VQA Ontario: The Evolution of a Canadian Provincial Wine Law

By: Tod Stewart 

It’s more than a little ironic to learn that the first known “wine law” was distinctly anti-wine. In an effort to increase the food supply, Roman emperor Domitian (c. 92) issued a decree banning the planting of any more vines in Italy. The hope was that available growing land would be given to planting cereal grains as opposed to grapes. Guess how that all worked out. Though largely ignored throughout the country, it nonetheless stayed in effect for close to 200 years before being repealed by emperor Marcus Aurelius Probus (and much celebration ensued). 

  Wine laws enacted across Europe – starting with those conceived by the Reichstag in 1498 – were generally done for nobler purposes – typically to prevent wine fraud. Fakery became especially problematic in mid-19th century France as the phylloxera blight decimated vineyards and all but dried up the flow of wine. These laws evolved into the familiar (at least to wine buffs) Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) system. Similar laws proliferated in wine growing regions around the world. They aimed at establishing geographical origin, permitted grape varieties and yields, and production methods, among other things. 

Generally speaking, wine laws are a good thing for consumers. After all, if you’re spending big bucks on an Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon with the term “To Kalon” on the label (or considerably bigger bucks for a Pinot Noir identified as “La Tâche”), you’ll want some pretty solid guarantee that you are actually getting what you’re paying for. 

  For winemakers, some wine laws can present compliance challenges. I’ve talked to more than one European winemaker who almost envies the amount of freedom given to their American counterparts. Want to plant (more) Albariño in Lodi? No problem. Want to plant Albariño in Chianti Classico or Burgundy? Not so fast….One winemaker here in Ontario actually gave up his winery in Tuscany because he couldn’t deal with Italian bureaucracy. This is pretty stunning testimony given the bureaucracy level in Ontario. 

  Though still considered a “young” wine producing country, Canada today has a thriving wine industry situated largely in Ontario and British Columbia. Wine has been produced in this country for over 200 years, with the first commercial winery established in Ontario in 1866. However, it wasn’t until the 1970s, with the expanded planting of Vitis vinifera varieties and improved winemaking techniques that the emergence of a wine industry focused on high quality began to emerge.  

  The Vintners Quality Alliance Act,1999 designated VQA Ontario as Ontario’s wine authority on June 29, 2000. Broadly speaking, the mandate of VQA Ontario is to enforce the province’s appellation of origin system, control the use of specific terms, descriptions and designations, and set out mandatory winemaking practices pursuant to each specific VQA region and sub-region. Winemakers have some flexibility when it comes to grape varieties – so long as they are either Vitis vinifera or an approved hybrid (eg., Vidal), and there is no restriction as to what variety needs to be planted where. 

  There are the other usual checks and balances around things like brix levels at harvest for specific types of wines and the pedigree of fruit for particular regional designations (the requirements for a wine labeled as VQA Ontario will be more relaxed than for a wine identified as an Estate Grown Chardonnay with the designation VQA Beamsville Bench – a geographical sub-appellation). Labelling terminology is also regulated. 

  As with most wine laws – particularly those governing younger regions – evolution is largely unavoidable. When I contacted VQA Ontario headquarters to get a status update – and to ask how the pandemic had affected operations – I was somewhat surprised by the response. 

  “VQA Ontario has changed its operating name to the Ontario Wine Appellation Authority,” says Laurie Macdonald, the organization’s Executive Director. “When the pandemic began in March 2020, LCBO suspended all VQA tasting panels. The sensory evaluation has been conducted by the Appellation Authority using its own panelists since then and this will continue on a permanent basis.”   

  To backtrack a bit for perspective: for a wine to become VQA certified, it not only has to comply with labelling and packaging standards, and demonstrate geographic origin, it also has to pass laboratory and organoleptic testing. Up until the change Macdonald refers to, both of these functions were carried out by the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO), the province’s government-controlled beverage alcohol monopoly. This wan’t a bad thing. The LCBO lab is sophisticated and its technicians are, for the most part, top-notch. (Lab analysis is still carried out by LCBO.) The sensory evaluation panel consisted largely of LCBO product consultants – essentially LCBO retail store employees with superior product knowledge and, in the case of those on the tasting panel, proven knowledge of wine defects and various wine characteristics. 

  With the new changes, the panel roster is made up of qualified wine professionals, including sommeliers, winemakers, wine educators, WSET diploma and MW holders. Another change is that wines are no longer given scores (out of a possible 20 points, with 13 required for a passing grade). In the early days VQA actually had a two-tired scoring system. If memory serves me correctly, a score of over 13 counted as a pass and the wine could carry the VQA medallion on the bottle. Those scoring over 15 points could carry a gold VQA medallion. Whether or not I’m completely accurate on this point is more or less moot, as it was eliminated early on in the history of VQA. 

The move away from any type of numerical scoring apparatus is likely a good thing, at least in the eyes of winemakers. In fact, some have grumbled (in varying levels of volume) that the tasting panel itself should be scrapped. The argument for this stance centres around the possible “subjectiveness” of the panel and the awarding higher scores to wines that are personally preferred as opposed to those which are technically sound. It also, perhaps in an indirect way, points to an issue with section (c) of the Act’s sensory guidelines that reads: 

(c) To the extent that an applicant identifies a varietal designation in the application, such wine should exhibit the predominant character of a wine produced from the designated grape variety or varieties 

  Simply put, if you submit a Riesling to the panel for evaluation it should smell and taste like Riesling (and, of course, be defect-free – we’ll get back to that). Some winemakers will claim that this forces them to conform to some arbitrary “standard” that determines what the “predominant character” of a specific grape variety actually is. The “T word” – typicity – is often bandied about, along with the notion that striving for typicity limits innovation. 

  In fact, Niagara’s Pearl Morissette winery’s website contains this statement: 

  “We’ve all been blackballed. Some more than others. But whether it was not getting selected on the school soccer pitch or having the VQA repeatedly pass over your Niagara Riesling on the basis that it “lacked typicity”, getting blackballed has not always been a positive experience.” 

  The winery chose to celebrate this uniqueness with its Black Ball Wine Society, but you still can’t help but suspect there are some hard feelings behind the repeated rejection of its Riesling. Requests I made to have those at Pearl Morissette tell their side of the story were ignored. (To be fair, this isn’t the only winery that refused to answer my VQA-related questions, even with the promise of anonymity. In fact, not one of the over half-dozen wineries I approached chose to answer any of the question I asked.) 

  “It is important to note that ‘typicity’ is not mentioned anywhere in the VQA regulations or procedural documents,” Macdonald points out. “We do not prescribe any typical presentations of varietals for Ontario and aim to recruit tasters with global exposure to a wide range of styles. Innovation is welcome as it should be for a relatively young region. For example, we have seen oak-aged Rieslings which are certainly not typical but have been approved based on soundness. We do however confirm certain category requirements during the sensory testing, for example, sparkling wines must be carbonated, Icewines must be sweet. In my opinion this discussion is really about what is or is not perceived as an unacceptable flaw. Problems typically arise when the “style” is characterized by unacceptable levels of H2S, volatile acidity, brett, etc.” 

  To play devil’s advocate, I could counter that what is “unacceptable” to one taster may not be to another. One of my favourite wines, Lebanon’s Château Musar, wouldn’t be what it is without levels of VA and brettanomyces that may seem off the charts to some. In any case, the real question might be: “If VQA is all about geographic origin, why is there a tasting panel at all? Surely we’re not yet at the point where an Ontario wine’s origin can actually be confirmed by tasting it.” Well, the short answer is because, at this stage, an expert tasting panel is still necessary. 

  In my experience with (and I’ll come clean and say I’ve had some), the VQA/OWAA tasting panel offers winemakers something rather unique and, ultimately, helpful: the opportunity to have wines pre-screened by an objective panel (I should note that all wines are tasted blind – the tasters know the vintage, the varietal(s) if applicable, and style the wine is claiming to be…and that’s mostly it) before they get to the consumer. If there is a problem, the winemaker is informed and has the opportunity to correct it (assuming it can be) and resubmit the wine for re-evaluation. 

