Efforts at growing grapes and making wine in Ontario date back almost two hundred years. Early specimens were crafted from native Labrusca or hybrid varieties, which at best are reminiscent of Welchade. Prohibition in the 1920s arrested wine production and impeded the development of the industry until 1975 when Inniskillin and Chateau des Charmes pioneered growing and vinifying noble Vinifera varietals. Between then and now, over 150 wineries have followed suit and the industry has grown at more than twice the rate of general economic growth. We can expect more new wineries every year, as only about a quarter of acceptable vineyard sites have been exploited so far.
It comes as a surprise to many that fine wines can be made in Ontario, but the fact is that we have all we need to facilitate their production. The region enjoys a hundred-day growing season, good soils, enough summer heat to ripen the fruit and enough cool nights to preserve the acidity in the grapes that makes the resulting wine fresh and complex. The only real hurdle that required clearing was the human factor. We needed enough imaginative creative entrepreneurs to take the plunge and get into the business. Now we`ve got them.
The Niagara Peninsula is Canada’s leading source of wine. Within Niagara, the Beamsville, St. David`s and Queensville Benches are cool enough for snappy Pinot Noir and white wines like Rieslings, Sauvignon Blanc and crisp Chablis-like Chardonnays. Niagara on the Lake with its warmer microclimate and sandy soils can supply fully ripe Cabernet and Merlot grapes and rich full Chardonnays.
People often complain that Ontario wines are costly. They are priced higher than wines from older regions, but there are reasons for that. Firstly, wineries are trying to recover the costs of establishing a wine industry here over the last four decades. Secondly, preparing vines for our gelid winters takes a lot of expensive labour (including mounding up vines and using special pruning techniques.) Finally, Ontario doesn’t have a large “peasant” population to do the work at bargain basement prices. Our labourers earn full North American wages.
Astrid Brummer, Ontario Product Manager for the LCBO, recently treated me to a tasting of thirteen of her favourite Ontario wines priced under $20. These are perfect backyard bottles for the summer and great partners for the season’s casual food. Best of all, they fall within most people’s budgets. The VQA (Vintners’ Quality Alliance) designation guarantees that they’re made from 100% Ontario fruit at a minimum level of quality. The board reserves the right to change prices and availability, so not all of the following wines are at all LCBO stores all the time.
Malivoire Gamay 2011 VQA ($17.95, score 90) is a light but punchy red with an appealing earthy-mineral and strawberry character. It’s finely grippy with mineral and fruit flavours through a long finish.
Sandbanks Shoreline Merlot Cabernet 2011 VQA ($14.95, score 90) is rich and ripe with blackcurrant fruit and earthy and mint leaf notes. It’s deep and focused in the mouth with sweet spice flavours through a long fruit and tannin finish.
Konzelmann Shiraz Barrel Aged 2012 VQA ($13.20, score 89+) marries ripe blackberry aromas with an iodine-oyster shell note, with very fine tannins and savoury flavours. The finish lingers with fruit flavours and velvety grip. (Astrid likes this wine with venison sausage.)
Pelee Island Lighthouse Cabernet Franc 2011 VQA ($11.95, score 89+) has pungent mineral aromas framing rich plum and mixed black berry fruit. Its fine tannins and fresh acidity frame the fruit in the mouth, and the finish is fruity and astringent.
Red House Wine Co. Cabernet/Shiraz 2010 VQA ($12.95, score 89+) is a pungently earthy wine with mixed black berry fruit. Fresh, deep and ripe, the long finish is graced by a refreshing bitter note.
John Howard Cellar`s Megalomaniac Homegrown Red 2011 VQA ($14.95, score 89+) is a Bordeaux blend. It features rich ripe blackcurrant and black cherry fruit with mint leaf and earthy notes. On the palate it’s sweetly ripe with velvety grip and fresh acidity. The deep fruit persists through a long fruity tannic finish.
John Howard Cellar’s Riesling Narcissist 2011 VQA ($17.95, score 89+) has a great name no psychiatrist could resist, and elegant petro-mineral aromas with lemon fruit and a hint of lime. It’s dry, fresh and round with lemon pulp fruit and mineral flavours in the mouth and good persistence.
Daniel Lenko Chardonngay [not a misprint] 2009 VQA ($19.95, score 89+) has intense aromas of stewed apple and pear fruit with a pineapple note, a fresh and creamy mouthfeel, and a long tasty finish. Profits from this wine go to help people living with AIDS.
Vineland Estates Unoaked Chardonnay VQA ($12.95, score 89+) offers up rich musky apple and pear aromas. On the palate it’s fresh and creamy through a long, fresh rich finish.
Cattail Creek Riesling 2012 VQA ($14.95, score 89) has attractive stone fruit and subtle minerality. It’s dry, fresh, satiny and fruity with a long fresh fruity finish.
Chateau des Charmes Aligoté 2011 St. David’s Bench VQA ($13.95) has floral, hay and grass aromas. In the mouth it offers fresh acidity and lemon pith and ripe lemon pulp fruit through a long refreshing pithy finish with a nice bitter note.
Union White 2010 VQA ($13.95, score 89) is a blend of Riesling, Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer and Sauvignon Blanc. It has subtle pungent white peppercorn and mineral aromas and is ripe and rich with stone fruit and lychee fruit on the palate through a long sweetly fruity finish.
Fielding Estate Fireside White 2012 VQA ($12.95, score 89) calls itself “a fun off-dry blend of Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay Musqué.” It has floral and herbal notes on the nose and is fresh and off-dry on the palate with ripe stone fruit and grapefruit pulp flavours. The finish is long and tasty.
For more information about Ontario wines log on to http://www.winecountryontario.ca.