When I say I’m going to Niagara, you’d be forgiven for thinking that must include a stop at its namesake, world-famous waterfalls. But there is another option for exploring the region, along the path less traveled: the Niagara Benchlands, where you could easily spend a day – or even a weekend – eating, sipping and exploring your way through this under-the-radar culinary gem.
And that’s exactly what I did on a recent winter weekend.
The entire Niagara Peninsula is a world-renowned wine appellation, home to 46 grape varieties (many of which are well suited to the cooler climate) growing over 13,600 acres of vineyards. This area divided into two regional appellations: Niagara-on-the-Lake and the Niagara Escarpment. NOTL boasts 40 wineries, many of which—like Pelller Estates and Wayne Gretzky Estates—are household names. The Niagara Escarpment, meanwhile, is home to the Niagara Benchlands, formerly known as the Twenty Valley. Thanks to the special air circulation in this region, grapes are protected from frost, grape growers and wine makers the ability to create refreshing, distinct wines that often buck tradition. Wineries here have attracted global attention thanks to their unique offerings and a commitment to terroir-driven practices.
The Benchlands are a charming collection of small villages, winding drives through sloping vineyards and roadside farm stands. Sweeping lake views are a common sight as you zig-zag your way to and from the area’s 54—yes 54!—wineries.
You’d hardly go wrong visiting any of the area’s wineries – from sipping award-winning Gamays at Malivoire or working your way through a flight of funky Pet-Nats and skin-contact Rosés at Rosewood. I decided to pop into Westcott, known for its excellent traditional-method sparkling wines.
This turned out to be the right decision for a winter visit: I snag a spot on an antique couch right in front of the floor-to-ceiling stone fireplace and enjoy the comforting crackle and warmth as I work my way through a tasting flight of light, jammy Pinot Noirs and celebration-worthy bubblies.
Through the window, I can see rolling vineyard hills of Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay and other grape varietals that thrive in the Benchlands. Near me, fellow wine lovers are gathered around a large farmhouse table, chatting and leisurely sipping from their glasses, in no rush to leave.
Next up on the itinerary is a stop at a brewery – appropriately named The Bench. Located in Beamsville, just a 10 minute drive from Wesctott, it’s one of Ontario’s few breweries that boasts its own estate-grown hops. In the summer, the crowd spills out onto the patio set amongst the hop vines; in the winter, we cozy up indoors in an old school building that The Bench has turned into its tap room. The Bench takes its inspiration from Belgian-style beer making, and the selection on offer includes juicy IPAs, berry-infused sours and sturdy porters.
Now that I’m getting hungry, a stop at Upper Canada Cheese is a must—requiring another short, 10 minute drive past the buzzy, renowned Restaurant Pearl Morisette in Jordan Station. Taking a page from the region’s wine makers, this cheese maker also leans towards seasonal, terroir-driven practices. That means no intervention in the process, and no aim to standardize the taste – resulting in cheeses that reflect the subtle changes in seasons, feed and environment. I go for the award-winning Niagara Gold, a semi-soft Guernsey cow’s milk cheese draped in a nutty edible rind that’s subtly salty, earthy and sweet.
Finally, it’s on to dinner at the Inn on Twenty in quaint and quiet Jordan Village, less than a five minute drive away. The Inn conveniently shares a wall with the Cave Springs tasting room, but I head straight to the restaurant’s dining room – I don’t want to miss sweeping views of the sunset from the window across from my table. The Inn’s restaurant is all about refined, farm-to-table fare. The beef short rib is slow-braised using Baco Noir from nearby Sue-Ann Staff winery, while the ice-wine poached butternut squash sits atop a bed of local greens. A glass of perfect Cave Springs Pinot Noir is the ideal accompaniment.
After dinner, I’m tempted to inquire whether the inn has any vacant suites – with so much more to taste and explore, maybe I’m not quite ready to leave the Benchlands yet. Alas, the rooms are all taken. That just means I have to plan another visit.