Lake Erie Northshore:

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.

In Search of Vermouth

By: Stuart Laidlaw

In North America, vermouth is often misunderstood and unloved. Until the early 2000s, it was used in two ways: a splash of dry vermouth for martinis (the less, the better) and a jigger of sweet for manhattans. Half the time, the vermouth would be spoiled or flat and lifeless due to infrequent use and room temperature storage. Nowadays, as consumers broaden their horizons to include aperitivo hour and drinks like the ubiquitous spritz, there is more interest in vermouth than ever before. For Canada’s winemakers, vermouth offers another way to express themselves and a potential new revenue source.

History

  Although other aromatized, fortified wines predate it, vermouth, as we know it now, was first introduced in Turin, Italy, in 1786 by Antonio Benedetto Carpano. His sweet red vermouth is still produced today as Carpano Antica Formula. Then, around 1800, Joseph Noilly made the first dry white vermouth in southern France – it too is still produced today as Noilly Prat. The third style of vermouth, blanc or bianco, followed shortly thereafter from Dolin in France and Gancia in Italy, completing the foundation of the category.

  Today vermouth is being made in uniquely local styles around the world, broadening its expected flavor palette beyond its traditional expectations. In Spain, oxidative wines are used by producers like Lustau and Guerra to make a new hybrid style of sherry-inflected vermouths. In the U.S., producers such as Vya and Hammer & Tongs draw on inspirations both local and exotic, using botanicals as diverse as frankincense, turmeric, cardoon and alfalfa.

  Amongst Canadian wineries and consumers, vermouth has struggled to find its footing. Although fortified wine was one of the first types of wine to be produced commercially in Canada, it was made from non-vinifera grapes, blended with imported table wine, and fortified with neutral alcohol to make a generically sweet, strong and cheap wine. These styles of fortified wine have historically been the country’s bestselling fortified wines, leading to a stigma that has tarnished the entire category. However, as Canada’s craft spirits culture continues to mature, a handful of wineries and distilleries have seen the opportunity that vermouth offers.

Low ABV Workhorse

  The last few years have seen the rise of health and wellness trends across the food and beverage sector, leading to a significant increase in the number of people actively trying to curb their alcohol intake. Every year more people participate in Dry January and carry some of those good intentions into the following months. In response to the increasing demand for low ABV drinks, Canadian cocktail bars have begun featuring vermouth spritzes and cocktails as low ABV alternatives to the more traditional gin, whisky or vodka drinks. For example, Bar Raval in Toronto, named Canada’s best bar two years in a row, specializes in sherry and vermouth-based cocktails. One of their menu mainstays is the Logroni, a low ABV version of a Negroni.

  One of the clearest signs of the interest in healthier beverages has been the boom of ready-to-drink hard seltzers. Here too, vermouth has a role to play, with its versatility being key. 2020 saw the release of Canada’s first vermouth-based RTD, made by Revel Cider Company, who make both cider and natural wine. They start with a wine made from apples, pears and blue plums, aromatize it with locally foraged botanicals, re-ferment it, and can it at 4.4% ABV with zero residual sugar. Although it is the first drink of its kind in Canada, the current thirst for RTDs and the need for new types and flavors to meet consumer demand make it unlikely that this will be the last.

Diverse Origins

  Unencumbered by the traditions of the Old World, vermouths in Canada are made by people from a wide range of backgrounds. Although someone who makes vermouth is by definition a winemaker, not all start out that way. In addition to trained winemakers, vermouth attracts distillers and even craft soda producers. Quinn and Michela Palmer founded Esquimalt Wine Company in Vancouver following the success of their previous company, Rootside Soda. While learning about botanicals for their soft drinks (e.g., artisanal tonic water and rosehip soda), they became interested in aromatized wines, and since 2019 have released an award-winning range of vermouths, including a Quinquina, a largely forgotten bitter relative of vermouth.

  Canada’s first craft vermouth was made in 2015 by Odd Society Spirits in Vancouver. Being the first came with a particular disadvantage for founder and distiller Gordon Glanz. He was the first micro-distillery forced to navigate British Columbia’s licensing system to make a product that requires both a winemaking license and a distilling license. Unfortunately for Gordon, the system is designed to keep beer, wine and liquor licenses separate for taxation purposes. In the end, Glanz acquired a separate winemaking license and produced something that belongs to both the Old World and the new. Although it is in many ways a traditional Italian-style sweet vermouth, the base of local wine is fortified with Odd Society’s own malted barley spirit, instead of the standard neutral grain alcohol, brandy or eau-de-vie – perhaps a nod to Canada’s depth of whisky heritage, and an affirmation of the distiller’s commitment to experimentation.

  The most recent addition to Canada’s vermouth portfolio is from a more established producer, Tawse Winery. Founded by Moray Tawse in 2005, the winery is one of the Niagara Region’s largest organic winemakers. In 2019, Moray and Paul Pender, Director of Viticulture and Winemaking, oversaw the installation of a micro-distillery on-site and immediately set about making a bianco vermouth. They took inspiration from the Burgundian tradition of a traveling distiller going from winery to winery, pulling a still with a tractor, to distill each winery’s pomace into marc (similar to grappa). At Tawse, they use their Riesling as the base for their vermouth, then make marc from the Riesling pomace and use it to fortify the wine. The resulting vermouth is high in acidity and has 22 grams of residual sugar, making it uniquely mouthwatering. Although Tawse vermouth comes from a very different place than Odd Society’s and Esquimalt’s, they are still bound by a commitment to using locally sourced ingredients and introducing their own perspectives to a traditionally staid product.

The Future of Vermouth

  2020 has put on hold many projections and forecasts, but one trend that seems unaffected is the increased interest in premium alcoholic beverages. This bodes well for the growth of Canada’s domestic vermouth category. It can be easy to focus on the explosion of interest in bourbon, agave spirits and craft beer. Still, in developed markets like the U.S. and the U.K., premium wine sales have outpaced other drink categories. According to a report from Impact Databank, U.S. sales of bottled wine priced $20 and over increased by 30% from January to September 2020. Craft vermouth fits neatly at this nexus of the upswing in premium wine sales, the craft cocktail market’s continued maturation and the fast-developing enthusiasm for low ABV drinks.

  Consumers will grow more accustomed to seeing vermouth-forward cocktails on drink menus, and vermouth made with locally foraged botanicals paired with courses on restaurant tasting menus. At the liquor store, they will see well-packaged, sleekly branded, Canadian-produced vermouth sold alongside the French and Italian standard-bearers, and low ABV, low calorie, vermouth-based RTDs next to the beer. Although Tawse is by no means a big producer, they are well-established and highly respected; the resources they have committed to their vermouth say a lot about the category’s potential. If they can solidify their annual production and sales, it will signal to other wineries that there is room for growth in the category and the potential to tap into a new revenue stream.

  In some ways, Tawse has laid out a roadmap for other wineries to follow. The ability to experiment with different grape varietals to create a unique flavor profile, and the integration of the distilling side of things by dint of having their own pomace to use, makes table wine producers well suited to adding vermouth to their portfolios. Now, if they can just remind customers to keep their vermouth in the fridge, this could be the beginning of something big.