Ontario Wine Guide

Toronto Life
Sun Is Shining by mscaprikell
Sun Is Shining by mscaprikell

Have you been living in Ontario and still haven’t visited Vintners? That’s like owning a house in Chamonix and having never been skiing. Fall is the perfect time to visit your local wine cellar or vintners and attend a wine tasting afternoon or a weekend. Wines from Ontario are regarded as the best in Canada and it would be unfortunate if you missed out on the experience. Still reluctant? Let’s see how the wine business developed in Canada and what the best places to visit and the best wines to taste are!

Once upon a time…

…Early settlers tried to cultivate Vitis Vinifera and produce their own wine, since trade wasn’t highly developed 200 years ago. Despite their efforts, the grapes of Vitis Vinifera couldn’t adapt to cooler climates and the wine early vintners made was very dry and often called ‘foxy’. However, juices made into Port- and Sherry-styled wines were an immediate success. The sweet wine trend grew throughout the first half of the twentieth century and sweet table wines became highly popular among Canadian consumers. Tastes are often changing and we can see a rising demand for dryer table wine with lower alcohol levels as we move towards the 1960s. At the same time, new technologies and procedures were introduced into winemaking as well as new and better grape varieties and disease-resistant clones, and this led to improved quality of Canadian wine that can now proudly face European competition.

Foxy by DoodleDeMoon
Foxy by DoodleDeMoon

Small insight into Ontario wine areas

Ontario has four appellations or grape-growing regions. Each region has unique soil and climate that provide excellent growing conditions. Terroir or sense of place is a term used to classify these conditions. The taste of wine is not determined solely by the type of grape but it is rather a cocktail of a grape’s relationship to the soil, climate, and its surroundings. It is therefore very important to understand the uniqueness of each appellation and its terroir. Only then can we fully appreciate the wine we are tasting.

Ontario’s wine appellations are:

*Lake Erie North Shore
*Niagara Peninsula
*Pelee Island
*Prince Edward County

Each appellation is split into smaller areas called sub-appellations, such as Beamsville Bench. This allows vintners to choose a different grape type for different sub-appellation according to the climate and soil specifics, resulting in wines with very unique and full taste.

Prince Edward County by Bobolink
Prince Edward County by Bobolink

“Cool cimate” is a term often associated with Canadian wines. Weather conditions and climate in Ontario are cooler than in other wine districts, especially in Europe, and that makes our wine stand out from others on the market.

Wines from warm climates ripen quickly and result in big, sweet flavour, lower in acidity but higher in alcohol. These wines usually come from southern France, Italy, Portugal, Australia, and California and make perfect dessert wines. On the other hand, grapes grown in cooler regions such as northern France, Germany, Slovakia, and Ontario ripen and accumulate their taste slowly. The latter therefore make more balanced and complex flavours, and are great to be enjoyed during a dinner, mainly because its higher acidity and complex and balanced taste help to unwind and accent the flavours of your meal.

Pinot Noir, Gamay Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling, and Cabernet Franc are examples of grape varieties that has been grown in cool climates for centuries. The grapes themselves need longer time to ripe, so the taste has time to fully develop and possess many layers. These wines therefore make an excellent table or sparking wine and are also grown here in Ontario.

Icewine

If there is a Queen among cool-climate wines, it would be Ontario’s famous Icewine.
Appellations in Ontario present the perfect conditions for Icewine to develop its flavour. It’s made from grapes that are left to freeze naturally on the vine. Despite its name, Icewine requires warm summers to ripen and moderately cold winters to freeze.
Ontario has been producing Icewine since 1984 and is nowadays considered to be a leading global producer of Icewine.

What are the specifics of Icewine?

Icewine by Rivard
Icewine by Dominic Rivard

There is yet another controversy when it comes to Icewine and that is its taste. Icewine tastes of summer and tropical fruits and it instantly infatuates your taste buds with its full, luscious, and intense flavour. All varieties are tenderly sweet but ribbed by acidity, resulting in perfect balance.

A perfect glass of Icewine should be chilled and enjoyed with a dessert or as a dessert alone. It makes a great combination with rich foods with strong flavours such as blue cheeses and foie gras or as an ingredient in cocktails or sparkling wines.

Not every grape variety is an ideal choice for making Icewine. Vintners therefore need to choose from cool-climate-loving varieties such as Vidal Blanc, Riesling, and Cabernet Franc. Icewine season starts with covering grape vines with nets in fall to protect them against birds and other animals. Grapes are left on the vine until the temperature falls below -8°C. This is usually sometime between December and February. During those three to four months the grapes dehydrate and their juice concentrates to make the most delicious and complex flavour of Icewine. Wineries watch the weather very carefully during those crucial three to four months looking for an optimal time when the temperatures drop to around -10°C. This should produce a great Icewine with a sugar range between 35°Bx and 39°Bx. Grapes are pressed while they are still frozen and only a small amount of juice is extracted due to its previous dehydration. The juice is very sweet and it might be difficult to ferment. Sugary liquids make a hostile environment for yeast and therefore fermentation stops quite quickly, leaving us with sweet, rich wine with lower alcohol.

Lake Erie North Shore & Pelee Island

Pelee Island by Candace Nast
Pelee Island by Candace Nast

Ontario’s southernmost region with the longest growing season combines a hot summer climate and moderate lake breeze. Wines produced here are famous for their full-bodied flavour and balanced taste. Bike trails are connecting numerous vineries, gardens, and parks and if you plan to visit during summer you are more than welcome to experience summer festivals, Carolinian forests, and a renowned bird sanctuary.

