Ontario Wine Culture

Chef Ryan Crawford putting the finishing touches on a dish table side for Cave Spring’s Tom Pennachetti at the al fresco Tastes Untamed dinner. Michael Di Caro photo

The sweet summer breeze sung in perfect harmony with grape vines, the golden hour sunset gave everything a warm halo and a last-feast-worthy spread of food and wine distilled a year of this beautiful corner of earth on the plate and in the glass. It was the prototypical Ontario late summer day personified and one of the best evenings of Ontario wine I can remember.

The influence may have came from an ad, but the true inspiration was pure Ontario wine country. The marketing minds behind Ontario Craft Wineries, gathered some of Ontario’s top wine writers and winemakers to recreate the Tastes Untamed commercial at chef Ryan Crawford’s Backhouse farm in the heart of the flats of Niagara-on-the-Lake wine country.

Cave Spring’s Blanc de Blanc sparkling wine chilling and ready to be the perfect partner for Niagara cool climate cuisine. Michael Di Caro photo

Crawford has always had a philosophy of showing the best of local since helming the stoves at Stone Road Grille nearly 15 years ago. But when he returned to the restaurant and purchased it a few years ago, christening it Backhouse, he really doubled down on that philosophy honing it into what he calls integrated cool climate cuisine. The engine of the restaurant is a few acre farm, purchased a few years back, that’s less than five minutes from the restaurant. A full-time farmer, Ashley Burnie, is employed at the restaurant and everyone on staff lends a hand working the land, in the you-appreciate-what’s-on-the-plate-when-you-know-where-it-comes-from ethos. Aside from some supplemental onions and citrus, the farm supplies everything you’ll eat at the restaurant. “We’re a cool climate wine region and we’re a cool climate growing region, he said. “I want to do food that matches what these wonderful people do”, gesturing towards the winemakers.

Crawford has long believed in synergy with the local wine community—he earned his sommelier certification and even made wine from the grapes on his neighbour’s farm. Just like the winemakers, Backhouse’s team is setting out to prove being cool climate is more asset than limiting. They’re managing to grow some 184 varsities of vegetables and fruits that were on full display at the dinner and paired beautifully with the full rainbow of Niagara wines.

Naturally the evening began with Ontario sparkling. Over the past decade local wineries have polished their sparkling game to the point where Ontario should be the first choice when you’re searching LCBO shelves for your bubbles. They’re versatile enough to go with whatever’s on your dinner plate, well priced–especially compared to a bottle of Champagne–and the quality of what’s in the glass is guarantee to bring as many smiles as the bottle has bubbles.

A perennial go-to making good on that ever-bearing smiles promise is Cave Spring’s Blanc de Blanc. Like minimalist design it’s crisp, focused and purposeful. It tastes like the first gin and tonic of summer, full of bright lemon and lime zest with long and dry crushed rock finish up to the task of quenching that winter-long thirst. Thanks to three years of bottle aging on the lees it has tiny bubbles providing the texture of espresso crema to balance the crispness. Pair it with some east coast oysters and you’re off to living your best weekend life.

If you like things a little rounder and softer there’s Rosehall Run’s Ceremony Blanc de Blanc. Think more mid-century modern to the Cave Spring’s minimalist thanks to a bit of barrel fermentation on the base wine before it gets 3-3.5 years of bottle aging. Meyer lemon and floral pear play against the brightest of limestone finishes while a creamy blanket of tiny cappuccino-like bubbles provides the repartee.

Hidden Bench’s Roman’s Block Riesling is an ageless wonder. Michael Di Caro photo

While bubbles may be Ontario’s new brightest star, Niagara’s original grape still has the finesse and experience to effortless steal the show. Riesling is the Keanu Reeves of Niagara grapes. It showed great potential in the ‘80s, became a superstar in the ‘90s and 2000s and has since become the beloved ageless wonder we all aspire too. The two Rieslings from Hidden Bench demonstrated just how much this grape is the jewel of the Beamsville Bench. Planted 40 years ago, the vines of the winery’s Roman’s Block vineyard are in their prime producing gorgeous vibrant wines of depth. The 2015 version is a lake-side breeze on a perfect summer day. Lime cordial upfront over floral yellow plum, but what makes it ‘Gram-perfect is harmonious tightrope tension of its fleshy cappuccino texture against an electric limestone finish. The 2006 version was equally impressive, but instead of exuberant freshman talent, it had the polish and composure of a veteran. The most remarkable thing was the only hint that it was older was a softer finish and a crème brûlée-like burnt sugar note layered atop lime cordial, melon and floral honey and dry limestone finish.

