Ontario Wines Fling into Spring

Five major expositions this spring launch the Ontario wine season. Here are the highlights plus notes on some of the best wines.

by David Lawrason

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

I am not sure if there is a conscious, co-ordinated effort to drum up interest for the winery visiting season ahead, but in effect that is what’s happening. It makes all kinds of sense to drive traffic to the wineries during the summer and fall because Ontario’s wineries rely heavily on tourism, and the wineries make far more money selling direct than through the LCBO. And the LCBO is barely scratching the surface of the quality, excitement and advancement now gripping the industry. So rev up your chariot of choice and get thee to wine country.

The spring charm offensive began Feb 26 with Taste Ontario at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. Then came Cuvee on March 23, the annual gala celebration in Niagara Falls. April 6-8 the wineries of Niagara-on-the-Lake present Dig Our Roots. On April 12 the wineries of Prince Edward County bring County in the City in Toronto. And on April 30 SOMEWHERENESS™ appears in Toronto as well.

I will comment on each event below. In terms of wine selections, I am going to focus on what is new and/or interesting to me. And you may notice a few cabernet franc’s in the mix. This grape is really coming on in Ontario and is the subject of the Cuvee Experts tasting on May 2.

Taste Ontario, Feb 26

Targeted to the hospitality industry in Toronto in late February, Taste Ontario looked and felt like a very busy and positive event. It had buzz. Over 40 wineries were pouring, each showcasing four wines, plus whatever might be lurking ‘under the table’. I enjoyed the networking, which is such a key element of these events, but I did my tasting for about three hours in a separate media room. I frankly could have used a day or two to get through everything. Story of my life – so much wine so little time.

Taste Ontario Toronto 2018

Pelee Island Winery 2016 Vinedresser Meritage, South Islands ($24.75)
This is the first time I have seen the VQA South appellation on a bottle of Ontario wine. It’s a long story but essentially the Pelee Island VQA appellation was de-commissioned in 2015 over confusion with Pelee Island Winery (the only winery with vines on Pelee Island). The name was changed to South Islands, a sub-appellation of Lake Erie North Shore.  And yes, there are other tiny islands nearby that make a South Islands appellation legit, even if they are not (yet) growing grapes. Regardless, this is a nicely ripe, generous cab-merlot blend from estate-grown fruit on Pelee Island. California-like aromatics, some richness and good structure.

Fielding 2015 Estate Bottled Cabernet Franc, Lincoln Lakeshore ($40.15)
Fielding is well known for its fresh, delicious whites, but less so for premium reds. This NWAC gold medalist impressed me again at Taste Ontario with its great varietal acuity. It has a fairly generous, quite fine nose of raspberry/redcurrant fruit with fine herbal/dill, tobacco and well-handled, subtle oak. It is open-knit, fresh and almost juicy with fine tannin.

Rosewood 2015 Renaceau Vineyard Cabernet Franc, Beamsville Bench ($29.95)
So I am on a bit of an Ontario cabernet franc vigil, and 2015 is seeming to be a great year – maybe even the breakout vintage for this grape. This is, again admirable, a nicely ripe, poised cab franc with some depth and texture and classic raspberry, vanilla, fresh herbs/evergreen.

Westcott Vineyards 2016 Estate Chardonnay, Vinemount Ridge  ($25.95)
There is a great deal of patience, passion and intestinal fortitude bound up in the Westcott story, and one of the first efforts from estate vines up on Vinemount Ridge is very impressive. It lacks some aromatic intensity, but has a complex nose, full body, creamy texture plus great acidity and minerality.

2027 Cellars 2016 Wismer Vineyard – Fox Croft Block Riesling, Twenty Mile Bench ($18.95)
By now fans of great Niagara whites are well familiar with the Wismer name – a large, well tended and mature site from which many winemakers seek fruit. Kevin Panagapka of the virtual 2027 Cellars winery is no exception, and I am impressed with the value he has delivered in this lean, clean, juicy and intense 2016 Foxcroft (a block within Wismer).

The Good Earth 2016 Viognier, Niagara Peninsula ($24.95)
The fruit has come from a neighbour on the Beamsville Bench, but The Good Earth has turned in an excellent winemaking effort, thanks to Ilya Senchuk (owner of Leaning Post) taking over in 2016 as Ross Wise departed for Phantom Creek in B.C. It’s an off-dry, bright, solid viognier with classic mint, lychee/starfruit and caraway aromas.

