By: Sandra Ozkur

Since the first time I descended the stone stairs into a European wine cellar, I have been mesmerized by the mystique of this underground world hidden deep beneath the bustle of winemaking above. These dark, dank caves, or wine cellars as they are known in English, are the depositories of some of the world’s greatest treasures. The whole process of winemaking is wizardry to my mind‑ a winemaker, pours fermented grape juice into an oak barrel, waits patiently and then, with a flick of his magic wand (known as a wine thief), beckons forth that delightful elixir which man has quested after, collected, and paid grand fees for since time memorial.

Of course, what is magic to my eyes, is in reality, a carefully honed, centuries-old process. I spent many years of my career in the wine industry and for this article I have chosen ten wine cellars that stand out because of design, customer experiences, cellar lore, unique products, and consumer’s choices.  Wine cellars are traditionally used to age and store wine. True underground wine cellars provide the perfect temperature and humidity for aging wine in oak barrels, often called bariques. This environment develops the wine’s character and preserves its freshness. A cellar must also be free of vibrations and bright lights so as not to disturb the wine during the maturation process. The most common barrels in the industry hold approximately 225 litres of wine (300 bottles).

So, with a flourish of my own writer’s wand, here is the list of my favourite wine cellars in Niagara.

Casa Mia

Family owned and operated for 30 years, Casa Mia Restaurant ranks at the top for its authentic Italian food. Located in Niagara Falls, it boasts one of the best wine lists in town and holds a ‘two glass’ Best of Award of Excellence rating from Wine Spectator Magazine. This novel restaurant has a traditional underground cantina, (wine cellar in Italian) which is well stocked with vintage wines from around the world. A rustic wooden table runs the length of the cantina and is used for special occasions or private tours and tastings. The cantina is well stocked with high quality and rare wines such as a 2000 Château Lafite Rothschild, Sassicaia, Tignanello, Gaja Brunello Di Montalcino; Prisoner and Orin Swift.  Their on-site certified sommelier is extremely knowledgeable and can help choose the best wine for your palate. Try out the self-serve Enomatic wine bar, where you can buy small samples or wine by the glass.  |  casamiaristorante.com

 Peller Estates 

Stately and magnificent, this winery is large and impressive but down to earth when it comes to customer care. Peller Estates Winery offers imaginative guest experiences, many of which include a stop in the winery’s elegant wine library. Situated underground inside the barrel cellar, the library is a cozy place for a sit-down dining experience. The cellar itself is kept at the cool temperature necessary for fermentation but the library is climate controlled. Glass walls allow guests to dine in comfort, while looking out at the wine barrels. Guest experiences such as the Art of Wine and Food, Estate Reds, Beyond the Bottle and Chicks and Chocolate all enhance your appreciation of wine within the quiet ambiance of this cellar. While visiting Peller, be sure to try their famous Ice Cuvee Rose-a sparkling wine with a dosage of red Icewine—irresistible!  |  peller.com

 Trius at Hillebrand 

This winery is one of the oldest and most established wine producers in the region. Hillebrand Winery has three separate wine cellars: white, red and sparkling. I chose Hillebrand for its sparkling cellar, as this is the only winery in Niagara where visitors can see sparkling wine made on site. Take note of the large cement, egg-shaped wine casks as you walk through the white cellar to get to the sparkling cellar. Here, Trius Brut wines are made by using the traditional Champagne method to produce high quality sparkling wine. Row upon row of horizontal wine bottles are stacked to the ceiling while they go through the secondary fermentation process. This fermentation produces the bubbles in sparkling wine. Once this step is over, the bottles are transferred to cages and onto the gyro-palette that takes them through the riddling process. Riddling is the process of rotating the bottles daily, while gradually tilting them upwards until the entire yeast residue is collected in the neck of the bottle. Once the bottles are upside down, the bottling process begins. The inverted bottles are placed in a machine that flash-freezes the bottle neck and allows for the removal of the frozen plug containing all the yeast sediment. The bottle is then topped up with a dosage of added sweetness such as Icewine or grape juice to create the desired flavours for the finished product. Corking, wiring and labeling are all done on site for the visitor to see. Trius Brut and Trius Rose make perfect summer sippers.  |  triuswines.com

 Tawse Winery 

This winery is a work of art inside and out. Nestled into a hill at the edge of a pond, the property offers a panorama of the surrounding vineyards with a view of Lake Ontario in the distance. The winery’s beauty is more than just skin deep— this gravity fed winery has received biodynamic and organic certification. It is quite a sight to see sheep grazing amongst the vines as the horse-drawn plows work the soil between the rows. The three wine cellars are just as impressive—each arched cellar serving a different purpose. The White Cellar , the Red Cellar, and the Tasting Cellar are constructed with arched ceilings to provide strength and character. All utilize the underground waterbed and natural limestone hillside to correctly control the climate. Pre-release samplings, winemaker’s dinners, a wine club, or touring events are often held in the large tasting cellar, giving customers the unique experience to sip and sample underground.  |  tawsewinery.ca