  While the VQA designation is not an indication to consumers that a wine is somehow superior to one without, it does pretty much guarantee its geographic lineage and that it’s defect-free. But shouldn’t winemakers be able to determine that their wines are of sound quality (like most places in the world) without some paternal body pointing out when the kid hasn’t lived up to expectations? 

  Macdonald reports that since 2000, failures have declined by10 per cent to a range of about two per cent over the past five years. She also notes that some failures are not the fault (or the sole fault) of the winemaker. Still, technical and microbiological issues make up the bulk of the reasons for failures.  

  “We facilitate ‘Winemakers Forums’ to encourage winemakers to share their experiences, challenges and best practices – suspended for COVID of course,” she informs. “This is intended to support ‘making the best wine possible’ given any set of parameters – vineyard, varietal, vintage conditions, price point, style, etc., and it necessarily includes preventing and managing faults.” 

  Given, ongoing training for winemakers at all levels is no doubt part of the key to producing high-quality, defect-free wines, the other major component is regular, ongoing tasting – and not only of a winemaker’s own wines. I was surprised many years ago as I toured Niagara wineries to hear how few of the local winemakers actually tasted wines of their competition – both international ones and those made by the winery across the street. Some winemakers, at times, seemed to have gotten so familiar with their own “style” that they failed to realize that this “style” included some obvious technical defects. In any case, regular and varied tasting is probably the most enjoyable “homework” most could think of engaging in.  

  As Ontario’s (and Canada’s) vinous landscape continues to broaden, the Vintners Quality Alliance Act,1999 will no doubt continue to be modified to reflect changes within the industry. Macdonald points out that since 2000, there have been a total of 35 changes to the regulations, adding grape varieties, raising minimum brix, allowing new closures, and so on. The last change, made in 2017, was the addition of the “skin-fermented white” category. This sort of flexibility ensures that innovation and creativity can thrive, with the Act lending a degree of guidance to winemakers, while ensuring geographical authenticity and, ultimately, consumer confidence and international respect. 

The South African Winelands: A Story of Endurance

By: Hanifa Sekandi 

South Africa, a place where, if the Winelands could speak, they would tell a story that would leave you spellbound and wanting more, down to the last sip of Pinotage. Every grape has a story: how it began and the many trials and tribulations it endured to take form into a palate pleasing accompaniment for one to enjoy. As simple as it may seem, even with a favorable Mediterranean climate and rich South African soil, the journey to the bottle is what makes this wine an intriguing and highly coveted selection.  

  In 1652, more than 350 years ago, Jan Van Riebeeck led the Dutch East India Company’s settlement in the Cape. The first known record of wine in this region is February 2, 1659. During this time, the medicinal properties found in wine were used to treat scurvy. This made the South African port an ondemand place to voyage to by sailors seeking treatment. Two decades later, in 1679, Stellenbosch, what is now South Africa’s most famous wine-producing region and second oldest settlement, solidified a long-standing legacy in viticulture. Located in the western Cape’s coastal region, vinotourists eagerly explore South Africa’s acclaimed wine estates to experience firsthand the birthplace of this country’s Cabernet Sauvignon — the most abundantly planted grape varietal in this wine region.  

  When Simon van der Stel, namesake of Stellenbosch, established Cape Town’s oldest wine estate, Constantia, it laid the bedrock of winemaking. Political turmoil and unrest have rocked this soulfully rhythmic nation, but preserving the land and all that grows from its soil continues to live and not be forgotten. Establishing this settlement opened doors for robust wine cultivation by the French Huguenots to dig roots into the Cape’s wine industry in the 1690s. Their arrival in the 17th century in the Franschhoek Valley began winemaking as a formidable industry in South Africa. 

Endurance of the African Vine 

  Although suitable microclimates and the terrain permit a diverse repertoire of wines and the high clay content along with water retention aids with steady irrigation, South African winemakers have faced many roadblocks on their way to becoming part of the par excellence standard. Insufficient storage for the aging of wines required the unconventional use of containers used to brine meat in replacement of oak barrels. Wine connoisseurs turned their noses up at this break in practice and cultivation. The South African wine regions also almost met their demise with the grapevine disease Phylloxera.  

  Earlier shortcomings in the 18th century did not demotivate winemakers to forage on. Constantia, a region considered the mother of South African wines, is the home to the dessert wine made from Muscat Blanc, Vin de Constance. It provided a gateway into the exclusive European wine market. One could say that without it, the industry as we know it today would not hold center stage. This country’s acclaimed Sauvignon Blanc grapes, flourishing and gently ripening with the refreshing cool breeze as it brushes across the vineyards of the Constantiaberg Mountain, may not have been birthed had it not been for the perseverance of winemakers who saw sweeter horizons in the future.  

  South African wines are more than just a palate-pleasing libation. They hold conflict and triumph, a journey that continues to reveal itself with presentday winemakers who value tradition paired with modern innovation and sustainability.  

  Stellenbosch University’s department of viticulture is at the forefront of avantgarde and experimental ways of producing wine. The World Wide Fund for Nature movement exemplifies an agreed-upon con-servation ideal among South African wine farmers. The aim is to maintain and nurture the Cape Wineland’s natural habitat. Along with an accommodating climate that favors a vast array of grapes which benefit greatly from the proximity of the Indian and Atlantic oceans cool winds, sustainability and affordable wine prices allow a firm place in the market. South Africa ranks eighth in the world as a wine producer with over 560 Western Cape wineries and over 200,000 acres of grapes planted.  

Wards that Lead the Way 

  Each wine region, also known as wards, has unique characteristics. Stellenbosch is where wine revelers can find South Africa’s most recognized and prestigious wine estates. One fifth of the country’s vines are planted here. This is where a perfect blend of Cinsaut and Pinot Noir comes together to produce the be-loved Pinotage. The exclusive Black Label Pinotage, made from a plot planted in the early 1950s, has a graceful aging period of 30 years. Other wines produced in the illustrious wineries in this region are Cabernet Sauvignon, Chemin Blanc, Shiraz, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Semillon and Chardonnay.  

 The South African wine route may lead you to Paarl, situated on the low lying slopes of Paarl Rock. Since it is more inland from Cape Town, the temperatures here are warmer. The terroir of this region provides for more opportunities in wine cultivation. One would not think that some of the prestigious wines in this country flourish in vineyards high up on the mountains. The beginning of wine in this region is at-tributed to the French Huguenots who settled and planted grapevines and orchards in the late 17th century. Full bodied, decadent fruit reds and tropical notes in white wines can be found here due to the robust grape varieties.  

  Once a wheat producing region, Swartland is located in the Western Cape and just north of Cape Town. The vineyards here appear predominately on the northern side of the Paardeberg mountain. The hot and dry climate is ideal for producing fruitier wines. Scorching temperatures also decrease the negative impact of fungal disease. Bush vines can withstand dry conditions and survive due to their ability to pull water from deep layers of soil. Since they are drought resistant, they are planted in the hottest and driest area of the ward. Chemin Blanc and Shiraz are key grape varietals harvested in the “black land” Swartland. Black Land is a name to denote the rhinoceros bush, which turns black after a rainfall.  

  Another Western Cape region where the vines grow on fertile soils with granite deposits and immense clay volumes is Constantia—recognized as an early immigration settlement in 1685 of the Dutch. The highly esteemed sweet wine touted by European nobility and celebrated by esteemed authors Charles Dickens and Jane Austen isn’t the only premium wine produced in this region today. Bordeaux Blends, a combination of deep rich reds ranging from Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon as a base coupled with another grape variety, has become an adored South African wine selection. Since this region is surrounded by two oceans and experiences considerable shade from the mountains, cooler temperatures are the norm. The result of these cooling winds is the retention of acidity in the grapes. This region is also known for its sublime Sauvignon Blanc.  


