Many people ask “What makes Ontario wines so unique?” It all comes down to how the grapes are grown in Ontario’s Great Lake regions.
Great Ontario grapes and wines are made due to the unique effect the Great Lakes have on the vineyards. The Great Lakes, being Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie and Superior, began to form at the end of the last glacial period about 14,000 years ago! Retreating ice sheets exposed the valleys they had carved in the land, which then filled with meltwater. Fast forward to the 17th century, early settlers planted Ontario’s first vineyards with native labrusca grapes, many of which were then replaced in the 20th century by Vitis vinifera and traditional European varieties, which we see today.
Ontario proves that it can grow high-quality grapes such as Riesling, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir with help from the Great Lakes.
The Niagara Peninsula, and Ontario’s newest wine appellation, Prince Edward County, heavily rely on Lake Ontario to provide a moderated and productive cool climate growing season.
The Niagara Peninsula is bordered by Lake Ontario on the north, the Niagara River on the east, and the Welland River to the south-west. It is divided into two regional appellations: the Niagara Escarpment and Niagara-on-the-Lake. The lake effects vary considerably within these two appellations, allowing the wines produced from these grapes to differ in flavour.
The Niagara Escarpment rises 575 feet above lake level which creates a cyclical air pattern that blows moderate air over the vines like a protective blanket. These vineyards will encounter a higher daily temperature range, with warm days and cool nights, compared to those located closer to the lake. Vineyards located on this higher elevation experience gradual warming temperatures in the spring which encourages later bud-break and avoids the risks of frost in the winter. In the fall, the escarpment traps warm lake air which leads to an extended season for grape maturation. Common varietals found in the Niagara Escarpment include Riesling, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir.
Now moving even closer to Lake Ontario is Niagara-on-the-Lake. Common varietals in this region include Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, and Vidal. The close proximity to the lake and the Niagara River moderates temperatures throughout the region which reduces the risks of late spring and early fall frost. Most of this region is characterized of plains land, which are long and gentle slopes. This allows the vineyards to be exposed to generous sunlight in the early morning to late evening, and promotes an early start to the growing season. As an added bonus, the wineries located along the lakeshore offer an incredibly beautiful backdrop for those Instagram pictures!
Prince Edward County
Moving to Ontario’s most northern wine appellation is Prince Edward County, which is located at the most eastern end of Lake Ontario. The vineyards in this appellation are located in areas that receive maximum benefit from lake breezes, creating pleasant cool temperatures during the hotter days and keeping cool nights at bay. The broken limestone bedrock and stony soils allow for excellent drainage in the spring and absorbs the wetness during the growing season, which allows the vines to grow deeper in the summer months to produce concentrated flavours. Common varietals in Prince Edward County are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, and Pinot Gris.
Lake Erie North Shore
Vineyards located in the Lake Erie North Shore appellation are almost completely surrounded by water, with Lake St. Clair to the north-west, Detroit River to the west, and Lake Erie to the south. This southerly location enjoys the full effect of the lake breeze which moderates the entire area during the growing season. Due to Lake Erie’s shallow waters, Lake Erie North Shore benefits from the quick summer warming, leading to a long growing season. Harvesting season comes early, usually beginning at the end of August and late-harvest reaching its peak by late October. Common varietals in Lake Erie North Shore include Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Gris and Marquette.