 Vineland Estates Winery 

This winery is the granddaddy of Niagara wineries and is marked by a stone tower and historical farm buildings, which date back to 1877. Situated on the scenic Niagara Escarpment in Vineland, this elegant winery was one of the first to plant grapes in the area and has some of the oldest existing vines. The cellar is located in the basement of what was once the barn. Here long rows of oak barrels lead to the wine library at the far end. Follow the history of the winery all the way back to 1983 through the back-vintages that line the shelves of the library. Group tours, educational tastings, corporate functions and wine club events are regularly held in this spacious cellar. Be sure to sample the 2012 Cabernet Franc.  |  vineland.com 

 Megalomaniac 

When the former owner of Vineland Estates sold the winery, he retained a few acres of grapes for his own retirement project. He dug into the hillside of the Niagara Escarpment to create a cellar where he could produce some wine for himself, friends, colleagues and loyal customers. A generous soul, he dedicated all proceeds to charity. The arched stone entrance frames the massive wooden doors, which lead into the wine cave. Along the walls are porticos that reveal the ancient layers of limestone where the groundwater trickles down and provides humidity for the cellar. A portable tasting bar was set up among the tanks so visitors could observe the wine making process. Within a few years, word spread about this unique experience and demand for his wines grew exponentially. It was clear that more space was needed to accommodate visitors. Remaining true to its name, a mega-structure is being built right on top of the cellar. This building is designed to make the most of the view from the pinnacle of the escarpment. The panoramic views of the farmland, Lake Ontario, Niagara Falls and a distant Toronto are spectacular. The wines are no less spectacular; each wine label has been carefully chosen to reflect the personality of the wine within. Each label has a great story behind its name: Narcissistic Riesling, Big Mouth Merlot and Sonofabitch-Pinot Noir as does the name of the winery—ask a sales associate to explain the stories behind the names, it makes for great conversation!  |  megalomaniacwine.com

 Pillitteri Estates Winery 

This huge cellar contains about 1000 oak barrels, and an impressive forty-one foot, polished concrete table running the length of the room. The twenty stainless steel chairs that are suspended on the walls alongside the table are each numbered and engraved for significant milestones in the family’s history. Pillitteri Winery maintains the title as the largest estate producer of Icewine in the world. Innovation is their success and they now produce thirteen different styles of Icewine.

Pillitteri gives daily tours and can accommodate large groups by appointment, they will arrange for private tours and tastings in their barrel cellar upon request.  |  pillitteri.com

 Reif Winery 

As one of the pioneers of the wine industry, Reif has some of the oldest vines along the Niagara River. It also boasts some of the oldest and largest wine barrels in Canada. The owner, who is originally from Germany, disassembled these heirloom wine barrels stave-by-stave and shipped them to his new winery in Canada, where they were then reassembled. These barrels are still used and can be seen in the ‘German Cellar’, which is open to visitors. The barrels are almost 9’ high and 8’ wide and hold 9850 litres of wine. Wine is placed in these barrels at the final stage of aging to further develop the subtle flavor and aromas.  |  reifwinery.com

Weinkeller 

As you enter this eclectic space located below street level, you are greeted with enthusiasm by the hospitable staff. Newly opened as an intimate wine-bar and restaurant, the owners have painstakingly restored antique hand-carved Bavarian ceiling beams to expose the original artwork. This novel restaurant offers ‘wine on tap’ which is made in-house from local grape juice. The idea is fun and the wines are enjoyable; there is always something new and exciting to try. The Weinkeller has received great reviews for its food, which is lovingly prepared just as Grandma would have done. Yoga breakfasts are offered outside on the large heated patio every Sunday and a party room is available for private functions or business meetings.  |  weinkeller.ca

 Creekside Estate Winery 

This award winning winery is especially well known for its robust red wines. Barrel aging in their authentic cellar is a necessary step in making these outstanding wines. You enter the cellar through an exterior door that leads into the ground behind the winery. Reminiscent of my European experience, we descended down a long ramp and arrived in a dimly lit cellar surrounded by oak bariques, demi muids, and a large wooden cask. The overhead chandelier casts shadows on the walls and floor, which give a dramatic atmosphere to the space. But don’t be fooled: the mood at Creekside is always fun and upbeat, and their sense of humour is evident throughout the cellar. Each wine barrel has its own personal name. Notable vintages have been given celebrity status and named for their particular characteristics. One cluster of barrels is named Paul, George, Ringo, and Yoko. Another group is named Aragorn, Gandalf and Salma, and a row of large and curvaceous barrels are named after their celebrity counterparts-Marilyn, Scarlett and Aretha! There is always fun to be had on a visit to Creekside— take a tour, join the wine club, or just enjoy a glass of wine with lunch on their gorgeous outdoor patio that overlooks the vineyard and the entrance to the wine cellar.  |  creeksidewine.com 

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