Klein Constantia “Vin de Constance” Constantia (2017) 

  A prestigious dessert wine that almost met its end continues to dazzle the palate of the wine world-at-large thanks to its resurrection in the late 20th century. The Jooste family acquired Klein Constantia, who embarked on this revival with Professor Chris Orffer, a viticulturist. To achieve their aim of unearthing this golden, unfortified sweet wine of the past in its most authentic form, they used the expertise of renowned winemaker Ross Gower. Vin De Constance, made from Muscat de Frontignan grapes, is a di-vine sunkissed hued wine with a beautiful burst of citrus zest, a creamy stone fruit finish, and pleasing notes of litchi, rosewater and almonds. You cannot miss the smooth floral aroma that engulfs the senses. It is a wine that ages with grace and can stand the test of time.  

Donkiesbaai “Steen”  

Chenin Blanc 

  Steen is still one of South Africa’s most popular white wines made from grapes in the Witzenberg and Piekenierskloof vineyards. Jean Engelbrecht, owner of the infamous Rust en Vrede winery and Don-kiesbaai winery, is the ingenious winemaker at the helm of the masterful creation of this robust, smooth tropical wine. Lively aromas of pineapple, peach, apricot and lime provide the right balance for seafood dishes or rich pasta entrees.  

Beyerskloof Diesel  

Pinotage 2017 

  This full bodied, deep, dry red wine with deep vanilla, oak, chocolate, plum and black cherry aromas has rave reviews from vino connoisseurs who have been lucky enough to get their hands on the Beyerskloof winery cultivation. It is considered a premium Pinotage, and limited bottles are available for purchase. You may have to join the list to get your hands on a bottle of it. This wine pairs well with spicy dishes or a perfectly seared flank steak. If you are an animal lover, you may be happy to know that the name Diesel is a tribute to the winemaker’s dog. 

Reigning Riesling: Germany’s Sweetest Crown

By: Hanifa Sekandi

The exact origin of Riesling in Germany, no one really knows. What is known is that the premier vine, frost-resistant with small berries, could have been birthed by wild grapes in the Rhine Valley. A handwritten invoice for the purchase of six Riesling vines to be planted east of Rheingau from Klaus Kleinfisch to his lord, Count Johann IV of Katzen-elbogen, on March 13, 1435, is the earliest documentation of the existence of this world-renowned wine.

  The broad spectrum and diversity of German Rieslings are attributed to the region, the terroir and the ripeness of the grape – whether it be a cool, refreshing, fruity, crisp citrus flavor or a spicy, warm, robust herbal aroma that entices the senses and dances on the palate. The experience of one Riesling to the next due to its complexity leaves wine lov-ers eternally intrigued. Many consider this wine the ultimate dining companion since its diverse wine repertoire, sweet to bone dry, pairs well with an assortment of dishes.

  “Spåtlese” (late harvest) is a process stumbled upon in 1775 in the Schloss Johanisberg vineyard, owned by Prince-Abbot of Fulda in the Rheingau, where noble rot had taken over the grapes. Destiny would have it that the estate winemaker’s decision to press the grapes led to the discovery that good is sometimes revealed in the most precarious times. The quality of the wine was beyond expectations and thus led to harvesting Riesling grapes or bunches during different stages of ripeness. The significance of this is that a wide range of wines are produced, setting German Riesling apart from the rest.

  The high quality of the Schloss Johanisberg Riesling led to further cultivation mandates in the 18th century, when approximately 294,000 Riesling grapevines were planted. Since this vineyard is the home where viticulture would transcend the mundane and grotesque into the sublime, the term “Johanisberg Riesling” is another name used to mark the quali-ty of wine and pay homage to where it all began. Not only did this include Mosel and Rhine regions, but vines were also planted in 1720 on the serene vineyards of the former Benedictine monastery in Johanisberg/Rheingau.

  The popularity of this royal varietal was quite apparent in 1787 when Clemens Wenzeslaus, Prince Bishop of Trier/Mosel, decreed an order within his territory that all inferior to Riesling must be replaced. A sentiment previously echoed when Prince-Bishop of Speyer/Pflaz demanded more of this enigmatic grape in his Deidesheim vineyards. Ra-re vintages from 1848 are housed in the cellars underneath the estate, now owned by the Metternich family.

Unripe Times For German Riesling

 & New Beginnings

  As with most jubilant times, there is a low point where what was once celebrated no longer fits the times. It was indeed the fate of Germany’s beloved Riesling due to World War I and II and the Great Depression. Long gone were the days where this noble wine touched the lips of royals and elites. As the markets for exporting the wine languished, so did viticulture. Once an award-winning “Grand Prix” gold star wine in 1904 at the St. Louis Worlds Fair, German Riesling’s sparkle dimmed into the background. New innova-tive methods for wine cultivation led to cheaper wines but resulted in less flavorful, lower quality wines.

  With these new inexpensive wines on the market, German winemakers had to move be-yond just popularity and remind people why traditional grape varieties and quality cannot be replaced. The surge of a younger generation of growers, Generation Riesling, brought new life and new meaning to this beloved internationally acclaimed wine by appealing to the market change with innovation while still keeping their process firmly rooted in tradi-tional handcrafted cultivation and harvesting.

  Appealing to both the budget-conscious wine lover and those who seek premium wines led winemakers to produce smaller quantities of higher quality wines. Striking the right balance between consumer demand and market change allowed German winemakers to retain their previous glory without the pomp and circumstance and elitism. Each bottle of Riesling represents the hardworking winemakers and family-owned vineyards determined to keep this nuanced grape varietal on the table for generations to come.

Why Climate Matters

  The climate in Germany is quite favorable to producing what has been designated authen-tic Riesling. The vast, steep slate slopes carved out by rivers help to ripen grapes. As a result, Riesling is cultivated in 13 German wine-growing regions. But, the climate is not something most people think about as they fill their basket with a few bottles of great wine. German vineyards house and grow 50% of the world’s most diverse Rieslings. From the valleys of the Mosel River to the Rhine with mild winters and summers, to eastern regions Franken, Sachse and Saale-Unstrut with hot summer temperatures or cold continental winters, the extraordinary ability for this wine to survive in unpredictable climates at times tepid or blistering is unmatched.

  Riesling is cultivated in other countries such as South America, Austria, New Zealand, Africa, Australia, and even Canada and the U.S., but with 24,000 hectares grown in Ger-many, it’s not surprising that they have become synonymous with this mixed lineage wine. Today, what sets them apart is that even with climate change, the higher latitudes of where the vines are located still allow for curated grape selection based on ripeness. Just as before, warmer temperatures or unpredictable weather patterns require quick ad-aptation to yield quality wines. This made more headway for dry Rieslings since the most robust healthy grapes are harvested first due to new methods to accommodate the evolv-ing temperatures. Warmer temperatures give way to a full landscape of wines that can be harvested accordingly.

Discover Germany’s Riesling

  There is a Riesling made for everyone. Even a Pinot Noir connoisseur cannot deny there is that one that deserves to be the star when they host friends and family. If you are un-familiar with German Riesling, knowing where to start can become overwhelming due to the large selection available. As with other wines, you embark on a journey of trial and error to discover a palate-pleasing experience. The great Riesling can be a hit or miss de-pending on where you start.

  It is safe to say the best place to start is with styles that put German winemakers on the map. You may be familiar with the medium-bodied sweeter wines with lower alcohol levels; for example, higher quality wines such as Eiswein, sweet dessert wines or botry-tized Rieslings, where berries are harvested in temperatures below -8 degrees Celsius and pressed frozen. Other Rieslings that sit on the spectrum of higher sugar levels with sweet fruity aromas are picked seven days after the main harvest. These include the world-famous premium vintages made with shriveled berries that age for decades, some dating back over 100 years. Honey-like aromas indicate individually handpicked overripe ber-ries.

  Lighter-bodied dry wines with citrusy lime and apple aromas originating from cooler climates are picked earlier and selected from the main harvest. When produced in warmer climates that harvest and produce dry wines, robust orange aromas are often present. These wines are fruity yet crisp, lower in alcohol and have a mineral undertone and high acidity.