Cuvée 2018, March 23

Over 800 guests packed the Scotiabank Convention Centre in Niagara Falls for the 30th anniversary of Cuvée, the Niagara wine industry’s gala night with winemakers showing off their best, most expensive and rarest wines. It was organized by Brock University’s Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute.

Three major awards were handed out at the event with Angelo Pavan of Cave Spring Cellars receiving the Winemaker of Excellence Award. Having followed “Ang’s” work from his beginnings in 1986, and never experiencing a waver in focus and quality, I can’t think of a more deserving recipient.  The Cuvée Vineyard of Excellence Award was given to veteran Albrecht Seeger. And the Tony Aspler Cuvée Award of Excellence was presented to winemaker and fifth generation winemaker Sue-Ann Staff.

Cuvée 2018

Cuvee 2018 at the Scotiabank Convention Centre

I could not attend last minute but I had already tasted some of the heavy hitters offered that evening.

Two Sisters Vineyards 2016 Unoaked Chardonnay, Niagara Peninsula ($39.00)
Two Sisters has garnered a lot of attention for the grandeur of the property and excellent Italian-themed restaurant, but with Adam Pearce at the winemaking helm quality has excelled as well.  The home vineyards in Niagara-on-the-Lake are planted to reds, with Pearce going to Beamsville for his whites. From the Lenko and Hutlink vineyards this is seriously good, well designed unoaked chardonnay – not just chardonnay without oak. Lovely subtle creamy, complex aromas of lees and melon/pear fruit; very fresh yet a touch sweet and rich. Winery Only

Stratus 2014 White, Niagara-on-the-Lake ($38.00)
This has long been one of the best whites of Niagara. What a wonderful collage involving chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, viognier, semillon and a touch of gewurztraminer, aged 21 months in oak, but only 15% new oak. It has beguiling aromas and flavours of mint, apricot, lemon and fine oak spicing. It is medium full bodied and creamy then drying and narrowing to a leaner finish. Very refined.

Creekside 2015 Broken Press Syrah, St. David’s Bench ($55.00)
Aussie-trained Rob Powers has had a lock on syrah in Niagara for several years now. I am super impressed with his efforts in this vintage, both with the outstanding Broken Press and excellent Iconoclast. This brandishes a powerful, classic northern Rhone nose of iodine, black pepper, caper, wood smoke and blackcurrant. It is intense too – sinewy, salty, rich with dried meat, licorice and olive fruit. One of the great reds of Niagara. Winery

St. David's Bench

St. David’s Bench. Photo: Wine Country Ontario

Icellars 2015 Wiyana Wanda, Niagara-on-the-Lake ($75.00)
Now heading into his third season at the 17-acre property in a warm pocket below St. Davids Bench, Adnan Icel is taking his big reds winery higher and higher. Production is also ramping up to 4000 cases this year (90% estate) and Aussie winemaker Daniel Cumming is aboard. Wiyana Wanda is the top barrel selection wine – a 150 case blend with cabernet sauvignon at 75%, merlot at 20% and cab franc at 5%. It is dark, deep, dense and elegant with nice ripened black berry fruit, violets and generous oak chocolate, spice and resin. Very impressive concentration, balance and length. Winery, not yet released.

Trius 2015 Showcase ‘Red Shale’ Cabernet Franc, Four Mile Creek ($45.20)
This is one of Niagara’s finest cab francs, a single site effort from Clark Farm near the winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake, where extra hang time is afforded by the proximity of the lake. This was harvested at the end of October. It is 100% franc aged 18 months in French oak. Very fragrant with almost creamy black raspberry, subtle dusty herbal notes. It is medium-full bodied, nicely in-filled and elegantly structured with fine tannin. The length is excellent. Best 2019 to 2025. Winery

Dig our Roots (Niagara-on-the-Lake) April 6 to 8

Most of the 26 wineries of Niagara-on-the-Lake open their doors each spring for this weekend that includes special tours, tastings, seminars, lunches and dinners. Full details and tickets are here.

