My interest in Niagara wine and the War of 1812, was fuelled by a tour ad I saw on the Ontario Wine Lover’s Facebook page.
Dan Martin is the guy behind the ad. Dan is a retired history/philosophy/geography high school teacher from northern Quebec (aka Lower Canada :-). His love of military history is matched only by his love of fine wine. A double stint of teaching at a private school in Neuchâtel, Switzerland fueled his interest in Burgundy, Bordeaux and pretty much all European wine. Upon his return to Canada, he knew living in Niagara wine country was the inevitable next step.
Dan has parlayed his knowledge of history and wine into a very cool War of 1812 tour which my husband and I took in September.
I’d suggest you sign up for it. The guy knows his Niagara history and he knows his Niagara wine. Plus, he was able to connect the history of Upper and Lower Canada to:
a) the long-standing rivalry between Great Britain and France which was inescapably entwined in our relationship with the young United States, and
b) the critical role Indigenous peoples played in the War of 1812. We would be America not Canada if not for the contribution of Indigenous soldiers. Did you know this? Clearly another chapter in our collective awakening around truth and reconciliation.
On our 1812 tour we visited many of the key battlefields in Niagara and three local wineries. I followed up with my own deep dive into the region, adding another couple of Niagara estates.
So….to enrich your experience in the region, I’m sharing five wineries steeped in 1812 history. There are loads of links baked in to each winery story, but in a perfect world, you will have read blogs one – Vineyards of Wine and Blood and two – A War of 1812 Timeline before you hit the road!! The five vineyards span the two Niagara Peninsula appellations – Niagara Escarpment & Niagara-on-the-Lake and five of the 11 sub-appellations.
I’m suggesting you start in Niagara-on-the-Lake and move west to the Niagara Escarpment. This ‘wine and war’ itinerary may be ambitious for a single day so why not book the weekend?
Palatine Hills Estate Winery – 911 Lakeshore Rd, Niagara Lakeshore Sub-appellation
I think it’s fair to say no winery in Niagara is as invested in the War of 1812 as Palatine Hills Estate Winery so I’m recommending this as the first stop on your Niagara ‘war and wine’ tour!
Owners, the Neufeld Family, grow grapes on their 110-acre farm along the eastern stretch of Lakeshore Road on the Lake Ontario side of Newark, or – as it’s known today – Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Palatine Hills vineyards are mere metres from the south shore of Lake Ontario. Lake transportation and controlling the mouth of the Niagara River in early British North America was of critical importance. During the war, Lake Ontario was patrolled by combating warships from both sides. Marine attacks on sites of importance weren’t uncommon, which put Palatine Hills on the front lines.
During the actual War of 1812, much of Palatine Hill’s land served as a garrison or military outpost for British soldiers and the militia who were defending Upper Canada from marauding American soldiers. According to John Neufeld Sr., when the Americans conquered the town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, the British retreated to an area that was beyond the reach of cannonball fire.
It’s not clear if British regiments actually fought here or if was just a training ground but over the years, a lot of war artifacts have been found on the property. When the Neufelds were planting their vines, they would walk the grape rows with metal detectors pulling up pieces of cannonballs, coins, and other remnants of the war. Wine and history lovers are invited to check-out this collection of war artifacts on display inside the winery.
Wine and History lovers…..
Also cool? Those military relics and a passion for history prompted the Neufeld family to develop a line of 1812 wines, which was launched during Niagara Bicentennial celebrations in 2012. The wines gently poke at the troubled history between Canada and the US, while toasting the 200 years of peace and harmony that has followed.
Another historical tidbit: Original settlers of this land pre-date the war of 1812. Purchased by the Crown in 1781, the property was given to a loyalist family from Tryon County, New York called the Servos family. Brothers Daniel and Jacob Servos and their families came to Niagara in 1785 as some of the area’s first farmers and millers. The very first saw and grist mills – called the “King’s Mills” – were built in 1783 and Daniel Servos became the first official mill operator soon after arriving.
The Palatine Experience
The Palatine Hills team likes to say they offer a relaxed, down-to-earth, Niagara back-road experience.
All of this makes sense given the farming roots of the winery. John and Barbara Neufeld started as some of Niagara’s earliest grape growers, purchasing the property in 1972. In fact, John Sr was the Chair of the Grape Growers of Ontario in the early years of Niagara. In 1998 with 25+ years of viticulture know-how, John Sr. decided to add wine production to the family CV.
What to Drink?