  Each region is known for producing different wines. For example, from the valleys of the Mosel and the Rhine, you will find wines that have a higher fruity acidity. Conditions in these regions are favorable for late harvests. Understanding the region where your wine is harvested will give you a glimpse into what aromas may be present in your selection. Words like Spaltese, Auslese (very ripe grape) or Beerenauslese (overripe berries) found on the label of most German wines reveal a story of a sweeter experience.

Notable German Rieslings

Niedermenniger Herrenberg – 2018er Riesling Spatlese feinherb:  From the Hofgut Falkenstein winery produced in the Mosel region is a tart, off-dry, light, semi-sweet medium finish wine. Best served cool, not over-chilled. Grapefruit, peach, lime, pear and green apple aromas with slight honey, floral and mineral notes best de-scribe this Riesling. Best served with meats, seafood, spicy dishes and poultry.

2017 Christmann Riesling Trocken:  Produced in Pflaz, the second largest of Germany’s 13  Riesling-producing regions. This dry, bright, citrusy, biodynamic-certified wine with an herbal finish comprises of grapes from a selective harvest.

2018 Driessigacker Organic Grauburgunder:  This certified-organic, dry, medium-bodied Riesling is produced in the Rheinhessen re-gion. Light with ripe citrus, grapefruit, and apricot aromas, it is made by acclaimed winemaker Jochen Dreissigacker. Best served with seafood.

  You may not be able to experience the great landscapes and rolling valleys of Germany or visit these historic vineyards at the moment, but for now, you can imbibe in the rich history of the great Johanhisberg Riesling. Know that while you create memories over a glass of wine, with each sip you too have traveled to great places where beautiful things flourish in the harshest of conditions.

Demystifying Wholesale Wine Distribution

By: Becky Garrison

  At the virtual Oregon Wine Symposium held February 16-19, 2020, Jeff Lewis, Director of Education & National Sales, Revana Portfolio, and Colin Eddy, National Sales Manager, NW Wine Company, presented a seminar titled “Demystifying Wine Distribution: A Winery Toolkit to Help Build and Navigate Wholesale Distribution Across the United States.” They designed the seminar for winemakers looking to enter the wholesale channel for the first time, and those with existing distribution looking to expand their markets.

  Lewis and Eddy opened their conversation with a brief history of the 21st Amendment ratified on December 5, 1933, which repealed the 18th Amendment that launched prohibition. The 21st Amendment left it up to the states to govern the production and sale of alcohol. While every state has its own specific regulations, most stuck to the 3-Tier System separating producer, distributor and retailer.

  According to Lewis and Eddy, this 3-Tier System has multiple benefits. From a regulatory and educational point of view, this system ensures the safe handling of alcohol so that the final prod-ucts are safe for consumers. From an economic angle, this creates billions of dollars of local, state and federal tax revenue. The commercial benefits prevent a given winery from dominating the marketplace.

  Eddy said a key advantage of expanding into wholesale distribution is a daily representation of your brand. “You’ve got salespeople out there telling the story of your brand and letting custom-ers sample your wares. No one can be everywhere.”

  Distribution also ensures the ability to deliver products to licensed accounts in designated territo-ries and collect payment in accordance with state and federal laws so that both the manufacturer and producer get paid on agreed-upon terms.

  Another development that began in 2020 was a rise of online wine sales, with consumers pur-chasing bottles directly from a winery, a website like wine.com or an online service such as Drizly. Large wholesalers rolled out online purchasing websites that allowed retail shops, bars and restaurants to purchase wines online without the presence of sales representatives. “The les-son here is that people are comfortable having wine delivered to their home, and online platforms are getting future customers easier and safer access. That is something that’s going to continue,” Eddy said.

Achieving Success in the Wholesale Distribution Market

  Winemakers interested in expanding their sales should first ask themselves why they are inter-ested in wholesale distribution. “It’s important to remember you’re creating a whole new sales channel, and with that comes a whole set of variables,” said Lewis.

  Among those variables include how existing sales channels will interact with this new wholesale channel and how a wholesale distribution channel will impact the sales of wine clubs or winery-only wines. Is there enough wine in production to execute this plan?

  Lewis and Eddy broke down their approach into a toolkit designed to help winemakers achieve success in the wholesale distribution market. Their first recommendation is to review the current distribution landscape. Currently, there are 1,126 unique wine distributors across the U.S. In breaking down these numbers, 37% of these distributors reside in four states, with 141 distribu-tors in California alone. Also, the list of distributors continues to shrink and consolidate market share. Presently, the top ten distributors as follows: 

Southern Glazers Wine & Spirits


• 45 States

• 119 offices

• 1100+ wineries represented

•225 Oregon Wineries Represented (total U.S. market share 32%)

Republic National Distributing (RNDC)


• 23 States

• 94 offices

• 1000+ wineries represented

• Major recent acquisitions in Young’s Market (2020) and Opici FL (2021) (total U.S. market share 19%)

Johnson Brothers


• 23 States

• 36 offices

• 430+ wineries represented California only

• 70+ Wineries represented (total U.S. market share 10%)

Breakthru Beverage Group


• 16 States

• 40 offices

• 660+ wineries represented

Empire Distributors, Inc.


• 4 States

• GA, NC, TN, CO 580+

• wineries represented



• 22 States

•. 600+ wineries represented

• National Wholesaler R. Importer

Heidelberg Distributing Company


• 2 states OH/KY, 90+ wineries represented

• Services 26,000 retailers

Wine Warehouse


• California ONLY

• 70+ wineries represented

Horizon Beverage


• 5 States

• Northeast Based

• 260+ wineries represented

Empire Merchants


• New York only

  At present, there are 11,000 wineries, with 80% producing less than 5,000 cases a year. Another 16% of wineries are classified as small, producing 5,000 to 49,999 cases, 2% are medium pro-ducing 50,000 to 4,999,999 cases, and 1% are large wineries that generate 500,000 cases or more.

  Next, they said to explore what markets to target. An analysis of the desired markets will help determine which distributors would work best for those particular products you’re looking to sell. Where are people consuming wines, and which wines are they drinking?

  Along those lines, look at regulations in these particular states to assess if this is a market where it makes sense to enter at this junction.

  Presently, 13 states are one-price states. In these states, there’s no different pricing for restaurants or retail outlets and no quantity discounts.

•    Kansas,

•    Missouri

•    Oklahoma

•    Oregon

•    Virginia

•    New Hampshire

•    Utah

•    Idaho

•    Montana

•    New Jersey

•    Mississippi

•    Pennsylvania

•    Ohio. Also,

  Channel pricing is prohibited in 16 states. In these states, you cannot separate on- and off-premise pricing.

•    Kansas

•    Oklahoma

•    Virginia

•    New Hampshire

•    Utah

•    New York

•    Arizona

•    Washington

•    Idaho

•    Oregon

•    Montana

•    New Jersey

•    Mississippi

•    North Carolina

•    Ohio

•    Pennsylvania

  In addition, quantity discounts are restricted in Connecticut, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Missouri, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio and Oklahoma.

  Next, Lewis and Eddy addressed state-controlled and franchise markets. Unless one has particu-larly strong relationships in an individual state, these markets do not represent an ideal place to start, and it can become difficult to change distributors should the need arise.

  The state-controlled markets are in Pennsylvania, Mississippi, Utah, Wyoming, New Hampshire and Maryland (Montgomery County), where the wholesaler acts as a broker to the state, or you sell directly to the state as the manufacturer, creating another “tier” to sell through.

  The franchise market is loosely defined as a market or defined territory in which one has a con-tractually binding agreement of representation with a wholesaler. Generally speaking, franchise markets protect the wholesaler or distributor from losing revenue and brands they’ve worked to build over time. Before entering into one of these markets, research the franchise law agreements for that particular state and define the parameters around potential future releases. If possible, sign a contract with these parameters. Thirteen states are currently under a franchise market.

