Answering the Call
Ontario’s New Generation of VQA Wineries
By Bernard Ledermann
Photography by Jim Bush.

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The Inniskillin vineyards (photo: Kevin Argue) are part of a winery tour offered by the Shaw Festival and Bell, Theatrical Adventures in Wine Country.
Exactly a year ago, this column examined the surprisingly successful vinifera revolution here in New York, and the increasing flow of fine dry and sweet whites, as well as some reds onto an ever more appreciative market.

At the time, we made but glancing mention of similar stirrings across the waters in Canada.

O! Canada: now the world’s largest country in terms of land mass since the Soviet Union was disbanded. A nation whose vastness lies, unfortunately (or fortunately, if you’re a trapper on Ellesmere Island), too much beyond the fiftieth parallel to support an extensive fine wine industry—or so it seems.

Our previous millennium was barely underway when what is now coastal Newfoundland was reached by Norsemen explorers, particularly Leif Ericson. By Leif’s self-serving accounts the land was clogged with creeping, climbing fruited plants. (In reality, probably blueberries; at best, the labrusca species of pungent-tasting grapes native to the north American continent.) Ericson, about 950 years ahead of Thomas Pynchon, called his venue “Vineland.”

In contour and scope, today’s Canadian “vinelands” are necessarily limited to areas where either mountain walls or the warmish influence of water, lake, river, or ocean, shield sensitive vineyards from temperature extremes. Ontario province vineyards, to make the point, seem always in sight of water, marching from Niagara-on-the-Lake along the Lakes Erie and Ontario shores, then westward along the Erie north shore, across whelk-shaped Pelee Island (Ontario’s southernmost point) with its seventeen square miles of exotic flora (and 495 acres/200 hectares of vineyards) all the way to Windsor where vines flourish, bounded by water on three sides: Lake St. Clair, the Detroit River, and Lake Erie.

Canada’s wine industry was launched in 1811 (in Ontario, naturally)—nearly twenty years before the Finger Lakes region saw its first commercial pressing—by a former German army corporal, Johann Schiller, who established a small winery with twenty acres of labrusca vines in Cooksville, west of Toronto. Friends believed Schiller’s venture was as cockeyed as his name, but journals verify that he had plenty of customers who considered his wines more than curiosities. Schiller was the first of many European winemakers involved in Canadian winemaking. Canada’s rich ethnic mixture, especially in Ontario province, is reflected in an extensive range of grape variety plantations and many individually styled wines. Nowhere is this more evident than on the Niagara peninsula, where a family of Austrian extraction might produce a Grüner Veltliner and a vintner with roots in northern Italy offer a Pinot Grigio.

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Following Schiller’s accomplishments, three affluent Kentucky farmers, possibly angling for a more exhilarating life “up north” in the aftermath of the U.S. Civil War, traveled to Lake Erie’s Pelee Island in 1866 to establish Canada’s first major winery, the Vin Villa. It is certain the “colonels” were favorably impressed by Pelee’s (the North American answer to Germany’s tropical Isle of Mainau) unusually mild climate, and had no difficulty maintaining a twenty-acre vineyard devoted to Isabella, a foxy labrusca variety.

By the end of the “Schiller/Vin Villa century,” there were nearly forty Ontario wineries, mostly on the Peninsula, where acreage exceeded 5,000 acres (2,000 htr.). During the twentieth century and into the new millennium, Ontario’s grape-growing burgeoned to the point where the province now boasts forty-nine wineries and 560-plus vineyards.

Historians make little note of Canadians’ putting a sort of “Prohibition” to the proof between 1916 and 1927. While eight of Canada’s provinces opted for Prohibition, Ontarians never took leave of their senses, soldiered on, and elected to keep spirituous drink on their shelves. (Quebec held out for three years, then banned distillates only.) Ontario wineries prospered, improved, and its fifty bonded producers never lost their licenses to sell wine. That’s quite a contrast with the American side, where the well-meant Volstead experience nearly devastated an active wine industry. It wasn’t until the 1950s that some U.S. ambitions in wine-making were revived—although not necessarily interest in fine wine. Score a major one for Canada, especially Ontario.

In the early going, Ontario’s wines were generics of the sweet “sticky” type: blended, brandy-fortified “ports” and cream “sherries,” definitely meant to be taken with dessert. Native North American labrusca grapes provided the raw material for such products—another parallel with wine-making activities in New York’s Finger Lake district at the time.

By the late 1960s market demand for drier wines harmonious with food caused Canadian wine-makers to respond, quite ably, by putting more reliance on the then emerging winter hardy French American hybrids. Consumers began to taste good white bottlings of Seyval Blanc and Vidal. In dry reds, the early-ripening Baco Noir, either straight or blended, gained popularity; near Windsor, the D’Angelo winery began to show its rich, oak-aged—and tamed—(Maréchal) Foch.” Non-foxy” wines were on their way.

