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Niagara off the lake

These sheep are the newest employees at Featherstone Winery, where they will help tend the vineyards by munching on weeds and lower leaves over the summer.

Take a short detour from the familiar and discover some of the fine new wineries and dining rooms that are popping up just off the beaten path

The work crew seemed nervous, but didn't appear inclined to get on with the job. They tossed their heads, stared into the distance, or turned their backs on their boss, David, and pretended he wasn't there. It was just too nice to linger by the pond in the morning sun. It looked to me as if they were on strike for the day and no work would be done.

But eventually, their leader raised his head, shook himself, and headed for the vineyard. The rest of the crew followed.

This "crew" is a herd of sheep whose job it is to thin the leaves of the grapevines at Featherstone Estate Vineyards in Niagara's wine country. Their leader is the "bellwether," an old Middle English term for a ram, wearing a bell around his neck, who leads the flock.

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"They're great workers," explains David Johnson, the co-owner and winemaker, "but they work at their own pace. They are really good at thinning the vines, and they never eat the grapes. They do a lot of bleating but they've never asked for a raise."

The sheep are one step in a concerted move by smaller Niagara wineries to make wine in the most responsible way possible, with an emphasis on hand labour, small batch vintages and environmentally sound, locally based practices. They're part of an entrepreneurial and environmentally sensitive group of winemakers, located in some of the lesser-known sub-appellations of busy Niagara wine country, who are producing limited edition wines, running intimate dining rooms in their wineries, and devoting themselves to the celebration of Niagara terroir.

The sub-appellations are smaller areas within the Niagara Peninsula appellation, which have been identified as possessing unique geographical conditions. Featherstone lies in the Twenty Bench sub-appellation. These smaller, less publicized wineries of Niagara are peaceful, bucolic places to visit, a refreshing change from some of the busy large wineries along the main tourist routes. Many of the small production wines from these properties are consumed locally and are only available at the farm gate. And the fierce devotion to quality over quantity, to careful husbandry over mass production, to warm individual attention to visitors over group tours or appointments that need to be made in advance, makes a wine tour of the "Hidden Niagara" wineries a joy for the true oenophile.

Featherstone is one of five small, personal wineries that are part of this off-piste section of Niagara – the Niagara off the lake – and each one has discreet charms that whisper rather than shout, but that are personal, environmentally conscientious and easy to love.

Featherstone Estate Winery

Located on a quiet road on the Twenty Mile Bench (the "bench" is a protected plateau that rises between the flat shoreline area of Lake Ontario and the top of the Niagara escarpment), this small vineyard is best known for its aptly named Black Sheep Riesling, a solid wine to enjoy with casual food. This summer, the winery will be serving thin-crust personal pizzas on weekends, cooked in an outdoor wood-burning oven, to be enjoyed on the wooden porch that surrounds the tasting rooms. The lambs arrive in the vineyard around the first of July and will diligently munch the weeds, grass and lower grape leaves for two months. They go to market in the fall and their meat is sold to local restaurants, such as Backhouse in Niagara-on-the-Lake, and often served, fittingly, with a suggested pairing of Featherstone wine. The circle of life, right?

In addition to their crew of sheep, Johnson and co-owner Louise Engel employ Amadeus, a Harris's hawk, to scare away starlings and other birds that damage the fruit. Bocci and Guinness, two Jack Russells, keep the mouse population under control, and were recently featured on the 2018 Winery Dogs of Ontario Calendar. Both dogs are excitedly anticipating the Muddy Paws Wine Festival, a dog-friendly wine event where Featherstone will partner with Vineland Estates for a weekend of canine and wine fun. Johnson will usually be around if you drop by for a tasting, and Engel will probably be serving you in the tasting room. Their Canadian Oak Chardonnay proves that wine aged in barrels made from local oak, grown along the banks of the Grand River, can be as subtle as wine aged in French oak barrels, but with a butterscotch note and a slight hint of mapley sweetness. It will be available in the LCBO in Vintages in late June.

Sue-Ann Staff Estate Winery

She's a winemaker whose tasting rooms are in the dining room of her family farm, located partly on the Twenty Mile Bench and partly in the Vinemount Ridge sub-appellation. Her family has been in viniculture for five generations. Sue-Ann Staff has been named one of the top four "Women in Wine" in the world by the International Wine and Spirits Awards in London, twice. She's also a pilot, and her winery is one of the only fly-in wineries in Canada, with two grass runways, and co-ordinates on the labels of her wines for pilots who want to fly in for a tasting. Rick Mercer and his crew landed here. Her Burmese Mountain dog, Brix, who, Staff complains, has more Twitter followers than she does, is Mr. January in the Winery Dogs of Ontario calendar. There's a cat named Nuisance who's usually around, too. On alternate weekends all summer at the winery, Zooma Farm Grill will be serving up oysters, sliders, ribs – food that Staff describes as "clever, regional and delicious."