•   Connecticut

•   Georgia

•   Idaho

•   Maine

•   Massachusetts

•   Michigan

•   Montana

•   New Mexico

•   North Carolina

•   Ohio

•   Tennessee

•   Vermont

•   Virginia

  The final market type they addressed was price posting. In certain markets, the winery and dis-tributor must post their wholesale pricing in advance with the state. The five states that require monthly price postings are Connecticut, Delaware, Missouri, New Jersey and New York. Also, they touched briefly on special situations like SS packs, Cuvée cases, and other “work-around methods” in pricing wines for different premise-types.

Choosing a Wholesale Distributor

  Lewis and Eddy advocate asking your pre-existing relationships which distributors they would recommend. Also, define the distribution partner’s territory and assess if their market focus is in sync with those markets you’re looking to target. Then look at those distributors and determine where your positioning might be within their portfolio.

  Examine the number of their active accounts with a particular focus on those deemed their key accounts. Will a new brand get buried because they represent other similar varietals that will re-ceive greater attention from this distributor, or can they market a new brand effectively? Does the pricing for your wine fit in with this distributor’s portfolio? Where are their most active sales channels? For example, if a distributor primarily targets bars and restaurants for sales, they will not be the best fit for a winery looking to enter the retail market.

  Lewis added that another huge part of this equation is the sales team and territory. “You might end up splitting a state up because these mid-level and smaller distributors aren’t big enough to cover an entire state.”

  Be sure to explore the distributor’s overall operation. What is the size of their staff, and is this staff commissioned? Who are the key decision-makers, and what is their overall reputation with-in the wine industry? Is there an ownership change or other management issues? Are they look-ing to consolidate or expand? What is their timeline for paying their wineries, and do they pay them on time? Does their warehouse and inventory practices work for your particular needs?

  They recommend the SevenFifty website https://go.sevenfifty.com/ as a valuable source in identifying brand competitors and researching distributors, as well as price positioning and mar-ket positioning. The website also allows you to look at which producers wholesale distributors have in their book.

Launching a Wholesale Distribution Program

  Before releasing a particular wine, be sure your sales reps and brand managers have adequate resources so they can tell the story behind this vintage. Be clear where you want your wine sold, as well as the pricing for placements. Along those lines, register your labels when applicable, and allow for ample time for this registration process to be completed. Determine if you need addi-tional staff to manage both this new sales channel and inventory.

  When planning a market visit to a distributor, timing is everything. Many distributors hold their general sales meetings on Mondays and Fridays, with most of their sales staff in attendance. Hence, these meetings represent an opportunity to tell the brand’s story and have the staff taste these wines.

  When going on a distributor ride-along, be mindful that most ride-alongs occur Tuesday through Thursday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. The typical visit is six accounts, though it could be any-where from five to nine with a break for lunch. (You will be expected to pay for lunch). Ask to see a list of accounts you will be visiting in advance. In particular, you need to know if you are visiting on- or off-premise accounts, as that will impact your attire and the sales materials you need to bring. Know your pricing and be prepared with collateral. During these visits, be flexi-ble. The distributor arranged an entire day of appointments around your wines, so be mindful when they need to do tasks such as putting in an order. Also, expect the occasional cancellation.

  A few things Eddy suggested to keep in mind once you have a distributor in place include monthly tracking to check your inventory and update your distributor on progress versus goals. He said wineries should know when it’s time to change pricing and be aware of chain presenta-tion schedules. “You need to be clear with your distributor regarding where you want your wines sold.”

  Finally, nothing is more important than having a plan. “Have a plan going in. Check up on it, and follow up,” said Eddy.

The Okanagan Valley:

Where Business Meets Pleasure

Agribusiness and technology are key drivers of Canada’s economy, often overlapping while each injecting robust earnings to the national GDP.

  Agribusiness generates over $112 billion annually – or 5.8 percent of total GDP – and regularly attracts local and global events related to agricultural production, innovation, and technology.

  Agriculture and Agri-food Canada Research Centres manages 20 research centres across the country, aiming to find better agricultural practices and market opportunities through research and innovation while FoodTech Canada is a network of leading innovation and commercialization centres committed to turning research and development into innovated products for the food and bioproducts industry.

  The technology sector contributes $89.4 billion to the national economy, accounting for 4.8 percent of total GDP. More than 41,500 technology companies make their home in Canada, spanning sub-sectors like artificial intelligence, digital media and interactive entertainment, and cybersecurity.

  The Okanagan Valley in British Columbia holds the unique distinction as a major player in both industries, with agribusiness and technology not only existing harmoniously, but often integrating and inspiring the other.

  Over the past few years, the Okanagan has become a magnet for entrepreneurs and start-ups ready to scale,  as well as a world class destination for agribusiness and technology business events, welcoming conferences seeking direct access to industry expertise and influencers.  A notable example is the invitation only Metabridge Retreat, a high-level networking experience that facilitates connections between Canadian tech CEOs and North American business influencers. The event has been hosted for the past several years in Kelowna, where technology is the fastest-growing economy thanks to an influx of gaming development, animation, medical technology, agricultural technology, and software as a service (SAAS) studios and companies. Indeed, the city has seen year-over-year growth of 15 percent over the past eight years.

  Situated in the heart of wine region, Kelowna is key to the Okanagan’s technology and agribusiness success. Home to thousands of tech, animation and digital media professionals who gravitate to the city’s stunning mountain, lake and vineyard surroundings, the city made waves with the opening of the $35-million Innovation Centre, which unites startups, innovation firms and technology providers with an eye towards building Canada’s most entrepreneurial technology community. Kelowna is likewise an agricultural oasis, housing 794 agri-food businesses, 185 licensed wineries and a cluster of agriculturally focused research facilities like the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan Campus, Summerland Research Centre and the newly opened BC Technical Access Centre for fermented beverages. These institutions, working with industry associations like the BC Tree Fruits, BC Cherry Growers and Certified Organic Associations of BC, have positioned the region as a leader in areas as diverse as tree fruit and wine research, pest management, and precision technologies tracking crop growth and nutraceuticals.

  “While many visitors are aware of the dynamic culinary scene, sweeping landscapes and world-class wineries in the Central Okanagan, they may not be aware of the region’s entrepreneurs and thought leaders who are changing the face of agribusiness and technology,” says   Krista Mallory, manager of the Central Okanagan Economic Development Commission. “From winemakers leading the charge in regenerative viticulture to cutting-edge research through the University of British Columbia that improves sustainability in agriculture, the region is driving innovation across the country and the continent.”

  While agribusiness and technology are major pillars of the Okanagan Valley, viticulture is particularly prevalent. Sprawled over 155 miles (250 kilometres), the acclaimed wine region – which boasts 84 percent of BC’s vineyard acreage – stretches across a multitude of ecosystems, each with distinct soil and climate conditions suited to growing varietals ranging from sun-ripened reds to crisp whites (indeed, the Okanagan Valley is warmer and more arid than Napa Valley, soaked with nearly two hours more sunlight per day during peak growing season).

  The Okanagan is home to over 182 licensed wineries, as well as 72 beverage companies manufacturing kombucha, mead, spirits and cider, which collectively contribute $2.8 billion to the provincial economy. The majority of these businesses embrace sustainable, biodynamic and innovative winemaking, with spectacular settings adding to the area’s allure for business and leisure travellers alike.

  One example is Tinhorn Creek in Oliver, Canada’s first carbon-neutral winery and one of the first Salmon-Safe certified vineyards in BC. Part of its carbon-neutral efforts includes running winery trucks and tractors on biodiesel, and using organic leftovers from the winemaking process and onsite restaurant Miradoro to fertilize the vines. 

  Another is Frind Estate Winery in West Kelowna, owned by Plenty of Fish founder Markus Frind. Eager to combine his passions of technology and agriculture – and with 500   years of family farming history – Frind leverages cutting-edge technology to craft truly distinctive wines. The first beachfront winery in the world, Fritz Estate Winery regularly stages showstopping events, including festive brunches or high teas in translucent domes that overlook Lake Okanagan.

