Rediscovering Riesling – But Make It Dry, Please!

Ask an average wine consumer about Riesling and you will probably get the following response, “Oh, it’s too sweet for me. I like dry wines.”

But the truth is, Riesling wines can range from extra dry to lusciously sweet – with several styles in between (off-dry, medium sweet, even sparkling) – it all depends on how it is made. The choice reflects the winemaker’s preference, winery/house style, and even regional character (e.g., Mosel).

First, let’s clear up the misconception regarding sweetness. Any wine can be made to taste either sweet or bone dry – it’s a matter of stopping the fermentation process to retain some grape sugars or allowing the yeast to consume the sugar almost entirely whereby the fermentation stops naturally.

During the fermentation process yeast cells convert grape sugars into alcohol. This process slows down and stops if the grape must is chilled to between 2-10 degrees Celsius for several days – thus maintaining some residual sugar and having lower alcohol in the final wine. There are of course other methods of stopping fermentation (e.g., fining/racking, adding SO2, sterile filtration, adding potassium sorbate).

Did you know? A simple way to tell if a Riesling wine is dry or sweet – look at the alcohol level. If the wine is 11% abv or above it is a dry wine. If the wine is under 11% abv, it still contains residual sugars and will be sweeter on the palate.

Riesling wines have been dubbed the darlings of wine critics and aficionados but for most wine consumers, it simply is not on their radar.

I think it’s because of the sugar thing and the fact that it is harder to pair a sweeter wine with much of western cuisine. Our local Ontario wineries (for the most part) produce Rieslings with an average of 15 grams/L of residual sugar. That’s almost 4 teaspoons of sugar!

Yes, we have all heard that Riesling is very high in acidity and so to balance the wine some residual sugar needs to remain. But then, are we saying a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc or a Sancerre (both naturally high acid wines) are unbalanced? Not!

In other wine growing regions, dry styles of Riesling are becoming more popular. But to date, I have found a scant few in Ontario that I can truly call dry – Frogpond Farm Organic Riesling 2020 with under 5 grams/L of residual sugar is one, with the next closest being Cave Springs Dry Riesling at 9 grams/L.

Extra-dry Riesling from Ontario’s Frogpond Farm Organic Winery

Back to my point about Riesling’s popularity with wine critics … just have a look at wine competitions in 2021 & 2022 and you will see many Rieslings winning awards from regions around the world:

  • International Wine Challenge 2022 (London UK): Double Gold for – Canadian Flat Rock Cellars 2019 Riesling, 10.5% abv [Tasting note: Mosel meets the Niagara Peninsula style with enticingly low alcohol and well-integrated residual sweetness. Lemon and lime fruit on the palate with tangy, crunchy acidity. Tastes drier than it is.] Austrian Riesling Ried Kalkofen Smaragd, 2020, 13.5% abv [Tasting note: Herb strewn, exotic fruits, lush and ripe; apricot and nectarine flavours, full-bodied, rich and round with lemon-lime marmalade bite bringing refreshment and balance.] German Iphöfer Kammer Riesling Großes Gewächs, 2019, 13% abv [Tasting note: Exciting example of how good the dry Franken wines are – and always have been! Full-bodied with an almost salted, boiled lemon acidity coming through ripe, hardy white peach and crisp apple fruit.]
  • Wine Spectator Top 100 Wines for 2021 – includes 5 Rieslings (some dry)
  • National Wine Awards of Canada 2022 – 96 medal awarded for Riesling, with six platinum medals – two more than any other category (Pinot, Chardonnay and Syrah each garnered four platinum medals)

So, obviously in the professional world of wine Riesling is a star.

It is after all one of the 6 noble wine grape varieties (besides Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc). It is extremely food friendly due to its range of styles (from dry to off-dry and sweet) and can pair with diverse cuisines from sushi, curry or other Asian food, to barbecued pork chops, chicken, fish, and pasta in cream sauce to name a few.

Yet, in terms of plantings worldwide, Riesling only accounts for 55,000 hectares (while Chardonnay, the most planted white grape, has 210,000 hectares). Yes, it prefers cool climates (either coastal areas, areas with elevation or at greater latitude) but you can find quality wines at affordable price points from various countries:

Germany (23,596 hectares)

Germany is Riesling’s homeland and the world’s largest producer of Riesling. It is grown in all 13 of the country’s wine regions and is produced in a range of styles from dry to sweet. For dry Rieslings look for the word Trocken on the label (dry wine with ~9 g/l RS or less). A “typical” German Riesling is pale green-yellow to light gold in colour, light to medium-bodied and has a pronounced acidity and relatively low alcohol. Common aromas and flavors include green apple, peach, and lime. With age, German Riesling can evolve to express honeycomb, beeswax, earthy spices, and candied fruit. On the Mosel’s steep sloped vineyards, Riesling is typically delicate and intensely mineral/flinty. The Rheingau region is known for fuller-bodied Riesling with structured acidity, while Rheinhessen Rieslings show milder acidity, medium body, and stone fruit flavours. The Pfalz (being warmer and drier) produces fuller- bodied Rieslings with flavours of orchard fruit and earthy, spicy notes.

