Which restaurant boasts the largest collection of Amarone wines in the world?

Here’s a clue: It’s not in Italy, or even New York.

It’s an old-style Italian joint called Via Allegro Ristorante, in a generic strip mall across from a Home Depot in western Toronto.

Top Restaurants For Canadian Wine-Lovers

Don’t let the plebian locale fool you. Its wine list–which, at 5,000 selections, is one of largest in the world–has earned the prestigious Grand Award from Wine Spectator each year since 2003.

Bistro a Champlain, about an hour outside of Montreal on the road to Mont Tremblant, easily boasts the world’s largest collection of large-format bottles of Domaine de la Romanee-Conti. We’re talking stacks of Methuselahs–six liter bottles–of what many consider to be Burgundy’s pinnacle.

If you thought Canada’s alcohol consumption was limited to ice wine and Molson Golden, think again.

Wine consumption is on the rise in Canada. In 2005, Canadians drained 396 million bottles, representing an increase of 23% over the 2001-2005 period. By 2010, wine consumption is expected to grow to 465 million bottles a year. Over 10 years, wine consumption will have increased by an average of 4.5% per year.

And though “wine has not yet surpassed beer as the beverage of choice”–as it now has in the United States–”it’s only a matter of time,” says John Szabo, a wine consultant and master sommelier for the Toronto-based Center for Vine Affairs.

“The interest in wine has skyrocketed in the last few years,” he says. “Everyone in Canada is taking a wine class and reading wine blogs.”

Behind The Bar

Wine bars are cropping up everywhere, even in remote corners of Newfoundland, where at a spot called Atlantica, you can find a bottle of Fontaine-Gagnard Chassagne-Montrachet Les Vergers 2004 for $143.

What has fueled the excitement over the grape?

In the case of Newfoundland and much of Eastern Canada, a sudden infusion of “ridiculous amounts” of oil money has created a huge demand for luxury goods such as wine, says Szabo.

What’s more, Canada has seen its own burgeoning wine industry explode in the last 10 years. Its two wine-producing regions, the Niagara Peninsula in Ontario and the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia, are turning out award-winning pinot noirs and Rieslings.

“Wine appreciation is directly related to the development of a local wine industry,” says Natalie MacLean, whose web site is nataliemaclean.com and is author of Red, White and Drunk All Over.

Having hometown celebrities like Wayne Gretzky and Dan Aykroyd get in on the winemaking act has also brought more exposure to Canada’s wine regions, and to wine appreciation in general.

“I’m quite proud of Canadian wines,’ says MacLean. “But the challenge in talking about them is that a lot of people haven’t tried them.”

This is because of Canada’s relatively small production and archaic laws limiting intra-provincial transport.

“So much of the great wine that’s made here stays here, ” says MacLean.

Szabo agrees. “To get the good stuff, you really have to go to the source,” he says. “It’s easier–and cheaper–for me to get a wine from Chile than it is to get one from B.C.”

Dishing The List

We asked MacLean, Szabo and other Canadian sommeliers to come up with a list of top restaurants across the country to drink wine–both Canadian and international.

For a taste of the best wine British Columbia has to offer, they picked Sooke Harbour House, which boasts the largest collection of wines from the province, including the largest ice wine selection in the world (300 bottles).

For wines from Ontario producers, Treadwell Farm to Table Cuisine in Port Dalhousie was the clear choice. Sommelier James Treadwell, who owns the restaurant with his father, award-winning chef Stephen Treadwell, has compiled a stellar list showcasing the pride of local producers alongside an intelligent selection of international labels.

To experience the best Nova Scotia has to offer, wine writer and sommelier Craig Pinhey recommends Five Fishermen, which lists Nova Scotia wines by their sub-appellations.

Post Hotel Dining Room, Post Hotel and Spa, Lake Louise, Alberta

Most Breadth And Depth

The wine cellar at this rustic yet posh retreat in the heart of the Canadian Rockies features 30,500 bottles and more than 2,000 selections, ranging from cult California Cabs to outstanding Burgundy verticals. It is the recipient of Wine Spectator magazine’s highest honor, the “Grand Award.” This is where Chateau Margaux chose to hold its wine summit in 2006.

