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Ontario Wine Country: The New Frontier for Riesling and Pinot Noir

Ontario Wine Country: The New Frontier for Riesling and Pinot Noir

By Ian D’Agata

The best evidence of how much Canada’s wines have improved over the last two decades is the number of Niagara wineries that have stopped making icewine or no longer view it as their most important product. (Niagara Peninsula is an appellation, or what in Canada is identified as a Designated Viticultural Area, or DVA, of the Province of Ontario.) Whereas previously the only Canadian, never mind Niagara, wine any American had heard of was icewine, nowadays that is no longer true. Canadian wineries are now focusing on premium dry wines, and have become remarkably adept at producing them. Indeed, some of their rieslings and pinot noirs rank with the best from other New World countries.

Although Canada now makes wine successfully in more than one province, including Québec and the Atlantic Provinces such as Nova Scotia, the majority of production and high-quality wines are from British Columbia (BC) and Ontario. Very generally speaking, while BC is much warmer, with parts of the province almost hot, and characterized by little rainfall, Ontario is a perfect example of a cool-climate viticultural area not unlike those of New Zealand, northern France, northern Italy, and Oregon.

Arguably, Ontario is where Canada’s best rieslings, chardonnays and pinot noirs are made (though there are excellent ones made in cooler parts of BC as well). Gone are the days when people thought Ontario could only produce wines from winter-hardy hybrids. In fact, only one hybrid, vidal, is still being used to any great extent (mainly to make icewine), while the majority of the others have been replaced by Vitis vinifera varieties such as chardonnay and riesling. Last but not least, wine lovers should know that there is hardly a more beautiful wine country destination in the whole world. Ontario’s wine production zones are pristine and postcard-pretty, with many excellent country restaurants and gifted cooks only adding to the pleasure of hunting down world-class caliber wines.

Of course, production volumes for Ontario’s best wines can be small. Canadians realize what they have and tend to drink these wines up, so bottles are hard to find outside Canada. And not all the wines are as good as they should be. The problem is mostly young vines, as the majority of new Ontario wineries go back no farther than the 1990s, if that. Many vineyards are less than ten years old, and the wines they yield can be a little dilute and hollow in the mid-palate, and cannot compete among the world’s best for complexity. Furthermore, owing to low volumes and high local demand, prices can be relatively high for these wines. Still, once wine lovers the world over realize that Ontario and parts of BC are some of the few viticultural areas in the world with the potential for truly memorable pinot noir, and that Canada is already one of the three or four best countries in the world for riesling, with more than adequate chardonnay, pinot gris and more, Canadian wines will become increasingly sought after.

[IWC readers who have gotten to know me over the years through my articles on the wines of Italy and Bordeaux may wonder what I am doing writing about Canada’s wines. Besides holding the firm belief that Canadian riesling, pinot noir and chardonnay are potentially world-class wines (not just the icewines), I spent my adolescent years in Canada and watched the Canadian wine industry (especially Ontario’s) grow from a grassroots movement to the major industry it is today. In 1991 I was the first to hold a tasting of New World merlots in Rome in which a Canadian wine was present (a 1988 Stoney Ridge bottling from the legendary Lenko vineyard). Even earlier, in 1983, I was the first in Rome to hold a tasting of rieslings from around the world that also showcased Ontario’s efforts. More than a decade later, in 2002, I was the first in Italy to write an in-depth article for a major Italian wine magazine about Canadian icewines and the first to hold an exclusive tasting of Canada’s icewines for the Rome Slow Food branch.]

The Ontario growing region. Niagara is probably Canada’s most important wine producing area, hugging the southwestern shore of Lake Ontario, only about an hour southwest of the sprawling metropolis of Toronto. This is cool-climate wine country, and in fact the most successful wines made here are from riesling, chardonnay and pinot noir, with cabernet franc having been extremely successful of late. Terroir lovers should note that after Burgundy, Alsace, Germany and Piedmont, Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula is one of the most interesting terroir-obsessed winemaking areas of the world.

Ontario’s winemaking area has been divided into four major DVAs: the Lake Erie North Shore, Pelee Island, Niagara Peninsula, and Prince Edward County. The Lake Erie North Shore and Pelee Island are the two southernmost viticultural areas of Ontario (and Canada as well); they enjoy the same growing degree days (GDD) as northern California. The much cooler Prince Edward County, a peninsula jutting out into Lake Ontario on its northeastern side, is where some of the country’s finest limestone soils are found. Though this is an area with immense potential for making high-quality chardonnays and pinot noirs, it is plagued by extreme winters. The lake often freezes here, and the vines are afforded little shelter from brutally cold winds. Still, the soil parallels to Burgundy have motivated many growers to brave extreme weather conditions in an attempt to make great wines, and initial results have been quite promising. And global warming may end up giving a hand to this Ontario production zone.

The most important DVA of Ontario is Niagara, where Lake Ontario’s thermo-reflective and thermo-conservation properties help to create microclimates that are ideally suited for cool-weather varieties. While Niagara can be bone-chillingly cold in some of its worst winters, it’s easy to forget that it does sit at the same latitude as Tuscany, that it has GDD more or less equivalent to those of Chianti, as well as average summer temperatures of about 75°F. The fall season is usually dry, long and relatively cool, and there is enough rainfall (and snow) that irrigation is not required. The long growing season allows for development of flavor complexity that is simply not possible in many warm-weather regions of the New World. The wines are characterized by good acidity, low alcohol and food-friendliness.

