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GLASS ACT: Ontario's 'white knights' raise the bar for Canadian wine

Riesling and Chardonnay show off the skill of Ontario's producers from grapes that fit Ontario's geoclimate, characterized by three L's: lakes, latitude and limestone.
Canada was the feature wine country at the 2017 Vancouver International Wine Festival, which gave participants the opportunity to explore focused topics on the Canadian wine scene. (MOIRA PETERS)

At 9:30 Pacific Standard Time last Wednesday morning, seated between two other Nova Scotians and surrounded by 60 other wine lovers, I stared in front of me at 12 wine glasses positioned atop a colour-coded map of Ontario's wine regions: Niagara Peninsula, Lake Erie North Shore and Prince Edward County.

"We haven't mined it all," said Chris Waters, editor of Vines Magazine and wine columnist for Postmedia Network National, of the map in front of us. Waters was moderating a master class called Ontario's Star Whites at the 2017 Vancouver International Wine Festival, where Canada was the featured wine country. How to develop Canada's wine and vines was a question on everyone's lips.

The wine festival was a good place for that conversation to ferment, in focused sessions like this seminar on Ontario's Riesling and Chardonnay. At the front of the room, five of Canada's top wine experts sat on a panel to discuss the topic. Wines of varying shades of yellow — from the palest straw to honey-gold — pooled at the bottom of each of the 12 glasses at my fingertips.

Riesling and Chardonnay are Ontario's "white knights," wines that show off the skill of Ontario's producers from grapes that fit Ontario's geoclimate, characterized, according to Waters, by three L's: lakes, latitude and limestone.

While coastal regions such as Nova Scotia and British Columbia are moderated by oceans, Ontario grape growers are blessed with Lake Ontario and Lake Erie to make winter warmer so vines don't freeze to death, and to cool the summer sun so grapes ripen slowly, developing more interesting phenolic compounds.

Ontario's latitude lies within the ideal range for grape growing: 41 to 44 degrees, a zone shared with Burgundy — not too hot, not too cold, and long sunlit days during the growing season. While Burgundy is making the world's most coveted (read: $$$) Chardonnay, Ontario is doing a very similar thing, with a more accessible price tag.

The six Chardonnays we tasted showed varying degrees of fruit (apple, lime, lemon peel, raspberry), flowers, minerals (oil, yeast, a struck match) and wood. I was impressed by the overall balance of these wines, whose combination of richness and austerity — deliciousness and freshness — simply feels good to sip at ten in the morning.

Ontario winemakers seem to be working, with great success, on the use of wild yeast, which is difficult to control; the restrained use of oak barrels so the natural flavour and feel of wine is not overpowered by wood; and, most interestingly I thought, allowing a certain amount of hydrogen sulfide to develop in wine. The presence of hydrogen sulfide in wine, which produces a rotten egg smell, is considered a technical flaw, but this "reductive" quality can, in fact, be the result of poor soil, and when used sparingly by the winemaker, gives wine a complexity that's hard to describe without getting naughty.

"These guys are not wanting to make wine squeaky clean," said Waters.

And the third L? Limestone is a revered substrate for grape growing, imparting (they say) particular tastes and smells to wine credited to fossilized shellfish from ages long gone. "Riesling" — the grape variety that most singularly and clearly shows off its terroir — "helps us understand the region," said Waters, and to appreciate its limestone soils.

Riesling makes a lean, clean, fresh wine with beautiful aromas of lime, apple, salt and soda. If your impression of Riesling is one of a sugary drink, you must try again, and try Ontario. The Rieslings in front of us were aromatic and pure, "breakfast wine," suggested Waters.

Because of its high acidity, Riesling is also known to age well, and when the terpene content of grapes can fully ripen in a warm year, the wine can age even longer.

Again, I was struck by the balance of these wines across the board. Where there was a hint of sugar, it was just enough to balance the acidity. And again, the richness, often felt as a hint of bitterness at the very end of a sip, complemented the wines' light, fresh character.

For those who would like to sample some of the premium wines being made across our country, Rayell Swan, retail specialist with the Nova Scotia Liquor Corp., recommends a few bottles of Ontario Riesling and Chardonnay available through our provincial liquor corporation.

"One of the best buys," says Swan, is Trius' Riesling ($15). "It's dry, lean, with zippy acidity." At the Ontario's Star Whites event, we tasted the same winery's Showcase Wild Ferment Chardonnay, which was bold with great acidity, clean and intense.

For a higher-end Ontario Riesling, go for Stratus' Charles Baker Riesling ($38).

Canadian mega-wine company Jackson-Triggs produces a line of Vintners Quality Alliance wines from its Niagara Estate Delaine Vineyard. The Chardonnay ($28.29) is a good example of the movement in Canada to identify wines by the location of their vineyard. "A beautiful product," says Swan.

Vintage Ink Chardonnay ($18), with its funky label, is another Niagara Peninsula VQA wine, "rich in style, oak influenced," says Swan.

The final wine in the flight of Ontario's Star Whites was a Riesling icewine. Rich and clean with a bitter edge, the icewine was a good reminder of what makes Canada famous on the world wine stage. The only thing missing with this wine, according to the Nova Scotian to my left, was a bag of chips.


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