Move over Nappa Valley, superb Canadian wine paired with delectable fish is the stuff of dreams
Words Aninda Sardar
Photography Roshni Manghani
I haven’t stopped hearing about how great the Nappa Valley is when it comes to producing fine wine ever since my chatterbox cousin shifted to California some years ago. Start talking about Austrian Riesling from Wachau, and soon enough I’m being told just how great the Riesling from the Nappa Valley is. Talk about some fine Cabernet Sauvignon from France and we’re back in sunny California. All past attempts to lure her across the Atlantic to taste some fine wine have also come a cropper since Europe is apparently a flight too far. Now however I have something to hit back with and its way closer to home. In fact it’s just a hop, skip and jump across the border and into Canada. Quite frankly, although I’ve been drinking wine and all sorts of spirits for years now, Canada’s range of delights has hitherto been an unknown quantity for me. How unwise of me to have never bothered to find out is all I’ll say at this stage of the story
The drive from Niagara town to the beautifully laid out back road, skirting which is the Chateau des Charmes, is beautiful. Especially at this hour in the afternoon when everything feels sleepy and the roads are deliciously empty. Like everything else in North America, and certainly in this part of Canada, everything is spaced out and feels vast. Including the parking lot where we pull up in our lumbering RV. This is massively refreshing for an Indian since we have little understanding of pretty wide open spaces.
Although the Chateau is designed to reflect the architecture of an earlier time, its construction is actually quite new and it cuts a beautiful picture nestled amidst the lush greenery. We stop by the massive door and chit chat a bit. Obviously the highlight of our discussion was the spectacular chopper ride over the Niagara Falls just the previous day. We have a hearty laugh about each other’s wild expressions when the waspish helicopter had taken off quite suddenly. Our wine tour starts sharp at half past three and the four of us (Abhishek, Aniruddha, Mahatva and yours truly) find ourselves in a crowd of diverse nationalities following the infectiouslyhappy and chatty Kate, wine associate here at the Chateau des Charmes and our tour guide into the depths of the Chateau.
The Chateau des Charmes was set up in 1978 by a gentleman named Paul Bosc, himself a fifth gen wine maker from France. And this is one of the oldest wineries in the country. If you consider just how long wines have been around in the world, clearly Canadian wines are still in their infancy. We go through the routines of being told about how the grapes are crushed and the juice fermented and then aged in special casks. The differences between red, white and rose. It’s all stuff that you’ve heard before and where you really want to get to (at least we did) is the wine tasting that follows the tour.
Set in a huge tent surrounded by ample vineyards in every direction save one, which is where the Chateau itself is, this is perfect tasting ground and we huddle around, cracking a joke or two about inconsequential things. The result of an easy, though temporary, bonhomie of people put into the same group by chance. On offer are four of the Chateau’s many varieties – a Riesling and a Chardonnay followed by a Pinot Noir and a Gamay Noir Droit that is a unique variety bottled only at the Chateau. Through the tasting sessions, over which we take our own sweet time, Kate is super helpful, enthusiastic and passionate about satisfying my insatiable curiosity about the art of wine making. Eventually, it’s time for everybody to say bye, but not before the four of us are requested to stay back for just a few minutes more. Because we are special guests of the Chateau, we get something over and above the regular wine tourists. What follows is a tasting of two varieties of ice wine that blow me away. I have not tasted anything like it before. Ice wine is basically wine made from grapes when they are still frozen in the winters.
Happy but not high, we bid Kate and her colleagues goodbye and drive back to the campsite on the edge of town. Back to our less sophisticated maple whiskey and dinner rustled up by the Captain-turned-chef Mahatva. As we settle down for the night I quietly send a text to my cousin from Cali. “Nappa has met its match. In Canada,” it reads. I smile devilishly and doze off trying to picture her outraged and indignant response.
The following morning is another bright one. Well, all Canadian mornings are bright until winter sets in but this one has a metaphorical significance too because today’s agenda includes fishing on Lake Ontario! And to brighten the day some more there’s the prospect of lunch at the Hotel Chelsea in Toronto. With nearly 1,600 rooms and suites spread over 25 floors, the hotel on 33, Gerard Street in downtown Toronto is Canada’s largest. It also has several first rate restaurants and we are headed to one of those for a specially curated lunch. Or at least that’s what we think.
By the time we are done, we have ticked off a long line of boxes. We have taken a full tour of the massive hotel, including its adult-only swimming pool, the super exclusive E Lounge and the terrace from where you get fantastic views of downtown Toronto. We have also had a crash course in cocktail making from the friendly bartender, and of course we have stuffed ourselves with the delectable grub that the chef had dished up. We shake hands and part ways but not before we are given a bottle of honey and maple syrup. It so happens that the Chelsea Hotel makes its own honey and maple syrup!
We cut through Toronto city and loop back behind it before we drive into the marina at Scarborough. Specifically, a place called Bluffer’s Park. Here we rendezvous with Captain Mike whose boat we will use to go fishing for which we have acquired day licences. Yes, fishing in Canada requires you to hold a licence. You can even go hunting if you have the correct paperwork. We stick to fishing instead.
Lake Ontario is massive, and that’s the understatement of the decade. Because the lake is much larger than what your imagination can show you. It’s pretty much the same as being out on the open ocean. While sailorboys are welcome to pooh pooh and snort derisively, that’s exactly how it feels to a landlubber like me. Bouncing and slapping the water’s surface, we find our sea legs (or lake legs) soon enough and try our hands at fishing. Different lines, a variety of tackle and flies later we experts catch…umm….nothing! Yet it’s not an unmitigated disaster. We have managed to collect our share of selfies for the ‘Gram, caught breathtaking views of the Toronto skyline on the shores of the lake. Most importantly, we’ve had a rum time. Fish, or no fish. In any case, what’s stopping us from ordering fish at the diner tonight?