Ontario’s Emerging Wine Regions: The South Coast
By John Szabo MS
Ontario’s First Vintage?
The year was 1669. I can’t confirm if it was indeed Ontario’s first vintage but it seems probable. The moment is recorded in the Mémoires de la Société Historique de Montréal, in a text written by explorers MM Dollier and Galinée. The intrepid duo stopped to overwinter near present day Port Dover on the north shore of Lake Erie, where they discovered wild grapevines “which grow only in the sands on the shores of lakes and rivers”, and which produce “few grapes, but as big and sweet as the best in France.” In predictable French fashion, they made wine, which Dollier used to say mass throughout the winter of ’69-’70, and which, in their words, was “as good as the wine from Grave, a big black wine just like it”, a reference to the fine wine of the Graves region in distant Bordeaux. So abundant were the vines that the explorers reckon they could have easily made 25 or 30 barriques of their nectar.
Yet I can only image that MM. Dollier and Galinée felt a very long way from home and very homesick, worn by the hardships endured by early Canadian explorers, maybe even delirious from tick and mosquito bites, or just plain drunk, to have drawn the hopeful comparison. I’m quite certain their wine had very little to do with Bordeaux. Even nearly 350 years later, with the benefit of technology and experience, the wines produced in the emerging Ontario wine region dubbed South Coast bear little resemblance to anything from France.
“Ontario’s South Coast” is the tourism tag applied to the shores of Lake Erie in Norfolk County centered around the summer resort town of Port Dover, and spilling over into neighboring Elgin and Haldimand counties. Drive south essentially from anywhere between Hamilton and London and you’ll pass through the region on your way to the lake. It’s also the name that the South Coast Wineries Association hopes to officially apply to their proposed Viticultural Area, a dossier that currently sits on the desk of the VQA for approval. If passed, South Coast would become Ontario’s fourth official wine region.
History & Development
This is old tobacco country, once the region’s most important crop by a country mile. But the government’s overnight elimination of tobacco quotas in 2009 sent many local farmers scrambling to find a new cash crop. Some turned to soybeans or strawberries or ginseng, others, looking north to Niagara and Prince Edward County, decided to try their luck with wine grapes. Today, this is some of the most diversified farmland in Canada.
But grapes, aside from the wild ones discovered by Dollier and Galinée, had been planted long before the great tobacco crash, perhaps in a prescient anticipation of change. The first winery to plant grapes was Quai du Vin in Elgin County north of Port Stanley way back in 1971, several years before even Kaiser and Ziraldo planted their first grapes for Inniskillin in Niagara.
Phil Ryan of Villanova Estate planted the region’s first vinifera varieties – riesling, chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and merlot – in 1996, about the same time as the first viniferas were planted in Prince Edward County. But growth has been slow and organic, and the region has yet to achieve anywhere near the notoriety of either Niagara or PEC, likely in part because of the profitability of tobacco farming.
The Current Scene
Today there are some 130 acres of vines in the proposed South Coast appellation (compared to 13,600 acres in the Niagara Peninsula, Canada’s largest region), planted in the mainly sandy soils near the lakeshore. There are eleven wineries, including two in Elgin, one in Haldimand, and eight in Norfolk County. Of these, eight are open to the public, while the other three are in various stages of opening, but all are producing wine in one form or another, from both grapes and other fruits.
The greatest challenge for South Coast wineries, like their neighbors further west in the Lake Erie North Shore region, is winter. Unlike the deep waters of Lake Ontario, which moderate temperatures year-round on the Niagara Peninsula and to a lesser extent in Prince Edward County, shallow lake Erie has a much weaker influence and occasionally freezes over during cold snaps. This means that vineyards are left unprotected and temperatures can drop to vine-killing depths for all but the hardiest varieties.
Planting winter sensitive grapes like merlot is as fanciful as the annual planting of palm trees on the Port Dover beach, a resort ambiance-enhancing measure necessarily repeated annually to replace the dead trees. Merlot, like the trees, stands little chance of surviving the winter – Phil Ryan of Villanova tells me he has yet to get a single crop from the merlot he planted in 1996, though he doesn’t have the heart to rip out the vines. Wineries are thus largely limited to planting cold hardy whites like Riesling, or near-indestructible hybrids like vidal, seyval, baco, foch and chambourcin.