I’d recommend the 1812 wines, of course:
1812 – Palatine Hills Unoaked Chardonnay 2018 – 12% ABV – $15.95 VQA Ontario
This is a lovely, easy-drinking, super-crisp chardonnay that’s both floral and tropical with notes of sweet citrus, green apple and pineapple. On the palate, ripe orchard fruit flavours combine with a hint of tropical fruit and a fresh mineral finish. Perfect for the outside grilling and seafood. Fabulous value.
1812 – Palatine Hills Merlot Cabernet Blend 2018 – 12.5% ABV – $15.95 VQA Niagara Lakeshore
A light-bodied, fresh, easy-drinking blend with aromas of blackberry, cherry and sweet cedar. Nicely balanced, fruit flavours of raspberry and sweet cherry with hint of baking spice. Great for barbeque and patios.
From the outside patio at Reif Estate Winery – look east across the Niagara River at the United States.
Reif Estate Winery – 15608 Niagara Parkway, ON, Niagara River Sub-Appellation
Sustainable Winemaking Ontario Certified – Winery
Reif Estate Winery can be found along the spectacular Niagara Parkway promenade, due south of the national historic site of Fort George and north of Queenston Heights. When Winston Churchill visited Niagara in August 1943 to discuss the strategy for the invasion of France during World War II (D-Day) he told his host, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, that the Niagara Parkway was “the prettiest Sunday afternoon drive in the world.”
The roots of the Reif property are actually French – and predate the American loyalist influx leading up to the War of 1812. But as Eva Kessel – long-time owner of the inn The Old Vic and partner to Reif Winery President Klaus Reif told me when I visited earlier this fall – Reif’s geography puts them squarely at the heart of many 1812 battles.
“It became all too real for me when during Bicentennial celebrations I heard a huge commotion outside. I opened the front doors to see a re-enactment of General Isaac Brock and his soldiers galloping down the Parkway on horses towards the Battle at Queenston Heights. I became so emotional. I just wanted to scream NO….don’t go! Turn around now!!!!”
Of course, the scene being re-enacted was the General’s famous ride to the Queenston battlefield on October 13, 1812 when Americans staged their second 1812 invasion of Upper Canada.
Moments after arriving, and at a disadvantage to the American soldiers who commanded the higher ground, the Americans seized a gun battery. Brock decided against waiting for reinforcements and launched a direct attack. As he led his troops up the Heights, he was hit in the chest and died instantly. Six hours later, the battle was over and the Americans soundly defeated, thanks largely to the Grand River Mohawk warriors and local Canadian militia.
A national hero, Brock’s Monument – built in 1853 – is an impressive and fitting legacy to the British commander. Visitors will also want to take in the Landscape of Nations, a living memorial dedicated to the contributions and sacrifices made by Six Nations and Native Allies during the War of 1812.
Just down the road from Reif driving north on the Niagara Parkway, is another 1812 National historic site and battleground. Fort George sits at the edge of Niagara-on-the-Lake, one of the most beautiful towns in North America.
While today the site celebrates 200+ years of peace, the British-built fort was the main British headquarters erected to guard the Niagara River supply route and the town of Newark (now, Niagara-on the Lake) and to ward off an American invasion….
No surprise, on May 25 1813, Fort George was bombarded by American artillery batteries, leaving the fort a smoking ruin. A third invasion ten days later forced the British Canadian army to retreat to Burlington Heights. Fort George and Niagara would be enemy-occupied territory for the next ten months. Even worse, a retreating American army would burn down the entire town of Niagara in December. (For a full War of 1812 timeline see my last blog!)
What to Drink?
I invite you to contemplate that important, albeit sobering history of the war while gazing across the Niagara River – at our now, American friends – over a glass of Reif Estate wine. One of the oldest wineries in the Niagara region, the 125-acre farm is located in Ontario’s warmest sub-appellation, Niagara River. Here are a couple of wines to enjoy!
Hanging Man Kerner – 2020 – 12.5% ABV, VQA Niagara River, $16.15
A lovely, fresh, quaffable off-dry white featuring a rare offering of the Kerner grape in Ontario. With roots in Germany and Austria, Kerner is reminiscent of ripe Riesling but without the searing acidity.
This Kerner is beautifully aromatic with notes of honeysuckle, mango and pineapple. Rich, crisp full-bodied flavours follow the nose with sweet citrus, peach and ripe mango. What great value!
Reif Pinot Noir – 2019 – 13% ABV, VQA Niagara River $17.15
Harvested from 32-year-old vines, this pinot has good concentration and lots of bright, red fruit flavours. A nose of young cherry, rhubarb fruit with some flinty mineral backbone. On the palate, good structure and balance with cherry, pomegranate, nutmeg and a hint of leather.
