Apr 1 2016

Great wines aren’t made — they’re grown. A wine is only as good as the grapes it comes from, and growers know that soil quality is crucial to producing a high-quality vintage. Though this is obvious to farmers and grape enthusiasts, average Canadians may find themselves wondering, “What’s the big deal?”

For everyone who’s ever thought that the ground under their feet was just dirt, read on. The story of Ontario’s local soil is fascinating.

Soil: It’s Not Just Dirt!

When growers wax poetic about their soil during a winery tour, it can be difficult to understand why they’re so enthusiastic. It turns out that soil is a pretty amazing thing. It consists of many possible combinations of sand, silt and clay, plus trace bits of various minerals. There’s also organic matter that comes from decaying plants and animals, as well as their waste matter. Soil also holds many living organisms, including bacteria, fungi and insects.

There’s no single perfect soil for grapes, but researchers have found that premium wines do tend to come from certain regions — like Ontario! Local grape growers work hard to manage the delicate balance of all of the components of soil to provide the best environment to nourish their varietals — an art as well as a science.

Differences Within Ontario’s Major Growing Regions

Just as visitors choose to visit one of Ontario’s wine regions over another to match their tastes and interests, so growers choose varietals best suited to the microclimate and soil of each region. Even though there’s not much physical difference between these regions, their soils have unique characteristics that influence the flavor and character of the grapes and wines that are produced there. Wine enthusiasts call this phenomenon terroir.

Niagara Peninsula Soil

The Niagara region is one of Canada’s best agricultural regions, and this is due in large part to its rich soil. Thousands of years ago, glaciers slowly moved north across the region, scraping across the earth’s surface and leaving behind rich deposits of clay, loam, sand and gravel. Thanks to the work of the Niagara River carving down into the bedrock, the area is also enriched with minerals and elements that add complex flavors and even a bit of useful nutrition to the wines of this region.

Prince Edward County Soil

Even the untrained eye might spot a major difference in Prince Edward County soil: Its reddish tint hints at its increased clay content. It also consists of sandy loam, an ideal soil for good drainage that encourages grapevine roots to reach deep down toward the bedrock, where they’ll find true minerals to absorb. The region sits atop porous limestone and shale bedrock, which holds in heat well. This allows the soil to warm early in the spring and keep the growing season going later into the fall, which allows growers to produce varietals that would suffer in the cold in other regions of Canada.

Lake Erie North Shore Soil

The soil around Lake Erie was covered in cold, deep water for thousands of years before it retreated into the lake as it exists today. The action of the water tumbled rocks smooth and left behind a good deal of light, silty sediment. This light soil, mixed with gravel left behind by glaciers, drains well — a crucial feature for keeping grapevines’ roots healthy. The presence of the lake also keeps the region warmer than other parts of Canada, allowing for a long growing season for grape growers.

Understanding soil is just the beginning of the fun! To taste the effects of the soil in each region, visit a local vineyard for a tour. The growers there will be happy to explain why their wine has a flavor that’s different from one produced just a short drive away — and the answer will definitely have to do with the soil.