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Biking Ontario’s wine country

The author and his friend Michael Berger, here sampling some wines  at Hidden Bench Vineyards in Beamsville, biked to vineyards around Jordan, Ontario.

STEPHEN JERMANOK for the boston globe

The author and his friend Michael Berger, here sampling some wines at Hidden Bench Vineyards in Beamsville.

JORDAN, Ontario — A mere hour outside of Toronto, just past Hamilton on the QEW, you spot a sign that reads, “Entering the Greenbelt.” Vineyards pop up on either side of the road, and just beyond those vineyards on the left, is mighty Lake Ontario. This is the heart of Ontario’s wine country, where close to 100 vineyards produce riesling, chardonnay, pinot noir, and arguably the province’s best-known beverage, the sweet icewine.

My friend Michael and I turn off in the small village of Jordan, grab our bikes from atop the car, and start a 35-mile ride through this fertile breadbasket. Soon we’re biking up the 300-foot Niagara Escarpment, a limestone cliff that I would later learn creates the perfect microclimate for producing wine. On relatively level backcountry roads, we pass vineyard after vineyard, lilacs and azaleas in full bloom, peach trees, and signs for rhubarb and asparagus for sale. Cars pull over and people get out to gather a bouquet of wildflowers.

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When we tire, we simply bike into a winery and sample the wares. At Hidden Bench, we stop at the circa-1850 farmhouse that doubles as a tasting room to try the 2011 Roman’s Block Riesling. The cool climate wine has a dry acidity, not nearly as cloying as many rieslings I’ve tried.

“Tastes like grapefruit on the finish,” says Michael, a wine connoisseur from the suburbs of Detroit.

Biking on lightly traveled roads to vineyards all over the world — from Napa to Bordeaux to Tuscany — has proven to be a popular option for biking tour companies. So it comes as no surprise that they’re starting to turn their attention to Ontario’s wine country, especially as the region continues to earn international recognition for its distinctive wines. Toronto-based Butterfield & Robinson (best known for its lavish Loire Valley trips, where you spend the night at 14th-century castles and dine on seven-course feasts at private French vineyards), unveiled a new four-day itinerary last summer through Jordan and nearby Niagara-on-the-Lake.

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“Toronto is an easy flight for most of North America. Once here, we can quickly guide you to a bucolic section of Ontario, which offers excellent biking, wine tasting, theater at the Shaw Festival, even Niagara Falls,” says Butterfield & Robinson’s Kathy Stewart.

Jordan is smack dab between the escarpment and the lake, an area of the region better known as The Bench. Not nearly as flashy as the Niagara-on-the-Lake wineries I would tour later in the week, these boutique wineries create a feeling comparable with low-key Sonoma next to big brother Napa. At Flat Rock Cellars, where the rolling vineyards rise from either side of a creek, owner Ed Madronich believes the soil and climate here is similar to Burgundy.

‘I firmly believe this is one of the great places to grow certain varietals like riesling, chardonnay, and pinot,’

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“I firmly believe this is one of the great places to grow certain varietals like riesling, chardonnay, and pinot,” says Madronich, looking out over a landscape that would inspire Hudson River School artists.

On relatively level backcountry roads, the author passes vineyard after vineyard, lilacs and azaleas in full bloom, peach trees, and signs for rhubarb and asparagus for sale.

stephen jermanok for the boston globe

On relatively level backcountry roads, the author passes vineyard after vineyard, lilacs and azaleas in full bloom, peach trees, and signs for rhubarb and asparagus for sale.

Tom Pennachetti, co-owner of Cave Spring Cellars in Jordan, explains the unique microclimate of the region best: “Close to Lake Ontario, we have cool breezes in the summer. Yet, 300 feet above the lake, the escarpment creates a moderating effect, where we remain frost-free well into November. There’s great air circulation,” he notes.

