Niagara 101: Canada's Cool Climate Wine Country

With the bright casino lights and crashing cascades of the Niagara Falls to the east, and the Toronto skyline just across the waters of Lake Ontario, it’s hard to imagine how Canada has cultivated such a pristine and bucolic wine country between the two cities. The Niagara Peninsula is Canada’s largest and most important winegrowing region, as well as one of the most dynamic young appellations in the New World. Situated between two Great Lakes, the Niagara Peninsula rewards its vintners with a surprisingly diverse portfolio of wines that emerging from the constraints of its cool climate extremes. A Brief History Ontario’s history of winegrowing starts in 1811, when Johann Schiller planted indigenous American grape varieties and French-American hybrids in Cooksville, just southwest of Toronto. The Niagara Peninsula’s first winery came six decades later in 1873 with the founding of The Ontario Grape Growing and Wine Manufacturing Company by Georges Barnes. By 1890, Ontario boasted 35 wineries, although most operated on the province’s western edge, just across the border from Detroit. Nonetheless, the onset of Prohibition in Ontario, lasting from 1916 to 1927, thwarted these early efforts. Unlike many of their New York neighbors, Ontario winemakers saw early potential for European Vitis vinifera grape varieties on Canadian soil. In 1955, Brights Wines was the first Canadian winery to vinify a wine from vinifera grapes. The Niagara Peninsula’s modern wine industry began in 1975, when Donald Ziraldo and Karl Kaiser founded Inniskillin, the first newly licensed winery in the province since Prohibition. Nine years later, Inniskillin, along with Reif Estate, produced Ontario’s first commercial Icewines, a delicacy that brought global attention to the Canadian wine industry for the first time. Today, the Niagara Peninsula continues to blossom as Canada’s largest wine appellation, celebrated for both its dry wines and sweet Icewines alike. A Lay of the Land Stretching from just west of Hamilton, Ontario to Niagara Falls and the New York border, the Niagara Peninsula finds itself sandwiched between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, with its vineyards growing on the southern banks of the latter. Viticulture is facilitated by the combination of Lake Ontario’s moderating effect and the Niagara Escarpment. Carved out by glacial movement, the Escarpment’s steep slopes trap and recirculate breezes coming off the water. The greatest challenge with growing grapes in Niagara? “Mother Nature,” explains Bruce Nicholson, winemaker for Inniskillin. “You hope for optimal weather conditions, and while you can manage your vineyard as best you can, you still rely and hope for a forecast that gives you the best opportunity to harvest your grapes at top quality,” he says. Niagara’s wine country and be broadly divided into two sectors – the vineyards that lie east of the town of St. Catharines, and those to the west. The eastern sector comprises the Niagara-on-the-Lake regional appellation, which itself can be broken down into the sub-appellations of Niagara Lakeshore, Four Mile Creek, Niagara River, and St. David’s Bench. Bordered by the Niagara River and the Welland Canal, these vineyards gently unfold from Lake Ontario’s banks. Generally flatter than their western neighbors, as well as more temperate, Niagara-on-the-Lake can more readily ripen grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc, in comparison to other parts of the peninsula. The Niagara Peninsula’s western appellations are more viticulturally extreme. The winegrowing area is bisected by the Niagara Escarpment regional appellation, which sub-divides into the Short Hills Bench, Twenty Mile Bench, and Beamsville Bench. These north-facing, limestone-rich slopes yield some of the Peninsula’s most prized wines, particularly from such cool-climate varieties as Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Riesling. Directly south, the Vinemount Ridge appellation sits atop the Escarpment’s cliffs, more exposed and with more dramatic diurnal swings in temperature. To the Escarpment’s north, along Lake Ontario’s edge, the Creek Shores