  Alongside production, wine tourism is becoming increasingly popular, with many wineries offering exceptional dining opportunities, farm tours and tasting adventures for groups of all sizes.

  One of these is Indigenous World Winery, the brainchild of Robert and Bernice Louie, descendants of the Syilx First Nations. Located near Okanagan Lake, the winery is an ideal spot for meetings and events with 2.5 scenic acres showcasing fruit from the land that has supported the Syilx people for 10,000 years.

  Prior to opening the vineyard in 2011, Robert and Bernice joined forces with notable winemaker Jason Parkes to craft wines that could compete at a world level. “The goal was a big award winner,” says Ryan Widdup, sales manager of Indigenous World Winery. “They wanted to open the doors with showpiece red wines.”

  And so they did: in 2015, Indigenous World Winery’s small-batch Simo red won two medals and the first Double Gold Medal. Since then, the awards have kept coming: the 2014 Simo received Double Gold in the 2019 All Canadian Wine Championship, beating out 1,378 entries, and the winery’s elixirs regularly earn gold at international competitions in the US and Europe. In 2020, Robert and Bernie launched an Indigenous Spirits craft alcohol line that incorporates locally sourced botanicals and ingredients with a medicinal history in the Syilx culture.

  Close by, Summerhill Pyramid Winery is a leader in organic wine, incorporating practices such as biodynamic agriculture, permaculture and organic viticulture that have inspired fellow agribusinesses across the region. Owner Ezra Cipes is part of the winery’s second generation; his father arrived to the Okanagan in 1986, where he found the perfect conditions to produce intensely flavoured small grapes – the ideal base for sparkling wine. After entering the organic certification program in 1988, Cipes Senior produced his first vintage in 1991, and the winery received Demeter Biodynamic certification in 2012.

  “My parents helped build the modern wine industry in BC, and were founding members of the BC Vintners Quality Alliance and the BC Wine institute,” said Ezra. “Today, we’re a mid-sized winery, though we have a large team, mostly because of the extensive hospitality we offer.  Event organizers love us, because we have a beautiful restaurant and banquet room, both overlooking the vineyard, lake, and mountains.”

  Summerhill’s event offerings extend beyond farm-to-table catering and tantalizing wine pairings to fully equipped meeting venues, helicopter access and a professional team with extensive experience running large-scale events.

  Whether winery, hotel or dedicated conference venue, Kelowna boasts 110,000 square feet of meeting space, as well as 4,500 total guest rooms. After long days in he boardroom, delegates benefit from a myriad of after-hours pleasure, including five distinct wine trails, three ski resorts and the longest golf season in Canada. The region is ideally suited to meetings with a focus in viticulture, agriculture, technology or manufacturing. Planners also benefit from alluring team building opportunities, robust options for pre- and post-meeting activities, and venues and natural surroundings certain to boost attendance.

  “When organizations choose to meet in the Okanagan, they get to experience more than our dynamic culinary and wine scene and area attractions. They also gain access to local industry thought-leaders and innovators shaping what we eat, and where and how it’s grown,” says Mallory. “There’s a real buzz to the region. We’re looking to the future, and we know that no one wants to miss out on what’s happening in the Okanagan.”

  In Canada, agribusiness leaders will find support from federal, provincial and municipal governments, as well as academia and innovation investors. Further simplifying the business process is the pool of destination and sector experts provided by Destination Canada’s Business Events team.

  The team’s specific knowledge of this vast land makes Destination Canada Business Events team an organizer’s first stop for tailoring the right package for their event, whatever the size.

To learn more please visit…businesseventscanada.ca

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.


  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.

Defining the Best Single-Vineyards in the Niagara Peninsula

By: Alyssa Andres

The Niagara Peninsula is the largest viticultural area in Canada, with two regional appellations and ten sub-appellations. The peninsula sits between the Niagara Escarpment and Lake Ontario, creating a unique microclimate that is sheltered from prevailing winds and insulated by its proximity to the lake.  Many small rivers and streams in the area provide an excellent water source for vineyards through the long dry summers, and the soft aspect of the escarpment provides excellent drainage. Centuries of erosion have created a complex soil structure that varies from location to location within the regional appellations, from clay and silt to limestone and sand. The unique variations in soil are ideal for creating wines with distinct character and personality.

  These marked distinctions in terroir and climate mean that a Cabernet Franc will taste remarkably different from one vineyard to the next within the peninsula. Some winemakers believe there is definitive variation in grapes even from one end of a single-vineyard to the next. For this reason, some Niagara wineries are moving toward labeling their wines by single-vineyard and starting to define what the best vineyards are in the region.

  Just like the Grand Cru vineyards in France, certain vineyards in Niagara stand out as being supreme. Cave Spring is a vineyard that first rose to esteem as one of the finest in the region. Located in the Beamsville Bench sub-appellation of the Niagara Escarpment, it is owned by the winemaking family, the Pennachettis. The vineyard gets its name from the limestone caves and natural springs that surround it.

  Cave Spring Vineyard sits along the steep cliffs of the escarpment, planted on gently sloping hills that provide optimal drainage and retain ample moisture during the Mediterranean summers experienced in the region. The escarpment also captures the temperate lake effect breezes from Lake Ontario, which lengthen the growing season and allow for optimal flavor and ripeness in the grapes. Above, on the ridge of the escarpment, the vineyard is surrounded by hardwood forest. The forest retains plenty of moisture that slowly filters through layers of sedimentary rock, feeding mineral-rich water into the vineyard. The soil is a stony clay: a complex mixture of limestone, shale and sandstone that give Cave Spring’s wine a distinct minerality.

  Cave Spring focuses on Riesling and Chardonnay, which the Pennachetti family believes exhibit the ultimate expression of the vineyard’s terroir. They use only the top 5% of grapes from the best blocks and parcels in the vineyard for their CSV estate release. Some of their old vines date as far back as the mid-1970s. The wines are delicate and aromatic with notes of melon, lime, white blossom and a characteristic wet stone that comes from the vineyard’s terroir.

  Both the Riesling and Chardonnay are dry, with vibrant acidity and bright fruit flavors achieved from the vineyard’s ideal location. CSV wines are only produced in the best vintages when the growing season allows for it, but the Pennachettis say there are few years that conditions do not permit, due to the vineyard’s premium locale.

  Down the road from Cave Spring Vineyard, in the Twenty Mile Bench VQA sub-appellation, Tawse  

Winery is also making note of their ideal single-vineyard locations. Owner and founder Moray Tawse purchased his first vineyard in 2000 and now owns over 200 acres of prime grape-growing real estate in the Niagara Escarpment. All four of his vineyards are comprised of limestone clay loam, which gives Tawse wines a unique depth and character. Tawse is not only labeling his wines by single-vineyard, but he has also divided the vineyards into different blocks so he can further define the terroir within each plot. The Cherry Avenue Vineyard has three blocks, each named after his three children: Robyn, Carly and David. Each block is home to different grape varietals, from Riesling to Cab Franc, each thriving in the vineyard’s deep clay soil.

  Tawse winemakers practice organic and biodynamic farming as well as minimal intervention winemaking techniques to allow the resulting wines to display as much of the vineyard’s terroir as possible. The variation between each single-varietal estate bottle is surprising as each plot receives varying amounts of sunlight, precipitation and drainage. Having an array of different plots allows Tawse to pick and choose which of his grapes he uses for single-varietal each year, as growing conditions vary dramatically from season to season.

  For this reason, some winemakers in Niagara choose not to purchase the best land in the region, but instead, act as classic French “negotients” and buy the best grapes from a multitude of different growers and vineyards in the area. This allows them to pick and choose where they get their grapes instead of being tied down to a specific plot.

  One winemaker in Niagara working this way is Thomas Bachelder. He has made it one of his goals to define the best single-vineyard plots in the region. Originally from Quebec, Bachelder started his winemaking education in Burgundy, where he became extremely interested in terroir and its impact on wine. After producing wine in Burgundy and Oregon, Bachelder settled in Niagara, where he specializes in Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. He labels his wines with the name of the single-vineyard, and his latest release goes as far as to define the different ends of these single-vineyards.