Washington & Oregon (4,605 hectares)

Key regions: Columbia Valley, Willamette Valley, Yakima Valley … but California and New York State – Finger Lakes also produce Riesling. Washington and Oregon Rieslings are produced in both dry and sweet styles. A typical Pacific Northwest Riesling is off-dry, floral, with tropical fruit flavours and high acidity.

Alsace (4,025 hectares)

If compared to German Rieslings (just across the river), Alsatian Rieslings are more floral. They tend to be higher in alcohol and are sometimes described as creamier in texture. The wines are typically dry or off-dry and racy with fuller body, but they are also produced in sweeter styles.

Australia (3,157 hectares)

Key regions: South Australia’s Eden Valley and Clare Valley … but also Western Australia, Victoria, and Tasmania. Australian Rieslings are especially know for lime and lemon flavours, as well as white flower, orange blossom, and tropical fruit.

Austria (2,068 hectares)

Key regions: Wachau, Kremstal, Kamptal. Austrian Riesling is known to be dry and clean with relatively higher alcohol content, a fuller body, and a long finish. Some find it more tropical and intense than German Riesling.

New Zealand (741 hectares)

Riesling is predominantly grown on the South Island. The dry and cool long autumns and low humidity with great diurnal (day to night) temperature changes maintain acidity levels while slowing down ripening to achieve phenolic ripeness in the grapes. You’ll find stone fruit and spice characters from sunny Nelson; lemon and lime from Marlborough; and green apples, minerality and citrus from the cooler North Canterbury and Central Otago regions. (Source: NZ Wine website)

Or closer to home in Canada…

Ontario (667 hectares)

Dry to off-dry styles, Ontario Rieslings (depending on terroir) can show lime citrus, green and yellow apple, floral notes, wet stone minerality and sometimes a whiff of petrol.

British Columbia (248 hectares)

Dry to off-dry styles, BC Rieslings (depending on cooler or warmer sites) have more stone fruit (than Ontario wines), apple, pear, lime pith, tropical fruit, honeycomb, and a wet stone mineral backbone.

There are some producers also in Quebec and with global warming we may see more.

So, back to the crux of this blog – more people would drink Riesling if marketing boards did a better job highlighting that this fabulous and versatile grape can make crisp dry wines at very affordable price points … and producers/winemakers would simply ferment it dry!

Please leave me a comment to let me know what dry Riesling wines you have discovered and loved!

Part 2: Love at First Taste ~ Chenin Blanc … in Canada!

Wine regions in Canada are very diverse in terms of climate, soils and grape varieties suited to the different growing environments. But there are some areas that can grow Chenin Blanc.

If you have read Part 1: Love at First Taste, you already understand that I love this grape variety and the various wine styles that it can produce (e.g., sparking, dry, off dry, sweet). So I went on a hunt to find examples of Chenin Blanc and speak to growers and winemakers who have experience and knowledge of working with it.

23 Year Old Chenin Blanc Vine – Niagara Lakeshore

Niagara Lakeshore Sub-Appellation (Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario)

Niagara Lakeshore follows the shoreline of Lake Ontario from the Welland Canal east to the Niagara River and proceeds inland for approximately 3 kilometers. The primary influence on this appellation is the proximity of the Lake and its year round effect on temperatures. Soils in the area are primarily glaciolacustrine nearshore and deltaic sands and silts deposited on Halton Till with relatively high water-holding capacities. These light soils together with the long growing season contribute to flavour development in grapes and mature, full bodied wines. (Source: VQA Ontario)

Rick Smith is a grape grower and one of the very few who even dares to grow Chenin Blanc in Ontario. According to Rick, “it is a fussy grape” … vigorous, prone to botrytis bunch rot or grey mold, powdery mildew and not Canadian winter hardy!

Grape Grower Rick Smith

His 2 acres of Chenin vines (clone 220) at the Lakeshore vineyard were planted in 1999 (some of the oldest in the region) and they are still yielding 8-9 tonnes and accumulating 24-26 Brix during a good vintage (like 2020). Rick planted another Chenin Blanc vineyard in 2016 further away from the moderating effects of Lake Ontario and the two sites perform quite differently. Closer to the lake, the soils are sandy-clay-loam and rocky, providing good drainage. Here the late ripening Chenin Blanc takes even longer to ripen (mid-October to mid-November) because of the summer cooling effect of Lake Ontario. But the flip side is that in the winter the lake’s moderating effect creates warmer land temperatures resulting in less winter damage to the vines. In the vineyard further away from the summer cooling effect of the lake, the soils are sandier and the grapes ripen sooner – but in the winter wind machines are necessary to deter winter damage to the vines.

If it wasn’t for an excellent working relationship with winemaker Andrzej Lipinski, Big Head Wines, where Chenin Blanc and Viognier (also grown by Rick) are the winery’s biggest white wine sellers, Rick says he would not bother growing the fussy grape.

