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While many people would assume that Ontario is too cold to produce wine, in fact the Wine Regions of Ontario are at the same latitude as Bordeaux, northern Italy and Oregon, and its grape-growing season is comparable to those of other wine-growing regions, at about 110 days.
The province's 138 wineries (as of 2020) produce a wide range of cool climate wines, and the internationally-recognized ice wine. As a "cool climate region", at harvest time grapes are blessed with more concentrated flavours and balanced acidity, which makes them wonderfully food friendly.
Wine is produced in many regions of Ontario, but the three principal regions are:
- The Niagara Peninsula, comprising
- Niagara Escarpment & Twenty Valley
- Prince Edward County
- The Lake Erie North Shore
There are also wineries scattered across other regions.
Many wineries are well set-up for enotourism, offering tours, tastings, excellent restaurants, and sometimes bed-and-breakfast accommodations.
Ontario vineyards grow an extensive variety of grapes for wines, but their signature grapes are:
- Riesling — for white wines ranging from dry to off-dry to sweet
- Chardonnay — for fresh unoaked white wines, or richer-flavoyred wines cellared in oak casks, or for classic sparkling wine
- Gamay Noir — for bright, easy-drinking, flavourful red wine
- Pinot Noir — for a light-bodied, elegant red wine
Climate and soil
Lakes Ontario, Erie and Huron play a huge role in moderating the climate, and creating the cool conditions that result in elegant, well-structured wines with good aging potential.
The soil varies from clay to rock, with a high concentration of limestone, similar to the Burgundy and Champagne regions of France.
Vintners Quality Alliance, or VQA, is a regulatory and appellation system which guarantees the high quality and authenticity of origin for Canadian wines made under that system in Ontario and British Columbia. It is similar to regulatory systems in France (AOC), Spain (DO), Italy (DOC), and Germany (QmP).
Ontario VQA wines may be made from Vitis vinifera grape variety and approved hybrid varieties grown in Ontario. Ontario uses a range of vinifera varieties and notably permits the use of Vidal, particularly in the production of some icewines.
To receive the VQA designation, wine must undergo testing by the regulating bodies. The VQA logo may appear anywhere on the bottle, or not at all.
Wines that are "cellared in Ontario" or "international Canadian blends" are made from imported grapes or musts, or a blend of Canadian and imported grapes or musts. These wines are often of lower price and poor quality.
Ontario and British Columbia are known worldwide for their icewines. Icewine is a very sweet, very complex, very flavourful, expensive "experience wine".
Icewine grapes are left on the vines until the very end of the season, meaning that they have had the longest possible exposure to the sun. The grapes are only harvested when the temperature drops to −8 °C (18 °F), which is typically at 4AM one day in December, January or February. At that temperature, the remaining water in the grapes is frozen. The grapes are squeezed immediately, so that the sweet juice is not diluted by water, leading to an exceptionally intense taste.
The most common grapes used for icewine in Ontario are Vidal, Riesling, and Cabernet Franc. Gewurztraminer, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chardonnay are less frequently used. Expect to pay between $20 for a 200 ml bottle up to $80 for a 375 ml bottle (2020).
Late harvest wines
Late harvest wines are cousins of icewines: the grapes are left on the vines late into the season, soaking up lots of sunshine, but they are harvested before the freezing temperatures. They are complex and sweet, but not as intense as icewines, and are less expensive. Vidal or riesling grapes are commonly used. Expect to pay around $16 for a 750 ml bottle (2020).
The wineries of the Niagara Peninsula are a 70- to 90-minute drive from Toronto, and several companies do wine-tasting tours by bus from Toronto. See the Toronto article.
The Niagara Peninsula
- For information on getting in and where to stay, see Niagara-on-the-Lake.
The deep waters of Lake Ontario and the fast-flowing Niagara River moderate temperatures throughout the region, reducing the risk of late spring and early fall frosts. Most of this region is lakeshore plains land, characterized by long, gentle slopes. The gentle topography provides generous sunlight exposure and heat accumulation during the day. Clear, calm conditions often result in high daily temperature ranges and excellent growing conditions. The terrain ranges sandy loam soils to soils primarily consisting of red shale with a high silt and clay content.