Much of the early history of the Ontario wine industry belongs to this sub-region, especially the “modern” history with the founding of Inniskillin in 1975 – Ontario’s first winery since prohibition – followed quickly by Chateau des Charmes, Newark (which has become Trius) and Marynissen. What you may not know is that NOTL is not only the oldest sub-region in Canada, it is the largest in terms of production. It also receives the greatest number of tourist visitors, about 1.5 million per year who come to the Falls and the historic downtown of Niagara-on-the-Lake, resulting in an excellent restaurant and hotel infrastructure.

Dig Our Roots

And it is one of the warmest regions in Canada. With its fall growing season extended by the proximity to Lake Ontario it is capable of ripening the Bordeaux red varieties (cabernet franc, merlot and cabernet sauvignon) and even syrah.

I spent a couple of days in NOTL in late February visiting new wineries like Wayne Gretzky, The Hare and de Simone, and re-visiting some others with new ownership like Hinterbrook and Coyote’s Run.  And I did an annual tasting at Stratus, the showpiece property of NOTL in my opinion. The itinerary took me up and down Highway 55 (Stone Road) often, and I was surprised to count ten wineries along what could be called Main Street of Ontario Wine. (Would love to see downtown Virgil spruced up a bit to reflect its importance as the crossroads)

Here are five favourite wines that tell the NOTL story.

De Simone 2015 Cabernet Franc, Niagara-on-the-Lake, ($30.00)
This is the debut vintage for Vincenzo de Simone, a Niagara College grad who single-handedly farms seven vineyard acres amid his family’s orchards on Stone Road. He also makes and markets the wines, and has designed the labels and tasting room. His mid-weight, quite fine cab franc has leanness, savoury/herbal and raspberry notes, with subtle oak from six months in French and Hungarian barrels. It is mindful of Chinon, the Loire Valley appellation in France that is the homeland of this grape. Winery

The Hare 2015 Crownland Red, Niagara-on-the-Lake ($25.50)
John Hare and partners opened The Hare in late 2016, with a dramatic red brick, zen space astride 20 acres on Highway 55 (the wines are made off-site). With a focus on export and tasting room sales, don’t expect a huge LCBO presence, although the less expensive Jack Rabbit Red has earned a listing later this year. There are three tiers – Jack Rabbit, Crownland and Frontier. This cab franc merlot blend has a nicely lifted, classic and pretty nose of raspberry, pepper, herbs and light oak. It is medium weight, quite smooth and deep with some oak richness. Winery

Between the Lines vines, Niagara-on-the-Lake. Photo: Wine Country Ontario

Between the Lines vines, Niagara-on-the-Lake. Photo: Wine Country Ontario

Wayne Gretzky 2015 Estate Shiraz Cabernet, Niagara Peninsula ($29.75)
The Wayne Gretzky Winery and Distillery has become the hot spot hang-out in NOTL since opening last year. Some go for the whisky bar, or skating rink, or for the Gretzky memorabilia madness. But I would go for the Estate Series wines made by Craig MacDonald and Co. They are rarely available elsewhere. This is 62% shiraz blended with cabernets and a touch of viognier.  It has a fragrant, perfumed nose with deep blueberry, pepper, cedar, smoke and toast and some syrah meatiness. It is medium-full bodied and dense with good acid and tannic tension. Winery

Coyote’s Run 2015 Red Paw Pinot Noir, Four Mile Creek ($34.95)
After some confusion around the state of affairs at Coyote’s Run last fall, I visited in March to find Coyote’s Run open for business, with winemaker Taylor Hulley in command of a selection of very good wines. Grown in red iron-rich soils that are found along the escarpment base in Niagara, this unfiltered Red Paw pinot has a lovely, spicy nose, with sour cherry, lovely wood smoke and spice. It is lean, nervy, sour edged and quite intense. The Black Paw is a bit deeper and smoother but not as energetic. Winery

Nomad at Hinterbrook 2014 Cabernet Franc, Niagara Lakeshore ($19.95)
George and Violette Liu purchased Hinterbrook in 2014, with most of the 28 acre vineyard now approaching 20 years of age. Violette, who is currently studying at CCOVI, is behind the wines with help from consultant Ilya Senchuk (Leaning Post). For the cooler 2014 vintage this is displaying considerable late hangtime ripeness and richness with a generous sweet nose of red and blackcurrant currant, roasted red pepper and oak.  It is medium-full bodied, fairy dense, and intensely flavoured with some green tannin.  Winery

County in the City, April 12

Mid-April is reserved for the annual County in the City roadshow where 15 wineries shuffle down the 401 and load their wares into the Berkeley Church at Queen St. E, just west of Sherbourne. It is a great opportunity to look at new releases from the County, and I will spend most of my time there doing just that. I am personally more interested in the 100% County wines than those sourced by PEC wineries in Niagara. Which is not to say there aren’t some very good wines in that group. But the County is born and bred from its unique position, and that is the story.