Niagara’s main viticultural areas are around the towns of Jordan and Niagara-on-the-Lake, but the viticultural geography is more complicated than it appears at first glance. As I mentioned above, one of the most exciting aspects of Niagara is the painstaking care that has gone into detailing the different micro-appellations within the larger appellation. So even though we still speak of wines of Niagara, much as we speak of those of Napa Valley or Oregon, one should also think of Niagara’s wines in more specific terms–for example, in terms of the differences between a riesling made from grapes grown in different sub-appellations such as the Beamsville Bench or the Lincoln Lakeshore. As a general rule, the area around Jordan is cooler, while the area of Niagara-on-the-Lake, closer to Lake Ontario, benefits from warm lake breezes and has more heat units. Not surprisingly, the whites of the former area are generally more lively, mineral-driven and dynamic, while the latter are more obviously fruity, softer and less steely; Niagara-on-the-Lake is also where cabernet sauvignon and other Bordeaux red varieties fare better. There is a real difference between wines made from around Niagara-on-the-Lake and those around Jordan.

Besides ideal geological and climatic conditions for cool-climate viticulture, a number of enlightened decisions have also greatly helped Ontario wines advance to the major-league level. One was the creation of an entity that would allow for the training of a local wine-specific workforce: the Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute at Brock University. This learning facility, located in St. Catharines, has been training winemakers since 1997. Another very important step was the creation of the Ontario-wide Vintner’s Quality Alliance (VQA), an effort to classify wines along the lines of France’s AOC or Italy’s DOC systems. The VQA seal is a guarantee of quality for Ontario wines. The potential for fine wine in Ontario has not gone unnoticed, and foreign investors have begun to arrive.

In addition to excellent wines from riesling, chardonnay and pinot noir, Ontario is producing some good gewürztraminer, pinot gris and cabernet franc too. Although a good bit of merlot is made, many producers are beginning to phase out this variety in favor of cabernet franc, which is better able to survive the cold Ontario winters. By the way, cabernet sauvignon doesn’t ripen often enough in Ontario to consistently give wines of note–at least, up until now. One very interesting red hybrid worth a look is baco noir, which gives a peppery, light zinfandel-like wine that can be a real joy to drink. Most importantly, wine lovers should take note that Ontario represents one of the greatest riesling terroirs in the world. These wines have a distinction and character all their own; I think of them as in between those of Alsace and the Rheingau in style, but with more alcohol than the latter. Of course, Ontario’s geology and microclimates are sufficiently varied that many rieslings will also remind tasters of wines from the Saar, the Ruwer and the Mosel, especially the latter region’s dainty icewines.
Recent vintages in Ontario. The growing season of 2010 began with a relatively mild and dry winter and early spring throughout southern Ontario. Bud burst was about two weeks early in all of the wine growing regions: mid-April in the Niagara Peninsula, Lake Erie North Shore and Pelee Island, and early May in Prince Edward County. Despite the prevailing warm conditions, Prince Edward County was hit with frost in mid May, resulting in some bud damage but little widespread ill effect. May was warm and summery, with mean temperatures hovering 2° to 3°C above normal and a number of high-temperature records broken. June had normal temperatures but rain, including four tornadoes in the Lake Erie North Shore appellation at the start and end of the month. Fortunately for the grape crop, no vineyards sustained any lasting damage.

Severe thunderstorms continued into early July for Lake Erie North Shore but on balance the July weather was hot, sunny and perfect for maturing grapes. Some heavy downpours left enough moisture to cause slight disease pressure in a few locations but generally rain came in healthy amounts and there were a lot of sunshine hours to fuel growth. August was warmer and drier than normal in all regions, and included a record low precipitation total for Lake Erie North Shore. The grape harvest began approximately two weeks early, with sparkling wine grapes harvested in late August and with warm, dry conditions continuing into September. The long growing season of 2010 held promise for later-ripening varieties that are sometimes challenged by Ontario’s climate.

At the other extreme, 2009, the coolest vintage of the decade, experienced a cold and wet July and August, but warm, dry weather in September and October saved the day. Thanks to very long hang-time, the resulting wines have plenty of acidity and backbone, as well as depth of flavor. When the sun and warmth returned in late August, there were also wide day-night extremes in temperature, with the very cool nights guaranteeing white wines of wonderful aromatic complexity and freshness. And at the end of the first week of October, the weather turned cold and dry, so the grapes continued to ripen slowly on the vine, developing further complexity while maintaining acidity.

The 2008 vintage was cold but not as late as 2009, featuring a long, cool growing season with good amounts of sunlight. June, which was slightly warmer than usual, also presented 50% more rainfall than average. July and August were challenging in that temperatures dropped to unseasonably cool levels, with above-average precipitation continuing, leading to higher than usual vine disease pressures. Fortunately, the last two weeks of August and the first week of September were nearly perfect, setting the stage for a good vintage. The rest of September and October were characterized by cool, sunshine-filled days that allowed for slow, proper ripening of the grapes.

Finally, 2007 may well be the finest vintage ever for red wines in the Niagara Peninsula. Warm, dry conditions dominated for most of the growing season; in fact, some areas were plagued by thunderstorms, while others experienced near-drought conditions. In the Niagara Peninsula, precipitation levels were less than half of normal in many areas for much of the season. April through August witnessed above-average temperatures and very low rainfall. Some of the younger vines experienced heat stress and manual irrigation was needed in some areas. With a small crop harvested early 2007 is generally viewed as potentially a very great vintage for Niagara’s red wines. Prince Edward County experienced similar conditions, if not quite as dry, while Lake Erie North Shore and Pelee lsland had rain levels closer to normal in the late summer and early fall. The harvest began early: in late August in Pelee Island and Lake Erie North Shore and for sparkling wine grapes across the province. September and October were warmer and drier than normal, offering excellent conditions for harvest.

I tasted the following wines, mostly blind, in Toronto last summer and again in Rome in November. I followed up by tasting a few more new releases just before this report was finished in January.