  In his most recent release, Bachelder produced three Chardonnays and four Pinot Noirs from five different vineyards in the Niagara Escarpment.

  Three of these vineyards are part of the Wismer Vineyards, a collection of eight farms in the Twenty Mile Bench that are becoming known within the region as some of the best for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Two of Bachelder’s 2018 Pinot Noirs are single-varietals from the Wismer-Parke vineyard, but one is made using only grapes from the vineyard’s west side. The 2018 Wismer-Parke “Wild West End” has a distinct iron, flesh and game note that the other sides of the vineyard do not offer.

  Therefore, Bachelder has taken the notion of single-vineyard and brought it one step further, defining the unique flavor profiles found from one end of a vineyard to the next. 

  One of Bachelder’s other favorite vineyards in the Niagara region is the Lowrey Vineyard. Two of his 2018 single-vineyard Pinot Noirs are made with grapes from Lowrey, one using only Pinot Noir from the oldest vines on the property, planted in 1984. Located in the St. David’s Bench sub-appellation, the vineyard is owned by the Lowrey family, who have farmed the land for five generations. The family turned from fruit farming to grape growing in 1984 when Howard Wesley Lowrey first planted five rows of Pinot Noir.

  Since then, the Lowreys have been supplying grapes to some of Canada’s most prestigious winemakers, including Ilya Senchuk from Leaning Post Wines and Kevin Panagapka from 2027 vineyards. However, the Lowrey’s keep a small percentage of the grapes from their 35 acres of farmland for their craft wine, Five Rows.

  Five Rows Craft Wine has become well-known in the region for producing beautiful, complex wines that sell out before anyone can get their hands on them. The family takes a minimal intervention approach to their winemaking, avoiding artificial pest control and fertilizers, with the intention of producing wines that are truly characteristic of their vineyard. They tend to the vines by hand and treat each vine as an individual to ensure optimal fruit quality. Their hands-on approach produces some of the most highly sought after grapes and wine in the Niagara region, from Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah to Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling.

  All of their fruit comes from their vineyard, and only small quantities are produced. The extra love and attention given to the vines pay off. By focusing on quality over quantity, the Lowreys have defined their vineyard as one of the best in the region.

  By labeling single-vineyard locations, Niagara winemakers can clearly define why their wines are superior. Just like winemakers in Burgundy and Bordeaux, who are known for their specific Grand Cru sites, Niagara is in the process of developing a similar map.

  Now, consumers can learn what vineyards to look out for and start to understand the flavor profiles of different sites compared to others. The diversity in terroir, elevation and climate in the Niagara region means that flavors can vary dramatically from vineyard to vineyard. It is important to define extraordinary vineyards and understand why they are so special.

   As this burgeoning winemaking region continues to grow and businesses expand to accommodate the market, these are the areas that need to be protected. By defining the best single-vineyards and including them on the bottle, Niagara winemakers can display the complexities found in each of these sites and clearly exhibit the impact these locations have on the wine.

  The vineyards start to take on their own personalities, and consumers can begin to taste the characteristics of each one. It’s the next step in the future of Niagara wines.

British Columbia Wine Industry Hit Hard by COVID-19

By: Briana Doyle

Canadian wine consumers are buying more wine than ever, yet a recent industry survey in Brit-ish Columbia indicates that the province’s winemakers are not seeing the benefits.

  Early in the pandemic, British Columbia liquor stores reported a 40% spike in sales. According to a Capital Daily report, in March and April, British Columbians spent an extra $90 million on alcohol, about $29 million of that spent on wine alone.

  However, according to a survey conducted by the British Columbia Wine Institute in collabora-tion with the British Columbia Grapegrowers’ Association and Leger Marketing, 83% of British Columbia wineries and grape growers have been negatively impacted by COVID-19.

  The survey found one in 10 British Columbia wineries and grape growers at risk of closing due to COVID-19, with 58% seeing a revenue loss and 55% having reduced access to customers.

  “For growers, access to labor is always an issue, and with border closures and quarantine reg-ulations, this has been more challenging than ever,” said John Bayley, viticulturist at Blasted Church Vineyards and Board President of BCGA. “We have incurred greater expenses this year in maintaining the labor support we rely on from our colleagues from Mexico.”

  While 41% of British Columbia wineries reported an increase in winery direct sales, all distribu-tion channels have seen a decrease in sales due to the pandemic, particularly hospitality at 69%, followed by agency (43%) and liquor retail stores (41%).

  Financially, 66% of wineries believe it will take them one to four years to recover, with 35% ex-pecting their revenue to decline between 21% and 50% over the next six months.

  “I think it will take some time for the industry to see the full effects of COVID-19. Obviously for smaller wineries who depend on restaurant and wine shop sales – and many of them do – they’re going to feel the effects more immediately. But for others, it may take until the end of the season to fully understand the effects industry-wide,” said Kathy Malone, winemaker, Hillside Winery.

  As part of an effort to help the wine and hospitality industry recover from pandemic-related losses, industry organizations are pulling out all the stops to encourage British Columbians to play tourist in their own province.

  In October, the BCWI launched British Columbia Wine Harvest Month to draw attention to the industry’s importance to the province. The announcement was made in partnership with Desti-nation British Columbia, the British Columbia Hotel Association, British Columbia Restaurant and Food Association, British Columbia Dairy Association and British Columbia Seafood Alli-ance.

  “2020 has been like no other. Our industries were quick to respond and adapt during an un-predictable time, but we’re not out of the woods yet,” said Miles Prodan, President and CEO of BCWI. “This campaign brings local industry together to strengthen the collective and work col-laboratively to bolster local support and celebrate some of the finest this province has to offer.”

  Meanwhile, a new website and app, Wines of British Columbia Explorer (https://winebc.com/explorer/), aims to steer “staycationers” and road trippers to explore Brit-ish Columbia wine country this fall.

  The website and app include wine route itineraries and detailed information on more than 200 British Columbia wineries, including new hours and protocols to protect customers during the pandemic, whether there are picnic spots on-site, curated lists of specialty wines, organic vineyards, and if visitors are welcome to bring pets. It also includes a “taste test” tool to help customers find British Columbia wines that suit their palate.

  “This campaign really aims to bring our local wine, hospitality and tourism partners together to ensure a strong future for all of us,” said Kim Barnes, Marketing Director of BCWI. “We know many British Columbia industries are feeling the effects of 2020, and we want to keep the ‘support local’ message top of mind as we head into the winter season.”

  Throughout October, campaign promotional materials were distributed via local British Colum-bia wineries, hotels and restaurants, British Columbia liquor stores and all Wines of British Co-lumbia stores located in select Save-On-Foods. Digital and broadcast components include ra-dio spots, a YouTube series with cooking demos, ZOOM videos from the vineyard, blogs, har-vest wine pairings and curated wine routes, all aimed at promoting local wine, food and travel.

  Despite July sales reports showing overall growth in the wine category at 5.01% (up from 4.73% in June 2020), British Columbia VQA market share continues to trend lower than the All Imports market share – 18.81% compared to 19.13% last year.

  “As winery inventories begin to grow with, by all early indications, a great 2020 vintage starting to come in, this trend is worrisome for our industry,” said Prodan. “It highlights the need for the continued support of the British Columbia wine industry, not just from consumers, but in sound policies from all levels of government.”

  Only in Canada: Taco Bell launches Jalapeño wine; plus glamping in a wine barrel

  Now for a couple of quirky Canadian news items to leaven the doom & gloom: Taco Bell has launched its own brand of wine, which is only available in Canada, and an Ontario couple is getting media attention for their unique Airbnb listing: a converted wine barrel floating in a river.

  The well-known fast-food brand introduced its Jalapeño Noir in September, promoting it as the perfect complement to a new menu item: the Toasted Cheesy Chalupa, a type of taco made with fried bread instead of the typical soft or crunchy shell. According to Taco Bell Canada, the wine has notes of wild strawberry, cherry and beetroot.

