John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for September 15th 2012

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Does Buying Local Make Sense? Ontario Wines in the Spotlight and Top Ten Smart Buys

A long time WineAlign reader (and experienced drinker) wrote to me a short while back, saying: “I’ve stopped buying Ontario because they disappoint in value. I still feel that you can get equal quality imports at more reasonable prices and in greater variety than our local stuff. My local experiment is over. I’d much rather a balanced French Chard at $14 than an insipid Ontario Chard at $19 or higher…”  Well, this week’s report is my open answer, including some thoughts on quality, value and “necessary” wines. In addition, I’ve got almost a couple dozen Ontario wines to recommend in response. And for the naysayers and equal opportunists, I’ve also got Top Ten Smart Buys from outside of Canada for you.  Finally, you should check out our winemaker series where you can share great wines and stories with some of the best winemakers in the world.  The events are selling out quickly.

Variety, Value and Quality in Ontario

2027 Cellars - Falls Vineyard

2027 Cellars – Falls Vineyard

The reader’s comments quoted above provoke some thought. Firstly, regarding variety, I agree. Ontario wine styles aren’t that diverse. In fact, I would argue that they are even perhaps still too diverse. Ontario should focus on what it does best, and not try to please everyone. In my view Ontario’s strengths are cool climate style riesling and chardonnay, and cabernet franc and pinot noir, observations that were driven home yet again as I judged at the Canadian Wine Awards in Penticton, BC this past August and tasted several hundred wines over the course of a week. This is what the region should be known for and what I’m generally happy drinking. I don’t shop for full-bodied wines in the Mosel or delicate reds in the Barossa Valley; having a regional style focus is a positive aspect of the Ontario wine industry. The occasional meritage blend or syrah or viognier or nebbiolo add interest to the wine scene, but should never distract from pursuing the real strengths that drive the industry. If I’m in the mood for other wine styles, I’ll shop elsewhere. Lack of diversity is not a reason to avoid Ontario wines, it’s a reason to buy what the region does best.

Henry of Pelham Estate Winery

Henry of Pelham Estate Winery

And then there’s quality and value, slightly more problematic questions. Regarding sheer molecular pleasure for the money, I also tend to agree with the reader. It’s very tough for Ontario wineries to compete with, say a multigenerational family operation in someplace like Mâcon in southern Burgundy, where they make killer $20 chardonnay from 80 year old vines in a top site. The land is paid for, the winery is paid for, and the winemaker is also the estate manager, sales manager, PR division and delivery boy all wrapped into one. Fine wine at a low price is feasible.

But in Ontario, there are no 80-year-old vines. Most vineyards are financed or rented and wineries are amortized, hopefully within the owner’s lifetime. Although quality can also be high in Ontario – the potential is by now well-established as I’ve experienced in countless blind tastings – it can costs more to achieve quality than in other parts of the world. But don’t forget that there are also countless other regions where prices are inflated, artificially or not, and extreme value wines like the example described above are ever-rarer. So considering all this, is buying local wines a smart move? I think so, and here’s why: quality and value aren’t only found in the glass. If you believe in the idea of “necessary” wines, it makes sense to consider Ontario.

Is Going Local Necessary?

I’m hardly a crusader for local wines, or for the wines of any particular place for that matter. I’m a crusader for wines that I believe are necessary. And by necessary, I’m referring to wines that contribute something meaningful to the world, that benefit communities, that are an expression of a place, a culture, a history or a future; wines that have a real, not contrived story, in other words something distinctive and unique, not simply vehicles for profit or vanity. Let’s face it: the world doesn’t need another anonymous $10 or $15 cabernet or chardonnay or sauvignon blanc designed in a boardroom with a back story manufactured by a clever marketing firm, nor does it need another $100 cabernet or super Tuscan born out of an ego-driven vanity project.

