Beyond the Falls
Savoring Good Times Along New York’s Niagara Wine Trail
Buffalo, N.Y., has its chicken wings, but the surrounding area is home to another tasty icon, the green niagara grape. Named for its home, the niagara is a hardy, sweet cross between concord and cassady grapes created by local growers in 1868. Its delicate fruit is primarily used for white grape juice and—thankfully—wine.
A veritable Eden of viticulture, Niagara’s famous falls sit between two designated American Viticulture Areas (AVAs)—the Niagara Escarpment along Lake Ontario and the Lake Erie Region. New York ranks in the top three states for both grape and wine production volume. Similarly, Canada has its own well-established wine region across the falls. The area’s path to world-class wine production started 10,000 years ago. Glaciers sculpted the land, leaving a long limestone ridge to catch the sun at the edge of a great, warm lake, with rich clay soil, tempered by gravel. Early Dutch, French and German settlers adopted indigenous grapes, planting them alongside imported Vitis Vinifera vines, common in Europe. While harvests have had their ups and downs, farms flourished on New York’s western edge.
Most of the grape harvest is still used for unfermented juice, but a plunging demand for that segment of the market in the 1990s motivated some farmers to find alternatives. Many took their cue from successful wine-making neighbors to the north, fermenting the fruits of family vineyards and orchards and turning grandma’s wine recipe into new opportunities. In Lockport, N.Y., about 20 miles from the falls, the first commercial winery, Niagara Landing Wine Cellars, opened on Mother’s Day in 1998 and the Niagara Wine Trail was born.
Fifteen years later, the Niagara Wine Trail (NWT) has 17 tasting stops along its self-guided route. It’s the fastest growing wine trail in the country. And, although it is only about a half-hour travel between the most distant wineries, visitors should savor their time here, spreading stops over a few days. Set your own agenda, no reservations required, although it’s a good idea to call ahead during the offseason or if you’re bringing a large group. Limousine tours are popular, too. NWT’s numerous transportation affiliates offer discounts, special dinner or lunch packages, and insightful information while guests safely indulge and relax in comfort. There are tour options with vintage cars, SUVs, vans, full-size buses and trolleys.
“COME WITH AN OPEN MIND”
New wine-wisdom throws out the rules, encouraging fans to forget the old “red versus white” or “sweet versus dry” mentality. If a wine tastes good to you, drink it. Elizabeth Rose Maute, coordinator for the Niagara Wine Trail, advised: “Come with an open mind. We have so much variety here. You might find a dry wine that you love, made with cherries, peaches or apples.” The region also presents a rare opportunity to try dessertstyle ice wines.
“Ice wine is very unique,” says Maute. “You can’t just pick the grapes and freeze them. They have to have the perfect conditions to remain on the vine, at just the right temperature, for just the right time.” While water in the grapes freezes, other dissolved solids and sugars do not. The result is less juice, but concentrated sweet-acidic flavor. Producing ice wine is risky. It requires many hands and quick action, as well as Mother Nature’s cooperation. Canada, Germany and the Niagara region lead in world production. Five wine trail members offer ice wine: Niagara Landing, Leonard Oakes Estate, Schulze Vineyards, Arrowhead Spring and Freedom Run Winery.
Tastings are reasonably priced, less than $5 for two or three samples at each locale. If you want to explore more than a few stops, Maute recommends an annual Vino Visa Passport. Purchased online at www.niagarawinetrail.org or at select wineries for $30, the passport includes tastings at 16 wineries, plus discounts on bottled wine, beer tasting, transportation, accommodations, meals and even berry picking or greenhouse purchases. The newest trail addition, BlackBird Cider Works in Barker, N.Y., opened in March 2012.
Special events happen throughout the year. The Buffalo Wine Festival is April 6, April 12-14 is “Taste of the Trail,” a progressive dinner-style event with advance tickets available for $30 per person, valid all three days. Or, celebrate the Trail’s anniversary in May with “Wine Trail Blossoms,” where participants collect wooden wineglass charms at each stop. June is “Wine and Cheese” for Father’s Day, featuring local cheeses.
Niagara Falls is known as the “Honeymoon Capital of the World” for good reason. The internationally acclaimed grandeur of their rushing water is a dramatic sight, but delight and wonder spills into their countryside, too. Whether enjoying an idyllic view or eating fresh berries, plucked from sun-kissed foliage; savoring a farm-to-table feast with ultra-local ingredients; or simply cruising the farmers’ markets and craft shops for treasures, love and wine go hand-in-hand. So, bring a picnic and your sweetie, or even bring some friends and the kids, and fall in love with something new.
More to Love Near Niagara Falls
Old Fort Niagara
This 1726 “castle” in Youngstown, N.Y., repeatedly changed hands among French, British and American forces. Continuing this year is the War of 1812 bicentennial with special events and reenactments.
Before 12,000 years of erosion, the “Niagara” Falls were in Lewistown. Now a few miles downstream, the town evolved from border-battleground into tourists’ haven with quaint shops, arts, museums and eateries.
Lily Dale Assembly
A colony for registered mediums and the world’s largest center for Spiritualism, visitors can connect with psychic mediums for readings year ‘round. In season, June 28 until Sept. 1, there are workshops, daily lectures, spiritual healing and demonstrations of clairvoyance.
Niagara Falls Culinary Institute
Treat yourself to fine dining at the institute’s Savor restaurant, or grab a treat from La Patisserie bakery and sandwiches from their Old Falls Street Deli. An on-site wine boutique features regional wineries.
Other Delectable Eats
Becker Farms at Vizcarra Vineyards in Gasport is known for its “100-mile meals” featuring local ingredients, while Lakefront Olive Orchards specialty shop, adjacent to Woodcock Brothers Brewing in Wilson, N.Y., offers foodie delights. And the Anchor Bar on Main Street in Buffalo is home to the original spicy wing recipe. (They sell bottled sauces, too.) Locals also give Elmo’s, Cole’s, Duff’s, Kelly’s Corner and Bar Bill high marks for tasty wings.
Niagara Wine Trail Wineries
Arrowhead Spring Vineyards
Black Willow Winery
Chateau Niagara Winery
Freedom Run Winery
A Gust of Sun Winery
Honeymoon Trail Winery
Leonard Oakes Estate Winery
Long Cliff Winery
Midnight Run Wine Cellars
Niagara Landing Wine Cellars
Schulze Vineyards & Winery
Spring Lake Winery
Victorianbourg Wine Estate
Vizcarra Vineyards at Becker Farms
The Winery at Marjim Manor