Chef Ryan Crawford’s signature egg. A perfect match for Hidden Bench Riesling. Michael Di Caro photo

Both Rieslings worked beautifully alongside a version of Crawford’s signature egg matching the etherial texture of the whites creamy soft and light as cashmere, while having the brightness to cut through the jammy yolk waiting below like buried treasure. It was further proof of the sommelier credo that Riesling goes with everything. But also that great Riesling like we make in Niagara has the ability to transform the very good things into life’s finest. While I could happy live the rest of my wine life on a diet of Ontario bubbles and whites, most wine drinkers reach for the reds when they want to show off what a region can do.

Cabernet Franc, Gamay Noir and Pinot Noir are a trio showing Ontario excels at cool climate reds too. Michael Di Caro photo

Rewind 20 years ago and the knock on Ontario was the white wines were great, but the reds left something to be desired—today that’s dinosaur thinking. The province’s cool climate excels at making the type of lower alcohol, bright and fresh reds that can carry you through an entire evening and make a meal memorable. That was on display with the star grape of the evening Cabernet Franc courtesy of Thirty Bench.

The 2016 version was pure sun-warmed black raspberries with a little complimentary background oak spice and smoke providing the harmony—no old school Cab Franc green bell pepper monster here. Aside from banishing the green nosed monster what really set it apart from Niagara Cabs of old was its first class texture—velvety smooth but with a finessed lightness. Like the best partner it knew who was there to shine and happily complementing the food rather feel the need to take the crown. Speaking of pairing, that Thirty Bench Cab Franc and the woodfire-cooked Niagara lamb from nearby LINC farms were the star couple of the evening. The Cab Franc brought out a rare steak-like mineral flavour in the lamb that with its subtle smokiness is what I’d gladly take over a big Cali Cab and Prime grain-feed steak any day. As good as the 2016 was, the 2012 version may have been more impressive with its bramble heart backed-up by black plum, blackberry and topped off with some cherry and sweet oak in the same way a perfect pair of earrings or the right cufflinks complete a beautiful outfit and make it an ensemble.

Linc farms lamb cooked woodier is a perfect partner for Thirty Bench Cabernet Franc. Michael Di Caro photo

But the grand take-away of the evening was the versatility and indelible character of the current Ontario wine world’s seven allstars. I’ve already talked about sparkling, Riesling and Cab Franc but they weren’t the only highlights. Malivoire’s elegant and peppery 2018 Small Lot Gamay sung with the grilled eggplant and smoked yogurt. Tawse’s fresh and flinty 2014 Quarry Road Chardonnay was a beautiful union with creamy and smokey daily dug and fresh roasted potatoes. Bachelder’s 2015 Old Vines Lowery Pinot Noir’s bright and earthy sour cherry and rose petal tones took kale and black walnut pesto to another level. Even the old standby Icewine had a spotlight moment with a 2017 Stratus Riesling version that brought mango, apricot orange blossom honey and just the right Goldilocks touch of light sweetness and bright acidity to highlight the buttery, creamy and salty tang of Glengarry’s Celtic Blue cheese.

But what it all comes down to is that there’s never been a better time to put Ontario VQA wine on your dinner table whether it be a Wednesday night or holidays that bring family like Thanksgiving. Truly great world beating local wines are out there, the next step is getting out to Ontario wine country to discover whether you’re team sparkling, Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot, Gamay or Cab Franc. Whatever you choose I’ll guarantee, you’ll be a winner.


Thirty Bench winemaker Emma Garner and winemaker Thomas Bachelder of Bachelder wines enjoying the fruits of their labour. Michael Di Caro photo

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