THERE ARE THREE DISTINCT WINE-GROWING REGIONS IN CANADA — THE PROVINCES OF BRITISH COLUMBIA, NOVA SCOTIA, AND ONTARIO.
There are two temperature zones across the globe where grapes suitable for wine production will flourish if planted on well-chosen sites. They range between 30 and 50 degrees North and South of the Equator.
Ontario’s three Geographic Designations – Niagara Peninsula, Pelee Island and Lake Erie North Shore are located between 41 and 44 degrees North, in the same latitudinal band as Provence and Langeudoc-Roussillon in France, the Chianti Classico region of Italy and Spain’s Rioja region. Ontario wines exhibit their unique flavour and style because of the moderated continental climate in which they are grown.
The northern hemisphere’s wine-growing belt lies approximately between 30 and 50 degrees north of the Equator. Monthly average temperatures in the Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Niagara Peninsula.
On the North American continent these same latitudinal parallels run through Oregon’s wine region, between California’s Mendocino Valley to the south and Washington’s Yakima valley to the north.
Geographically, Ontario’s vineyards lie at the centre of the world’s northern wine-growing belt and seasonal average monthly temperatures rank favorably with other great wine regions of the world.
Ontario is a land of lakes and trees stretching from the American border north to Hudson Bay. The province covers an area of over one million square kilometers. The name Ontario is an old Iroquois word meaning “the shining waters”.
The three Designated Viticultural Areas are located in the south, within sight and influence of two of the Great Lakes, Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. The climatic effects of these large bodies of water act like a thermostat to temper the winter cold and the heat of summers.
Ontario produces 80 per cent of Canada’s home-grown wine from some 5,800 hectares of vineyards. These products range from dry table wines and sparkling wines to dessert wines.
The Niagara Peninsula
Niagara-on-the-Lake, home of the annual Shaw Festival, lies on the same latitude as Florence and Cannes. This picturesque colonial town is the tourism heart of the Ontario wine regions along the south shore of Lake Ontario from Stoney Creek to Niagara Falls.
Running like a spine through the Peninsula is the Niagara Escarpment, a ridge that once the shore of an Ice Age lake. The Escarpment, varying in height from 30 to 50 metres, acts as a buffer for the on-shore winds from Lake Ontario. The resulting convection effect ensures a continuous air flow which minimizes the risk of frost damage to tender vine shoots in the spring.
The composition of the soil in this region was formed over 12,500 years ago when the glaciers retreated leaving behind deposits of clay, loam, sand and gravel. The soil mix is enriched with minerals and trace elements from different strata of bedrock which provide nutrition to the vineyards and add complexity to the wines.
With its annual sunshine hours and rainfall, the Niagara Peninsula enjoys a climate during the growing season which is very similar to that of Burgundy, France.
Lake Erie North Shore
The vineyards of South West Ontario number over 200 hectares situated in favored micro climates along the north shore of Lake Erie in Essex, Kent and Elgin counties. With its southern exposure complemented by the moderating effect of the lake, this Designated Viticultural Area produces some of Canada’s finest wines.
Lake Erie is the shallowest of the Great Lakes affording it the warmest surface temperature of the five. This region has the most sunshine hours in Canada and as a result its fruit goes to market weeks before other parts of the province.
The grape-growing area stretches along the bow-shaped shoreline of Lake Erie from Amherstburg to Leamington, with a further concentration of vineyards around the town of Blenheim to the east. Soil structures vary from gravelly loam to clay and sandy loam.
The climate of Lake Erie North Shore during the growing season is comparable to that of Bordeaux, France.
Pelee Island, marginally nearer the Equator than Rome, is Canada’s most southerly point. As such, it enjoys a longer growing season than any other wine region in Canada – thirty days more than the mainland. Picking usually begins at the end of August and even late-harvest grapes are in by mid-October.
Situated in Lake Erie 15 miles off the mainland, Pelee Island has 200 hectares under vine production out of a total area of 4,047 hectares. Canada’s first commercial wine-growing operation began here in 1866 when a winery called Vin Villa opened its doors. The vineyards were replanted with Vitis vinifera vines in 1980.
The soil of Pelee Island is similar to that of the mainland in South West Ontario- limestone bed-rock covered by thin glacial deposits of sand, loam and clay.
WHAT IS THE VINTNERS QUALITY ALLIANCE?
The Vintners Quality Alliance is a contract between the vintners of Ontario and the consumer. The VQA medallion is a commitment to quality and a guarantee that the wine expresses the highest aspirations of the vintner’s art.
VQA is to Canada what AOC is to France, DOC is to Italy and QMP is to Germany: quality control from the vineyard to the glass.
Every wine-growing country has a body of regulations which sets standards for its finest products. Based on generations of trial and error, these laws delimit the geographic areas where the grapes can be grown and how the wine must he made.