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A new entry to the Ontario vineyard cornucopia, Peller Estates.
Years of research in Ontario, first at the Vineland Research Station, then recently at the Cool Climate Viticulture Institute, yielded convincing evidence that Vitis vinifera could definitely survive Canada’s numbing winters; especially so with vineyards located near the warmer surface temperatures of the Great Lakes. Besides, the Lakes’ moisture, when mixed with prevailing westerly winds, adds snow cover to grape plantings, thereby protecting tender vines. So, with considered scientific assessment as grounds, an impressive age of vinifera-based wineries took shape in the mid-1970s. First at the starting line was Inniskillin at Niagara-on-the-Lake, granted the first commercial license in the nearly fifty-year period after Prohibition’s repeal. Inniskillin’s was but the first in a run of licenses to premium-headed wineries which have begun to release ever-improving Chardonnays and Rieslings (Riesling performs especially well in climate extremes, as chilly temps seem to promote the grape’s extroverted, exotic fruitiness.), with Merlot and Cabernet Franc showing signs of rounding to “form” in the red category.

The Niagara Peninsula’s most inviting and agreeable countryside (given a proper summer!), produces the most—and, many say, best—of the Dominion’s wines. More than three-quarters of Canada’s wines originate on this 14-hundred square mile projection of land. Beginning just where the Niagara River dashes off through its scenic gorge to be ponded in Lake Ontario and extending fifty-five miles west to Stoney Point, the land is pregnant with 18-thousand acres (7,300 htr.) of wine grapes.

That gives you a prime viticultural district that is nearly equal to vineyard areas found on both islands of New Zealand. Seen from an eastbound aircraft, the Peninsula appears like a hitch-hiker’s left thumb, begging a ride to the sheer bulk and mesmerizing force of the Falls. From the air, you get the best feel for the viridian green vineyard carpet that is the Peninsula; otherwise, you see but a smattering of grape land along one of the main auto routes to Toronto.

Luckily for wine consumers, Ontario’s winemakers, with the aid of science, work well with the freeze-thaw cycle characteristic of their neighborhoods, and, taking a cue from the pioneering Konstantin Frank in New York, have dedicated themselves to the proposition that healthy vinifera vines planted in favorable soils can withstand the harshest winters and the most capricious springtimes.

Lest we totally vilify the chills of Ontario, we should remember the depths of winter often promote the making of Canada’s most revered accomplishment, its “Winter Gold,” ice wine. Grapes left on the vine into January, sometimes February, freeze naturally. When these grapes—Riesling and the hybrid Vidal seem to perform best—are pressed in a frozen state, part of the water content is left behind as ice crystals. What remains is a juice so concentrated, it can be quite syrupy. After a fermentation period which can last up to several months, the finished dessert-style nectar can give the taster a puissant sweet-sour attack on nose and palate unlike any other wine. No surprise: Ontario currently leads the world in the production and quality of these rare winter fermentations. Seek out the remarkable “icy harvest” wines of Konzelmann, Peller, and Vineland Estates.

No Ontario wine story would be complete without mention of the Province’s—and country’s—unique Vintners Quality Allliance (VQA). In 1988, Ontario established the nation’s first blueprint for high standards and exacting quality controls in the winemaking industry. (British Columbia would follow shortly after.) The VQA plan does borrow some provisos found in Spain’s Denominación de Origen and the quality hierarchy of the French Appellation Contôlée, but is mostly the result of tidy Canadian thinking because it is a "contract" between wine-makers and consumers.

What a contrast to the confusing congeries of regulations patched together by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms in the U.S. Intended to be proactive, VQA makes total sense because barely acceptable wines get no special treatment. Secondly, it establishes minimum ripeness levels and grape varieties for specific geographical areas. (Remember, Canada’s on-the-edge climate precludes successful growing of fussy vinifera in all but favorable microclimates.) Ontario has designated Pelee Island, Lake Erie North Shore, and the nearby Niagara Peninsula its prime growing appellations, and to receive an official rating on the bottle (look for the VQA medallion—sign of “the best”), wines of the designated areas must be entirely of vinifera grapes. Pelee Island and the Peninsula further specify that all grapes must be grown within their demarcated areas.

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The shop at Cave Springs.
Furthermore, the VQA authority lists two key eligibility criteria for wines seeking the designation “Ontario” on the label: one hundred per cent Ontario-grown grapes must be used in a wine, whether it’s a varietal (i.e., Chardonnay, Pinot Noir), or a blend of several grapes; if labeled a varietal, at least eighty-five per cent of the named grape must be in the bottle. Before a medallian is awarded, a potential VQA wine must come before a tasting panel, which assesses the product “blindly,” then grants or declines the award. VQA is particularly unsparing in its requirements for ice wine production, setting its sugar levels considerably higher than the Oechsle standards required by Germans in the making of their Eisweins. With quality standards so elevated, it is not surprising that exports of Ontario ice wines, especially to the Far East, are vigorous.

