Nothing illustrates the connection between soil and table better than wine. It is the spirit of the earth, the terroir.
Ontario has three legally defined wine-growing regions: Niagara, Lake Erie North Shore and Pelee Island. Within the first two are other areas, which some say are quite definable themselves. ‘The Bench’ sweeps along the Niagara Escarpment’s craggy limestone outcroppings with its eastern terminus being St.Catharines. It plateaus into a narrow, fertile band of well-drained, shallow silt and clay loam. There the climate is the coolest of the Niagara peninsula. Riesling flourishes. Allan Schmidt, winemaker at Vineland Estates characterizes these grapes as having a ‘racy acidity.’
Throughout lower Niagara, from the lake shore to Queenston and St. Davids, the soil varies from sandy loam to coarse gravely deposits. It’s these potential sub-appellations that are challenging the expertise of wine-makers like Jean-Laurent Groux of Hillebrand. ‘In France,’ he says, ‘the job of finding out what grows best took 2000 years. Here we are trying to do it in 10 – 20.’
Lake Erie North Shore spans the flat, former sea bed between Windsor and Blenheim. Dominated by heavy clay soil, this region has the most heat units in all of Canada. The shallow lake has no moderating effect. ‘When it freezes, it’s just very, very cold.’ says Pierre Leblanc, co-owner of Leblanc Estate Winery near Harrow. On Pelee Island, a few miles off-shore in Lake Erie, the climate is so unique that the harvest must be completed within 24 – 48 hours.
Although grapes have been grown here for over a century, the wine industry’s recent dynamic growth began a mere two decades ago when Donald Ziraldo and Karl Kaiser received their license to open Inniskillin. Since then, Ontario vintners have garnered medals from Bordeaux to London and with these awards came the growing respect of the world’s wine community. Mentoring each other while still competing with gusto seems to be the greatest accomplishment of the wine community.
Cuvée, held yearly in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, is one of Canada’s most prestigious wine tasting events. Winemakers gather to give their blessings and award medals to the previous year’s finest. This glamorous event precedes ‘The Experts Tasting, held on the Saturday morning. It is an educational event par excellence and showcases Ontario and Canadian wines with some of the world’s finest. Each year a different vinifera was chosen – this year’s being cabernet franc. The tasting was held at Brock University at The Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute (COOVI). CCOVI is a first in North America. Located in the prime grape-growing region of Niagara, COOVI provides a link between grape growers and leading edge researchers. Students have hands-on experience while farmers have access to some of the finest wine educators.
The stars of Ontario’s winemakers and vineyard owners were there not only for the tasting but also for the inauguration of the Canadian Wine Library. The Library is housed in a controlled atmosphere cellar in Inniskillin Hall and will eventually hold 17,500 bottles from vineyards across Canada’s major growing regions. Each wine represented will have two cases stored for the sensory evaluation and analysis by researchers, educators, and media from all over the world. From their observations we will collectively see how Canadian wines will evolve.
Dr. Linda Bramble, author and CWL Industry Liaison says, ‘I think the Rieslings, in particular, will be the most fascinating to watch. Also the Cabernets and Pinot Noirs. But the real mystery will be the Icewines. Will the Vidals fall off in a few years? Will the Rieslings endure? How will the sparkling Icewines age? How will the taste profile evolve? This is all virgin territory. Even German and Austrian eiswines won’t have this kind of comparison record. The Late Harvest wines are equally fascinating since they, too, have great potential.
We realize we’re swimming upstream in North America since so many consumers will drink their wine within 48 hours of purchase, but we believe with consumers also drinking less-but-better wine they’ll learn to be more patient to discover the wonderful quality of a mature, well integrated wine in full bloom.’
Throughout the year wines are be added to the Canadian Wine Library’s collection, but the big tasting is held annually in April. To make this cut, the wines have had to been recommended by at least three CWL Directors, all experts in sensory evaluation.
The CWL began as an off shoot of Cuvée to allow organizers to secure the older vintages needed for the Expert Tasting. A national panel of wine educators and media was created and the selection process began. To date there are approximately 3,000 bottles enclosed in a state-of-the-art security system. The first group are teaching and research wines…some developed by oenology and viticulture students at CCOVI. The second section, behind massive iron gates, is the Canadian Wine Library itself.
Dr. Bramble has a dream. ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could develop a center similar to the Enotecas of Italy – a beautiful, stylish, meeting place with music, history, culture, food – where the library would be part of an on-going educational program for wine lovers…’
And the good news is that the story continues. Under the direction of Dr. Hennie van Vuuren, a second wine library is being developed in British Columbia.
Then, on March 1, the announcement was made that Canadian Icewine has finally been granted entry into the European marketplace. Canada has become the global leader in the production of this magnificent wine of this magical wine, which tastes of honey and apricots and autumn sunshine.. First produced by Walter Hainle of Hainle Vineyards in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, it was little more than a novelty till Karl Kaiser of Niagara’s Inniskillin Wines started experimenting with it in the 1980s.
No grape harvest in the world could be colder than this. Winemakers wait till winter temperatures dip to well below freezing. Then in the middle of the night, dressed in many layers of thermal clothing and carrying clippers, they head to the vineyards, where the grapes hang in hard, frozen bunches. All night long, workers clip the grapes, mostly vidal and riesling, although some experimentation is going on with cabernet franc, gewurztraminer and sauvignon blanc. The frozen grapes are pressed immediately and the precious golden drops are collected and vinified with due respect.
It is appropriate that it was an Icewine, Inniskillin’s 1989 Vidal, that brought Canada its first serious medal in world wine competition – the Grand Prix D’Honneur at Vinexpo in Bordeaux.
The production of Icewine is a risky venture. They must leave acres un-picked and although the grapes are netted, birds often claim much of the harvest. There is also a risk of botrytis cinerea, or noble rot, which pierces the grape skin and allows the juice to evaporate prematurely. However, Ontario’s production has a serious competitive edge that works in our winemakers favour. It always freezes here! We always have winter and with the plunging temperatures, comes the potential for making some of the most exotic wines in the world. It truly is liquid gold in a glass.
Anita Stewart is a freelance journalist and food activist