The Evolution of the Ontario Wine Industry
What would Ontario be without its prosperous wine industry? The proximity to the Great Lakes, the nutrient-rich soil and the topography of Southern Ontario made it destined to play a huge role in the ever-growing Canadian wine industry. Grapes have been growing in Ontario for over 200 years, yet the beginning of the modern day wine story starts in 1975 when the first new winery licence since prohibition was given. Since then, new wineries started emerging, experimenting with different varietals and growing practices that worked with the cool weather climate that Ontario offers. Wanting to commit to producing quality wines, in 1988, wineries established the Vintner’s Quality Association (VQA) to put production standards in place and to distinguish regional appellations. Today, there are over 160 Ontario wineries that are producing wines that have been awarded the VQA designation.
There are three VQA designated wine regions in Ontario and although they are just a few hours away from each other, the diversity in soil type, the breeze effects off of the Great Lakes and each region’s topographical terrain are contributing factors in creating wines with their own distinct terroir. The moderately cool climate allows for the growing of many different familiar grape varietals including: Riesling, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Baco Noir and Cabernet Franc.
The Niagara Peninsula is the largest and most diverse of the wine regions in Ontario. In the beginning, Niagara was home to two native grape varietals: Concord, and Niagara: both of which are better known for their applications as juices and jams/jellies. The three original wine-grape varietals planted in the region were Riesling, Chardonnay and Gamay Noir; all of which are still grown to this day, amongst many others.
The Niagara Peninsula has unique climate effects based on the area in which the vines are planted. Position dependent to the Niagara Escarpment, temperatures can range anywhere between 1 and 2 degrees celsius simply based on elevation (above or below the escarpment). The soil is generally clay-based soil, with hints of sand and silt lending to good drainage in which the vines thrive, however there are unique intricacies between various areas in the region.
Due to the varying subclimates within the Niagara Peninsula, in 2005, the VQA divided the appellation into two regional appellations, Niagara-on-the-Lake and Niagara Escarpment, and even further into ten sub-appellations. From Niagara Falls wineries, to Niagara-on-the-Lake wineries, to wineries located in the Short Hills Bench – there is a different and unique flavour profile to be found for everyone’s taste buds.
Although there are many varietals that currently call Niagara home, Baco Noir has proved to be quite resilient in historically cool climate, harsh winters and ultimately produce a consistently impressive yield year over year in this climate. Henry of Pelham, one of North America’s top producers of the varietal, has made Baco Noir a staple in households across the Region. From its unique combination of a fruit-forward profile combined with its ability to be aged, it is destined to leave the consumer with a ton of curiosity.
Lake Erie North Shore
Wineries in the southernmost part of Ontario, extending along the Lake Erie shoreline, are part of the oldest wine region in Ontario. The first winery was opened here in the 1860’s and now, though it is the smallest wine region in Ontario, the region entices any wine connoisseur with its excellent wines. The Lake Erie North Shore (LENS) appellation gets its distinction from the southern location and the shallow waters of Lake Erie which are key contributors to the long growing season. This Ontario wine region shares its latitude with some of the best known wine regions around the world including northern California, Bordeaux and Tuscany. The longer growing season allows for the fruit to ripen creating the perfect balance between sweetness and acidity. LENS also encompasses a sub-appellation within the region called the South Islands sub-appellation. There are nine islands that make up the Town of Pelee Island where this sub-appellation is located. The climate on the islands offers a longer growing season than that of the mainland, making it the appellation with the longer growing season in Canada. Located about 2 hours from Toronto, this wine destination calls tourists from early spring to late fall to enjoy all that these wineries have to offer.
Prince Edward County
“The County”, as it’s often called, is the youngest of the Ontario wine regions with its first winery opening in 2001. In 2007, it was officially designated as a VQA appellation of origin due to the recognizable flavours the varietals get from the limestone and clay mixture in the soil they are grown in. Many wineries in PEC specialise in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay as these varieties in particular have a tendency to pick up attributes from their soil leading to distinctive wine profiles. The region is located on Lake Ontario’s northern shore which provides the area with a south-westerly breeze that moderates the temperature by cooling the vineyards in the hot summer months and preventing an early fall frost. Being the most northern wine region in Ontario comes with challenges that inspire innovative and unique growing practices. During the winter months, temperatures can drop below -24 degrees Celsius so some growers opt to bury their vines after harvesting in the fall to provide enough insulation to protect against the harsh winters. The PEC soil helps with early warming in the spring. These Ontario wineries are located just a few chours from both Toronto and Ottawa making it the ideal getaway for those from either larger city.
Sources: Wine Country Ontario & VQA Websites