Andrew Jefford returns to the Niagara Escarpment...

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Jefford on Monday: Ontario’s wild ride

Human beings love to simplify. All simplifications, though, are fallible; they sacrifice nuance on the altar of clarity. A recent visit to the vineyards of Canada’s Ontario, back in early October, made this point several times over.


Scroll down for a Andrew Jefford’s pick of Onatrio wines


Winemaking in Ontario is considered (for example) to take place in the extreme north, and to be a radical example of cool-climate viticulture. Given that the province produces 80 per cent of the world’s Icewine, that has to be true, right?

‘We’re not a northerly region,’ points out Angelo Pavan of Cave Spring. ‘We’re on the same latitude as Florence.’ (Actually a slightly lower latitude: Florence is 43.77˚N whereas Niagara Falls is 43.06˚N.)

‘And I don’t like the ‘cool-climate’ tag,’ he continues, ‘because we’re very warm in summer. That’s one reason why we’re the biggest wine region in North America east of the Rockies.’

Again, he’s right. The daily mean July temperature is 21.3˚C in Niagara, and in August 20.4˚C (according to www.climate-data.org). That’s hotter than Beaune, for example, whose equivalent figures from the same source are 19.7˚C and 19.2˚C. Not only that, but it’s warmer than Bordeaux, too (19.8˚C and 20˚C).

A better way of summarising Ontario would be to say that it’s a mid-latitude location with warm summers – but extreme continentality, hence its deep-freeze winters. The result of this is the ‘wild ride’ through spring and autumn which every Ontarian winegrower will tell you about. ‘Volatility in the shoulder seasons,’ says Stratus’s Suzanne Janke, ‘is our biggest challenge.’

In truth ‘wild’ is an adjective which can apply to almost any moment of the year in Ontario — but since that seems to be increasingly true of most vineyard zones, this may be the climate-change joker at play.

Ontario, for example, was unlucky enough to have to endure two periods of extraordinary cold during the successive winters of 2014 and 2015, when temperatures dropped to -30˚C or so (formerly considered a ‘once in a 100 year’ event).

‘In February 2015,’ recalled Pavan, ’93 per cent of the surfact of the Great Lakes froze. The only place it didn’t freeze was the western end of Lake Ontario. That’s why we’re still here.’

Indeed vineyards in the higher parts of Niagara, like the Chardonnay of Queylus up at the top of the Escarpment, were destroyed. This is the only global vineyard region I have ever visited where there are braziers at winery entrances and stacks of blankets in the tasting rooms.

Credit: Andrew Jefford

In 2017, by contrast, it rained every three days between April and August, threatening a different sort of disaster. Then the weather changed; sunshine lit the vineyards until November, and the harvest was, in the end, a fine one. The 2016 season even flirted with drought. Ontario growers never know quite what’s coming – except that the changes brought by spring and autumn will be dramatic, stark and rapid, and that the seasons between can be extreme.

Another simplification whose neat outlines look, on closer inspection, at bit smudgy concerns what we might call the vocation of Ontario’s vineyards, together with its ideal varieties and its overall wine style.

Icewine aside, all resist easy summary. Ontario’s wines are not in any way forceful, bright, overt, ‘fruit-driven’, large-boned or generous. Not classically ‘New World’, in other words. (Such descriptions do, by contrast, sometimes fit the wines of British Columbia – wines with a clear North American stamp to them.)

‘We’re mid-Atlantic,’ says Ontario-based French winemaker Sébastien Jacquey of Meglomaniac, and with reason. Successful Ontario wines (there are still many failures) have a subtlety, an attractive quietness, a grain and a poise to them which makes them, like European wines, attractive food partners. They would make treacherous blind-tasting bottles for the MW exam.

Ontario’s genres and varieties, too, defy easy categorization We’re familiar with fanfares for English sparkling wines – but it can’t be long before the world wakes up to the potential of Ontario’s equivalents.

‘Give us another decade,’ says Marty Werner of Ravine Vineyard Estate, ‘and we will make some of the best traditional-method sparkling wine on the planet. I’m betting my eggs on it.’

Backing up his claim is the Platinum medal Ravine pocketed for its NV Brut in this year’s Decanter World Wine Awards. Nor was that Ontario’s only success in this class: Trius also unhooked a Platinum for its Rosé Brut. Production of sparkling wines in Ontario has tripled since my last visit almost five years ago.

Niagara did, though, manage something even better: a wine in top-tier ‘Best in Show’ category of this year’s DWWA, from the Beamsville Bench winery Thirty Bench – and it was based on the variety local insiders have been tipping over the last decade: Cabernet Franc. There aren’t many Cabernet Francs at this level yet, but the best really can front up to Bourgueil and Chinon.

When you taste the quality of Pinots and Chardonnays of wineries like Tawse, Hidden Bench, Pearl Morissette and Queylus, you begin to wonder why Burgundian families, so stymied back home for ways to expand and invest their new-found wealth, haven’t yet found their way to Ontario. White blends of Sauvignon and Semillon convince, too. And just when you think you’ve got the bases covered, a sniff and a sip of one of the great Rieslings from Cave Spring has you re-setting the cultural dial all over again.

This is all as it should be, given the youthfulness of Canada’s wine-making ambitions (only two percent of Ontario’s wines were made from vinifera varieties back in 1976). Wild weather permitting, we can look forward to more classification-challenging years ahead.


Andrew Jefford’s Ontario wines to try

 

 


Read all Andrew Jefford columns on Decanter.com