Ravine Vineyard Estate Winery – 1366 York Rd, St David’s Bench Sub-Appellation
Ravine Vineyard Estate Winery is a fabulous winery and farm-to-table restaurant, steeped in the lore and history of the War of 1812. The family-run winery offers a superb selection of small lot wines (about 10,000 cases/yr) and an organic and biodynamic approach to farming, all wrapped in a storied connection to the land.
Ravine is located in the picturesque village of St Davids at the junction of the original Portage Road (Queenston) and Paxton Road that lead to Niagara Falls. Before the loyalist settlers arrived, the local Indigenous peoples – the Neutral or Attiwandaron nation – established a significant community here, at the convergence of the Mohawk and Iroquois trails.
The winery’s roots and specifically the historic house on the property date back to 1802, when the home was built and owned by Major David Secord, a major in the 2nd Lincoln Militia.
David Secord is the village’s namesake and was brother-in-law to war heroine – and yes, chocolate goddess – Laura Secord.
David Secord helped establish the community of St Davids where he and his extended family built a sawmill, gristmill, blacksmith shop and general store. David’s loyalist brother James, and his wife Laura Secord also settled there before moving to the burgeoning community, trading post and portage ‘port’ of Queenston. The St Davids mill supplied British and Canadian forces with flour during The War of 1812.
According to history, Laura Secord rested at the St Davids house in 1813 on her long, treacherous 32 km walk to De Cew House to warn the British of an impending American attack. Laura’s warning to British Captain James Fitzgibbon resulted in a Canadian and Indigenous victory at the Battle of Beaver Dams. The house at that time was occupied by Laura’s niece Hannah Secord and her children. After the death of her husband, Hannah Secord became the miller at the Peter Secord Mill.
In 1814, a year later, the Secord house was destroyed by American troops when they looted and burned the village of St Davids. The house was rebuilt on the same site and purchased by William Woodruff, a Member of Parliament in Upper Canada and the house has kept his name.
The house was later bought, sold, disassembled, moved (to Caledon), moved again (to Bond Head), moved yet again (to Port Hope) and finally rescued, relocated and restored by current Ravine owners Norma Jane Lowrey and Blair Harber.
The Lowrey Family’s roots run 5 generations-deep starting with the purchase of the Secord farm land in 1867. David Jackson Lowrey planted orchards, vegetables and 500 concord grape vines making the Lowrey farm the first commercial vineyard in Niagara! The rich soils of the region and long days of sunshine helped elevate St Davids and the Lowrey farm into a cannery factory and grape source for Bright’s Winery in Niagara Falls.
In 2004, to keep developers at bay, the family started planting quality European vitis vinifera vines, laying the foundation for the winery today.
What to Drink?
St David’s sub-appellation is one of the warmest wine region in Niagara and proximity to the lake, drainage and long days of sunshine ensure excellent fruit ripening.
Ravine ‘Sand and Gravel’ Riesling – 2019, VQA Niagara-on-the-Lake – 10.4% ABV – $21.80
St Davids Ravine Sand and Gravel Quarry is just one of the many local businesses built by the Lowrey Family (circa early 1900’s). The terroir and history is captured in Ravine’s Sand and Gravel line of wines.
This is a refreshing, off-dry, low alcohol Riesling with good acidity/sweet balance. It’s highly aromatic, with Meyer lemon, lime, ripe Niagara peach and tropical notes. The wine is round, with ample mouthfeel, citrus, pineapple and reassuring minerality from – presumably – all that sand and gravel! S & G is their entry-level line of wines so great value here!
Ps…. This is my dental hygienist’s favourite wine and because I recommended it, she is extra-kind when I’m in her chair. Thank you Ravine!!
Ravine Meritage – 2019 – 12.1% ABV, VQA Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario $31.80
In 2004 Norma Jane Lowrey ripped out the existing concord grapes and started anew with Bordeaux reds. Long hot summer days and proximity to Lake Ontario allows a long growing season which helps ripen Bordeaux varietals.
The Ravine Meritage is a medium bodied red with 70% Merlot, 15% Cab Sauvignon and 15% Cab Franc.
This yummy wine offers a multilayered bouquet of blackberry and cranberry with hints of cedar, smoke and dark chocolate. On the palate, it’s dry with fine-grained tannin, a mix of ripe black and red fruit with earth, baking spice and a touch of Cab Franc bouquet garni herbs. Lovely, refined and impressive length.
Henry of Pelham Family Estate – 1469 Pelham Road, Short Hills Bench Sub-Appellation
Sustainable Winemaking Ontario Certified – Vineyard and Winery
The land that Henry of Pelham sits on today was crown land given by the British government to loyal soldiers. Nicholas Smith was one of those loyal soldiers.
