Discovering the vineyards of Ontario

 I won the Vintners Scholarship for my WSET Diploma and for the prize I could choose to visit any wine region I wanted. After much deliberation I chose Ontario in Canada and visited in the summer of 2012. Here is my report from that trip.

There are approximately 6000 hectares (18,000 acres) of VQA- certified vineyards in Ontario with over 100 wineries. These are mainly based in the Niagara region – stretching southeast of Toronto along the southern shore of Lake Ontario to the USA border. Production stands at just under 17 million litres of VQA wine. In 2010 a mere 40,000 litres of this was exported to the UK. No surprise then that consumers and even wine trade here in the UK have little knowledge of Canadian wine – with the possible exception of icewine. This lack of awareness was one of my main reasons for visiting Ontario for my Vintners Scholarship trip – what better opportunity to really learn about a region than by visiting the wineries and winemakers themselves.

View over Niagara looking down to Lake Ontario

View over Niagara looking down to Lake Ontario

I spent a week touring the Niagara Peninsula and its sub-regions and then a further three days in Prince Edward County, a more recent addition to the Canadian wine scene on the northern side of Lake Ontario. I visited a wide range of wineries from the tiny, boutique wineries where production was literally in the garage to larger, more commercial wineries. Along the way I learnt about the terroir and climate of the regions, the different grape varieties grown and the particular hurdles the industry has to overcome. It is an exciting time for the wine industry there, and there is certainly huge potential for the wineries to take their place on the world stage.

Ontario shares a similar latitude to Burgundy and has a similar number of growing degree days. However, due to the strong continental climate, summers are hotter and winters are much colder than in Burgundy. This is where Lake Ontario has an incredibly important influence on the Niagara Peninsula region – having a cooling influence in the summer and also helping to moderate the cold temperatures of winter. In contrast, Prince Edward County has no large body of water north of it to moderate the cold northerly winds of winter – so temperatures drop much further. In 2010 the record low in Prince Edward County hit -34.6oC. For vines to survive these extremely low temperatures, every autumn the vines are pruned, canes are tied to wires at ground level and then the entire vine is covered with soil. As one winemaker explained to me, this has an important influence on yield. As pruning occurs in the autumn rather than the spring, it is harder to choose the most productive canes to tie down. The process of uncovering the vines in the spring can also break off buds. The net result of this is a lower yield than in Niagara, by up to 50%. This understandably has an influence on the size of wineries on Prince Edward County: it is dominated by small, boutique wineries with none of the larger wineries that Niagara has.

The low trained vines of Prince Edward County

The low trained vines of Prince Edward County

The Niagara Escarpment runs along the length of the Niagara Peninsula and assists in air circulation from Lake Ontario, trapping the moderating lake effect in this region and helping to provide this unique micro-climate. The Escarpment forms the southern edge of the wine region and helps to provide the differences in terroir and climate that make up the Peninsula. The escarpment is formed of layers of sandstone, shale and dolomitic limestone each with differing water holding capacity. The subregions that run along the edge of the escarpment – Short Hills Bench, Twenty Mile Bench and Beamsville Bench – have a distinct minerality and freshness characterising their wines as a result of this terroir. Even within vineyards there are distinct terroir differences. A Brock University study at Thirty Bench winery found large differences in the water holding capacity of soils between three adjoining blocks of Riesling vines. The result of this is that grapes in each block have differences in pH, Brix and flavour compounds and result in three different wines – one characterised by ripe peach fruit, one by fresh citrus fruit and one by smoky, steely minerality.

Whilst vines have been grown in Ontario for 200 years, it is really only in the last 20 years that there was a move from hybrids to vitis vinifera. Because of this, the regions are still working out what varieties do and don’t work and what grows best where. This results in a large number of different varieties being grown. During my visit I tasted everything from Melon de Bourgogne to Malbec, Chardonnay to Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling to Syrah. Whilst some varieties were clearly much more suited to the regions than others, the wines were all characterised by fresh, bright acidity and moderate alcohol of around 12%. My tasting notes are littered with references to the crisp acidity, lovely weight and freshness of the wines. The four varieties that really stood out for me as potentially being world-class were Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc. Riesling performs particularly well on the Bench subregions of Niagara, thanks to the minerality from that dolomitic limestone. Most of the wines I tasted had just a touch of residual sugar to balance that high, brisk acidity and were very refreshing wines of around 11% alcohol. Chardonnay excels across the regions, both in Niagara and Prince Edward County and I suspect is the variety that will truly put Ontario on the world wine map. Prince Edward County is prized for its calcareous limestone and clay loam soils, very similar to Burgundy and one of the reasons Chardonnay in particular produces some excellent wines here. The best wines I tasted would certainly stand up well in a blind tasting with top examples from around the world. For the reds, Pinot Noir was more variable than Cabernet Franc but the better examples were classically Burgundian in style with potental for bottle ageing and I am certain that with more time this variety will shine. Cabernet Franc was probably the most eye-opening variety: where else in the world do you find so much grown and labelled varietally on the bottles? There is surely an opportunity here for Ontario to make a name for itself with this underrated grape. The wines themselves were full of crunchy dark fruit with some grippy tannin and lifted acidity: perfect summery reds.

Well, you can't visit Ontario without a trip to the Niagara Falls

Well, you can’t visit Ontario without a trip to the Niagara Falls

The extreme climate of Prince Edward County is not the only difficulty the wineries of Ontario face. The Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) is the monopoly that governs sale of alcohol in Ontario. It bills itself as one of the largest buyers of beverage alcohol in the world, selling over 20,000 different products from all over the world. A quick glimpse at their catalogue shows wines listed from such diverse countries as Brazil, Moldova, Serbia, Israel and Georgia as well as all of the First Growths, top Burgundies and just about any other wine you think about. It is against this background that the fledgling Ontario wine industry is working and trying to compete. For the majority of small wineries the process of getting a wine listed in the LCBO and meeting sales quotas and the LCBO’s marketing requirements is not financially worthwhile: so the vast majority of their sales are through cellar doors and to local restaurants. In contrast, for larger wineries the LCBO offers long-term listings, minimises the need for expensive marketing campaigns, allows access to all consumers and – importantly – always pays their bills. This helps to explain why so little is exported: there is little financial incentive for any size of winery.

I for one am sad that Ontario wine is not more available in the UK – having tasted and discovered some really fantastic wines it is a shame not to be able to buy them and share them with others. I hope that in the future the wineries will look more to export markets – it is only in this way that their wines will be tasted and compared to others from around the world and the reputation of Ontario wine will be made. I believe these wines can be world class and it is time that everyone else realised that too.


Postscript – one of my favourite wineries I discovered on the trip – Norman Hardie – has just started being imported into the UK by The Wine Society. I highly recommend buying a bottle if you’re a member. The wines aren’t cheap, but they are fantastic.

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