Canada’s Wine Regions – Part 3 – Ontario

Ontario is the largest wine grape producing province and recognizes the Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA) as its provincially regulated appellation of origin system.  The VQA is discussed in detail in my June 22, 2019 post, “Selecting Canadian Wines”. 

The province’s three wine-producing appellations are the Niagara Peninsula, Lake Erie North Shore and Prince Edward County. They contain over 160 VQA wineries and 17,000 acres of vineyards.

Niagara Peninsula

The Niagara Peninsula has the largest planted area of the viticultural areas in Ontario with 90 wineries and about 15,000 acres of vines. The Niagara Peninsula has two regional appellations and 10 sub-appellations.

I have made numerous treks to Niagara over the years and have developed an ever changing list of favourite wineries that I like to frequent during my excursions to the region.  I will point those out in the sections below. Given that there are now 90 wineries in the region, I have in no way even come close to visiting all the wineries so my recommendations are based only on my own personal experience and research.

Generally speaking (but there are exceptions) I have found that I favour the whites from the sub-appellations north of St. Catharines, toward Toronto, and the reds from the sub-appellations south of St. Catharines, toward Niagara Falls.

Sub-Appellations

There are 10 unique growing areas within the Niagara Peninsula.  Only wines made from 100% grapes grown in the sub-appellation are permitted to include the sub-appellation name on the label.

Niagara River

This is a small strip of land that runs adjacent to the Niagara River.  The soils in the area are primarily stratified glaciolacustrine fine sand that provides natural drainage and encourages the vines to develop deep roots.

One of my favourite wineries, Two Sisters Winery, is located in this sub-appellation. I enjoy both their Stone Eagle and their Stone Eagle Reserve, which are blends of varying proportions of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot

The common grape varietals grown in Niagara River include:

  • Vidal
  • Chardonnay
  • Pinot Noir
  • Cabernet Franc
  • Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Riesling

Niagara Lakeshore

This region follows the Lake Ontario shoreline from the Welland Canal to the Niagara River.  The soil composition and moderate temperatures resulting from the close proximity of Lake Ontario provide a longer growing season which results in mature full bodied wines.

The common grape varietals consist of:

  • Vidal
  • Chardonnay
  • Pinot Noir
  • Cabernet Franc
  • Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Riesling

Four Mile Creek

This is the largest of the sub-appellations that makes up central Niagara-on-the-Lake.  During the growing season this area provides warm days and cool nights providing growers the opportunity of growing many different varieties of grapes.

The common types of grapes grown include:

  • Vidal
  • Chardonnay
  • Pinot Noir
  • Cabernet Franc
  • Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Riesling

St. David’s Bench

This is the natural glacial bench that was carved out of the Niagara Escarpment.  The escarpment provides early spring warming and frost protection for the vines.

There are 2 wineries on my favourites list that are located on St. David’s Bench, Chateau des Charmes and Ravine Vineyard.  I am a fan of the red wines produced by both wineries.

Grape production in St. David’s Bench includes:

  • Vidal
  • Chardonnay
  • Pinot Noir
  • Cabernet Franc
  • Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Riesling

Creek Shores

Creek Shores is bound by Lake Ontario, Twelve Mile Creek, Twenty Mile Bench and Jordan Harbour.  Temperatures are moderated by Lake Ontario.

Grapes grown include:

  • Sauvignon Blanc
  • Pinot Noir
  • Chardonnay

Lincoln Shoreline

Lake Ontario has a major impact on this sub-appellation providing longer, tempered growing conditions and even ripening of the grapes.

The types of grapes grown include:

  • Chardonnay
  • Riesling
  • Cabernet Franc
  • Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Syrah
  • Gamay
  • Semillon

Short Hills Bench

Short Hills Bench is the most easterly of the appellations located between Twelve Mile Creek and Fifteen Mile Creek.  It provides warm days and cool nights which are perfect for enhancing grape flavours.