A United Empire Loyalist, he joined the Butler’s Rangers as a young bugle-boy and translator (he was part Iroquois) during the American Revolution. Led by Colonel John Butler, the Rangers were a formidable militia unit headquartered at Fort Niagara on the American side of the Niagara River.
A key factor in the success of Butler’s corps was the close cooperation that existed between Butler and the Indian nations. The Rangers fought bravely for the British Crown across eastern colonies in (what is known today as) New York State, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan. Over 800 men served as Butler’s Rangers, many of them moving to Upper Canada to continue serving the King and avoid ‘patriot’ (aka traitor) persecution after the revolution.
During the War of 1812, the re-energized Butler’s Rangers served in the Lincoln Militia and today, many descendants serve in the Lincoln and Welland Regiment of the Canadian Armed Forces.
For his service during the revolution, in 1794 Nicholas was awarded the deed to the land where the winery is today.
His son Henry Smith was the youngest son of 14 children and was clearly the ‘entrepreneur’ in the family. Back in the early 19th century Pelham Road was a major east/west artery between the Niagara River and Hamilton. Henry decided there was enough horse and buggy traffic on the local road to open a three-room inn and tavern, naming it Henry of Pelham after the British prime minister (lol).
The farm was also at the crossroads leading north to St Davids so Henry built a toll booth. That extra income came in handy, allowing him to add extra parcels to the growing farm.
Six generations later, the Henry of Pelham winery stands proudly on the original 100 acres awarded to great-great-great grandpa Nicholas. If you visit – and of course you must – you’ll find the original below-ground tavern reinvented as the wine store. True to their roots, an original Butler’s Rangers wooden crest still hangs proudly over the baker’s hearth.
For 1812 wine & history lovers, Henry of Pelham is minutes away from the Decew House where Laura Secord went to warn the British about an imminent American attack. After Laura Secord informed Lieutenant James FitzGibbon about this planned attack at Beaver Dams, Captain Dominique Ducharme and his 300 warriors joined 100 Indigenous men under Captain William Johnson Kerr surprising the invading Americans in a guerrilla-style assault from the beechwoods. Although woefully outnumbered by the Americans, the Indigenous forces led a brutal 3-hour battle, marked by sniper shots and ‘bone-chilling’ Indigenous war cries, and soundly defeated the Americans (again).
What to Drink?
The Speck family – Paul Speck Sr and his wife Bobbi – purchased the historical family farm in 1982 in the Short Hills Bench sub-appellation of the Niagara Escarpment. Pioneers in vitis vinifera grape growing in Niagara, in 1984 they and their young sons Paul, Daniel and Matthew planted Riesling and Chardonnay. Today, farming over 300 acres/120ha, Henry of Pelham is one of Ontario’s largest wineries with both the farm and winery certified sustainable.
Henry of Pelham put the French hybrid grape Baco Noir on the international map. In an interview with Vines magazine, proudly displayed on the wall of the wine shop (circa 2000?), a young President, Paul Speck says they chose Baco as one of their “niche” products because it would allow them to make a full-bodied wine that wasn’t Cab Sauv. “It’s soft, it’s different and it tastes good.”
There is nothing niche about their Baco. The wine is Henry of Pelham’s biggest seller and has become one of Canada’s top-selling wines. People really like these wines. Here are a couple that I tried:
Speck Brothers Family Tree – ‘The Bootlegger’ Baco Noir – 2020 – ABV 13.3% – VQA Ontario, $17.95
I’m partial to any wine called ‘The Bootlegger’ – coming from a long line of them!
Deep purple, concentrated with lots of juicy, dark berry fruit. Blackberry, cherry, allspice, strawberry with a hint of funk and smoke on the nose. On the palate it’s plush and refreshing with notes of blueberry, raspberry, spice. Off-dry (16g/L), very little tannin, bright acidity. It reminds me of my grandmother’s mixed berry pie. It’s easy to see why wine-lovers love Speck Bros baco!
Henry of Pelham – Family Estate 2020 – Bin 106 13.3% ABV, VQA Ontario – $34.95
Bin 106 is a limited edition Baco Noir sold only at the winery. The 2020 has just been released and it’s a little too early to drink…. although that didn’t stop me. Not much nuance yet, but the black cherry, raspberry and pomegranate fruit is juicy and concentrated with spice, a solid streak of electric acidity and soft tannins. These are the winery’s oldest vines so you know time will help the flavours meld. Suggest you cellar for 3 – 5 years.
Calamus Estate Winery – 3100 Glenn Road, Jordan, Twenty Mile Bench Sub-Appellation
We’ll end our War of 1812 tour, just outside the town of Jordan, up on the Niagara Escarpment.
