Do you occasionally enjoy taking the road less travelled? If you’re even slightly adventurous, reach for one of Ontario’s lesser-known, but no-less-appealing, grape varietals. Chardonnay and Cabernet may be your go-to vinos, but read on to learn more about the best wines you may have never tasted.
A Brief History
Most Ontario wines come from Vitis vinifera (aka vinifera) grapes. Native to Europe, Vinifera are considered to be the world’s highest-quality wine grapes. Ontario grows almost 40 varieties of grapes including popular vinifera varietals such as Chardonnay, Riesling, Cabernet, Merlot and Pinot Noir.
Baco Noir, Seyval Blanc and Vidal are native-European hybrids. Hybrids, created from combining two species, are ideal for creating specialty wines. Vidal, for example, is the main grape used for Ontario Icewine production. This cold-hardy, thick-skinned varietal remains on the vine well into winter, where it achieves a sweet flavour profile that’s ideal for our famous dessert wine.
Native North American vines belonging to the Vitis labrusca species include Concord and Niagara grapes. These aren’t used for winemaking in Ontario; instead, they’re used to make juices, jams and jellies. In the late 1980s, Ontario’s grape growers made a strategic gamble and hit the jackpot. Grape growers removed almost 8,300 acres of vineyards and replanted to more desirable wine grape varieties. The Vintner’s Quality Alliance (VQA) was formed as the industry’s regulatory authority which maintains the integrity of local wine appellations and enforces winemaking and labelling standards including which grape varieties may be used in 100% Ontario wines labelled as VQA.
Ontario grew into a region that produces not just fine grapes, but fine wines. Check out our lesser-known cultivars and VQA selections.
Baco Noir was created in 1894 when French grape breeder Francois Baco crossed Folle Blanche with an unknown Vitis riparia cultivar. Once found in Burgundy and the Loire Valley, this cool-climate-loving cultivar slowly moved westward to become one of Ontario’s most successful hybrids. Baco’s rich fruit tones make it a versatile wine that pairs well with foods as diverse as barbecue ribs and pizza.
Three to try: Henry of Pelham Reserve Baco Noir 2013, $24.95; Sandbanks Baco Noir, $14.95; and Pelee Island Baco Noir, $11.95.
Gamay Noir, a red Vitis vinifera grape, was first recorded in France’s Gamay village in the 1360s. Ontario growers and winemakers have achieved success with Gamay because it ripens early, producing an excellent vintage within our short growing season.
Most Gamays are light and cherry-dominated, but Ontario Gamays are sometimes oak-aged, yielding unusually rich, more flavor-concentrated wine. Chilled Ontario Gamays can be consumed young, and pair beautifully with turkey and cranberries, and salmon with fennel.
Three to try: Malivoire Gamay, $17.95; Sugarbush Gamay 2013, $18.00; and Cave Spring Gamay $15.95.
Introduced to jump-start brandy production in eastern Canada, this hybrid white grape is produced from the Vitis vinifera variety Ugni Blanc and hybrid Seibel 4896. A thick-skinned, winter-hearty cultivar, Vidal Blanc is high in sugar in cold climates, making it ideal for lighter table wines and Ontario’s famous Icewine.
Vidal table wines are typically light and fruity, while Vidal Icewines are sweet, rich and acidic, pairing well with desserts like apple and caramel crepes and cheesecake.
Two to try: Inniskillin Vidal Icewine, $49.95; Pelee Island Monarch Vidal (table wine), $10.95.
Marechal Foch was bred in France in the 1910s when Eugene Kuhlmann crossed Goldriesling and a native-American Vitis riparia-rupestris. Originally called Kuhlmann 188-2, once the grape arrived in America in the 1940s, it was renamed Marechal Foch after the prominent French World War I General Marshall Ferdinand Foch.
The winter-hardy Marechal Foch varietal ripens quickly, so it’s ideal for Ontario’s cool climate. It’s known for its deep-red skin and flesh; the grape’s concentrated colour translates to the wine. Marechal Foch, often oak-aged, is heavy-bodied and features pepper and plum notes. Sip it alongside jambalaya or a Nicoise salad.
Two to try: Vieni Estates Foch Vintage Reserve 2012, $16.25; and Malivoire Albert’s Honour Old Vines Foch, 2013; $24.95.
Variety is the spice of life. These Ontario grape varietals will add pizzazz to your wine cellar or dinner table!
Johnson, Hugh. Vintage: The Story of Wine, pg. 133. Simon & Schuster, 1989.