Experience has shown that certain vineyard areas, because of their favored soils, exposure and microclimate, produce the best wines year after year. By designating the appellations of origin on the label, vintners offer wine lovers a guide to their superior products.
Noble wines do not happen by accident. They are the happy result of the finest grapes being planted in the right soils, ripened in a conducive climate, then selected and vinted with care. Only high quality grapes make great wine, so Ontario’s VQA regulations stipulate which varieties can he used for products that bear the Vintners Quality Alliance medallion.
OBJECTIVES OF THE VQA
The VQA not only sets the regulations for Ontario’s quality wines, it also ensures that the wines live up to these standards. Before products can be marketed under the VQA medallion they must be tested and passed by a grading panel.
The Alliance also issues vintage reports on the Designated Viticultural Areas and disseminates information concerning Ontario’s quality wines on an on-going basis.
The VQA regulations
In Ontario, a distinction is made between two levels of superior quality. Each has its own set of guidelines:
- Provincial Designation — wines grown in the province from an approved list of Vitis vinifera grapes or vinifera hybrids.
- Geographic Designation – a more demanding appellation based on Designated Viticultural Areas, (DVAs). This appellation identifies and isolates three specific growing areas within Ontario. Only the classic European grape varieties can be used in order to merit the DVA identification.
Ontario provincial designation
Wines that conform to the Provincial designation regulations can, under VQAs charter, use the term “Ontario” on their labels.
To be eligible, such wines must meet the following basic standards:
- They must be made from only approved grapes (the classic European varieties and preferred hybrids).
- If labelled as a varietal they must contain at least 85 per cent of the variety named and must exhibit that variety’s predominant character.
- 100 per cent Ontario-grown grapes must be used whether the wine is a varietal or a blend.
- All grape varieties must reach a minimum sugar level expressed in degrees Brix (brix is a measurement of natural sugar in the grape at the time of picking).
These minimum standards are comparable to, and in many cases superior to, those set by other wine governing agencies around the world.
For this superior designation, the Vintners Quality Alliance recognizes within Ontario three Designated Viticultural Areas which have traditionally produced the finest and most distinctive wines:
- Niagara Peninsula
- Pelee Island
- Lake Erie North Shore
A more stringent code of regulations governs the right of vintners to use these highly specific Geographic Designations on their labels:
- A minimum of 85 per cent of the grapes must come from the viticultural area named on the label. Only Vitis vinifera, the classic European grape varieties, such as Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling and Pinot Noir, can be used.
- For varietals, 85 per cent of the wine must be made from the variety named on the label and must exhibit the predominant character of that variety.
- The wine must be produced from l00 percent Ontario-grown grapes.
- If a vintner wishes to designate the vineyard from which the wine was made, the site must be within a recognized viticultural area and l 00 per cent of the grapes must come from that vineyard.
- Wines described as Estate Bottled must be made entirely from vines owned or controlled by the winery in a viticultural area and must not leave the winery prior to bottling.
- Minimum sugar levels have been set for vineyard designated and Estate Bottled wines, as well as dessert and Icewine.
Wines are evaluated by a panel of experts in light of the stringent VQA quality parameters. Only those wines which meet or exceed the production and appellation standards are awarded VQA status and entitled to display the VQA medallion.
“The single most important factor in the advance in quality of Ontario wines has been the introduction of the VQA. This appellation system and the minimum standards it set in place brought Ontario into the twentieth century and set the course for global recognition.”
-Tony Aspler, author of Vintage Canada
There are many ways to measure critical acclaim and certainly, when it comes to the products of Ontario’s vineyards, the praise of the wine press is an excellent barometer. So too is rapidly escalating consumer demand. The most palpable symbols of high achievement, however, are the medals, scrolls, commendations and other decorations that have been lavished on Ontario wines since the introduction of the Vintners Quality Alliance in 1989. At competitions at home and around the world, their sheer number and diversity arc testaments to the fact that Ontario has been recognized and accepted as a producer of fine wines.
It was Icewine that first ‘broke the ice’ of international acceptance for Ontario wines, a phenomenon that has led the province to become the world’s largest and most consistent producer of this winter nectar. But it is not only sweet wines that have caught the attention of tasting panels abroad; Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Gewürztraminer in whites and Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Gamay in reds have all brought home the medals.
.Some of the recent highlights for Ontario VQA wines have been:
- The International Wine&Spirit Competition 1995 (Surrey, England) — The Pichon-Longueville Lalande Trophy for the Best Blended Red Wine of the Show, plus six gold medals;
- International Wine Challenge 1995 (London, England one gold medal; Vinexpo 199S (Bordeaux, France) — six gold medals;
- InterVin 1995 (Canada/U.S.) — sixteen gold medals;
- Vinitaly (Verona, Italy) – two Grand gold medals and one gold medal; Sélections mondiales 1996 (Montreal, Canada) one gold medal;
- Beverage Testing Institute 1995 (Chicago, U.S.) – one platinum medal and seven gold medals.