Try & Buy Prince Edward County Wines

I have not previewed many of the wines in this year’s expo, but here are a couple of pinots to whet your appetite.

Norman Hardie 2016 County Pinot Noir, Prince Edward County, $45.20
This is a typically very pale County pinot with ruby colour. It is light, biting and sour edged yet elegant, with a lovely floral nose of sweet red cherry/raspberry fruit, with fine oak spice, minerality and gentle pine scents. Very fine tannin. Excellent length and a County classic. Winery

Stanners 2015 Pinot Noir, Prince Edward County, $35.00
Yet another very fine, seamless County pinot from Colin Stanners and family. The nose is fairly generous with pinpoint pure sour red cherry fruit nicely set amid subtle toast, cedar, herbs and vanillin. It is light on the palate with a sour edge, very smooth texture and very fine tannin. At a perfect 12%, the alcohol so nicely powers without overpowering. Winery


The end of April is reserved for the Ontario wineries belonging to a marketing association called SOMEWHERENESS™.  The idea being that these estate wineries are making wines that come from a specific somewhere, be it a single vineyard or sub-appellation.  They are place or terroir wines.  SOMEWHERENESS™ also represents the very best wineries in Ontario (but there are others that I would include, especially Leaning Post). Put another way, when you hear people say that “Ontario wine is getting really good!” these are the folks largely responsible. They will be at the Spoke Club on King St. west in downtown Toronto. And I am hoping that you will get to try some of these classics.


Cave Spring 2016 CSV Riesling, Beamsville Bench ($29.95)
Angelo Pavan’s Cave Spring Vineyard riesling from 40-year-old vines on the Bench remains an Ontario benchmark.  Apparently the 2015 was poured at Cuvee but the 2016 has just been released at Vintages. It is remarkably lively yet solid, fresh yet structured. The nose has good intensity with subtle, well woven apple, lemon, vague petrol and mineral notes. Excellent to outstanding length with mineral and grapefruit on the finish. Vintages

Southbrook 2016 Estate Wild Ferment Chardonnay, Four Mile Creek ($39.95)
This gracious, intriguing chardonnay was biodynamically grown and fermented with indigenous (wild) yeast, this contains 13% semillon – an unusual and inspired choice. It’s full bodied with a real sense of textural poise – almost perfect acid tension in a wine this size. Gently toasty/spicy and herbals flavours hit excellent length, with a touch of minerality on the finish. Winery

Domaine Queylus 2014 Cabernet Franc Reserve du Domaine, Niagara Peninsula ($34.95)
Queylus owns 16 acres of organic vineyard spread over four sub-apps. It specializes in chardonnay, pinot, merlot and cabernet franc, with Thomas Bachelder managing the project. This cab franc from Lincoln Lakeshore shows a quite lifted green bean, fresh dill and raspberry nose with well handled oak smoke and spice. Love the nose! It is medium bodied, fairly soft, a bit warm and nicely integrated. There is a creaminess to the mid palate before alcohol and fine tannins kick in. Winery

Malivoire 2016 Courtney Gamay, Beamsville Bench ($27.95)
The Courtney gamay is the most individual expression of this grape in Malivoire’s impressive range of gamays (the Beaujolais grape). It is from two clones planted in a warmer single block with some iron content in the soils. It shows lovely, lifted, floral, red fruit/cherry aromas – very pretty. It is light, elegant and juicy with very fine tannin and excellent length. Winery

Hidden Bench 2015 Tete de Cuvee Chardonnay, Beamsville Bench ($48.00)
Sourced primarily from old vine, organically grown fruit in the Rosomel Vineyard, this is a great chardonnay – one of the best structured, most complex examples in Niagara. It is a bit restrained aromatically but powerful, rich, creamy yet elegant. Expect complex aromas of toast, butter, peach and almond, with some minerality on the finish. Great length here.  Winery

These are just a handful of the many, many very fine wines now being made in Ontario. Set aside some time to get out there and explore.

David Lawrason
VP of Wine