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Travel Guide: Wine Regions and Their History in Ontario, Canada

All Things Ontarian Wine!

Celebrating wine and cuisine is a grand part of Ontario’s culture. Ontarian wine, located in the south east of Canada, has evolved over generations and is now a very popular tourist attraction of the country. The history dates back  to 1811, when a German-born man named Johann Schiller transplanted Pennsylvania-native labrusca and hybrids on 20 acres on the banks of the Credit River in Cooksville, approximately 20 km west of Toronto. With the ban of alcohol through prohibition in the early 1900s, wineries and modern day winemaking did not fully begin until 1974. Committed to quality, Ontario wineries created the Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA) program to set out geographic appellations and introduce strict production standards. We’ll take a deeper look into some history and development of the winemaking business as well as some of the most popular wine regions that are now established in the province.

The Beginnings of Ontarian wine

Ontario is Canada’s leading grape producer, which makes the province well rounded on its wine and liquor personality. How did it get to where it is today on the market? According to ‘Wines of Canada’, it was Jacques Cartier who had sailed down the St. Lawrence River where he found wild grapes in abundance in 1535. At this time in history, Canada was in its prime of colonization and creating itself as “New France”. The Europeans were settling and becoming homeowners in a new land while in Europe itself, life continued to flourish.

It was as if colonization made humans start from scratch on some things that other countries at the same time were already advanced in. Wine is no different. Many amateurs tried their hand at producing wines but the wild Vitis riparia and Vistis labrusca were of poor quality compared to European wines. Cartier and Samuel de Champlain were part of the earliest reports of anyone making wine. This connects to the Jesuits around the 1630s where these members of religion required wine for sacramental purposes. With these additions to the culture, wine was being made but not sold. There was time between amateur and religious wine making and selling through vineyards and taverns.

The Ontario Grape Growers’ Marketing Board

Flash forward a century or so, organizations became popular for growing industries like the wine and grape one. Before wine and alcohol became a government run industry, organizations like The Grape Growers of Ontario ruled the farms. The board for this company started in 1947 and was established to serve the needs and represent the interests of grape growers in their dealings with processors. This was how grape growers gained a popular voice in the wine industry. In 1947, there were 15,000 acres of vineyards in Ontario and growers harvested 36,000 tons of grapes. The value of processing sales to wineries was $2.5 million.

The grapes were originally meant to be grown for desserts, low alcohol products, preserves and  juices. In the ensuing years, the nature of the grape and wine industry has changed dramatically. We saw this occur between 1989 and 1991. This was when growers removed 8,000 acres of labrusca and hybrid vines and replaced them with Vitis vinifera vines, traditional European varieties. With these adjustments came vineyard expansions, where upgraded changes continued with a focus on Vitis vinifera production.

According to The Grape growers of Ontario,  the harvest of grapes such as Chardonnay, Riesling, Gamay, the Cabernets and Merlots, was 800 metric tonnes in 1980. Today, there are 17,000 acres of vineyards in Ontario, almost the same as 65 years ago. But the kind of grapes grown is dramatically different than it was, and the industry has evolved and become well known across the world. As an independent, self-governing farming organization, the GGO represents all of Ontario’s 500 growers of 17,000 acres of processing grapes.

What Makes the Region so Great?

Climate becomes a huge factor in a region’s ability to grow grapes. The Niagara Peninsula is a cool-climate appellation ideally situated near N43º latitude. The high shifts in day-night temperature and substantial sunshine during the growing season add to the importance of this climate. Grape ripening happens at a peak with this climate.

Also, the constant circulation of off-shore breezes between Lake Ontario and the Niagara Escarpment helps with the moderation of seasonal temperatures across the appellation. Grapes do not do well in dry, high heat climates.

People also talk about soils and climate being the most important in making great wine. However, there is one other feature that adds to this: Flora. Flora includes all the living plants/fungi in a given area. This includes everything from trees, sagebrush, grasses, and flowers, all the way down to microbes like yeasts and bacteria. Climatic conditions influence fruit composition, but also three other important secondary effects on grape flora:  nature and type of insect vectors present in the vineyard, the localized temperature of the surface of the fruit, and the relative humidity of the surface of the fruit or within the cluster. Therefore, the region must have such factors in order to create a ground that can grow and maintain the healthiest grapes.

Harvesting

The region needs a solid harvesting period and process. Timing is the most important consideration for harvest. Once grapes are picked, they do not continue to ripen. For example, the timing of harvest can mean the difference between a fresh and fruity wine and a flabby, overripe wine, specifically in warmer climates. Since the sweetness can be impacted, Phenolic ripeness pertains to the condition of the tannin in the seeds (catechin) and skins (epicatechin) of the grape.