Calamus Winery is a lovely, 42-acre country property nestled in the Carolinian forest ‘life zone’ at the top of the escarpment. The meandering 18 Mile Creek, with 3 bridges, flows through the property, making it a scenic spot for hikes and contemplating the history of the region.
We visited Calamus on a fall Friday and preparations were underway for the first of six weddings scheduled for the weekend! The tasting room downstairs and the barn (now, event space) were built in 1870. According to our tour guide Dan Martin – who also works part time at Calamus and adjoining winery 2027 – 2,000-year-old arrows belonging to the original landowners, the Neutral Confederacy, have been found on the property and in the vineyards (see front label).
Calamus is located next to the Balls Falls Conservation Area, a geological treasure that displays the horizontal glacial layers of sedimentary rock and ancient reef beds. All of this underpins the limestone bluff that runs the length of the Niagara Peninsula, and contributes to such darned tasty wine.
Offering terroir in spades, the land around Ball’s Falls – including Calamus – was awarded as land grants to those who served in the War of 1812.
As United Empire Loyalists, the Ball family left their New York home in 1786, joining the thousands of Crown-loyal subjects fleeing the American Revolution to Upper Canada. They purchased 1200 acres of land from Thomas Butler, leader of the famed Butler’s Rangers Fighting Corps, who was given an exceptionally large land grant of 1500 acres for remaining loyal to the Crown during the American Revolution. If you read the Henry of Pelham history or my previous blog posts, you’ll know Butler’s Rangers were a fearless militia in the northern American frontier who later helped lead Upper Canada battles in the War of 1812.
At the time of the War, the village of Ball’s Falls was called Glen Elgin. Namesake brothers George and John Ball capitalized on the escarpment’s Twenty Mile Creek’s powerful upper and lower falls, building wool, grist and saw mills (1809). The grist mill housed two millstones, grinding wheat, corn, oats, rye and barley and providing flour for the British army during the war. At peak operation in 1846, the mill was producing 7,000 barrels of flour a year.
Balls Falls is also important militarily because that’s where the British soldiers were camped when forced to retreat after the Siege of Fort George (May 1813). These were the same soldiers who fought 10 kms away at Beaver Dams (June 1813) –– although, we know from military records that most of the fighting at Beaver Dams was led by Indigenous warriors who knew their way around the cliffs and forests of the Escarpment.
Interestingly, the American prisoners-of-war from the battle of Beaver Dams ((June 26, 1813) were kept at the Ball’s Falls farm in the barns for the remainder of the war until the POW exchange in December 2014.
What to Drink?
In addition to some seriously interesting history, there’s also some great wine to be enjoyed at Calamus and adjoining 2027 Cellars wineries. The wine at Calamus is made by Kevin Panagapka, who is also the owner and winemaker at 2027 Cellars, which is just down the hall from Calamus in the winery’s Jordan barn.
Here’s a tasty Calamus red and delicious 2027 Chardonnay to enjoy. In the summer months you can do that outside on the deck overlooking the vineyards. Calamus also hosts stargazing nights in their deck-top 360 degree observatory!
Ball’s Falls Red – Twenty Valley – VQA Ontario – $17.95
This is a fresh, easy drinking juicy red blend of Cab Franc and Cab Sauvignon. Aromas of ripe blackberry and black cherry, spice and herbal notes. On the palate, a mix of red and dark fruit, backed by exuberant acid and soft, approachable tannins. Black pepper, vanilla and clove add character and drinkability.
2027 Cellars – 2019 Chardonnay – 13% ABV – VQA Twenty Mile Bench – $25.00
Winemaker Kevin Panagapka’s winery is also housed in the Calamus barns. Kevin started the winery in 2007 buying grapes from some of the choicest growers on the Niagara Escarpment. These are beautiful, elegant and precise wines.
The 2019 Chardonnay exudes freshness, with green apple, meyer lemon and a toasty, mineral nose. On the palate it’s crisp, sunny, with concentrated mouthfeel. Lovely summer flavours of ripe yellow apple, ripe pear and refreshing acidity combine for a long toasty finish.
Enjoy, wine lovers and don’t forget for a serious, deep dive into Niagara War of 1812 history you can book a fabulous War of 1812 tour with Dan Martin, or visit my first two posts
FEATURE PHOTO: “Triumph through Diversity” Monument to the War of 1812 in Ottawa on Parliament Hill. “This monument is a dynamic national tribute to the spirit, courage and bravery of those who served and successfully defended their land in the fight for Canada.” Created by: Adrienne Alison. Photo credit: Government of Canada