NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, Ontario (AP) — Mention Niagara and most travelers think of the famous falls, which deserve their reputation as the mother of all tourist attractions. But there's another place with Niagara in its name just a half-hour drive from the falls that should be part of any visit to the area: Niagara-on-the-Lake, a lovely town known for wineries, an annual theater festival and a charming downtown.
And while summer is high season for visiting the waterfalls, September and October are among the busiest months of the year in Niagara-on-the-Lake. There are more than 30 wineries in Niagara-on-the-Lake and 80 altogether in the region, and fall is the season when visitors can see and experience the harvest and the pressing of the grapes.
Visitors can also find locally grown produce, depending on what's in season, including peaches, pears and apples, along with jams, juices and other products, for sale in places like Kurtz Orchards Country Market, 16006 Niagara Parkway, and at a Saturday morning farmers market, through Oct. 6 at 111 Garrison Village Drive.
Fall is also the last chance to catch performances at the Shaw Festival, a popular annual event that takes place in three theaters in Niagara-on-the-Lake, staging works by George Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries, plus new plays written about his era (1856-1950). The season began in May, with productions ranging from "Ragtime," through Oct. 14, to "Hedda Gabler," through Sept. 29. Noel Coward's "Present Laughter" and Bernard Shaw's "Misalliance" run through October.
For leaf-peepers, the area has "stunning fall color," usually peaking in early October, according to Janice Thomson, executive director of Niagara-on-the-Lake's chamber of commerce. The town's leafy waterfront areas include both the Niagara River and Lake Ontario (the waterfalls flow into the river, which flows into the lake). Niagara Parkway, which follows the river, offers a "spectacular drive," according to Tina Truszyk, spokeswoman for the Tourism Partnership of Niagara. There are also cycling routes along the river and the nearby Welland Canal. Niagara-on-the-Lake has a number of bike rental companies including some like Zoom Leisure Bike — https://zoomleisure.com — that offer guided bike tours of the wineries.
The Niagara region's wine industry began only about 35 years ago, when winemakers realized that the area's unique Great Lakes climate and soil was well-suited to grape-growing, especially for cool-climate grapes used in table wines like pinot noir, riesling and chardonnay.
But the region is best-known for icewine, a specialty product made from grapes frozen on the vine in winter. The frozen grapes are nearly dehydrated so the juice is concentrated, which makes the wine sweeter than table wine. It's considered a dessert wine, but it can also be served with savory and even spicy entrees.
I bought a bottle of icewine from the Trius Winery at Hillebrand (1249 Niagara Stone Rd.) to take home after tasting it at the Trius Winery Restaurant. Served at the end of a family barbecue, the icewine's rich fruity flavor was enjoyed by all as an after-dinner treat, providing a sophisticated palate-clearing contrast to our casual meal of hot dogs, burgers and corn.
Icewines are sold in half-bottles — 375 milliliters rather than 750 — and are generally more expensive than ordinary table wines, in the $40-$60 range. A popular icewine festival takes place in the area each January with tastings, seminars, contests and other events.
Wineries range from smaller rustic properties like Ravine Vineyard to larger estate-style wineries like Peller, Inniskillin and Trius. A number of newer wineries, like Southbrook Vineyards, are focusing on sustainability and agricultural techniques that have a low impact on the environment. Bus tours and private guided tours are available, or you can make your own itinerary using the Wine Route Planner at http://WineCountryOntario.ca.
But the wineries are so well-signed that you can easily just drive around and stop when you see one that looks interesting. Many of the wineries are located along three major thoroughfares, Niagara Parkway, Niagara Stone Road and Lakeshore Road, surrounded by flat, grapevine-covered fields and crisscrossed by a numbered grid, with roads bearing names like "Concession 7" or "Line 5." Concession roads run north-south. Line roads run east-west.