These are general terms within the science behind grape harvesting that bring out the specifics of wine making. It is the talk of wine having “sweet tannins”. Some grape varieties have lower tannins naturally and winemakers may pick them a little more green to add texture and acidity to a wine (this is commonly practiced with Pinot Noir). When other wines have high tannins, they are better to be picked when the phenolic ripeness in the seeds and skins is higher.

Ontario Wine Regions

Just like Europe, there are regions in Ontario that specialize in grape growing and wine making. The sunshine, the weather and the land all make for good production and selling. These regions include wineries that are open to the public usually with beautiful attractions and vineyards. Before getting into some of the most popular, highly rated wineries, we should understand the different regions to choose from!

Most Ontario Vineyards are located in or near the historic Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario’s oldest community.

The Niagara Peninsula

The Niagara Peninsula is the largest Viti cultural area in Ontario AND Canada! It accounts for about 11,000 acres of wine grapes which is almost three quarters of Canada’s grape-growing volume.  The most iconic nature of this area of Canada is the similarity to the sunshine in other popular situations of grape-farming. For example, the growing season in Niagara is comparable to the Languedoc-Rousillon in France, south of both Burgundy and Bordeaux, or Tuscany in Italy. Wines grown in such temperature climates can produce superior fruit, with more complexity and intense flavours.

The location is quite extraordinary. Close to the American border, it is boarded by Lake Ontario on the north and the Niagara River on the east. Where this river flows over the Niagara Escarpment, the more predominant topographical feature of the peninsula, is where the transformation into one of the seven great wonders of the world, Niagara Falls, situates. This makes for an automatic special time when visiting the area for wine. As a popular tourist destination with impressive accounts for grape-growing and wine production, the Niagara Peninsula easily becomes a spot to know and check out for those interested in quality wine. Plus, visiting Niagara can mean much more than just wine tasting, as its tourist spots are always fun to check out!

Top Winery in this Region

Two Sisters Vineyard 

Two sister's main entrance
Entrance of Two Sisters, image source: twosistersvineyard.com

It is the entrance lined with beautiful trees and the glimpse of the elegant building at the end that just gives you the feeling that you are somewhere special. Two Sisters is a number 1 destination for many people, especially locals. With Italian cuisine, this winery features award-winning wines, and luxurious décor. Their story starts in 2007 as a family passion which brought an extraordinary wine and culinary experience to the heart of Niagara-on-the-Lake. It spans over 130 acres of land with planted varieties including Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Chardonnay, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc.

The Estate truly adds to the beauty of this winery. Besides being known for their wine and restaurant, The Landmark Estate pays homage to the exquisite architecture of Europe while embracing the beauty of Niagara wine country. Italian heritage is very important to them, and it shines even within the architecture and walls of their home.

Take a look at the four vineyards offered here:

John Street Vineyard

One of their most mature vineyards. They claim gratitude for this vineyard’s intense fruit flavours and the sandy loam soil. This soil is perfect because it dries quickly during the growing season, providing increased colour and tannins in their red varietals. The area spans 38 acres in size.

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St. David’s Vineyard

Planted in 2017, this vineyard is home to Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and a small block of Petit Verdot. It spans over 31 acres and is known to be located in one of the warmest areas in Niagara. With a lucky climate like this, the ripening process is one to acknowledge that leads the winery with exquisite tasting wine.

Hunter Road Vineyard

This vineyard grows their Cabernet Franc. Being much younger, planted in 2020, it is in close proximity to Lake Ontario. This leads to the vineyard having a moderating effect that occurs which allows for an extended growing season in Niagara-on-the-Lake year after year.

Niagara Parkway Vineyard

Their final vineyard was planted in 2020 and is mostly dedicated to their aromatic whites, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling. This vineyard is located in the sub-appellation of the Niagara River and borders the Niagara River to the east.

Prince Edward County Region

On the northern shores of Lake Ontario near the base of the St. Lawrence River sits Prince Edward County, Ontario’s youngest wine region. This area is growing in popularity and credibility for their wines and beautiful experiences. What is different about this region is mostly the climate being cooler compared to other areas like the Niagara Peninsula. The challenging growing region has led the grapes to develop a flavour that is unique to the region, and to some, is completely detectable. What tourists and locals love about Prince Edward County is not only the wine, but the other experiences that come with it, such as beautiful beaches, breweries, bed and breakfast spots and iconic Canadian restaurants.

The limestone-rich soil of Prince Edward County helps the highlight of each vineyard and produces a special, local taste. With a long and rich agricultural history, the winemakers are carrying on that tradition today with grapes being their crop. Many wineries specialize in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, which do particularly well here due to the moderating lake effect on the climate and since these varieties tend to readily pick up the characteristics of the soil bringing unique flavour profiles to the wine.

Where is it located? The county covers an area of around 1,050 square kilometres (405 square miles) and is home to a population of roughly 25,000 people. Not to be confused with Prince Edward Island, the county is technically an island (or, at least, a “detached peninsula”) in Lake Ontario.