Necessary wines also maintain diversity, and supporting them is like saving an endangered species. In other words, these wines enrich the world in some unique way. I believe that some Ontario wines are necessary.

Notice that I haven’t even thrown out the words “quality” or “value” yet to define necessary. That’s an entirely different, although interwoven discussion confounded by the widely varying definitions of what those terms really mean. Necessary wines do offer quality and value – I wouldn’t drink bad wine just to support a cause – but the quality and value also have to extend to considerations beyond the glass, too, to truly be necessary.

Featherstone Estate Winery

Sheep Labour at Featherstone Estate Winery

What do quality and value mean to you? Is quality wine determined entirely by the molecules swimming around in your glass, or, do you have a broader view of what quality wine is, such as the positive impact it has on the lives of others, or the environment? Is value a simple equation of pleasure/dollars? Or, are there other aspects to value, like the economic impact purchasing a wine has on a community? And what of the person, family or company that made the wine: do the values of the maker (moral, political, religious) matter to you? Would you still get as much pleasure for your money if drinking a wine made by a raging anti-semite or child abuser, or more pleasure if made by a fanatic philanthropist or community center volunteer?

Once your definition of quality and value starts to trickle a little further from the glass, the ‘necessary’ aspect of wine comes into clearer focus. And if you believe in necessary wines, it would be hard to argue that nothing produced in Ontario fits the definition. I believe that many of Ontario’s wines are necessary wines, but to say that all are necessary would be as erroneous as saying that none are worthy.

VQA Wines Have a Significant Impact on the Local Economy

In a press release issued by the Wine Council of Ontario following a report by KPMG, Ed Madronich, Chair of the Wine Council of Ontario and President of Flat Rock Cellars, is quoted as saying “KPMG confirms the story of robust economic contribution that we in Ontario’s VQA wine industry have long understood. Even in the teeth of recessionary times, our VQA wine industry created jobs in manufacturing, construction and tourism – all the while preserving high-value agriculture in Ontario’s Greenbelt and contributing a set of steadily rising economic benefits to the entire province. Since 2007, few other industries can make the same claim.”

– The industry’s overall economic contribution in 2010 alone rose to $191M
– 1300 additional jobs were created by the VQA wine sector from 2007 to 2011.
– The value of Ontario’s VQA wine industry impact on tourism stood at $10M in 2010.
– The economic impact of each litre of VQA wine sold hit $12.29, an increase of over 7% since 2007

Buying local wines has clear benefits for local the economy, which in turn means benefits for you, too. It benefits local communities, drives tourism and enriches Ontario’s cultural landscape. There’s a lot to do in wine country Ontario. The dining scene is vibrant, the overall quality of cuisine has never been higher, and the spin-off activities are wide and varied. All of this has been driven by the local wine industry. As the industry grows and evolves (KPMG estimates that wine tourism in Ontario is likely to grow by at least 20% in the next five years), the scene will only get more interesting. And that makes our lives potentially more interesting, especially if you like eating and drinking and traveling. We vote for the politicians we believe will make positive changes in our communities, and we can vote with our dollars on consumer goods that can also have a positive impact. I’d say that makes at least some local wines necessary.

Do I think that you should only buy Ontario wines? Not by a long shot. I’m far too promiscuous of a drinker myself to recommend that honestly. There are plenty of other necessary wines in the world that deserve support, and which I enjoy drinking. But I hope you’ll consider quality, value and variety in a different light, and re-consider Ontario wines, at least once in a while. I don’t recommend buying insipid $19 chardonnay from Ontario or anywhere else.

And Quality, Of Course

If sheer molecular pleasure remains your primary MO, as it should, then try some of the Ontario wines recommended below from the September 15th Vintages release or my top picks from the Canadian Wine Awards. Eliminate the negative perception, which has a significant impact on how your brain unravels the sensory stimulus offered by a glass of wine, by blind tasting with other similarly priced/styled wines from around the world. I’d be surprised if you didn’t get a little molecular enjoyment, too, on top of the extra-glass positive impact of your purchase.

