Ontario Wine Culture

Maggie Granger of the Grange of Prince Edward County pouring her line-up of wines for the excited crowd at Taste Ontario. Photo Michael Di Caro.

The snow switching to rain, the clairvoyant groundhogs and Taste Ontario. I’ve been fooled by the first two as harbingers of spring but the latter has never let me down. For a few years the Toronto-based tasting event focused on restaurants and media gathers wineries from Niagara, Prince Edward County, Lake Erie North Shore and emerging regions after the winter slumber and gives a sneak peak their latest juice and hidden gems right when we need it. This year is no exception so we’ve gather a report on some wines to look out for as we move from winter into patio season.

Off the Beaten Path Niagara

As we transition into spring it’s almost never a switch flip into green pastures, warmer air and more sunshine. There’s always some form of late March or early April regression. When that inevitably lands the perfect wine to turn to is Cabernet Franc. When the O.G. Cabernet (yes, despite its popularity Cab. Sauv. isn’t the parent here) is done right it has a finesse, depth and brightness that’s perfect for this in between period where winter is desperately hanging on before spring can fully take over. The most pleasant surprise of Taste Ontario and a wine that exemplifies this is Rockway Vineyard’s 2017 Small Lot Cabernet Franc (Niagara, $25, winery). Located with a sister golf course the edge of the Twenty Mile Bench and Short Hills Bench it’s a bit an off-the-beaten-path Niagara hidden gem. Possessing a best-of-both-worlds situation, it gets some of that extra Short Hills heat while retaining Twenty Mile’s signature freshness—perfect situation for Cab. Franc. It’s got classic black raspberry and cherry, a touch of violet perfume and some decadent cocoa to finish. But the best part might be the way it carries itself with a rich cappuccino texture but with lingering lightness of cashmere. Tying it all together is a ying-yang balance of tannin and bright soft acidity. The potential for Cab. Franc here excites new winemaker Ben Minaker, formerly of Ravine, who is taking over from David Stasiuk, and he’s looking forward to exploring what the microclimate and soil of this underrated corner of Niagara can produce.

Ben Minaker, winemaker at Rockway talking with guests at Taste Ontario. Photo Michael Di Caro.

County Creativity
For a couple years Prince Edward County has made the transition from preferred source of elegant Pinot Noir and Chardonnay by local wine geeks to mainstream spot for graceful Ontario Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. While the County has found its focus, behind the scenes it’s also experimenting with a funkier side. Enter the Grange of Prince Edward County the mother daughter team of Caroline and Maggie Granger have quietly and gracefully nudged the region into exploring what it can be via the more natural side of winemaking—think leaving wines unfiltered, refraining from adding sulfur, aging exclusively in neutral oak barrels and giving white wines extended skin contact. It’s the last technique where the 2018 Ombré Gris (Prince Edward County, $20, winery) comes in. Instead of taking Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc pressing the grapes and immediately throwing them into stainless street for a cool ferment before quickly bottling and leaving a lot of residual sugar like many aromatic white blends, this one opts to leave the juice on the skins red wine style but for a shorter three days. Not only does that lend it a glorious amber hue somewhere between a light red and a rosé, it also brings out the hidden side of white grapes not often explored for fear that it’s too far from the fruity mainstream. This ain’t your mother’s Grigio. It’s pure floral hibiscus tea, peach blossom and pear skin lending something pleasantly different from the typical fruit cocktail bowl of aromatic white blends. It also brings way more heft and substance to the party, think the beautifully silky feel and tannins of a County Pinot Noir. Tying it all together is that signature County zip. It’s a great wine to entice your craft beer and cider loving friends and a perfect way to stand out from the rosé all day crowd and impress your wine snob friends as it effortless walks tightrope between floral and savoury side of wine in a way that will work magic with spring and summer salads bursting with herbs and greens.

Lake Erie Unsure
With a longer and warmer growing season the North Shore of Lake Erie has a long held promise of being Ontario’s spot for big bold reds that love heat like Cabernet and Syrah. But compared to Lake Ontario, Erie is bathtub shallow so doesn’t provide the protective heat sink effect collecting summer warmth and distributing it over winter. Add to that climate change which has brought on the extreme cold of polar vortexs and over the past few years the vineyards there have been hit hard. So hard that I was surprised to learn that one of the region’s giants and pioneers Colio is no longer growing grapes there and is instead relying Niagara fruit. This is far from the future of the sub region though, there’s still dozens of wineries growing and making wine on the shores of Lake Erie. Ontario growers are nothing if not a hardy, resilient and clever bunch, but as climate change continues, this is something to keep an eye out for as the region’s signature specialties evolve. In the mean time a prime example of the big bold reds Lake Erie is known for was showcased in the 2017 Thaddeus Smith Red (Lake Erie North Shore, $25.95, winery) from Pelee Island Winery. Named after one of the region’s earliest pioneers, who establish the first winery on the island, it’s a twist on a classic Bordeaux red blend that’s Cab Sauv. dominant and includes Petit Verdot and Malbec but leaves behind the Merlot and Franc for Syrah. It’s full of juicy ripe blackberries and black cherries but with a bit of pleasant left turn of black pepper and violet and mulberry courtesy of that Syrah, Malbec and Petit Verdot. It has a latte-like rich texture, but also a balanced structure and freshness (there’s that one-two punch of high acid and tannin of the Petit Verdot stepping-up again) that’s perfect for a backyard barbecue. It’s a great argument that demise of Lake Erie’s future of big bold reds is greatly exaggerate.

The Grange’s 2018 Ombré Gris—one of Taste Ontario 2020’s highlights. Photo Michael Di Caro .

A Beamsville Bench Hidden Gem
To bookend things let’s go to the Beamsville Bench where among its most crowded strip of wineries on Mountainview Rd. lies a less flashy, but destination-worthy gem called Organized Crime. Here veteran winemaker Greg Yeman has quietly been the caretaker of a underrated line-up of beautiful wines. You can’t go wrong with anything in the portfolio, but the can’t miss star is the 2018 Pinot Noir (Niagara, $21.00, winery). It’s one of the best values you’ll find anywhere the province from a grape whose greatest trick is nefariously emptying your bank account. This one is gymnast—graceful in its power and lithe and artistic in its execution. There’s the Niagara hallmark of classic sour cherry overlaying earthy rhubarb and even a bit of rose petal which is more than worth the price of admission. But what makes it stand out against wines over twice its price is a silky soft feel, finish longer than a summer solstice and balanced tensions of a perfectly executed beam routine that will even leave the Russian judge impressed.

No matter what your flavour get out there and taste the excellent wines being made in your backyard Ontario. The days are getting longer, the air is getting sweeter and spring is only a glass away.

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