Wining, Dining and Playing at Niagara-on-the-Lake

If you truly love great food, or if you are a fancier of great wine, or if great theatre stirs your intellect, then seek out Niagara-on-the-Lake and indulge yourself in this wonderful playground.

You may have noticed that we used the conjunction “or” several times in the opening sentence. This conjunction is used to link two or more alternatives – very appropriate for Niagara-on-the-Lake where there are so many alternatives and choices in dining, tasting and culture that our biggest challenge was deciding where to begin. Also, we are in the land of the Shaw Festival and we are trying to appear somewhat “learned.”   

Most visitors to Niagara-on-the-Lake from Southern Ontario can zoom down the Queen Elizabeth Highway and instantly partake in these three passions and then zoom home. But, for our friends, the passage by boat across the western end of Lake Ontario to the distant shore feels like seeking out a land far away.

The cruising lifestyle can take you to secluded anchorages, where you can bask in solitude or in the company of good friends, or it can take you to a destination such as Niagara-on-the-Lake, one of the most entertaining waypoints anywhere in Canada. Tourists flock to Niagara-on-the-Lake every summer to visit the many quaint shops, indulge themselves at four-star restaurants, and camp out at five-star hotels or the plethora of cozy bed and breakfast places throughout the area. Galley Guys Greg, Andy and John set out for their latest adventure and made port at the Niagara on the Lake Sailing Club.

“We don't stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” -George Bernard Shaw

The only hiccup (Note: the Galley Guys know how to get rid of hiccups*) in this great adventure was the scarcity of dock spaces available in Niagara-on-the-Lake, at the sailing club and at nearby Port Dalhousie or St. Catharines. A wise suggestion would be to plan early and book well ahead so as not to be disappointed by not getting a place to tie up. Faster powerboats can easily make this a day trip but sailors, don’t despair. If the weather is right, an overnight passage by sail followed by a beautiful sunrise can make for a most wonderful journey.

There are many ways to make your way around Niagara-on-the-Lake – a limousine service, taxi or horse and carriage can be hired, but our favourite is to bring bicycles. Whether we are going to fresh-air market stalls for fruit and vegetables, visiting vineyards or just cruising down country roads, two-wheelers are our primary mode of land transportation. The local tourist office offers stellar maps listing the many bike trails throughout the Niagara region that traverse the rich farmland and vineyards. A tip here is to try your best to speak French to one another and assume the role of an international jet-setter. Another bonus with biking is that you never waste a moment hunting for parking spot.

The “GGTDL”, the Galley Guy To Do List (we left the boat bucket list on board for bilge duty), was to experience the absolutely stunning Peller Estates Winery with a tour and then an early dinner in their four-star restaurant.

Sydney, our tour guide and a student at nearby Niagara College, began by offering us a sparkling wine called Ice Cuvée Rosé VQA that had delightful fruit on the nose and refreshing bubbles that raised our expectations for a great visit. Our tour through the vineyard holding young grapes that will one day be Cabernet Sauvignon brought us closer to the process – the culture and the business of wine growing in the Niagara region.

We learned that although not a registered organic winery, Peller Estates is almost at the level of an organic winery with almost no use of pesticides, natural vegetation growing between the rows of vines, and no artificial irrigation. Instead of irrigation, the Niagara region is blessed with the natural Lake Ontario aquifer about 13’ below ground, and the roots of the vines grow down to reach the aquifer (although some mature plants can have roots over 50 feet down!) Lake Ontario holds the temperature and supplies the needed moisture while the sun does its work above.

The year 2010 delivered 140 days of sun compared to a typical year with about 100 days; in 2012 the grapes were again receiving abundant sunlight and warm temperatures. The harvest may be weeks early this year.

In the Peller Estates cellars, the wines are aged in either American or French oak barrels at 14 degrees Celsius, and the barrels are stacked tall and deep. Peller Estates often uses the barrel room for tours and special functions. Occasionally special dinners are set up in the cellars and guests experience the winery by candlelight. Next door to the barrel room is a special place called “The Library” where a wide range of events are scheduled for private tastings and food pairings, bringing information and innovation to the wine experience. One special event coming up that caught the attention of the Galley Guys was called “Chicks and Chocolate.” We wondered what the male equivalent would be called.