and narrow Lincoln Lakeshore appellations enjoy long growing seasons, their sun-soaked vines cooled by the lake’s influence. The Grapes and the Wines As a vivacious, relatively young New World winegrowing region, the Niagara Peninsula’s vintners readily explore the vast vinous possibilities awarded by their vineyards. From skin-fermented orange wines to wines fermented from air-dried grapes in the Italian “appassimento” tradition, the unbounded creativity of Niagara’s winemakers continuously expands the region’s palate of wines. Nonetheless, the Niagara Peninsula has honed in on four core varieties: Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Franc. From Niagara’s vineyards, Riesling achieves some of its most alluring, finely-chiseled expressions in North America. The German grape first reached the region in 1976 when it was planted by Vineland Estates, whose success with the grape encouraged Riesling to spread across the Peninsula over the ensuing decades. As with most Riesling regions, producers vinify the grape in a broad spectrum of sweetness. Across styles, the piercing acidity that the grape achieves in this region allows it to provide some of Niagara’s longest-lived wines. Niagara’s most widely planted variety, however, is Chardonnay . The grape has proven to be so successful that the Niagara Peninsula welcomes wine lovers across the globe for the annual International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration held each July. Best cultivated on the limestone slopes of the Escarpment, when made in more restrained styles, these Chardonnays capture the taut salinity of their terroir with wines of precision and grace. Chardonnay, along with Pinot Noir, earns renown for Niagara’s sparkling wines which are made in the image of Champagne and swiftly rising in popularity. Like Chardonnay, Pinot Noir thrives on the Niagara Escarpment, its vintners crafting savory, earth-laden wines with a Burgundian ethos. Interestingly, a quorum of producers are also finding success with Gamay , making Ontario a rare New World champion for Beaujolais’ native grape. Niagara’s second signature red, however, is Cabernet Franc . Unlike California, when you say “Cabernet” or simply “Cab” in Niagara, the default assumption is that you’re referring to Cabernet Franc, not Cabernet Sauvignon. While often blended with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot , Cabernet Franc can yield exceptional varietal wines of character, marked by their savory herbaceousness. Niagara’s Inimitable Icewines While the Niagara Peninsula continues to gain renown for its dry wines, the region first captured global interest for its distinctive Icewines . This lip-smackingly sweet dessert wine is made in the tradition of German and Austrian Eiswein. To produce Icewine, vintners leave their grapes to hang months past a traditional harvest date, allowing them to shrivel and concentrate their sugars. The berries are only picked once they’ve naturally frozen on the vine, the harvest typically occurring during the night hours between December and February when the temperature drops to a required maximum of -8° C. When pressed, Icewine grapes bear a mere 15% of the juice that they normally would, had they been pressed following a traditional harvest date. As such, the resulting wines can prove rather expensive. Riesling, Cabernet Franc, and the hybrid Vidal Blanc are the most commonly used varieties for Icewine production. Riesling offers the most complex, ageworthy bottles, reminiscent of its German and Austrian counterparts. Vidal Icewines are markedly juicier, although perhaps Cabernet Franc offers the most flamboyant interpretations, charming with their cherry cordial flavors. Today, Canada serves as the world’s largest producer of Icewine, of which more than 75% of the country’s production comes from Ontario. — Bryce Wiatrak To learn more about Ontario’s wines, join industry leaders and wine enthusiasts from around the globe at i4C , the International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration. Guests will enjoy a weekend of seminars, dinners, and tastings showcasing distinctive Chardonnays from ten countries and several dozen wineries.

