A number of small wineries have sprung up in the countryside where I grew up. Needless to say, as a wine-lover, I am proud of this. It’s my own terroir! In June my partner and I had a chance to tour the region, and I was pleased to find some enjoyable wines grown practically on my old back doorstep.
Ontario’s wine industry has grown in recent years. Three regions are developing, with unique landscape, soil and weather features. Niagara Peninsula is the most famous and well-established. I have also explored the newest terroir in Prince Edward County, which is practically an island in Lake Ontario. But the one that particularly interests me is the Lake Erie North Shore.
Two wineries in the region are well-established. Colio Estate Wines was the first. It opened in my hometown, Harrow, Ontario, more than 30 years ago, and produces some respectable wines. I recommend their Cabernet-Merlot.
Pelee Island Winery started later but has taken off and become one of Canada’s most successful. Its products are available internationally. Pelee Island Gewürztraminer is one of my favourite wines.
Point Pelee National Park is a mecca for birders, one of the best places in Eastern North America to observe spring migration. Pelee Island lies just offshore. The southernmost point in Canada, it has a uniquely mild habitat, and harbours many of Canada’s rare and endangered species. Bird- and wine-lovers can access the island by ferry from Leamington and Kingsville, Ont., and Sundusky, Ohio. The winery follows rigorous sustainable farming protocols. Many of the wine labels picture distinctive local flora and fauna, such as prothonotary warbler, indigo bunting and monarch butterfly.
Our tour last month skipped the big ones and explored vineyards that seem to have appeared within the past 10 or 20 years. Altogether, about 13 wineries in the region are recognized by the Vintner’s Quality Alliance (VQA).
The opportunity for our visit was a reunion with a few high school friends. Two of my pals, Sarah and Vicky, organized a tour that including Mastronardi Estate Winery, Aleksander Estate Winery and Cooper’s Hawk Winery. Over the course of the weekend, my partner and I on our own visited two more estate wineries listed on the VQA site, Oxley and Viewpointe.
Many Canadian wines mix imported grapes and juice with domestic ones. The VQA Act of 1999 set standards for production and labeling so consumers would know what they were buying. A Canadian wine may bear the label VQA only if it is made 100 percent from grapes grown in the province. The label may also list its terroir if additional production standards ensure it uses 85 percent grapes from that region.
This part of Ontario is extraordinarily flat and almost completely surrounded by Great Lakes. A few thousand years ago, glaciers left this region submerged under a giant lake. As the ice receded, the land gradually lifted. Its soil is sandy, light and fertile. Breezes off Lake Erie warm the climate. Throughout the growing season it is the hottest part of the province. Grape harvest begins in August. Some grape varieties commonly grown are Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Cabernet Franc and Merlot.
We’re not experts by any means, but we were looking for some distinctive wines, and came across three varietals completely new to us.
Viewpointe is apparently the first winery in Ontario to grow and produce wine from Auxerrois Blanc grapes. The 2012 vintage is a full-flavoured, smooth white with a hint of sweetness, finishing with peach and pineapple. It’s pleasant enough to drink on its own or with cheese, but robust enough to stand up to rich, spicy summer meals. This was the first bottle we opened from our trip. It paired nicely with last night’s dinner of chicken, tzatziki and apricot cashew rice pilaf.
Just down the road, Oxley Estate Winery acquired some Auxerrois vines from Viewpointe and began making their own varietal. This vineyard is one of the newest, just four years old, and the Auxerrois tasted new, more earthy and herbal than the one from Viewpointe. We’ll let our bottle mature for a few months. These are both interesting wines, and I will look for them in the future.
Chambourcin was another rare varietal we came across at two of the smaller wineries, Aleksander and Paglione. I neglected to make any notes on the tasting, but we were impressed enough to choose these over more familiar reds. They are medium-bodied, fruity and dry.
Another unique wine was the Viewpointe 2009 Colchester Cuvée, made from a new hybrid bred by the winery and grown using sustainable practices. This wine was very full-bodied with a smooth finish, and would go well with strong meats like lamb or game.
We also chose some wines made from more familiar grapes. Overall I was impressed with the Rieslings, especially the Cooper’s Hawk 2013. It is fresh, fruity, fragrant and well-balanced and would make a good companion for white fish or a fruit platter. We brought home two bottles of this excellent wine.
Mastronardi offers an interesting Chardonnay. The one from Viewpointe is barrel-aged, very full-bodied and oaky, more of an evening wine. We will save this bottle to accompany a cheese fondue.
We also like fruit wines. After we picked up some raspberry wine from Aleksander, someone recommended Black Bear Farms, located on the main road between Harrow and Kingsville. Walking into their boutique was like entering somebody’s basement, with a clutter of open bottles inviting us to taste. This is a small, earthy enterprise, but the offerings are diverse and intriguing. Making our selection was anything but easy. The gooseberry wine is, without rival, the most unusual thing we tasted all weekend.
Other wines we selected, not already mentioned, included Aleksander 2011 Gewürztraminer, Paglione 2012 Santino Rosé, and Cooper’s Hawk Talon Red. Overall the wines of this region show great promise. We brought home a collection of 16 bottles to provide weekend enjoyment for months to come.
Cooper’s Hawk Winery and Viewpointe Estate Winery are two to look out for. A few of their wines have appeared in large Ontario LCBOs, and we might expect to see more in the future. Both estates are well set up for events such as weddings, and Cooper’s Hawk has hosted concerts. Viewpointe, as the name suggests, has an exceptional view of Lake Erie, a welcome stop on a weekend outing.
Unfortunately, the polar vortex last winter caused a heavy die-off of vines, affecting all the wineries in this region. It will take several years for them to recover. Limited harvests are expected in 2014 and 2015. I’ll watch patiently and hope for milder winters to come.
Personally, I will keep an eye on Oxley Estate Winery and Paglione Estate Winery, both within a 10 minute walk of the house on Lake Erie where I grew up. Paglione is situated across the road from where I first took horseback riding lessons when I was eight.
As an even smaller child I used to walk to a variety store in the hamlet of Oxley to buy penny candy. Oxley Estate has established a reputable restaurant on its beautiful premises, although we did not have a chance to try it out. I’m excited to see what becomes of these two new, small producers, as local as can be to my original soil.