Photo: Debra Galbraith (Tawse)

Twenty Valley may not be the flashiest wine region south of Lake Ontario (Niagara-on-the-Lake claims that prize), but it is the most overlooked. Just an hour’s drive from Toronto and tucked between the lake and the Niagara Escarpment, the towns of Beamsville, Jordan and Vineland are chockablock with small, innovative wineries, like the award-winning Hidden Bench, turning out limited quantities of refined cool-climate wines. After discovering the carefully crafted chardonnays, rieslings and cabernet francs produced here (many of which never even make their way out of the province), we also found artisanal cheese makers, sour-cherry orchards and antique shops galore. Even The Great One himself, Wayne Gretzky, chose this down-to-earth destination for his own winery.

At Tawse in Vineland, some of Ontario’s most sought-after cabernet francs and chardonnays are created in a building heated entirely with geothermal energy. The huge vats and steel tanks are all on different floors, allowing fermenting wine to travel via gravity alone. At tiny Featherstone Estate, they go green by having sheep munch on the thick vine leaves that block the sun from the grapes (hence, the name Black Sheep Riesling). We also enjoyed watching the hawk that co-owner Louise Engel uses to keep grape-grabbing starlings in line.  

About Thyme Bistro is where locals and tourists alike come for affordable gourmet French food. The huge shank of buttery sous-vide lamb was a standout, as was the crème brûlée. To top it off, you can choose great local bottles from the extensive wine list or bring your own straight from a nearby winery.

You can’t truly enjoy great wine without great food – and the Good Earth Cooking School shows you how it’s done. A rotating team of chefs runs classes for small groups with such tempting titles as Ménage à Foie and Saucy Little Number. We’ll never buy store-bought mayonnaise again. What’s more, students get to sample some of the best local vino.

At Crown Bench Estates, Peter Kocsis and his wife, Livia, produce a full line of dry wines, but their playfulness comes through in their flavoured icewines. We sampled vanilla, chocolate, wild ginger and maple syrup. Our favourite? Hot Ice, infused with spicy jalapeños.  

Ninavik Native Arts, in the heart of Jordan Village, is a gallery of mostly Iroquois and Inuit artworks, including jewellery, whalebone-vertebra sculptures and intricate soapstone carvings of eagles, walruses and seals. We were particularly taken with the smooth-looking moves of the dancing spirit bear statue.

Don’t expect a typical bed and breakfast stuffed with tchotchkes and gewgaws at Black Walnut Manor. Owners Carole Tothe-Gurgol and Michael Gurgol have transformed their huge century-old home into a boutique inn, sweetening the deal with freshly baked chocolatines and brie-stuffed French toast. The blazing fireplace really beat back the chill as we sipped our favourite finds of the day.  

Photo: Rob Allen (Black Walnut Manor)