By Gary Killops
There is a misconception — held mostly by those who live south of the Canada-U.S. border — that Ontario is always cold. Living and working in Windsor, Ontario, I have often heard stories about families crossing the Ambassador Bridge from Detroit in July expecting to see snow on the ground as soon as they arrived in Windsor.
Granted, Ontario is considered a cool-climate region for growing wine grapes, but that’s a bit misleading. In the summer months, temperatures in Ontario often exceed 90 degrees. There is more than enough warmth to fully ripen all but the most heat-dependent grape varietals, as evidenced by the Canadian province’s robust and thriving vineyard and winery scene.
In fact, Ontario is Canada’s most prolific wine region, producing approximately 70 percent of the nation’s wine. While Canada is known for Icewine, production of that nectar represents less than 3 percent of the wine produced in Ontario. The “other 97 percent” include top-quality dry wines, both reds and whites, that are earning international accolades along with plenty of consumer enthusiasm.
Some of that enthusiasm will be on full display in July 2020, when Ontario winemakers celebrate the 10th anniversary of the International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration. Last year, more than 50 Ontario wineries and 210 wineries from 38 other cool-climate wine regions participated in the event, which is designed to be a celebration, not a competition, of cool-climate wines.
Karen MacNeil, author of “The Wine Bible,” was the festival’s 2017 keynote speaker. In her remarks about Canadian wines, MacNeil said this:
“Over the course of 3 days, I tasted a slew of chardonnays and sparkling wines that blew me away. Our neighbors to the north are making some of the most vibrant wines in the New World. For the most part, the Chardonnays are wines with lift and elegance; wines with a vibrational core of crispness; wines that are mouth-watering and fresh.”
Ontario’s Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA) identifies three viticultural areas in Ontario: the Niagara Peninsula, Lake Erie North Shore, and Prince Edward County. The regions share a similar latitude to Northern California, Burgundy, France and Northern Italy. The geography, soil and climate of each region is distinctive, and they combine to create a unique terroir in each region. That terroir makes Ontario wines very much worthy of exploration and discovery.
Here’s a closer look at Ontario’s wine regions, and some recommendations for wineries to visit, along with grape varietals and wine styles to seek out at each winery. But don’t allow the lists to limit your exploration. There is much to discover in Ontario wines.
The Niagara Peninsula is the largest viticultural region in Ontario and is subdivided into two regional appellations: Niagara Escarpment and Niagara-on-the-Lake. Each regional appellation is in turn divided into several smaller sub-appellations.
Niagara Escarpment is the area west of St. Catharines to Grimsby. Steep slopes, hills and benches provide excellent water drainage and provide shelter from the stronger prevailing southwesterly winds. With the higher elevation, later bud-burst is common which reduces the risks of frost. In the fall, warm Lake Ontario air is trapped by the escarpment and offers an extended season for grape growing.
Niagara-on-the-Lake is the area along the Niagara river to the shores of Lake Ontario. The lake moderates air temperatures year-round. Proximity to the deep waters of Lake Ontario reduces the risk of late-spring and early-fall frosts. Vineyards farther from the lake experience a higher daily temperature range, with warm days and cool nights.
Notable Wineries to Visit – Niagara Escarpment
Tawse Winery (Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling)
Vineland Estates Winery (Riesling, Cabernet Franc)
Malivoire Wine Company (Gamay, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir)
Notable Wineries to Visit – Niagara-on-the-Lake
Pillitteri Estates Winery (Icewine, Cabernet Franc)
Stratus Vineyards (Stratus Red and Stratus White, blends)
Trius Winery (Trius red [blend] and Traditional-method sparkling wine)
Lake Erie North Shore
Most wineries in this region are located along the shores of Lake Erie from Amherstburg to St Thomas. This region also has one sub-appellation: the South Islands, which includes Pelee Island, Canada’s southernmost vineyards.
This is the warmest region in Ontario, and it has the longest growing season, a combination that allows Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon to reach full ripeness. Harvest of these grapes often occurs in late October. The temperature along the shore is moderated by Lake Erie, which cools the vineyards during summer nights and provides warmth in the winter. Just as in the American Midwest, some recent winters have been a challenge for grape growers because of frigid polar vortex winds. Those winds have, at times, caused Lake Erie to freeze, reducing the lake waters’ moderating influence and inflicting bud damage to many vineyards in the area.
Notable Wineries to Visit
Cooper’s Hawk Vineyards (Cabernet red blends)
Oxley Estate Winery (Cabernet Franc)
Muscedere Vineyards (Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot)
Colchester Ridge Estate Winery (CREW) (Merlot, Riesling, Chardonnay)
Prince Edward County
The most northern appellation in Ontario, Prince Edward County is located at the eastern end of Lake Ontario, just south of Belleville. Vineyards benefit from the moderating effect of Lake Ontario. The southwesterly breezes from the lake keep the temperatures in the vineyards around 72 degree during the warm summer months, resulting in crisp, aromatic wines.
This region’s loose, gravelly soil atop a limestone base provides a mineral-driven structure to the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wines produced in Prince Edward County vineyards.
Notable Wineries to Visit
Grange of Prince Edward Winery (Gamay)
Rosehall Run Vineyards (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir)
Hinterland Wine Company (Traditional-method sparkling wine)
Stanners Vineyard (Pinot Noir)
Hubbs Creek Vineyard (Pinot Noir, Chardonnay)
Resources on the web to help you plan your visit
Wine Country Ontario – a comprehensive list of Ontario VQA wineries offering tours, tastings, accommodations, onsite restaurants and events.
Grape Growers of Ontario – grape growing in Ontario, tourism and industry facts. Updates and news from Ontario Wineries.
Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute (CCOVI) – at Brock University. Focused on research priorities of the Canadian grape and wine industry, and the continuing educational and outreach services needs of that community.
Essex Pelee Island wine Country (EPIC) – the marketing and travel resources for wineries in Lake Erie North Shore who are members of EPIC. The EPIC tasting pass, $25 for premium flights of wine at each winery.
Prince Edward County Wine Growers Association – resource to help plan your visit to Prince Edward County wineries. Locations, events, accommodations, and restaurants.
Ontario South Coast Wines – an emerging wine region in Ontario. While not yet a designated VQA region, it may be soon. Located between Niagara Peninsula and Lake Erie North Shore wine regions.
International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration – www.coolchardonnay.org