For more information, visit www.posthotel.com.

Treadwell Farm To Table Cuisine, Old Port Dalhousie, Ontario

Best Selection Of Ontario Producers

Stephen Treadwell prepares the “farm-to-table” cuisine at this highly rated restaurant, and his son James runs the wine program. Though international in scope, the wine list showcases Ontario’s finest, including many hard-to-find gems.

For more information, visit www.treadwellcuisine.com.

Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar, Toronto

Most Esoteric Wines By The Glass

Want to taste something new and different? Each item on Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar’s menu–from the chilled beet soup to the signature Yukon Gold fries with aioli–has a grape mate in a glass, carefully chosen by Jamie Drummond, the Indiana Jones of sommeliers. He is known for uncovering off-the-beaten-path “conversation wines,” like the Peter Franus Mourvèdre “Brandlin Vineyard” Mount Veeder from Napa Valley he was pouring last month.

For more information, visit www.jamiekennedy.ca.

Beckta Dining & Wine, Ottawa

Best For Boutique, Artisanal Wines

Stephen Beckta, a former sommelier at the esteemed Daniel and Eleven Madison Park in Manhattan, returned to his native Ottawa to open this ingredient-driven restaurant, showcasing handcrafted wines from small producers. Beckta is particularly proud to pour rare finds like the Riesling “Picone Vineyard” Charles Baker, VQA Niagara 2006 ($70). “It’s Canada’s best Riesling,” he says, “but impossible to get.”

For more information, visit www.beckta.com.

Toqué Montreal

Best Range In French Wines

In Quebec, naturellement, oenophiles lean toward all grapes Gallic. For a broad selection of French wines, head to chef Norman Laprise’s top-notch Toqué, where the list travels from the Loire Valley, to the Roussillon and the French Alps, as well as Burgundy and Bordeaux. The list of dessert wines, which includes a $600 bottle of Château d’Yquem, Lur-Saluces, 1993, is particularly impressive.

For more information, visit www.restaurant-toque.com.

Bistro A Champlain, Sainte-Marguerite-Du-Lac-Masson, Québec

Most Decadent French Cellar

Set in an old general store dating to 1864, this restaurant overlooking Lac Masson was the first in Canada to receive The Wine Spectator’s Grand Award for its over-the-top cellar, which many have described as a “French-wine-lover’s Mecca.” Have the colorful owner, Champlain Charest, give you a personal tour through stacks – and stacks — of Bordeaux grands crus and Methuselahs (six-liter bottles!) of Domaine de la Romanee-Conti. Astonishing.

For more information, visit www.bistroachamplain.com.

Five Fishermen, Halifax

Best Selection Of Nova Scotian Wines

The wines of Nova Scotia marry well with fish, and so they figure prominently on this seafood restaurant’s list. Regional pride may also have something to do with it: The list even includes the sub-appellations of each offering. These wineries “represent the best of wine from the Atlantic Provinces and are gaining recognition throughout Canada and across the world” reads the list, by way of introduction.

For more information, visit www.fivefishermen.com.

Via Allegro, Etobicoke, Ontario

Best Italian Wine Selection

The wine list here “makes the average phone book look like a paperback in comparison,” says Toronto wine consultant and master sommelier John Szabo. Though they’ve got everything covered here–from Mouton Rothschild dating to 1893 to 300 Canadian wines–they are known for their breadth and depth in Italian wines, particularly their mighty Tuscans and Amarones.

For more information, visit www.viaallegroristorante.com.

Barberian Steakhouse, Toronto

Best Burgundy Verticals

This classic celebrity haunt where Richard Burton proposed to Elizabeth Taylor–the first time–has amassed a massive collection since opening in the 1950s. You can fit 40,000 bottles in the snazzy new cellar. Most of the 2,000 labels lean toward France (Owner Aaron Barberian is a Burgundy fiend.) You can admire the collection if you dine in the mezzanine cellar–20 feet underground, so remember to bring a sweater!

For more information, visit www.barberians.com.