What is a Canadian hug? It’s the warm embrace of rye whisky going down smooth and slow. At JP Wiser’s we tour and taste the spirit of Canada and, in the heart of Walkerville—the namesake of Hiram Walker, founder of Canadian Club—savour our patriotism with each sip. Swanky restaurants and bars are revitalizing this heritage district. Artisans, students and intellectuals gather at Taloolah Café for an eclectic menu of delectables to pair with Vietnamese coffee, Burmese hot chocolate, Turmeric and ginger lattes and revitalizing smoothies. Cozied-up in F&B Walkerville we relish a “Bone Marrow Luge” with bourbon-maple bacon jam, and tilt back as the bone becomes a vessel on which Pike Creek Double Barrel is poured down the hatch. Across town at Mezzo Ristorante, a pillar of Windsor’s restaurant scene, a hearty portion of cod luxuriates in a stew of tomato, white wine, onions and Calabrese olives on basmati rice. This is the height of classic, rustic Italian cuisine.
The new whisky generating a lot of buzz is Wolfhead Distillery’s Coffee Whisky. This is Ontario’s only craft distillery with a restaurant attached. In the heart of Essex County, this kitchen infuses its spirits into every lip smacking bite from baked wings with whisky infused bbq sauce, to cheesecake with grapefruit vodka. Paired with an Apple Berry Mule, it ignites my palate.
Nothing is quite what it seems in the Windsor/Essex region part of Ontario’s Southwest. We’re south of the U.S. border, due south of Detroit, without actually crossing the border. This is one of the warmest parts of Canada. The water tower in Leamington is shaped like a tomato, because this is the tomato capital of Canada. There are more greenhouses here than anywhere else in North America. Ornithologists flock to Point Pelee National Park in Leamington to view the Atlantic and Mississippi migratory bird flyways.
From within a chocolate lab in Kingsville, Dutch Boys Chocolate hand-casts dark chocolate medallions with accurate depictions of many of the unique animals found at Point Pelee Park. Their basswood- carved birds from the migration flyway are molded in chocolate for the sweetest souvenirs of the region. Proudly local, Merlis’ Eatery & Beverage House exhibits a hodgepodge of local artwork for sale. A blackboard menu reveals global influences and fresh ingredients. People are disarmingly happy here. I want what they’re having. The Grove Hotel is an uber-hip restored hotel with décor that makes us want to peer around every corner. Each suite has its own unique charm. At The adjacent Grove Brew House we’re drawn to a juicy beef burger with smoked bacon, white cheddar, jalapeño mint jelly and peanut butter! Paired with a quenching Hefeweizen, this has to be tasted to be believed.
The cluster of Lake Erie North Shore wineries emerging from Essex County’s EPIC Wine Country produces world-class wines. Cab Franc is the signature grape. A sublime selection from Viewpointe Estate Winery includes the beautiful phenolic ripeness of Focal Point, and the deep plum-y nose and chewy palate of blackberries, cherries and cassis of Colchester Cuvee. On the patio, mere feet from the bluff above the lake, a basket of perch, dusted in a light crunch, is text-book perfect and pairs swimmingly with the balanced stone fruit and tropical acidity of an Auxerrois. Oxley Estate Winery offers tantalizing duck wings with honey, sugared chilis and szechuan vinaigrette. These crispy, sticky morsels of umami are paired with a fragrant, vibrant Wowza blend of Bianca, Geisenheim and Hibernal that envelopes the heat and cuts the sweetness of the wings. Anywhere you slice it, pizza in Windsor/Essex is delicious. At the family-run Muscedre Vineyards, a wood-fired pizza oven sits under a gazebo between the vineyard and the back of their house. Basil proliferates. Each wine deserves a pizza. Tasting rosé in the vineyards requires a thin crust with tomato sauce, onions, Italian sausage, mozzarella and peppers. Cooper’s Hawk Vineyards is calming and inviting for families. Strolling on fields and hills makes us forget where we are. At their Vines Restaurant, wild mushroom focaccia, brushed with lemon basil pesto, sundried tomatoes, bocconcini and a drizzle of truffle oil is a delectable crunch to pair with their truly Canadian wine, Heritage, which blends three new local Harrow Grape varietals, and is aged in Canadian Oak for a full-bodied fruit with a hint of spice. A playful white wine blend of Auxerrois, Chardonnay, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc, Mantra is bright and lively with expressive lemon-lime notes, honeyed fruit and a touch of minerality.
The range of wines at Sprucewood Shores Estate Winery is fresh and exuberant, but what is truly unique is pairing it with a basket of charcuterie and local cheese on the beach! With toes in the sand I look to my right to see gentle waves of Lake Erie rolling up, and to my left, the vineyards I just walked through. Lady In Red is an aromatic bouquet with soft lush tannins. The 2016 Riesling is crisp and citric with a balanced and refreshing essence of green apple.
With each sip of whisky and wine; each taste of local cuisine, we feel the warm embrace and southern hospitality winding Windsor up to become Ontario’s newest hot spot.
For More Info on this vibrant region, go to: https://www.ontariossouthwest.com/
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Adam Waxman is an award winning travel journalist focusing on food, wine and well being. As well as an actor in film, television and formerly, the Stratford Festival, he is the Publisher of DINE and Destinations magazine.