Canada's wines are underrated, without a doubt. Great wine regions across the country are just a short flight away for many Americans, offering hundreds of exceptional new wines to discover. British Columbia and Ontario's thriving wine scenes prove that Canada makes more than ice wine.
Ontario is the largest wine producer in Canada and within the province, Niagara is the most diverse viticultural area, known for producing the highest quality wines. The varied terroir and climates between Niagara-on-the-Lake and the Niagara Escarpment allow vintners to grow a variety of grapes with surprising success. Chardonnay is the most widely planted and the region is know for great Riesling and Cabernet Franc too.
Within British Columbia, the Okanagan Valley is the most prolific wine producer, although smaller regions like Vancouver Island and Fraser Valley have wineries worth visiting too. The Okanagan has 174 wineries spread across 8,600 acres, making up 84% of wine production in the province. Compared to Ontario, there is less acreage and more wineries, so you'll find more small producers making estate grown wines. Kelowna, in the heart of the Okanagan Valley, is the perfect home base for wine enthusiasts and just a short hop from Vancouver.
The wines here have never been better
With increasing investment in vineyards and quality production, the best wineries in British Columbia are producing more single vineyard wines utilizing small parcels with unique expressions of terroir. For example, CheckMate Artisanal Winery in Oliver is producing just a few thousand cases of Merlot and Chardonnay each year, many made with exclusively native yeasts. Tastings here are by appointment only.
The signature series estate wines at Megalomaniac are easily some of the best red wines coming out of Niagara, thanks to the patience and light touch of winemaker Sébastien Jacquey. The Burgundy native is making remarkably refined Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, with plenty of acidity and lifted fruit flavors.
Redstone and Tawse are pioneering the organic and biodynamic movement in Niagara. Redstone is Canada's reigning winery of the year and Tawse has won the honor four times since 2010. Tawse crafts elegant, Burgundian-style Chardonnay and Pinot Noir along with excellent traditional method sparkling wines. Redstone is a more youthful label, producing Bordeaux varietals with monstrous New World flavor. Mission Hill Family Estate, the largest winery in the Okanagan Valley, is in the process of obtaining organic certification for their large portfolio of wines as well.
You can't find these wines at home
Only a few Canadian wines are distributed in the United States. More than 95% of British Columbian wine is consumed within the province and less than a tenth of 1% is exported to the US. Mostly lucky people in California and Washington state. Ontario wines are more widely distributed, but it's still a literal drop in the bucket.
In fact, a majority of wineries only sell at their own tasting room and a few retail outlets or restaurants within their province. Hence, you'll need to sample lavishly to find your favorites. U.S. Customs and Border Protection allows you to enter the country with one liter (usually you can get away with two bottles) of alcohol duty-free and a flat 3% tax rate beyond that. IRS excise tax is only 21 to 31 cents per 750 ml bottle. Prices when buying direct are quite affordable, so bring a few cases home to share something new with friends.
Fresh, flavorful local food
Many Canadian wineries, like CedarCreekand Mission Hill in the Okanagan have excellent full-service restaurants on premise so you can enjoy lunch or dinner with wine pairings and vineyard views. In downtown Kelowna, the best restaurant is Waterfront Wines. Start with a platter of local cheese before devouring crispy sweetbreads with charred cauliflower, handmade pasta and vibrant vegetarian options like sprouted beans, peas and lentils with buttery chanterelle and porcini mushrooms.
Ontario has an equally strong lineup of winery restaurants, from the baked-to-order focaccia and tender halibut with roasted tomatoes at Kitchen 76 at Two Sisters Vineyards to the intricate dishes and exemplary service at Peller Estates Winery Restaurant. Chef David Sider was so impressed with how the local culinary scene has progressed that he moved home after stints at Relais & Chateaux properties across the country to open Restaurant at Redstone in 2015.
Niagara-on-the-Lake has a surprisingly authentic Italian one-two punch with Neapolitan pizza at Pieza Pizzeria followed by pistachio gelato at Gelato di Carlotta. A few blocks away, pick out a wine pairing snack from the impressive array of Canadian cheeses, including wild nettle gouda, at Cheese Secrets.
While the hotels in the Okanagan Valley and Niagara can't approach the proliferation of five-star resorts in Napa Valley, there are still some lovely options. In Kelowna, Delta Grand Okanagan Resort sits right on the lake, with an excellent restaurant and quaint boutique spa. The warm hospitality here is first-rate. Further south in Oliver Osooyos, quite a few wineries offer accommodations and breakfast, with the villa at Hester Creek and the guest house at Burrowing Owl being two of the most impressive.
Back east, Niagara-on-the-Lake is an incredibly quaint town, with several historic boutique hotels and bed and breakfasts. Pillar and Post boasts the nicest spa in town, with hot springs and Babor skincare. For the best views of Niagara Falls, stay at the Niagara Falls Hilton Fallsview on the top few floors in the newer South tower. Book the presidential suite for a balcony overlooking the Horseshoe Falls.
A new taxi company based in Kelowna, Current Taxi, charges the same price as yellow cab for airport transfers in their fleet of Teslas. They're also available for half and full-day wine tours. When the falcon wing doors to the Tesla Model X flip up, all eyes will be on you.
If you prefer getting around by boat, or just spending some time on the Okanagan Lake, rent a yacht or pontoon boat from Kelowna Downtown Marina. Cruise around at sunset with bottles of your favorite wine and local cheese from Carmelis.
The most scenic and efficient way to see both Niagara Falls and wine country is chartering a flight with Niagara Helicopters. I landed directly at Peller Estates, where I was greeted with sparkling rosé before being whisked away to try ice wine in an igloo lounge.