Canadian wine
Visiting wine country in Ontario, part 1, an introduction

Niagara vineyards from the air, looking towards Lake Ontario

Canadian wine? To be honest, it was pretty much off my radar, until I visited for the first time in July this year. My only Canadian wine experience until then had been their most famous export: Ice Wine. But, as I discovered on my trip, there’s a lot more to Canadian wine than this. Indeed, on this trip, I tasted just one ice wine.

I was visiting Ontario wine country. Put simply, Canada has two major wine regions, 3500 km apart. To the east of the country, within a couple of hours’ drive of Toronto, there are the vineyards of Ontario, and here there are two main regions, Niagara and Prince Edward County. Then on the west, there are the vineyards of British Colombia (BC), which I didn’t visit, but I will try to get to next year. Both Ontario and BC produce similar quantities of wine.

What happens when a large river goes over the Niagara escarpment: the famous falls

I was in for a number of surprises.

The first was the scale of the wine industry here. It’s actually quite big, and has recently grown substantially. In 1995 there were around 40 wineries in Niagara; now there are over 200. Having a metropolitan area with 5 million people in easy striking distance of wine country means there’s strong local demand for the wines. This reduces the pressure to export, which is one of the reasons people like me weren’t really aware of Canadian wines, with the exception of the ice wines which have found their way abroad.

The second was the climate. It’s not actually all that 'cool climate'. The winters are cold here, of course – and quite long. But once summer gets going it can be pretty hot. In Niagara, heat summation in terms of growing degree days, is 1400. That means it’s warmer than Burgundy (1315), and not all that far off Napa (1450). Prince Edward County is cooler, at around 1260.

The big influence on climate here is the presence of very large lakes, and specifically Lake Ontario for the regions I visited. Proximity to the lake moderates the extremes of temperatures. The closer you are to the water, the cooler the highs and the lower the winter lows. So there’s a sweetspot, just a little away from the water, where early season frost risk is mitigated, and you get enough warmth to ripen your grapes.  

Many of the vineyards here have frost fans, but these aren’t just for spring frost: they’re also for combating the real winter lows, and are turned on when the air temperature hits –18 °C. Fruiting buds can be damaged by temperatures in the range –15 to –20 °C, and below about –22 °C the vines can be seriously damaged by the cold. In the cooler Prince Edward County, it’s necessary to bury the vines over winter. This means that they have to be trellised incredibly low to the ground. 

Although it's not all that cool, the climate in Ontario is challenging for winegrowing. Disease pressure is high because of the warm, humid conditions during summer, and the occasional heavy rains. While I was visiting, there was a massive thunderstorm, with some vineyards experiencing hail damage. It’s pretty tough for organic or biodynamic winegrowers here, and there are a few of them. ‘It’s very extreme viticulture,’ says Francois Morissette of Pearl Morissette, one of the top wineries in the region. ‘You have to be extremely adaptable.’

Some geology. In Niagara, the vineyards are planted between the Niagara Escarpment and the lake shore. The escarpment was formed by glacial erosion, and it’s a ridge that rises up to 90 metres above the shoreline, providing the gentle slopes that are a feature of the region. With many of the sub-regional names, you’ll come across the term ‘bench’. These are the areas of land under the escarpment. Because of the successive glacial erosions, there is a diversity of soil types in Niagara.

Vines in Prince Edward County

Prince Edward County is Ontario’s most northerly region, and one of the newest, established as an appellation as recently as 2007. The County is practically an island, jutting out into the eastern end of Lake Ontario. There’s a real buzz here. It’s quite a bit cooler than Niagara, and has limestone bedrock and stony soils, which make for a great combination. When things go right, the results make it worth all the stress of dealing with such a marginal climate. 

The appellation system here is known as VQA, which stands for Vintners Quality Alliance. [This applies to Niagara and Ontario, not other Canadian wine regions, which are small, anyway.] In Niagara, there are three tiers of appellations (three regional, and then 10 sub appellations, with 7 of these in two collective subappellations), and in British Columbia there are five regional appellations and no subappellations. And this is where I have my first of two gripes about the Canadian wine industry. Obtaining VQA for your wines is vital, because there is a tax break of some 20% if you get VQA, so it is financially very damaging not to get it. And you can fail on a taste test if a group of worthy people decide they don’t like your wine, for example because it lacks ‘typicity’. This has happened to one winegrower I met, and the wine that failed is fabulous. This isn’t fair. It’s also nuts: it could end up stifling the development of interesting Canadian wine, because winemakers can’t risk failing the VQA. The Canadian wine industry is far too young for people to start deciding what is typical or not. In Europe, it’s common for top wines to be sold as the equivalent of IGP or table wine because they are refused the AOP, but this isn’t so much of a problem for European growers: with the VQA, it is the associated tax break that is the killer. There needs to be a way for winegrowers to declassify their wines if need be without being penalized financially.

The other issue with Canadian wine is the incredibly dubious but highly profitable category known as International–Canadian Blends (ICBs). Here you have well known Canadian wineries who are allowed to blend in bulk-shipped wine from abroad with a bit of Canadian wine, and then put them on the shelf as if they were Canadian wine. In Ontario, there has to be 40% Canadian wine in the blend, with a minimum of 25% Ontario wine. There’s also a label designation called Product of Canada, and these wines are allowed to have 25% of imported wine in them.  

Before 2010, these ICB wines used to have ‘Cellared in Canada’ on the label, which was even worse. According to stats on the Winery and Grower Alliance of Ontario, ICBs represent 73% of all Ontario wine sold. 54% of the grapes harvested in Ontario are destined for these ICBs.

By international wine standards, ICBs are an embarrassment to the Canadian wine industry. I couldn’t believe it when I heard about them and saw them on the shelf. ICB as a category is a historical artefact, and now the Canadian wine industry is growing and developing, it’s time that these wines were labelled honestly. There is nothing wrong with importing bulk wine and bottling it in Canada, but label integrity standards the world over should be adhered to: the wine label should make it clear where the wine comes from.  The big companies who make lots of money from ICB claim that it helps make the Canadian wine industry sustainable - but at the cost of label integrity?

There’s a really good explanation of the whole messy situation here.

But enough of the griping. Back to the wines. I was taken aback by just how good the top Canadian wines are. For reds, Cabernet Franc is the surprise star, supported by Gamay and Pinot Noir. 'Cabernet Franc is our unsung her,' says Paul Pender, winemaker at Tawse. 'It's a misunderstood grape.' For whites, Chardonnay is the most widely planted variety, and the best ones are superb, although too many are a little warm and rich in style. Riesling is also impressive. I’m going to be writing up all my visits in full over the next few weeks, and I’ll also be adding all the notes I took during the i4C cool climate Chardonnay conference that I finished the trip with.   


Pearl Morissette
Hidden Bench

Closson Chase
Huff Estates
Rosehall Run
Norman Hardie

Wines tasted 07/13  
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