Top Winery Suggestion

Closson Chase Winery 

Established in 1998, this sustainable winery was an early settler and credited with leading the birth of the Prince Edward County wine industry. It was founded by Deborah Paskus after she discovered the special land was perfect for her dream vineyards–south sloping at six degrees, good drainage, gravelly soil on a limestone base, approximately five kilometres inshore. Like many wineries in this region, the rustic nature and architecture behind the villa is one to be attracted to. But, the big purple barn is the main centre of attention and makes this one different and recognizable.

Image of barn at Closson winery
Main barn at Closson winery, image source: Closson winery

This winery also holds many other attractions besides just wine tasting and their grape farms! The Market is open to all members of the community and even offers an online shopping version these days. They house locally grown and produced products that will definitely catch your eye. If you take a trip to Closson Chase Winery, the Alpaca farm and Lavender farm are also wonderful additions to the area. The floral beauty adds to the experience in a delicate, summery way as this farm is perfect in the warmer months. It also houses Bed and Breakfast stays with shops and opportunities to buy lavender-scented and flavoured products.

You can opt to visit this winery by walk-in for a simple wine tasting and walking around. Or, the option to stay overnight and through the weekend is also highly suggested! Some choose to stay the day for wine tasting and then dine in at their Au Verre by The Marans restaurant.

Lake Erie North Shore Wine

This third region is an appellation at the southern tip of Ontario. The maritime climate here is well suited to the production of wines made from Riesling and Vidal, as well red varieties such as Cabernet Franc and Merlot. Here, the Designated Viti cultural Area (DVA) is largely defined by water. The water heats up faster in the warm summers and cools down quicker in the winter. This has a profound impact on the growing season, which starts and finishes earlier than in other parts of Ontario.

With unobstructed winds too, these factors lead to a long, slow ripening process. This allows for the development of acidity alongside rich varietal character. Something special about Lake Erie as a wine region is the ability to create fine tasting ice wine. The lake-effect snow in the winter helps to insulate the dormant vines against freezing, which has the early onset of winter take influence from the lake.

Top Winery Suggestions

Pelee Island Winery

This winery is one of the most historic wineries of Ontario, dating back 150 years in winemaking history. They pride themselves on consistently producing exceptional wines in an ecologically conscious manner. Also, at over 700 acres of vineyards, Pelee Island Winery is the largest private estate winery in Canada! This makes for an instant interest in visiting as a tourist or even a local.

Image of building at winery
image source: peleeisland.com

Their website educates on their specific formulation and farming techniques for exquisite wine. The soil type is Toledo clay with a limestone base found two to ten feet from the surface. The soils are well developed and highly calcareous, indicative of very good fertility and intense biological activity. It is these small changes in their soils and environmental impact that makes the winery a founding member of Sustainable Winemaking Ontario.

Pelee Island Winery Pavilion

image of deck at Pavilion
Pavilion deck at Pelee Island Wineries, image source: Visitwindsoressex.com

Pelee Island Winery has two main vineyards and attractions. First, the Pavilion, where at the southernmost point of Canada. You’ll find 10,000 acres of idyllic vineyards, farms, beaches, parks and forests. To visit this part of the winery. Wine Tastings will be offered on the Upper Deck with the purchase of a charcuterie box followed by a 45-minute reservation for a table in the Wine Garden restaurant. On this island. There are also many bed and breakfast spots available for a longer stay which the winery suggests for an optimal visit.

Kingsville Winery

Kingsville is Canada’s Southernmost Town. The winery and vineyards of this area sit in a warm area of land and house such simplicity of quiet county roads and lake vistas. Aside from wine tasting and buying. This part of Pelee Island offers markets and shops for more consumer goods to take home like fresh fish from the fishing port on Lake Erie. There are apparel shops and boutiques. Regional pours and craft beers. Unfortunately according to their website, the wine tours for this winery are not available right now. Eventually, they look forward to opening back up that feature.

Conclusion

Ontarian wine is a must try for wine lovers and tasters. The specialty behind this province’s liquor is one to be remembered and acknowledged. Sometimes finding the right wineries is not easy. So we hope this article has opened up some options and understanding behind the technicalities of good wine-making. Plan your next wine tour and trip using travel tips from above and other articles Yoair hosts.

Sources

https://brocku.ca/social-sciences/geography/wp-content/uploads/sites/152/Johann-Schiller-Father-of-Canadian-Wine.pdf

http://www.winesofcanada.com/beginings.html

https://www.grapegrowersofontario.com/17

https://www.grapegrowersofontario.com/history

https://winefolly.com/deep-dive/the-science-behind-great-wine/

https://www.twosistersvineyards.com/About/The-Vineyards

https://www.princeedwardcountywine.ca/about/

https://www.clossonchase.com/pages/about-new

https://www.wine-searcher.com/regions-lake+erie+north+shore

https://www.peleeisland.com/

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