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She has three new wines debuting in July: Foxy Pink Rosé, plus a riesling and a cabernet franc. In August, her Fancy Farm Girl Flamboyant Red, a Bordeaux blend that promises to be elegant easy drinking, will be available in the LCBO. And it's always a good time for Fancy Farm Girl Flirty Bubbles, an award-winning sparkling rosé.

Westcott Vineyards

Just a mile or so back on the Bench from Staff's winery, in the Vinemount Ridge sub-appellation, is Westcott, another family owned and run small-batch winery. Located in a resituated 200-year-old Mennonite barn, the winery's tasting room is cozy, with long wooden tables, a large stone fireplace and French windows that open up to vistas of vineyards.

Sit in one of the Muskoka chairs and try their Delphine Rosé – the tasting notes read: "Her lovely glittering jewel-hued colour conjures the feeling of summer breezes, sexy sandals, salmon on the BBQ and the cool lazy chords of Horace Silver drifting down the lake."

It's an ideal wine for summer sipping. This season, meals will be served, Thursday to Sunday until 8 p.m. in a Bedouin tent, purchased in South Africa and erected just outside the tasting rooms. The outdoor stone oven will be turning out locally sourced dishes to pair with their wines. Their 2013 Brilliant is a delicious bubbly that goes with everything.

Creekside Estate Winery

Just below the Twenty Mile Bench are the sunny, gently sloped vineyards of the Lincoln Lakeshore sub-appellation, spreading along the former lake bed of glacial Lake Iroquois. Creekside is here, a winery that boasts the largest underground barrel room in Niagara. It's best known for its syrah, but also produces unfussy whites and reds that pair perfectly with casual BBQ fare.

The winery restaurant, the Deck, specializes in all things smoked – ribs, pulled pork, smoked salmon, all served on the veranda overlooking the vineyards. Chef Nathan Young of In the Smoke Cookery performs magic with his industrial Southern Pride smoker, turning out dishes such as Brisket on a Bun, made with peach-wood-smoked Alberta triple-A brisket dressed with a horseradish aioli.

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This is also a dog-friendly winery, with water bowls and a doggie hitching post outside the tasting room.

13th Street Winery

At 13th Street Winery, visitors can sign up for a wine and food experience – an exploration of three house wines paired with three small dishes, and guided by the resident wine consultant.

This winery, in the same sub-appellation, is one of the real gems of the area.

Doug Whitty, third-generation farmer and co-owner with his wife, Karen, talks with great intensity about the importance not just of terroir, but of a sense of place – and once you've visited this small family winery, you will agree that it is a very special patch of Niagara wine country.

There is a Zen quality to the architecture – spare, clean, white and elegant. Art is central to the space. There's a sculpture garden, original Canadian art on the walls (even in the bottling rooms!) and culinary art (think butter tarts) in the on-site bakery.

I have long considered myself a baker of the best butter tarts in Ontario, but my title may be in trouble. The butter tarts here are addictive. Karen tells me they have played with the recipe – producing a toasted coconut and raspberry version for summer with raspberries from their farm, a Belgian chocolate one and a maple variation for Canada Day, in addition to the classic tart with raisins and pecans.

The newly completed tasting rooms are spacious and stylish, continuing the Shaker style of the main buildings but with an uptown polish. Visitors can sign up for a wine and food experience – an exploration of three house wines paired with three small dishes, and guided by the resident wine consultant. For the summer, chef Alex Barron will be designing casual and wine-friendly lunch menus, and each weekend there will be burger parties in the new outdoor pavilion. The 13th Street Burger Blend, red or white, is the perfect match. Canada Day burgers, a glass of Burger Blend red and butter tarts strike me as the ideal way to celebrate Canada's 150. For a serious indulgence, try their 2014 Gamay Noir – "layers of red and black fruit with a note of spice and lightly toasted oak."

Each of these vineyards is within a few kilometres of each other and could be visited singly, for a long and chatty visit, or together in a day of wine tasting and experimenting. The experts say that five vineyards is the optimum number for a tasting tour and you won't find long line-ups or impersonal service at any one of them. Throughout the summer, there will be events and festivities at each property. These are kid-friendly, pet-friendly, people-friendly wineries.

I love each of these vineyard properties and admire the people who run them and what they do. It's a reminder of the importance of aiming for the best rather than the most, of treading carefully on the earth, and of the warm value of the personal touch, both in making wine, and in welcoming the people who appreciate it.

I think the world needs a bit more of Niagara.


Niagara summer wine events

Muddy Paws Wine Festival: July 8-9

Car Show & Shine, Sue-Ann Staff Winery: July 30

Riesling Revealed: Aug 19-20

Westcott Rosé Festival: June 17

International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration: July 21-23

Winery Dogs of Ontario 2018 Calendar is available at the gift shops of eight local wineries. A portion of the calendar sales will go to Beamsville 4Paw Rescue and Jack Russell Terrier Rescue Ontario. It is photographed and created by professional pet photographer Karen Black of Indigo Pet Photography. $24.95.


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