At dinner at Inn on the Twenty, where we spend the night, we try the Cave Spring Cellars Estate Riesling, perfectly paired with a just-picked fiddlehead and asparagus salad, and a main dish of scallops. The green apple and pear finish of the wine complements perfectly the rich, buttery scallops.

The next morning, we meet Paul Pender, the mild-mannered winemaker at Tawse Winery who has been winning accolades such as Winemaker of the Year at the Ontario Wine Awards since he stepped foot on the property in 2005. He also happens to be an avid biker, as Michael and I found out when Pender slipped into bike shorts. Climbing the first short steep hill, we had a hard time keeping up with him. We pedaled past a waterfall, Ball’s Falls, next to an old grist mill, and rode alongside fields of corn waiting to be harvested and solitary century-old barns still standing.

Back at the vineyard, Pender brings us downstairs to taste the latest vintages.

“We’re all about making terroir wine,” says Pender, as he hands me a glass of single-vineyard chardonnay. The acidity is perfect for my taste buds, not in the least bit oaky or buttery, with hints of apricot. I’m ready to buy a case on the spot, but unfortunately I’m flying back to Boston and can only sneak a bottle or two in my suitcase. Michael, who is driving back to Michigan, is more fortunate as he hands Pender a credit card.

A 40-minute drive east of Jordan and even closer to the thunderous roar of Niagara Falls, Niagara-on-the-Lake is one of the best preserved villages in Canada, a Loyalist outpost since the Revolutionary War. Destroyed in the War of 1812, the town rebuilt, and today the two-story Victorian buildings are home to boutique shops, the local favorite, Cow’s Ice Cream, and wonderful restaurants, including the one at The Charles Inn. The 12-room inn was built in 1832 and still has its original chandeliers, fireplace, and doors. For wine lovers, it also features one of the best wine lists in town.

Long before people headed to Niagara-on-the-Lake to sample the world-class chardonnays and rieslings, there was the renowned Shaw Festival. Held from the beginning of April to early November, the theater festival celebrates the works of George Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries. More than a dozen productions are performed each year at four stages of works by Noel Coward, Arthur Miller, Oscar Wilde, Lillian Hellman, and a slew of other noteworthy playwrights.

At Royal George Theater, we took in “Our Betters,” a rarely performed play by Somerset Maugham. Set in 1920s London, it is based on a story line familiar in the popular television show, “Downton Abbey,” where a down-on-his-luck British aristocrat marries a well-to-do American for her money.

Niagara-on-the-Lake is also home to the start of the 56-kilometer Niagara River Recreation Trail, a bike path that runs parallel to the river all the way to Niagara Falls. On our final ride, we would bike on a guided tour with locally owned Zoom Leisure Bikes to two pioneers of the Ontario wine region, Chateau des Charmes and Peller Estates. Both wineries were instrumental in wisely ripping up the Concord grapes that were growing in the region for almost 200 years, better suited for jelly, and replacing them with vinifera from Burgundy, Bordeaux, and the Mosel. More than 30 years later, these vineyards are producing not only world-class rieslings and chardonnays, but reds like cab francs with serious nose and body. Peller sells a delightful 2010 cab franc that seems reasonably priced at $40 a bottle, with hints of plum and pepper. They also make an icewine from riesling that has the perfect balance of sweetness and acidity. I had it with my blue cheese appetizer for lunch at the vineyard.

I knew beforehand that the Niagara biking would be stellar and any performance at the Shaw Festival a treat, but to be honest, I had not been very excited to try the Ontario wines. My mistake. These wines have been hiding in obscurity for far too long. Unfortunately, few of these wineries have international distribution. So you’re just going to have to follow in my footsteps and cross the border to sample them for yourself. With lake winds keeping mildew and mold off the vines and the Niagara Escarpment sheltering the vineyards from early frost, the unique microclimate has created a Burgundy of North America.

Stephen Jermanok can be reached at www.activetravels.com.
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