Make the most of Niagara Wine Festival

September 12, 2016 | Hamilton Spectator
by Tiffany Mayer
Special to Hamilton Spectator

September is when the Niagara region turns into a giant crush pad and celebrates the grape growing season that was.

This year marks the 65th edition of the Niagara Wine Festival, the oldest of its kind in Canada. It's easily the region's biggest bash where locals raise a glass — or several — to the area's farming roots while oenophiles from Toronto, Timmins, Texas and beyond come to see what all the hype is about.

"It's the best time of year to experience Niagara hospitality on the wine route," says Kimberly Hundertmark, the festival's executive director. "The surprising offerings that the wineries have at this time of year are not to be missed."

How does Niagara stretch a celebration of grapes and wine into a two-week affair? It starts with the formalities on Sept. 14 — the crowning of a Grape King, the event's regal figurehead — and a celebrity luncheon. This year comedian Gerry Dee will be the headliner, injecting some star power and outrageous humour into the proceedings.

The real party starts two days later, Sept. 16, when wineries and local restaurants take over Montebello Park near downtown St. Catharines, pouring and serving their comestible celebrities for mostly local revellers. The park is the festival epicentre for the last two weekends in September.

While there will undoubtedly be a few Cabernet Francs and Chardonnays vying for your glass — Niagara does both well — and the food offerings promise to be diverse. They'll range from kid-pleasing pizza and hangover-preventing poutine to refined seasonal fare featuring local ingredients.

"What we're trying to do is make sure there's not much repetition so that the Montebello Park experience is a highlight of local chefs providing regional cuisine," explains Erik Peacock, a longtime St. Catharines chef who overseas the culinary direction of the festival. "It's the best local food and wine pairings at that time of year."

Peacock, who helms the kitchen at Wellington Court, will put his stamp on food at the festival in another way. He'll beef up charcuterie plates, available only in the park's Harvest Lounge, with his house-smoked fish, crostini and pickles.

They'll complement the work of his charcutier comrade, Justin Downes, who is usually behind the burner at Vineland Estates. He's busy doing up terrine for the wine festival's meat and cheese platters.

Culinary handiwork aside, Peacock promises the lounge, in the Walter Ostanek Pavillion, is the festival's hidden gem. Admission to Montebello Park is free but $10 gets you into the adults-only Harvest Lounge and to the front of the line at park security gates.

It's all about creating a relaxed vibe within the hubbub of the park, Peacock says. The Harvest Lounge will be equipped with couches, bar tables, TVs. Wood-fired pizza by Niagara College will be offered as another dining option. The "ultimate experience," Peacock notes, would be sharing a plate of charcuterie, pizza and a bottle of wine with friends there.

"It's a really cool feel. It doesn't give the feeling being in the masses in the centre of the park. That's not for everyone. I feel it's really a hidden gem."

The Harvest Lounge has the added bonus of access to dedicated washrooms while the rest of the park must rely on a pack of port-a-potties. That alone may be worth $10 for some, Peacock adds with a laugh.

Those who are really thirsty for a harvest experience can officially start their Niagara Wine Festival on Sept. 10 with a Discovery Pass. The ticket for a self-guided tour of the region's wine route costs $40 ($30 for designated drivers) and includes eight "experiences" at wineries of pass-holders' choosing.

The pass, however, isn't "a hustle from winery to winery," says festival boss Hundertmark.

Instead, it offers leisurely food and wine tastings that give visitors an intimate glimpse into the harvest and winemaking. They can see and smell, rather than simply taste, the work that happens in the vineyard and on the crush pad.

"From a sensory perspective, it's overload," she adds. "Everyone's really proud of what they do. From the time (grape growers) watch their vines come to life, go through veraison, and now wait for what's next, it's birthing a new vintage."

If you go

The Niagara Wine Festival runs from Sept. 10 to 25.

As a couple for one day:

Visit Montebello Park for lunch or dinner. After lunch (or before dinner at the park, if you prefer) make the most of a Discovery Pass. Peacock suggests buying one pass and dividing the chosen stops. That way one can tipple while the other assumes designated driver duties and then switch roles. Visit niagarawinefestival.com/flipbook to map out your tour.

As a couple for two days:

Buy two discovery passes and split up your favourite stops over two days. Grab a Harvest Lounge pass for $10 while you're at it. Finish Day One with dinner in the lounge at Montebello Park, sharing a charcuterie plate, a pizza made to order, and a bottle of your favourite vintage. Sit back and take in the night's entertainment.

Start Day Two with lunch in the park, noshing on the offerings of the 13 local restaurants featured alongside wineries. Then head out to finish your Discovery Pass tour.

If you're bringing the kids:

Circle Sept. 24 on the calendar. That's Grande Parade day. The lively procession, filled with floats and marching bands, starts in downtown St. Catharines at 9:30 a.m. Afterward, head to Montebello Park for lunch. Grapeland, a play area filled with inflatables, will keep the young ones occupied while you take in the live entertainment with a glass of wine.

To learn more about Niagara Wine Festival events, check out the festival guide at niagarawinefestival.com.