  The Jalapeño Noir was sold only in Ontario via the Taco Bell website, and from selected loca-tions in Hamilton and Toronto via Uber Eats. The first two batches of the limited edition red wine, produced by Queenston Mile Vineyard in Ontario, quickly sold out. A third and final re-stock was released at the beginning of October.

  As for that wine barrel B&B, it’s located in Essex, Ontario, close to the Detroit border. The unu-sual one-bedroom houseboat is a converted red cedar wine barrel and is moored in the heart of wine country.

  The Airbnb listing notes the floating cabin is just minutes from several major wineries and fea-tures views of lush vineyards as well as an outdoor tiki bar-style kitchen, complete with a sink made from a whisky barrel. The barrel rents for $120 CDN per night. The next available book-ings are in spring 2021. 

The Mad Scientists of the Niagara Peninsula

By: Alyssa Andres

Many wine regions of the world are known for producing a certain style of wine. In many Old World wine regions, they are bound by laws as well as centuries of tradition to grow only particular grapes and use specific techniques in their vineyard and winery. In Ontario, Canada, winemakers have the complete freedom to play around with their winemaking styles and manipulate their grapes as they see fit. From the varietals they grow to the way they ferment and age their wines, nothing is off-limits. As an extremely youthful winemaking region, Ontario is still discovering what it can do. In the Niagara Peninsula, there are a few winemakers determined to push it to the next level.


At Big Head Wines, father and son duo, Andrzej and Jakub Lipinski, are two winemakers that have been evolving and growing their practices over the past decade in the Niagara-on-the-Lake sub-region. As a family that dedicates the majority of their time to their winery, they started experimenting with different winemaking styles and techniques as a way to keep interested in wine. Jakub says he was initially hesitant to try different techniques for the general public but would play around for friends and family to see what kind of results he could yield with various out-of-the-box methods. After several years of experimentation, the Lipinskis learned that these methods created wines with more character and interest than the average bottle.

  Big Head Wines started out producing big Bordeaux style blends but has since introduced the Big Head Raw Series to their line of wines. The Raw series uses minimal intervention techniques, wild fermentation, whole cluster carbonic maceration, and is bottled completely unfiltered. The Raw White series was the first to be released in 2016 and featured three single varietal offerings: Pinot Gris, Savagnin and Chenin Blanc. They could not keep the bottles on the shelves. A year later, the Big Head Raw Red series was released and featured Syrah, Petit Verdot and Pinot Noir in the same style. Again these wines were met with rave reviews. The Raw Series has serious weight and depth but also the potential to develop beautifully over time. The flavors in each bottle are complex and often unexpected, and these nuances will come out even more as they age.

  Today, the father and son are using carbonic maceration on just about everything in the winery, from Gewurtztraminer to Malbec. They believe this technique unlocks the full potential of the grapes, specifically when it comes to aromatics. Jakub Lipinski says he has not had a bad experience using carbonic on any grape varietal – red or white – and will continue to explore the possibilities within that style of winemaking. Their latest Big Head Raw release is a Cabernet Sauvignon using a variation of this technique. While the wine is low intervention, the process of producing it is still incredibly labor-intensive. The Cabernet grapes are sun-dried appassimento-style before undergoing carbonic maceration for ten days. They are then pumped over for two weeks before being destemmed. After being destemmed, the skins are added back into the wine and aged in clay for five months before being bottled unfiltered. The result is a wine with much more depth and complexity than the typical big, overly oaked Cabernets that have become so common in the liquor stores.

  The Lipinskis believe the market is changing, and more and more of their audience is interested in something new and different. Some people are interested in a Chardonnay with notes of gunpowder and matchstick or a Pinot Gris that drinks more like a Pinot Noir. Wine lovers are becoming more open to alternative notes and more interested in the process behind the winemaking.


  Head winemaker, Ryan Corrigan, of Rosewood Estates Winery, also believes that people want to hear the story behind the wine and that North Americans are no longer as brand loyal as they used to be. Many wine lovers are constantly looking for the newest, coolest thing. That is why he’s decided to turn his winery into a full-out research and development lab where he can develop new styles, flavors and textures in Ontario wine that no one has ever tasted before.

  Winemaker at Rosewood since 2016, Corrigan takes a traditional approach in his winemaking with the intention of getting to the root, or “the heart,” of each varietal. He is transparent in his methods and as mindful as possible in his practices. While his craft approach to winemaking is not new, it is something that has been neglected by many modern-day winemakers, who instead opt for high volume and quick production. For Corrigan, patience is a virtue. He will literally take years to create some of his wines, playing around with and combining different techniques to see how they affect the final product’s flavor and aroma.

  Unbound by any rules or traditions, Corrigan creates everything from skin contact white wines to meads using honey from the winery’s extensive apiary program. The winemaker-meets-mad-scientist is also concocting a Vermouth and Amaro using different types of oak barrels, and he is experimenting with co-fermenting honey with wine and apple cider. The results are a huge hit. The skin contact white, Pure Imagination, sold out three weeks after being released. Rosewood’s 2019 Pet Nat, Nebulous, sold out in 15 minutes and has inspired Corrigan to create a white Pet Nat using Muscat grapes. Their 2019 Flora Rosé was also hugely successful.

  The time and care Corrigan puts into creating his wine has definitely paid off. The winery has a huge following awaiting his newest releases. One of these releases will be a sparkling wine that uses the solera method on the base wine to add a different layer of texture and body as well as oxidative notes reminiscent of sherry. Corrigan is also playing around with oxidative effects in red wines. He is trying to uncover the true potential of the grapes.

  As a very young and emerging wine region, Corrigan believes Ontario has an opportunity to become world-class, offering never before seen flavors. By manipulating the grapes using a multitude of methods, he intends to discover everything that Ontario grapes are capable of and how to represent that best.


  Another winemaker creating unique representations of Niagara grapes is Ilya Senchuk of Leaning Post Winery in Stoney Creek, Ontario. The long-time winemaker and his wife, Nadia, bought their property in 2011 and has since been creating wine with the goal of expressing the unique terroir of the region. He uses minimal intervention techniques and traditional methods of winemaking to allow this terroir to shine.

  Senchuk has taken this concept one step further with his line of wines aptly titled Freaks & Geeks. This series is as odd as it is unexpected. For The Geek Riesling, Senchuk uses the solera method on Riesling grapes to create a robust expression of the typically delicate grape. Currently in its fourth vintage, 2017’s The Geek rested for 22 months on the lees from all three previous vintages before being racked and bottled unfined and unfiltered. The resulting wine is a combination of stone fruit, mineral and flint with a creamy texture and complex aroma.

  The Freak Pinot Noir is an entirely sulfite-free wine using 100% whole clusters. The grapes are hand-picked, hand-sorted and hand-punched down twice a day for three and a half weeks. The wine is then transferred to barrel, where it undergoes spontaneous malolactic fermentation and stays for 10 months before a single racking and bottling without fining or filtration. The Freak has distinct earthy notes combined with dark red fruit and a lengthy finish. These bottles are only two from Senchuk’s experimental series that draw wine “geeks” to the tasting room each day. Not available in the liquor store, guests come from far and wide to visit the retail location to get their hands on these bottles.

  Wine lovers and connoisseurs are jumping on these funky new releases and encouraging the Ontario wine industry to continue to develop in this way. Palates are changing, and flavors like pencil shavings, tar and mushroom are becoming welcomed additions to a bottle. Many consumers are moving toward more natural styles of wine that use fewer sulfites and less human intervention. Ontario’s newest winemakers are taking advantage of this changing market and taking the opportunity to explore the possibilities of winemaking within the region. Without anything holding them back, winemakers like Senchuk, Corrigan and the Lipinskis can make decisions in their wineries that would be considered by some to be unorthodox. But, by experimenting with new varietals, techniques and combinations, these winemakers produce examples of wine that have never been seen before. While many winemaking regions continue to play it safe and pump out big, juicy reds and light, crisp whites, expect to see the unexpected coming out of Ontario.