The region hosts 37 wineries (as of 2020). There and several bus tours available from Niagara-on-the-Lake. Here are some wineries that provide tours, and welcome walk-in visitors:
- 1 Marynissen Estates, 1208 Concession 1, Niagara-on-the-Lake. It is known for its complex, well-balanced reds.
- 2 Niagara College Teaching Winery, 135 Taylor Road, Niagara-on-the-Lake. A teaching winery housed in the Wine Visitor and Education Centre, also has ciders and spirits. Restaurant on site.
- 3 Peller Estates Winery & Restaurant, 290 John Street East, Niagara-on-the-Lake. One of Canada's largest wine producers. Restaurant on site.
- 4 Ravine Vineyard, 1366 York Road, St. Davids. A fifth generation family farm with organic vineyards. Restaurant on site.
- 5 Strewn Winery, 1339 Lakeshore Road, Niagara-on-the-Lake. In a renovated 1940s fruit cannery. Restaurant on site.
- 6 Trius Winery & Restaurant, 1249 Niagara Stone Road, Niagara-on-the-Lake. Trius sparkling wines are made in the traditional method, aged in Canada’s largest underground sparkling cellar.
- 7 Wayne Gretzky Estates, 1219 Niagara Stone Road, Niagara-on-the-Lake. Yes, a winery owned by the hockey player. Restaurant on site.
Niagara Escarpment & Twenty Valley
- For information on getting in and where to stay, see St. Catharines.
The Niagara Escarpment shelters the region from the prevailing southwesterly winds, and the escarpment ridge reflects the lake breezes providing a well-moderated climate throughout the year. The benchlands begin below the ridge of the Niagara Escarpment. The soil ranges from water-stratified clay and silt to rich calcareous clay loam. Combined with groundwater flowing from the base of the escarpment during the dry summers, these soils provide steady moisture to vines throughout the growing season.
The region hosts 53 wineries (as of 2020). Here are some that provide tours, welcome walk-in visitors, and have a restaurant:
- 8 Creekside Estate Winery, 2170 Fourth Avenue, Jordan Station. Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah are the signature wines.
- 9 Di Profio Estate Wines, 4055 Nineteenth Street, Jordan. Small batch wines, mostly from grapes hand-picked in their own vineyards.
- 10 Harbour Estates Winery, 4362 Jordan Road, Jordan Station. A focus on Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot.
- 11 Henry of Pelham Estate Winery, 1469 Pelham Rd, St. Catharines. The Pelham family has been growing grapes here for six generations.
- 12 Honsberger Estate, 4060 Jordan Road, Jordan. Focused on Cabernet Franc and Riesling.
- 13 Ridgepoint Wines, 3900 Cherry Avenue, Vineland. A focus on red wines made according to Italian traditions.
- 14 Vineland Estates Winery, 3620 Moyer Road, Vineland.
Prince Edward County
- For information on getting in and where to stay, see Prince Edward County.
Prevailing breezes come from the west across Lake Ontario and the Bay of Quinte to moderate temperatures. During the summer, they keep average temperatures around 22°C. "The County" has many hills and valleys creating different exposures for vines. Its topsoils range from reddish-brown clay loam to sandy loam and overlay limestone bedrock embedded with shale fragments.
The county hosts 20 wineries (as of 2020). Here are some that provide tours and welcome walk-in visitors:
- 15 Broken Stone Winery, 524 Closson Road, Hillier.
- 16 By Chadsey's Cairns Winery and Vineyard, 17432 Loyalist Parkway, Wellington. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Gamay Noir, and rarer wines, using only County grapes.
- 17 Casa-Dea Estates, 1186 Greer Road, Wellington. One of the very few Prince Edward County wineries that use only grapes from the County.
- 18 Closson Chase, 629 Closson Road, Hillier. Specializing in Chardonnay, Pinot Noir & Pinot Gris grapes.