The varietals grown here include:

  • Riesling
  • Chardonnay
  • Pinot Noir
  • Cabernet Franc
  • Sauvignon Blanc
  • Vidal
  • Gewürztraminer

Twenty Mile Bench

The bench is dissected by Twenty Mile Creek.  There is a high proportion of limestone and shale making the soil quite alkaline.  The sheltered north facing slopes provide year round temperature moderation.

This is a rare situation where I favour white and red wine from the same appellation.  I enjoy the whites of Featherstone Estate Winery and the reds of Rockway Vineyards.

The list of varietals grown on the Twenty Mile Bench includes:

  • Riesling
  • Chardonnay
  • Pinot Noir
  • Cabernet Franc
  • Sauvignon Blanc
  • Vidal
  • Gewürztraminer

Beamsville Bench

This is a narrow bench area that benefits from good air circulation and frost protection.  The air circulation minimizes temperature swings and consistent growing conditions.

Angels Gate Winery produces some great white wines such as Unoaked Chardonnay, Riesling and Gewürztraminer, while Cave Spring Cellars makes a good Chardonnay Musque and Fielding Estate Winery makes great Riesling and Chardonnay.

The varietals grown on the Beamsville Bench include:

  • Riesling
  • Chardonnay
  • Pinot Noir
  • Cabernet Franc
  • Sauvignon Blanc
  • Vidal
  • Gewürztraminer

Vinemount Ridge

This sub-appellation contains shallow south-facing slopes.  The area provides early spring warming with warm days and cool nights.

Grapes grown include:

  • Pinot Noir
  • Chardonnay
  • Pinot Gris
  • Riesling
  • Gewürztraminer
  • Cabernet Franc
  • Vidal

Regional Appellations                            

There are 2 regional appellations in Niagara; each consisting of several sub-appellations.  However, not all of the sub-appellations are included as part of a regional appellation.  This raises the question as to why these regional appellations are necessary since many of the sub-appellations are not included.  However, I digress.

In order to apply for the Regional Appellation designation, the wine must have 85% of the grapes sourced from within an associated sub-appellation with the balance from within the Niagara Peninsula.                    

Niagara-on-the-Lake

Niagara-on-the-Lake is the area bounded by the Niagara River, Niagara Lakeshore, Four Mile Creek and St. David’s Bench.  A minimum of 85% of the grapes must be sourced within these sub-appellations with the balance coming from elsewhere within the Niagara Peninsula.

The common grape varieties of this regional appellation include:

  • Vidal
  • Chardonnay
  • Pinot Noir
  • Cabernet Franc
  • Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Riesling

Niagara Escarpment

The Short Hills Bench, Twenty Mile Bench and Beamsville Bench together form the Niagara Escarpment.  In order to use this designation a wine must consist of 85% of the grapes coming from these sub-appellations with the balance from elsewhere within the Niagara Peninsula.

The grapes grown include:

  • Riesling
  • Chardonnay
  • Pinot Noir
  • Cabernet Franc
  • Sauvignon Blanc
  • Vidal
  • Gewürztraminer

Prince Edward County

Prince Edward County was created as a new growing region in 2007. Some see the future of wine in “The County” in premium wines produced from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  There are now in excess of 40 wineries in the region.

Grapes grown in the region include:

  • Pinot Noir
  • Gamay Noir
  • Vidal
  • Chardonnay
  • Cabernet Franc
  • Baco Noir
  • Chambourcin
  • Marechal Foch
  • Seyval Blanc
  • Gewürztraminer
  • Sauvignon Blanc
  • Syrah
  • Merlot

Climate

Most vineyards are located in areas that receive maximum benefit from lake breezes. Prevailing westerly breezes travel steadily across Lake Ontario and the Bay of Quinte to help moderate temperatures. They are especially beneficial during the warm summer months, keeping average temperatures around 22°C, with pleasant cooling during the hotter days and keeping cool nights at bay.