Lake Erie North Shore is only four hours by car from Toronto and if you wish to travel to Pelee Island it takes additional 90 minutes on a ferry.

Pelee Island Winery

Pelee Island Winery Selection of Wines
Pelee Island Winery Selection of Wines

Pelee Island Winery is one of Canada’s oldest wineries and it is definitely the largest and most southerly located as well. Vintner Martin Janz manages a large portfolio of white and red wines with fruit-forward tastes. Best LCBO brand is Riesling and he would definitely recommend tasting his Cabernet Franc wine.

Viewpointe Estate Winery

Cabernet Franc by Viewpointe Estate Winery
Cabernet Franc by Viewpointe Estate Winery

Viewpointe is more than a winery. It sits off the shores of Lake Erie and it’s an ideal choice for special events mainly due to its large, manicured lawns and gardens and its galleries. This winery operates a culinary centre as well, offering cooking demos and workshops that will show you how to use the best seasonal ingredients and prepare an unforgettable dish. The vintners of Viewpointe Estate Winery will then help you to choose the perfect wine to complement your meal. They specialize mainly in Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Riesling, Auxerrois, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon, plus experimental grape varieties. John Fancsy, the winemaker of Viewpointe Estate Winery, would recommend you his 2007 Cabernet Franc that is his best LCBO brand as well.

Niagara-on-the-Lake

Niagara On The Lake by Artur Staszewski
Niagara On The Lake by Artur Staszewski

Niagara-on-the-Lake is a perfect contrast to the settled and traditional wineries found on Lake Erie and Pelee Island. This region is the birthplace of Ontario’s modern wine industry. Tourism and wine tasting trips are greatly encouraged here. Charming B&Bs, spas, golf courses, and restaurants are here to make your experience unforgettable. Niagara-on-the-Lake is approximately 90 minutes’ drive from Toronto.

Château des Charmes

Chteau des Charmes 1
Grape Harvest

Château des Charmes is place where modern and traditional blend into one. This family estate winery was founded by Paul M. Bocs, wine-industry visionary, who still continues with his viticultural research. He believes in using sustainable farming techniques to produce wines well above the standard. He is most proud of his Equuleus, Paul Bosc Estate Vineyard, and VQA St. David’s Bench - and the best LCBO brand award goes to Brut Méthode Traditionnelle VQA, Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Hinterbrook Estate Winery

Hinterbrook Estate Winery
Hinterbrook Estate Winery

Hinterbrook Estate Winery puts a huge emphasize on environmental stewardship, using sustainable farming techniques and viticultural practices. This winery owns its own solar panel to satisfy its needs. All grapes are hand-picked and and hand-sorted, and only those who express the best of their terroir are used for wine production. Hinterbrook’s wine portfolio contains exclusive Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Rosé, Pinot Noir, rich Bordeaux varieties, and superb Icewine. The chief winemaker, Natalie Spytkowsky, would definitely encourage you to try her 2012 Riesling.

Niagara Escarpment & Twenty Valley

The Niagara Escarpment is a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve providing a habitat for various plant and animal species. It is also Ontario’s most active wine region with many small boutique wineries. Niagara Escarpment & Twenty Valley is only one hour’s drive away from Toronto.

Flat Rock Cellars

Love by Flat Rock Cellars
Love by Flat Rock Cellars

Flat Rock Cellars is a relatively new winery opened in 2005 by Ed Madronich. Despite its lack of history, it offers an unforgettable experience. You can expect to find wines named Twisted, Rusty Chardonnay, and Riddled sparkling. Similarly, no typical wine tour is offered here. You are encouraged to take a two-hour workshop called “In the Winemaker’s Boots,” though. This fun and enthusiastic winery is the producer of one of the greatest wines in Ontario. Nadja’s Riesling is being constantly placed among Canada’s best, and the 2007 Chardonnay Reserve topped out at Cuvée. The new Reserve range Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Riesling, and one-off Rogues helped boost Flat Rock into the Top 20 at the Canadian Wine Awards 2010. Winemaker Mr. Ross Wise is most proud of his Gravity Pinot Noir.

Hidden Bench Vineyards and Winery

Chardonay by Hidden Bench Vineyards Winery
Chardonnay by Hidden Bench Vineyards Winery

Hidden Bench Vineyards and Winery is another of the Niagara region wineries that have been among the Canadian Wine Awards’ top ten every year since the winery opened in 2007. Nuit Blanche was named Canadian White Wine of the Year. This small but modern winery is located in the Beamswille Bench appellation that provides the top grapes for winemaking. Hidden Bench’s impressive portfolio contains an award-winning Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Riesling as well as limited-edition rarities like Tête de Cuvée Chardonnay, and elegant Bordeaux blends La Brunante and Terroir Caché. If there is just one wine that the winemaker Marlize Beyers would recommend, it would be Single Vineyard Riesling.

Prince Edward County

Closson Chase
Closson Chase

Prince Edward County is the newest appellation in Ontario. It is a favourite tourist destination with charming little wineries and vineyards. You don’t need a map; everything is close and within reach and more often than not, your spirit will guide you better. The County is approximately a 2.5-hour drive from Toronto.

Closson Chase is a winery run by winemaker Deborah Paskus, who was among the first who brought viticulture to the county’s tough limestone soils in 2000. Her winery is only 13 hectares large and organically farmed. Deborah is a Chardonnay specialist and her winery is proud to produce bold, layered, and rich Chardonnays with Pinot Noir being a red alternative.

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