With the sound VQA system as their underpinning, wine growers are re-thinking their craft. They are finding it a joy to offer drinkers wines made old-world style for prices far less than extortionate.

Like to tour the heart of Niagara Wine country this autumn? First, call the Wine Council of Ontario at 1-(800)-594-6379 for your copy of the “Official Guide to Ontario Wineries.” And for a thorough summary of wine-related activities (what the wineries are offering this fall will impress you), hop on-line to http://www.WineRoute.com/ There are endless possibilities: B&B accommondations, quality cooking (many wineries now have restaurants or cafés), biking, hiking, blading, and, foremost, tasting.

Ontario wines are available at several retail outlets in Buffalo, and, in Ontario, you’ll find them in retail stores at the wineries, at LCBO shops, Wine Rack outlets, and Duty-free markets.

Dégustation Canadien
An considerable debt is owed my dear friends, Christine Schechter and Marcia Gragg—of Dearborn, MI and Windsor, ONT, respectively—whose frequent border crossings brought several delightful bottles to my tasting attention. We’ll always remember our evenings of bonhomie resulting from Ontario wines.

On with the whites. 1998 PELEE (PEE-lee) ISLAND WINERY Gewürtztraminer, VQA (Pelee). (C$10.55 / US$7.09) Pale gold with greenish glint; lacking classic Alsace “lychees” on the nose, but shows nectarines and attractive notes of quince; lightly sweet and a wee spritzy, but has good extract; zippy spinciness on the finish. A pardonable flaw is the wine’s hollow mid-palate. Use for sipping, as an aperitif, or with light desserts.

1998 INNISKILLIN reserve Riesling. VQA (NP). (C$9.25 /US$6.25) If you’re wondering why I cherish Riesling, wonder no more. Color: pale gold-green; a vigorous floral/mineral Mosel-like bouquet that’s a good prelude to what follows—firm, dry and deep flavors, fine balance, and some interplay of citrusy fruit and peachiness on a long after-taste. We’d like to see this one in a blind tasting with the Finger Lakes’ finest Rieslings.

1999 HENRY OF PELHAM FAMILY ESTATE dry Riesling, VQA (NP), (C$17.75 / US$11.90) Limpid tending toward light gold; slatey, peachy aromas and aproper acidic backbone; medium-bodied and tingles the palate jauntily. Just right for Pacific Rim cuisine and warm weather sipping. Very varietally correct. Would age gracefully for a year or two, but why wait?

C. Wright Mills would call this red the “power elite” in a flight of Ontario rouge sampled. It’s the 1998 JACKSON-TRIGGS grand reserve Merlot, VQA (NP), (C$21.00 / US$13.55). From a very fine 1998 vintage, J-T, a new winery at Niagara-on-the-Lake has produced a really dishy Merlot: deep purplish color; arresting roasted, chalk-like mineral scents on the nose suggestive of Graves district reds from Bordeaux; medium-weight, but showing extravagant richness; round and fleshy on the palate and not a single breath of the herbal funk found in some California merlots. Hunker down with this and some spit-roasted lamb.

Another find on the red side, the 1999 CAVE SPRING Cabernet, VQA—NP, (C$12.50 / US$8.40) shows beautifully. A winsome blend of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and a plink of Merlot, with the grapes sourced off the benchland of the Niagara Escarpment, the Ontario shoreline, and the riparian land of the Niagara. Deep, lovely garnet color and a heavenly nose of cassis and mocha. Rich taste of sweet oak and black fruits, which recalls some better vintages of Chateau Chauvin (St.-Emilion, Bordeaux). Robert Parker might call this a “hedonistic wine”. (Would you buy semi-sybaritic?) Absolutely shows the deft hand of winemaker Angelo Pavan. A Bernie’s Best Buy.

Another successful 1998 red is the INNISKILLIN Gamay Noir, VQA—NP, (C$10.55 / US$7.09). Iniskillin, as we’ve seen, led the ushering-in of Ontario’s fine wine era. Their Gamay shows pretty garnet color and aromas of red currants; light and fruity with tamed, yet vivacious acidity; a good entry-level red. Use with lighter foods or slightly chilled as a warm weather sipper. A big cut above most vapid attempts with this grape. Gamay has become popular with Ontario growers because it buds, flowers, and ripens early—ideal for a short growing season.

Wine writer and retailer Bernie Ledermann reports from Raleigh, NC. He provides many tasting notes for newly released wines on web-site www.seaboardwine.com. Currently he is also working on a short story and is outlining a mystery novel which will take place-where else—in the Rhône Valley.


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