Ontario’s Lesser-Known VQA Appellation
By: Alyssa Andres
While Ontario wine from the Niagara region continues to grow in popularity on the international market, a lesser-known appellation in the province with an equally rich history of winemaking is going virtually unnoticed. Lake Erie Northshore is a VQA appellation in the southern-most part of Ontario that boasts a unique microclimate, diverse terroir and some of Canada’s oldest vines. Winemakers here produce bold and expressive wines that sell for an incredibly reasonable price point compared to their Niagara counterparts. The appellation is even the home of Canada’s first commercial winery, yet the region is relatively unknown.
Lake Erie Northshore is quite a small operation compared to the booming wine industry in the Niagara Peninsula. There are currently only 16 wineries in this burgeoning wine region, with an annual production of 19,218/9L cases, according to VQA Ontario. These wineries are producing both red and white wine, as well as sparkling offerings. Riesling is known to thrive here and is made in both sweet and dry styles. With approximately 1,500 acres of vineyard in the appellation, most wineries use estate-grown grapes. Small batch, family-run businesses are common, and there is a lot of experimentation with different grape varietals. Many wineries have a longstanding history in the region, despite being relatively unknown.
Although currently inconspicuous, early winemakers did not have trouble pinning the Lake Erie Northshore region as an opportune location to produce wine. The first winemakers to travel north and make wine in Canada settled off Lake Erie’s coast in the early 1860s, on an island known today as Pelee Island. The 10,000-acre island, with sprawling forest and a diverse ecosystem of flora and fauna, was an idyllic location to start a winery. The three Kentucky farmers planted 25 acres of vineyards in 1866, establishing “Vin Villa” as the country’s first commercial winery. The original building still stands for tourists to visit today, but the island has evolved dramatically.
Today, Pelee Island is home to Lake Erie Northshore’s only sub-appellation, South Islands VQA. It features the most extensive planting of European vinifera in the country – all owned and operated by a single winery. Pelee Island Winery established themselves in 1979, and, in 1980, over 100 years after the original vines were planted, they replanted the vineyards with premium Vitis vinifera. The terroir on the island is well developed and fertile, with highly calcareous soils and intense biological activity. Today, the winery has over 700 acres of vineyard growing an array of white and black varietals, including unexpected, late-ripening grapes such as Tempranillo and Chambourcin. The winery also grows Zweigelt, Lemberger and Tocai Friulano (Sauvignon Vert), to name just a few of the 18+ varietals on the island. Their expansive vineyards make Pelee Island Winery Canada’s largest private estate winery, with an annual production of 8,278/9L cases.
Pelee’s Island’s best vineyards sit at its center, where the soil is deepest. President and Head winemaker, Walter Schmoranz, practices sustainable winemaking using 100% island grown natural fertilizer made from sorghum grass. He is known as one of the Canadian wine industry’s pioneers, hailing from Ruedesheim, one of Germany’s finest winemaking regions, and joining Pelee Island Winery in 1986. Since taking on the head winemaker role, Pelee Island Winery has won hundreds of national and international awards for their wine, including the Citadelle de France Gold Medal for their 2002 Cabernet Franc Icewine. Their award-winning Vinedresser series is a spectacular example of great value wine at only $19.95 a bottle.
Pelee Island is located 32 kilometers south of the mainland and is the most southerly point in Canada, similar in latitude to Madrid and the French Riviera (N41°45’). The island has the longest growing season of any other viticultural region in the country. For this reason, it is the best location in Canada for late-ripening varietals. The island is extremely flat, with the highest elevation only 12 meters above the lake, allowing for even ripening of all the grapes. Lake Erie, the shallowest of all the Great Lakes, warms the vineyards early in the spring and throughout harvest, extending the growing season by more than 30 days in certain vintages compared to vineyards on the shoreline. The soil is sandy loam and clay over limestone bedrock, similar to the mainland.
The mainland of Lake Erie Northshore appellation is a bow-shaped peninsula, surrounded by Lake Erie, the Detroit River and Lake St. Clair. Glacial lakes that used to reside in the area caused large amounts of stone matter to deposit along the shoreline. While water levels retreated in most areas of the Great Lakes, levels in Lake Erie remained high, and the continuous washing of waves over the rocks created large amounts of sediment that now make up the terroir along the shores. This means the soil here is quite complex, with sandy loam, gravel and small stony ridges that overlay shale limestone bedrock. A large ridge, known as Colchester Ridge, formed along the peninsula as the ice age passed through the region.
Many of the region’s best wineries have set up their businesses along the ridge of the peninsula where higher than average winds reduce the risk of disease, and the soil is well-drained. Elevations here vary from 172 to 196 meters above sea level, with a maritime climate that sees lots of sun. Lake Erie Northshore has the highest number of heat units of all Ontario VQA regions due to its southerly location and the lake’s insulating effect. Harvest can start as early as August in some vintages, and late harvest varietals are usually at their peak by the end of October. Limited frost and lake-effect snow help protect the vines through the winter months.
In 1980, Colio Estate Wines became one of the original wineries to establish themselves on the north shore and take advantage of these prime growing conditions. Late winemaker, Carlo Negri, was a leader in the region from the start and extremely confident of its potential. Today, the 200-acre winery is known internationally, with over 400 awards for its wines. Negri won Ontario Winemaker of the Year in 2005 before passing away in 2014.
While Colio Estate and Pelee Island Winery are both examples of thriving large-scale producers in Lake Erie Northshore, most of the wineries there are small-scale, family-run businesses producing small-batch wine. Many of them also experiment with innovative techniques and unique varietals.
An exciting example of this is the Hounds of Erie Winery, located in Lake Erie Northshore, just 2.5 kilometers from the shoreline. Here, husband and wife duo Mat and Melissa Vaughan have started a boutique, dog-friendly winery that offers unique French vinifera plantings. In 2012, the couple started with a small test vineyard but have since expanded their operation, specializing in modern hybrid grapes including Frontenac Blanc, Marquette, Petite Pearl and L’Acadie Blanc. Since opening their winery, the couple has continued to experiment and expand, testing new trellis systems and adding more French vinifera to their 23-acre farm. In 2019, the couple started a test vineyard of Crimson Pearl, and 2020 brought even further vineyard expansion with the addition of Petite Louise to the Hounds of Erie portfolio. The Vaughans also grow a selection of heritage apples used for their lineup of hard ciders.
As Ontario wine continues to gain popularity and more wine lovers and connoisseurs take notice of VQA wine, it is the hope that Lake Erie Northshore will start to gain more notability and popularity in the world of wine. The combination of location, topography, and terroir, alongside the passion of the winemakers who reside here, results in rich and robust wine. Old vines, lots of sun and a long growing season produce bold and intense flavors with complex aromas and a lasting finish. With such a rich history of winemaking in this part of Canada, there is no doubt that Lake Erie Northshore will continue to grow and develop a name for itself. For now, this lesser-known appellation remains a hidden gem in Ontario VQA.