Cave Spring

Cave Spring Vineyard "CSV" Riesling 2015

Founded by brothers Thomas and Leonard Pennachetti, Cave Spring has become a benchmark estate for several of Niagara's core varieties. My favorites, however, are their Riesling. Their CSV, coming from the oldest blocks of Cave Spring's estate property on the Beamsville Bench, represents the pinnacle of their dry Rieslings. Intensely concentrated, with a pillar of acidity and gripping stony flavors, the wine finds a taut balance between its nervy salinity and pure apple and pear skin flavors. — 19 days ago

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Severn Goodwin

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I can see the theme of your next Featured article coming together... 😉
Bryce Wiatrak

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@Severn Goodwin check the featured tab ;)

Charles Baker

Vinemount Ridge Riesling 2014

Charles Baker has swiftly risen to become one of Niagara's foremost authorities on Riesling. Grown from the Vinemount Ridge appellation, that stretches south overlooking the Niagara Escarpment, the 2014 hits all the marks of an outstanding Niagara Riesling - petrol, wet stones, apple skin, and chiseled mineral flavor. Clean, long and precise. — 3 months ago

Kyle, Dawn and 19 others liked this

Domaine Queylus

Tradition Niagara Peninsula Chardonnay 2015

Star winemaker Thomas Bachelder, crafts a delicious, easy to drink Chardonnay for Domaine Queylus' Tradition series. Fleshier and more robust than some of its Niagara colleagues, the wine enjoys approachable flavors of corn cakes, roasted apples, and pollen. — 3 months ago

"Odedi", Daniel and 9 others liked this
Terry Hill

Terry Hill

One of the best that i've tasted.

Tawse Winery

Quarry Road Vineyard Chardonnay 2013

Bringing an old world stylistic ethos, Moray Tawse, who also owns Marchand-Tawse in Burgundy, founded his eponymous winery in 2000. Tawse yields some of Niagara's most finely focused, cool climate wines, in particular their Chardonnays. Cultivated from Tawse's certified biodynamic vineyard on Vinemount Ridge, the Quarry Road Chardonnay bursts with high-velocity swaths of saline energy. Painting swift strokes of taut, smoky stone flavors matched by cold, concentrated apple character, the wine recalls the great Chardonnays of Chablis - Montée de Tonnerre coming to mind for me. — 19 days ago

Jason, Shawn and 7 others liked this

Flat Rock Cellars

Riddled Sparkling 2010

While Chardonnay can achieve captivating still wines on the Niagara Peninsula, its sparklers are swiftly rising in popularity as well. This Blanc de Blancs from Flat Rock Cellars on the Twenty Mile Bench demonstrates why. Sealed by crown cap, the wine ages on its lees for over five years, finding a chalky, pithy texture in the image of Champagne. The younger sibling to Flat Rock's tête-de-cuvée" "Crowned," the "Riddled" bottling is more clean cut and fragrant, singing of lemon blossom and citrus pith. — 19 days ago

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Severn Goodwin

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Interesting read, not had any Canadian sparklers yet, I should seek some out. Many producers routinely use a crown cap while the bottles are still in their cellars for initial aging ahead of release.
Bryce Wiatrak

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Yes, true! To my knowledge though this one is aged under crown cap, riddled, and then crown capped again. The owner strongly prefers the closure to cork.

Megalomaniac

Bespoke Series Pinot Noir 2015

One of Niagara's most exciting (and flamboyantly packaged) newcomers, Megalomaniac began as John Howard's retirement project to raise funds for the Kids’ Health Links Foundation. Their Bespoke Series Pinot Noir hails from Niagara's prime Pinot real estate, the Twenty Mile Bench within the Niagara Escarpment. Herbaceous and medicinal, the wine find's a primordial allure with its concentrated, wilted sage and tarragon flavors and palate-coating red currant tones. — 3 months ago

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Inniskillin

Vidal Icewine 2016

Founded by Donald Ziraldo and Karl Kaiser in 1975, Inniskillin is Canada's pioneering icewine producer, bringing the Niagara Peninsula global attention. Today, they remain masters of this unmistakably Canadian delicacy. While the Riesling icewines may be the most refined and complex, and the red Cabernet Franc renditions the most flamboyant (especially in its sparkling form), there's something about the icewines made from Vidal, a hybrid variety, that is so gratifyingly pleasurable. Juicy, and drippingly palate-coating, the wine oozes lush, ripe flavors of orange peel, mango, bruised peach and apricot, nuanced by a pollenous, floral quality. — 19 days ago

Two Sisters

Niagara River Cabernet Franc 2014

While Caberent Franc often plays second fiddle to its progeny Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, the grape earns star status on the Niagara Peninsula. Two Sisters crafts a dazzling Cab Franc from the Niagara River appellation that illuminates everything there is to love about this characterful grape. Aged entirely in French oak, 15% new, the wine matches its signature herbaceous, white pepper flavors and spicy cayenne, paprika notes with a juicier backbone of cassis and tart blackberries. — 19 days ago

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