Topography

The County’s topography is irregular, with hills creating various exposures for the vines, and valleys digging into the broad, flat Trenton limestone base. A gradual rise from northeast to southwest is crossed by a number of long, gentle east-west ridges and occasionally steep, rugged escarpments. On the northern and eastern shorelines, rocky bluffs rise to an elevation of 30 m (98 ft) or more above Lake Ontario, while the western shore has many inlets with sandy shores and large sandbars that define bodies of water such as West Lake and East Lake.

Soil

Top soils range from reddish-brown clay loam to sandy loam and overlay limestone bedrock embedded with shale fragments. The stony surface and numerous rock and shale fragments within the soils allow water to drain into the limestone, which ensures good drainage of winter-melt and substantial root penetration for mature vines. This rocky soil also allows good heat conduction and retention and encourages early warming in the spring.

My favourite wineries in Prince Edward County include Keint-He (pronounced “Quinte”) Winery and Vineyards, Sandbanks  Winery, and Stanners Vineyard.  In all cases I am a fan of their reds but Sandbanks has some fun whites as well.

The one thing to note with Sandbanks is that being one of the largest, if not the largest, producer in the region, they purchase a large portion of their grapes from other growers in the area. This limits their ability to control the source grapes and the flavour impacts from the wide range of soil types existing within the County. Therefore, in order to ensure conistency in taste, I have found that the wines produced with grapes grown in Sandbanks own vineyards are well worth seeking out.

The foolproof way to determine which wines contain their own grapes is to ask a member of their knowlegeable staff. However, based on my own experience, wines identifying a bin number or including “Reserve” in the title, have been produced using Sandbanks own grapes.

Lake Erie North Shore

The Lake Erie North Shore appellation contains one sub-appellation, the South Islands, which includes Canada’s southernmost vineyards on Pelee Island, including Canada’s largest estate winery, Pelee Island Winery.

Climate

Lake Erie North Shore has a long growing season. It benefits from the quick summer warming of the shallow waters of Lake Erie as well as from an abundance of sunshine during the growing season. Early harvests are the norm, with picking usually beginning at the end of August and late-harvest varieties often reaching their peak by late October.

Topography

Bounded on the northwest side by Lake St. Clair, to the west by the fast flowing Detroit River, with Lake Erie to the south, and including the nine islands in Lake Erie, which make up the South Islands sub-appellation, Lake Erie North Shore appellation is almost completely surrounded by water. Numerous short, shallow streams found throughout this appellation flow freely in the spring but often dry down to a trickle in the warm summer. The appellation is made up of long, gentle slopes that face in all directions, with elevations ranging from 172 m (564 ft) to 196 m (643 ft) above sea level. With no major topographic barrier to the prevailing southwesterly winds, this appellation enjoys the full effect of the lake breeze that moderates the entire area during the long growing season.

Soil

The soil composition was greatly affected by the glacial lakes, which deposited large amounts of unsorted stony materials in the area. When the glacial lakes elsewhere retreated, this area remained covered in deep waters for a longer period, allowing waves to smooth out the ridges and deposit considerable amounts of sediment. The light-textured, well-drained soils around the lakeshore contain mostly sandy loam and gravel deposits punctuated by small, irregular stony ridges, which overlie shale limestone bedrock. The South Islands have similar soil makeup as the mainland, and the majority of the vineyards are planted on the southwestern corner and centre of Pelee Island (the largest of the islands), where the soils are the deepest and allow for root systems to properly set.

There are currently 15 wineries in the Lake Erie North Shore region.  Personally I am not very familiar with these wineries.  However I can say that over the years I have enjoyed a number of the reds from Pelee Island Winery, in particular their Meritage and Cabernet Sauvignon.

I have not experienced the pleasure of visiting Lake Erie North Shore but have enjoyed a number of the wines produced there.

Sláinte mhaith

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