opened in 2000. It started as a family-run winery and remains one today. They produce about two-dozen different wines including red, white, rose, and dessert wines. Since we had already gotten the full rundown of the wine production process at our previous location it was time to learn about wine and cheese pairing. It really comes down your personal taste preferences but essentially when pairing wines and cheeses, you want to find complimenting flavours, ones that will enhance and/or bring out specific characteristics of the wine. Red wine is generally paired best with hard cheeses while white wines are great with softer cheeses. We were given three wines to sample; Malbec, Pinot Noir, and Gewurtztraminer (my favourite!) matched with Aged Cheddar, Gouda, and Swiss cheeses respectively.
Only half way through our tour and already 5 samples of wine later, I was starting to feel the effects of the tour (and I’m not talking about tired legs).
Pondview Estate Winery
In operation since 2004, Pondview Estate Winery started like many of the wineries in the Niagara Region. Giuseppe Puglisi emigrated to Canada from Sicily, Italy in 1965 and brought along his passion for grape growing and wine making. His son Lou took over the family business and continues to oversee production today. We got to sample two of their blended varieties, their Harmony Red and Harmony White wines, plus a Late Harvest Vidal wine. Again, all were quite good but I especially loved the Harvest Vidal. A Vidal or Late Season wine is made from grapes that are harvested after the regular season, making them sweeter and more concentrated in flavour than their regular season counterparts. They’re perfect after dinner or paired with desserts.
Caroline Cellars Family Estate
Last but certainly not least on our tour was Caroline Cellars Family Estate. Set on 26 acres of land including a huge tasting and event space, Caroline Cellars also began production in the early 2000’s. Producing more than two-dozen varieties of wine we were able to select 4 to sample from their impressive roster. I opted to try their Farmers Gewurtztraminer, Framers Rose, Cabernet Sauvignon, and the Vidal Icewine to finish it all off. Again, I quite enjoyed all the wines and even purchased a bottle of the Gewurtztraminer and Farmers Rose to take home.
Icewine differs from late harvest wines in that they are left on the vine and picked after the first substantial frost occurs. The shriveled grapes are then picked and pressed while frozen. 75% of the world’s supply of Icewine comes from the Niagara Region. So if you’re here, you might as well sample the Icewine! Just don’t drink an entire bottle in one sitting. It can make for one bad hangover.
Both Hayley and I really enjoyed the tour. It was well organized and led, and moved at a manageable pace. Sometimes on tours, I feel like we’re rushing from one spot to another but that wasn’t the case with this Grape Escape tour. There was plenty of time to enjoy our samples and have a bit of free time at each spot. I also really enjoyed the mix of wineries they selected to take us to from the large production facilities of Reif Estates to the boutique winery of Riverview Cellars.
In terms of throwing cycling into the mix, I found it added a special element to the tour that you wouldn’t get if bused from location to location. I felt more rooted to the region, plus it helped to sober up between stops. The terrain was very flat, so it wasn’t difficult to cycle from winery to winery nor were the distances that far apart. The occasional cyclist could easily do this tour. For the most part we cycled on bicycle paths but a few portions of the tour had us cycling on the road.
The tour costs $64 a person and includes bicycle, helmet, a bottle of water, all tours, tastings, and cheese pairing at Riverview Cellars, and complimentary Niagara-On-the-Lake “Old Town” shuttle. If you want to purchase any bottles from the wineries you visit, Grape Escapes also offers complimentary pickup of any wine purchased and will have them waiting for you at the end of the tour.
I’d definitely recommend doing this tour in either the spring or fall seasons because the temperatures are better for cycling and the crowds in Niagara are generally lower than in the summer. I would also HIGHLY recommend you have a substantial lunch before embarking on this tour. And if you’re at all concerned about cycling and drinking, you’d be amazed at how much better you become after each glass of wine. 😉