Top Ontario Wines from the September 15th Release

2011 2027 Cellars Falls Vineyard Riesling VQA Vinemount Ridge, Niagara Peninsula
2010 Bachelder Niagara Chardonnay VQA Niagara Peninsula
2010 Norman Hardie County Unfiltered Pinot Noir VQA Prince Edward County
2010 Le Clos Jordanne Claystone Terrace Pinot Noir VQA Twenty Mile Bench, Niagara Peninsula
2010 Henry of Pelham Reserve Baco Noir VQA Ontario
2010 Flat Rock Gravity Pinot Noir VQA Twenty Mile Bench, Niagara Peninsula
2010 Featherstone Cabernet Franc VQA Niagara Peninsula
Closson Chase Chardonnay 2009, VQA Prince Edward County

Link to my Top Ontario Wines in this release.

Speaking of top Ontario wines, make sure to check out my my top picks from the recent Wine Access Canadian Wine Awards here.

The LCBO’s Go Local Campaign

The LCBO is launching its biggest ever “Go Local” promotional campaign from September 16th to October 13th. 93 restaurants across Ontario are offering a special menu option that pairs local food and local wine. As wine director for Stock restaurant at the Trump International Hotel and Tower, I too am participating in the campaign. In fact, we’ve already been featuring Canadian wines by the glass for the last month, and I look forward to sharing some of Canada’s best with a couple dozen A-listers in town for TIFF. Follow all the twitter at #LCBOgoLOCAL and visit for more details on participating restaurants and interviews with prominent local sommeliers about Ontario wines (including me!).

If you haven’t already you should check out the upcoming events in our winemaker series.  We’ve got three events happening in the next few weeks, one is already sold out and the other two are close to sold out already.

From the September 15th, 2012 Vintages release:

Top Ten Smart Buys
Top Ontario Wine
All Reviews


John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, Master Sommelier

WineAlign is pleased to present our Winemaker Series 

These intimate and exclusive events allow our members the opportunity to enjoy great wines with some of the most famous winemakers in the world.

Sept 13th – Tutored Tasting with the legendary Grant Burge

Grant BurgeGrant Burge is a fifth-generation Barossa Vigneron.Throughout his career, Grant has been one of the most respected and innovative forces in the Australian wine industry.The history of the Burge family and their long association with winemaking in the region can be traced back to March 1855, today Grant and his family carry the winemaking traditions into the 21st century.

Grant Burge Wines was formed in 1988 by Grant and his wife Helen, and is located in the heart of the Barossa Valley on the banks of Jacobs Creek and is still proudly family owned.

Join Grant and WineAlign’s Sara d’Amato at the Acadian Lofts (Toronto) on September 13th. After a sparkling wine reception with Canapés, Grant will guide you through a tutored tasting of seven of his outstanding Barossa wines. Following the tasting attendees will be able to enjoy their favourite wines along with hors d’oeuvres. Event details

Sept 18th – Paired Tasting Dinner with winemaker Marc Kent

Boekenhoutskloof Winemaker Marc KentFounded in 1776, Boekenhoutskloof Winery experienced a re-birth in 1993 when Marc Kent took over. Marc’s skill as winemaker soon shone bright and he started to catch the eyes of wine lovers and writers around the world, garnering the only FIVE star rating for a South African winery from the esteemed Robert Parker. In addition, Boekenhoutskloof was recently awarded “2012 Winery of the Year” by Platter’s South African Wine Guide.

Join Marc and WineAlign’s Zoltan Szabo on September 18th for an exquisitely paired tasting experience at Barque (one of Toronto’s best new restaurants – Toronto Life) with a lineup of eight of his wines that will quickly convert those new to South Africa. Event details


Penfolds Bin 29 Kalimna Shiraz 2009

The Wine Establishment - Le Nez deu Vin