Wine from the Great Lakes region can feel like a one-trick pony—mostly white and mostly sweet. But venture to the eastern reaches of the area and you’ll find microclimates well-suited to grow riesling, cabernet franc, chardonnay, and pinot noir. And in Ontario, these grapes not only grow, but are nurtured into finished wines worthy of an international audience.
Pioneering Ontarians, the forebears of today’s burgeoning wine industry, planted vineyards in the early- to mid-1970s along the shores of Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. The lakes’ deep waters shelter these European grape varieties from drastic temperature swings. In winter, the unfrozen lakes keep temperatures near the shorelines above the vine-killing 0°F mark. Flip to summer, and the shores stay cooler while temperatures elsewhere spike into the high 90s or 100s, weather that can shrivel grapes and shut down grape development.
The lake effect combines with area bluffs, specifically the Niagara Escarpment that rises 575 feet above the lakes, to create cyclical air patterns that swirl moderate air over the vines like a protective blanket.
Three core appellations reside within Ontario: Lake Erie North Shore; the Niagara Peninsula, which garners the most attention; and Prince Edward County, the newest kid on the block. The Vintners Quality Alliance Ontario (VQA Ontario) regulates Ontario wines, ensuring that all bottles labeled VQA meet minimum standards. For instance, 100 percent of the grapes must come from Ontario, and a tasting panel must also stamp their approval on every wine labeled VQA.
Stylistically, the wine region qualifies as a cool-to-moderate climate. The area’s clay-loam and sandy-loam limestone soils provide excellent drainage. Combined, these factors create energy and minerality in the wines. While many default to icewine when thinking of Canadian wine, Ontario winemakers emphasize dry wines, including cabernet franc, pinot noir, gamay, chardonnay, riesling, and traditional-method sparkling wine.
The cab francs in particular have soul, dancing an Old World/New World waltz with ripe mixed fruits, distinct red bell pepper, and savory herbs, all on balanced frames of sturdy tannins and mid-weight elegance. “This is really complex,” declared a friend after tasting the 2013 Tawse Winery Laundry Vineyard Cabernet Franc from the sub-appellation of Lincoln Lakeshore on the Niagara Peninsula, a fine example of the marriage of West Coast and Loire Valley styles that Ontario offers to this grape.
Riesling, the queen of grapes, takes centerstage for whites, as Ontario showcases its captivating diversity of styles. You’ll taste bone-dry, off-dry, and sweet versions, all with the necessary energy to balance and lift the palate. The 2016 Cave Spring Vineyard Riesling from Cave Spring Cellars demonstrates the potential here thanks to 30-year-old vines planted in the near-ideal Beamsville Bench sub-appellation on the Niagara Peninsula. Lemon, pit fruit, lychee, and a hint of petrol lead to a pure mid-palate experience. This tuning fork tension hums with the ripeness and acidity found in the best rieslings. This would be a delight to drink in 10-plus years, though it also tastes fantastic today.
The most beloved white grape for Americans, chardonnay, also plays well with Ontarian terroir. Providing something for every chardonnay lover, Ontarians craft zesty, stainless-steel versions, featuring green apple and lemon flavors, as well as balanced barrel fermentations with varying levels of new French oak character. The 2016 Westcott Vineyards Estate Chardonnay showcases honeycomb, pit fruits, and a touch of caramel followed by a suave texture and refreshing lift thanks to well-timed harvest at 22.8 brix. Pour this for friends who savor buttery Napa chardonnays, and watch their heads turn and eyebrows raise.
Ontario has also been increasingly recognized by critics as a region rising to prominence for sparkling wine. With an ability to grow great pinot noir and chardonnay, it is no surprise Ontario producers have focused on traditional-method bubbles—just like in Champagne, France, where secondary fermentation takes place in the bottle and wines age on the lees (the sediment created by expired yeast) for two to five-plus years. It results in seductive brioche and graham cracker aromas and flavors with smooth textures. Look no further than Henry of Pelham’s Cuvée Catharine Carte Blanche Blanc de Blanc sparkling for an excellent example of the style.
Touring new wine-growing regions at the beginning of their rise offers immense rewards—more pastoral experiences, chances to talk with winemakers and proprietors directly, and affordable tasting fees and bottles to bring home. That time is now on for Ontario; few regions can craft the diversity of styles found in its core appellations. If touring the eastern Great Lakes, or visiting Niagara Falls, be sure to pack your passport for the wines that await on the opposite shore.