- 19 Karlo Estates, 561 Danforth Road, Wellington. Fruit-driven wines that have balance and great complexity.
- 20 Sandbanks Estate Winery, 17598 Loyalist Parkway, Wellington. Baco Noir, Cabernet Franc, Riesling, Pinot noir, Vidal, Geisenheim and Marechal Foch.
- 21 Trail Estate Winery, 416 Benway Road, Hillier.
The Lake Erie North Shore
- For information on getting in and where to stay, see Essex County.
Lake Erie North Shore has a long growing season because of the quick summer warming of the shallow waters of Lake Erie and because it gets lots of sunshine during the growing season.
The region's terrain is made up of long, gentle slopes that face in all directions. It enjoys prevailing southwesterly winds, and a lake breeze that moderates the entire area during the long growing season. Its light-textured, well-drained soils contain mostly sandy loam and gravel deposits which overlie shale limestone bedrock.
The region hosts 12 wineries (as of 2020). Here are some that provide tours and welcome walk-in visitors:
- 22 Mastronardi Estate Winery, 1193 Road 3 East, Kingsville.
- 23 Muscedere Vineyards, 7457 County Road #18, Harrow. Grapes hand-harvested from its vineyard to produce small hand-crafted lots.
- 24 North 42 Degrees Estate, 130 County Road 50 East, Harrow.
- 25 Pelee Island Winery & Pavilion, 455 Seacliff Drive, Kingsville. Canada’s warmest and southernmost appellation.
- 26 Viewpointe Estate Winery, 151, County Road 50 East, Harrow.
There are 16 wineries outside of the three principal regions. These wineries are not permitted to participate in the VQA program, but nonetheless make some interesting wines that are worth trying.
North of Toronto
- Adamo Estate Winery, 793366 3rd Line EHS, Mono (near Orangeville)
- Holland Marsh Wineries, 18270 Keele Street, Newmarket
- Coffin Ridge, 599448 2nd Concession North, Annan (Grey County, 10 km NE of Owen Sound)
- The Roost Wine Company, 415763 10th Line, The Blue Mountains, 22 km west of Collingwood
- 2nd Streetlight, 36594 Huron Road, Clinton
- Cornerfield Wine, 74444 Bluewater Highway, Bayfield (south of Goderich)
- Dark Horse Estate Winery, 70665 B Line, Grand Bend
- Alton Farms Estate Winery, 5547 Aberarder Line, Plympton-Wyoming (26 km east of Sarnia)
Ontario wines are available at the wineries, in LCBO stores, in small chains of retail shops owned by the wineries, and in some grocery stores. Prices will be approximately the same in each type of store, and high in comparison to many other countries because of high taxation. You may get some inexpensive VQA wines for as little as $12, but something more refined will cost $15-20, and you can easily spend a lot more for the better bottles.
The stores at the wineries have the widest selection by far, but are only useful if you are touring the wineries.
The 660 government-owned LCBO stores are the biggest wine retailer in the province, and one of the largest in the world. The former monopoly generally carries a good range of Ontario and other wines, but stores range from limited-selection boutiques up to sprawling wine-and-spirits emporia. The larger stores have "product consultants" who are very knowledgeable about wines and will be happy to help you choose. The "Vintages" section in each stores carries wines that are on limited release or are of better quality.
While "LCBO" stands for "Liquor Control Board of Ontario", the stores are no longer Soviet-style distribution points that dole out the demon drink as they were in the 1970s. In Toronto, the LCBO store at 49 Spadina Ave. near King Street West specializes in VQA wines (and Ontario craft beers), and has a tasting bar.
The wineries' retail chains have small shops scattered around the province, selling only their own products. But as many wineries are owned by large companies, these chains have a good range of wines in various price ranges. The 160 or so Wine Rack stores carry the products of Arterra Wines, and the 100 Wine Shop stores carry the products of Peller Family Vineyards. They will carry wines you won't find at the LCBO.
Grocery stores began selling wine in 2016. A few hundred grocery stores sell wine, and they typically have limited selections.