On windy days, Niagara's best new winery can be a challenge to locate. The tiny barn tucked away on a rural road is marked only by a red sandwich-board sign at the end of a long dirt driveway. I bypassed it several times, eventually pulling into a nearby farm. "It's across the way," a man cordially assured. "There's a sign out front." Sure enough, there was the rickety sandwich board, lying sadly in the grass, waiting for a reporter to stand it back up.
Five Rows Craft Winery makes less than 500 cases a year, with no plans for expansion. "It's just me, my mum and my dad," says winemaker Wes Lowrey. "We want to stay small." In just four years, Five Rows has garnered a cult following among discerning buyers, including such top restaurants as Canoe in Toronto and Beckta Dining and Wine in Ottawa. The 2008 pinot noir has the essence of a premier-cru red Burgundy, brimming with succulent berry flavour, a suggestion of minerals and whisper of meat jus.
Five Rows may be the smallest new estate on this wine-soaked peninsula, but it's a testament to the vitality of the industry, which recently spawned such other fine newcomers as Pondview Estate and Hinterbrook alongside such established big names as Jackson-Triggs, Peller, Henry of Pelham, Cave Spring and Château des Charmes. It also underscores the region's thriving emphasis on the superpremium end of the market, buoyed by the outstanding 2010 harvest, examples of which have begun streaming into tasting rooms and onto retail shelves.
Five Rows' one-room, peaked-roof barn houses everything: miniature steel fermenting tanks, oak barrels, two tables that serve as a tasting area and a small stockpile of cases ready for sale. The place seems caught in a time warp, evoking Niagara of the 1970s, when such pioneers as Inniskillin crushed grapes in similarly rustic quarters.
Mr. Lowrey, 34, is too young to recall those times, but the humble past runs in the family blood. His great-great-grandfather planted some of the first commercial vines in Niagara. Coincidentally, it was Karl Kaiser, the co-founder of Inniskillin, which had been granted Ontario's first winery licence since Prohibition, who came to Mr. Lowrey's father, Howie, in 1984 with a life-altering proposition. Plant five rows of pinot noir, Burgundy's noble red variety, and I'll buy the grapes, he said.
Those rows have since been joined by 35 acres of new plantings based on quality European varieties, all, until recently, sold to other award-winning wineries. Armed with a master's degree in viticulture and an apprenticeship at Creekside Estate, Mr. Lowrey persuaded his parents to hold back a small portion of the crop, including grapes from those historic five rows.
Five Rows Craft Wine of Lowrey Vineyards
There's no tasting room, per se, just two tables in the middle of a small barn. But Wes Lowrey's wines need no need fancy trappings. Concentrated yet elegant, they could stand proudly in a lineup with their French peers. This intimate place may be your best chance to connect with an in-the-flesh winemaker (failing that, his charming mom, Wilma). It's open weekends from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. from May to December and by appointment only on weekdays. 905-262-5113, www.fiverows.com .
Flat Rock Cellars
Ask for owner Ed Madronich and you'll be faced with a question, "Which one?" Father and son have built one of the most visually arresting and environmentally conscious wineries in Niagara. Two six-sided buildings stand side by side, one on stilts, with glass walls overlooking the vines. The wines, which go by such names as Twisted and The Rogue and come sealed with screw caps (or beer-style crown caps for the bubblies), are entirely serious, not least the juicy 2009 riesling. On summer weekends, the gourmet food truck El Gastronomo Vagabundo serves tacos, tapas and southeast Asian on the roof above the cellar. 905-562-8994, www.flatrockcellars.com .
Hidden Bench Vineyards and Winery
Harald Thiel ran a successful audio/visual business with his brother before cashing out in 2003 to focus on a lifelong passion. Settling on prime land in the Beamsville Bench district, he aimed for the stars. Fine restaurants soon flocked to his door begging for the superpremium rieslings and Burgundian-styled pinot noirs and chardonnays. The two best offerings, though, are based on the Bordeaux model, a superb $40 white called Nuit Blanche blended from sauvignon blanc and semillon and an $85 red called La Brunante, made from merlot, cabernet sauvignon, malbec and cabernet franc. 905-563-8700, www.hiddenbench.com .
The amiable "megalomaniac" John Howard laughs at the irony of his unusual tasting counter, a kitschy, nine-meter-long wooden bar surrounded by fermenting vats and hoses. The former owner of nearby Vineland Estates Winery, which he sold for a tidy profit in 2004, had spent $1.5-million erecting a flashy retail and tasting space for that property. "This tasting bar I bought out of an old saloon in St. Catharines for fifteen hundred bucks," he says. "It's right in the middle of the tank room, and people love it." Irreverence notwithstanding, Mr. Howard's consulting winemaker, Sue-Ann Staff produces some of the best – and best-value – big reds in Ontario. 1-888-634-2561, www.megalomaniacwine.com .
Since opening in 2005, Tawse set a new standard for consistent quality in Niagara. Moray Tawse brought his passion for top French Burgundy to bear on 144 prime acres in the Beamsville Bench area. The graceful wines tend to be pure expressions of their respective grape varieties and span the gamut from light riesling to full-bodied cabernet, all crafted by Niagara College graduate Paul Pender with the help of Burgundy-based consultant and Montreal native Pascal Marchand. 905-562-9500, www.tawsewinery.ca .
13th Street Winery
Careful with your GPS setting; this place is on Fourth Avenue. The name dates to a previous location, a farm owned by co-founder and local sparkling-wine pioneer Gunther Funk. It's now owned by the Whitty and Mann families, with histories in fruit farming and auto dealerships, respectively. They moved it eastward and figuratively upward. French-native Jean-Pierre Colas, previously a star in Chablis, makes nuanced wines. Everything here is good, but sparkling wine and gamay are the signatures. An elaborately renovated old farmhouse, brimming with contemporary art, serves cheeses and charcuterie on the wraparound porch Wednesday to Saturday. 905-984-8463, www.13thstreetwinery.com .
Martin Malivoire, a movie special-effects entrepreneur, and Moira Saganski, launched this Beamsville estate in 1995, becoming early adopters of organic, sustainable farming. The lower-end wines tend to represent good value and the gewürztraminer ($24.95) and superpremium Moira Chardonnay ($39.95) are excellent. Mr. Malivoire recently raised eyebrows, though, with a pinot noir called Cat on the Bench, priced at – wait for it – $100.20. 1-866-644-2244, www.malivoire.com .
This large winery merits a visit just for Jason Parsons's splendid cooking in the upscale restaurant, which was the recent setting for Top Chef Canada's season finale. Another draw is the Reserve Boutique, a clubby, invitation-only back room where you can taste at a leisurely pace and engage in geeky winespeak with a sommelier away from the madding crowd. (Insider tip: Your ticket in is to show keen interest in the offerings at the regular tasting counter or retail shop.) The Ice Cuvee bubbly and Signature Series Sauvignon Blanc are wonderful. 1-888-673-5537, www.peller.com .
Cave Spring Cellars (for the old-vines CSV riesling); Henry of Pelham (for the broad range of well-priced offerings); Southbrook Vineyards (for the sun-lit, eco-friendly building); and Stratus (for the petit verdot and flagship red blend).