The Wines and Wineries
A representative tasting hosted by the South Coast Ontario Wine Association in late May, while cruising off the waters of the coast on the charter boat Kayloe, was generally a hit and miss affair. A respectable but slightly cidery ’12 Trout Fly Riesling ($13.95) from Villanova Estate, the whimsically-named, easy-drinking ’12 Frisky Beaver White ($13.95) from Smoke and Gamble, the flinty but plush ’12 Chardonnay ($13.50) from Quai du Vin were among the better wines. Also noteworthy were some very good fruit-based wines, most notably the Gala Apple ‘wine’ from Wooden Bear L winery, and the 2011 Cranberry-Blueberry blend ($15.95) from Blueberry Hill Estates.
The most important and commercially successful winery to date is Burning Kiln, the only South Coast winery to have listings in the LCBO. The operation was established by a group of seven businessmen and the first vines were planted in 2007. Consulting winemaker Andrezj Lipinski (also of Colaneri, Foreign Affair, Cornerstone and his own label, Big Head Wines), known for his expertise in the appassimento method – making wine from partially dried grapes – was involved in the project from the start, with the idea of linking the tobacco farming heritage to grape growing. All of the reds at burning Kiln are air-dried in old tobacco Kilns, and the wine names, like Strip Room Merlot-Cabernet Franc or the Cureman’s Chardonnay, take their cues from the tobacco industry. The most interesting wine out of this commercially solid range for my money is the 2012 Stick Shaker Savagnin ($24.95, in LCBO), an appassimento white with fine aromatics and lush texture.
Yet overall, South Coast wines remain for the time being largely of local interest, unlikely to appear on Toronto restaurant wine lists anytime soon. The challenges are significant: there’s little mainstream appetite for hybrid grapes, red or white, which represent the majority of plantings. The region’s predominantly sandy soils, as observed by Dollier and Galinée, yield by and large light-structured, fruity, easy drinking wines. Yet the commercial imperative for a winery to make “important” wines (read: expensive) leads here to unbalanced, over-oaked, dried out and often charmless wines – there’s simply not enough fruit depth to extract heavily, nor structure to support long ageing in wood.
Rustic winemaking, in the form of volatile acidity and oxidation, are also not the exception. The appassimento technique used by several wineries is useful to make more consistent and ‘bigger’ wines, but is more of an imposed style, rather than a regional expression. It does little to define the uniqueness of the region outside of the heritage of the tobacco industry. Or perhaps that’s the angle? Fruit wines are a strength, but again have yet to carve out a serious commercial niche beyond the cellar door.
On the other hand, the region has an envious strength: the tourism draw. The warm waters of Lake Erie, sandy beaches including Long Point, the world’s longest natural sand spit, also a provincial park and a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve, and plenty of sporting and recreational activities such as biking, birding, canoeing, kayaking and much more give tourists plenty of reasons to visit the area. Wine tourism is on the rise, and South Coast wineries are well situated to take advantage of the traffic with cellar door events, tastings and sales. In recognition of this, Burning Kiln’s sister company, Long Point Eco Adventures functions equally as a draw for the winery in a clever symbiotic relationship.
An Official South Coast Viticultural Area?
“Taking a cue from the European model for appellation of origin, Canada’s thriving and rapidly expanding wine industry has developed around regions that produce wines of unique character”, says the VQA website in relation to official Viticultural areas. But it’s hard to say what the unique characteristics of the proposed South Coast Viticultural Area would be, other than a geographic delimitation and a collective brand name. Few wineries produce 100% South Coast wines; most purchase and blend grapes from Niagara to supplement production. So the sampling of 100% South Coast wines is too small to even begin to talk about regionality.
It’s argued that Prince Edward County started out in the same way – with few wineries and blended PEC-Niagara wines (and many PEC wineries still supplement their harvest with fruit from Niagara). While the creation of a South Coast appellation would create a rallying point for wineries, and encourage more 100% local wines to be sure, one wonders if it isn’t still a bit premature.
For now, I’ll happily drink a well-chilled fruity South Coast white after a day on the Port Dover beach, though I won’t be dreaming of Bordeaux.
For more information visit: http://www.ontariosouthcoastwine.com/
John Szabo MS