“There is no love sincerer than the love of food.”  -George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman

In the Peller Estates Winery Restaurant, Chef Jason Parsons’ mastery of wines and cuisine has earned a CAA 4 Diamond rating, three stars in Toronto Life magazine, the Golden Plate Award from Le Clefs d'Or, and Zagat's highest rating for food: "Extraordinary." The Galley Guys got down to business – make that sat down to business. Parsons brings more than 20 years of culinary experience to the winery kitchen, gathered at some of the world's most renowned restaurants. Today, he works closely with Peller Estates’ Winemaker Katie Dickieson, creating inspired cuisine that marries perfectly with Peller Estates’ wines. Parsons is also recognizable as a television personality: for seven years he has been a guest expert on the popular show “CityLine.”

"I am eager to continue our constant pursuit of excellence," says Parsons. "And I am excited to further develop one of Canada's most talented culinary teams and continue my passionate journey of food and wine within the bounty of Niagara Cuisine."

The success of Peller Estates Winery began with the vision of Andrew Peller. Having owned a series of successful businesses, Peller came to Canada in 1927 to pursue his dream of the day when Canadians, like Europeans, would come to appreciate premium-quality wines and enjoy sharing them with family and friends.

After exhaustive research, he decided to plant his first vineyards in British Columbia's Okanagan Valley and soon afterward, to open a modest winery in that province as well. But, as the seeds of his dream were firmly taking root out west, he began looking eastward. Many years and countless setbacks later, he and his son Joe (who was by then very much involved in the family business) finally made a breakthrough. An offer to purchase a winery and winemaking license in Ontario was accepted in the spring of 1969.

It is now almost 50 years since Andrew Peller raised a glass to toast his very first vintage and the company’s vision continues to grow and evolve.

They have come a long way, the Galley Guys confessed to one another, remembering the days of Peller’s Baby Duck wine. Peller has grown immensely in both quantity and quality from those early days and has since won many prestigious awards for signature products, like their well-known ice wine, as well as chardonnays and rieslings.

The Galley Guys have prepared many extraordinary dinners in the galley, but none that compare to the offerings at Peller. We knew we were in for something special as we sat down for dinner and looked through the huge windows overlooking majestic scenery and rows and rows of vineyards that stretched for miles.

The Galley Guys were most impressed by the innovative menu! The starters were incredible, especially the Foie Gras Cheesecake Nut Crumble that was dusted with White Chocolate Powder and accented with Rhubarb Gel and Fresh Basil Sprouts. This was paired with the Peller Vidal ice wine “Signature series” 2010 for a taste and texture sensation. Three winch handles up!

Andy chose an Interlude dish called Croquail Farms Duck Salad that featured a Poached Duck Egg with Flaked Duck Confit on a bed of Rocket Leaf accented by Crisp Potato, and matched with Peller’s Pinot Noir “Private Reserve” 2010. The big flavours of the Pinot Noir stood up well to the rich duck.

As a main course, several of our group selected the Butter Roasted Black Cod with

Ice Wine-Roasted Beets, Field Spinach and an innovative Eggplant Caviar. This was paired with the Peller Merlot “Private Reserve” 2010 that delivered a mouthful of black cherry and other complimentary flavours – a grand selection!

A delicate tray of sorbets and ices were all we had time for, though. The play would be starting shortly and we raced off to the theatre in the round, County Courthouse Theatre, for the Bernard Shaw comedy “The Millionaires.” Nicole Underthay delivered a tremendously energetic performance as “Epifania Oganistani di Parerga” and this was a highlight of an already outstanding day.

If you are lucky enough – and you can be sure that if you have ventured to Niagara-on-the-Lake by boat, then you are already lucky enough – gaze at the stars and consider the words of Benjamin Franklin:

“The discovery of a wine is a greater moment than the discovery of a constellation. The universe is too full of stars.”

* A great meal with a Slight Hiccup Canadian Yachting August 2012.

By Galley Guys Greg Nicoll, Andy Adams and John Armstrong

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