To control Chenin’s natural vigour, Rick uses the Pendlebogen training system and usually prunes to 35 buds on 2 arms. He keeps an extra third arm for insurance to avert die-back due to spring frost (as many growers in cool climate regions do). If not needed, it is removed. He leaves 10-12 bunches of grapes per vine – the bunches are big and heavy, hence the harvests tonnage.

Harvest can be anytime between mid-October to mid-November depending on the vintage conditions, but Rick keeps a sharp look out for botrytis which the grape variety is prone to.

Botrytis cinerea or noble rot is a fungus. It is created when misty/rainy mornings are followed by dry, sunny afternoons. This provides conditions for sugars, flavours and acids to concentrate in the grape while the fungus consumes water. It can be risky business for a grape grower, as this delicate interaction can suddenly turn into full-blown rot losing the entire crop. Botrytized grapes are shriveled and brown. Their juice, however, is golden and sweet. The resulting wines are complex, concentrated and can age for decades.

The grapes are hand harvested. Winemaker Lipinski picks clean fruit for a lighter version of Chenin Blanc wines and leaves some fruit to acquire botrytis for heavier, more honeyed style wines called Select at his winery.

Big Head Wines – regular Chenin Blanc (left) and botrytis affected Select Chenin Blanc (right)

2020 Chenin Blanc

Medium gold in colour with medium intensity aromas of apricot, ripe pear, amaretti cookies, honeysuckle, and a sweet buttery note (from wood). The palate is dry with high acidity, medium alcohol and body. There are medium intensity flavours of apricot, apricot pit, pear and grapefruit. There is a real textural mouth-feel to this wine. The finish is medium (+) with some phenolic bitterness which is not off-putting.

In terms of winemaking, the handpicked grapes went through carbonic maceration for a week. The grapes were then pressed and alcoholic fermentation took place, using ambient yeast (wild), in a combination of clay and 1000L wood vessels. Full malolactic fermentation occurred spontaneously.

$24.80 at the winery

2019 Chenin Blanc Select

Deep gold in colour with medium (+) intensity aromas of yellow apple, ripe pear, lemon-honey hard candy and a hint of sweet dry herbs. The palate is dry with high acidity, medium alcohol and body. There are medium (+) intensity flavours of lemon verbena, apple, pear, apricot pit, and grapefruit. The texture is smooth and the finish is medium (+) and refreshing.

In terms of winemaking, the handpicked grapes were additionally sorted for the most botrytis affected fruit. Carbonic macerations for 7 days, then pressed and the wine finished fermenting (using ambient yeast) after a year in concrete.

$34.80 at the winery

Okanagan Valley, British Columbia (Golden Mile Bench Sub-Appellation)

The Golden Mile Bench on the west side has sandy soils with lots of gravel and large rocks mixed in, this allows ample water drainage (which drives the roots of the vines deep into the ground) and also as the water evaporates it precipitates on the larger rocks in the soil and leaves calcium carbonate behind. This “limestone effect” in the soil, together with the fact that the west side of the valley gets the evening mountain shadow first, gives Golden Mile Bench wines a beautiful balance between ripe fruit and acidity. (Source: Road 13 Vineyards)

I met Barclay Robinson, winemaker at Road 13 Vineyards in Oliver (British Columbia), years ago when he was presenting appassimento style winemaking to my Niagara College class. At that time he was the winemaker at Foreign Affair Winery (Vineland – Niagara Region, Ontario). For the last few years, Barclay has been crafting an extensive array of wines at Road 13 (voted #1 winery in Canada and one of the 10 best wineries for 10 consecutive years, National Wine Awards of Canada) ~ but most interestingly for our purposes here, Barclay has been making both still and sparkling Chenin Blanc wines!

So I reached out to Barclay to find out more …

Barclay starts by saying, “our Chenin Blanc vines are some of the oldest that we are aware of in North America, planted in 1968!” He uses these old vines exclusively for the Traditional Method Sparkling Chenin Blanc. The Old Vines sparkling block naturally crops lower due to the vines’ age at approximately 2 tonnes/acre.

“We took some of the cuttings from the old vines and propagated the younger vineyard blocks of Chenin Blanc from which I make our still, table wine version (Chip Off the Old Block Chenin Blanc),” Barclay adds. This younger vineyard crops at approximately 3 tonnes/acre.

Interestingly the Chenin Blanc vines are own rooted (not on rootstock) which is rare!

Old Chenin Blanc vine ~ Road 13 Vineyards, British Columbia

Barclay explains that it because of the soils which are sandy with gravel, loam and rock mixed in. For him the prominent calcium carbonate and volcanic ash in the sub-soil structure adds to the mid-palate weight, texture and complexity of the wines. Furthermore, because the South Okanagan is so dry and windy, Barclay says disease pressure is quite low.
 
“All of the vineyard blocks of Chenin Blanc are located on the Golden Mile Bench with a majority of the blocks planted facing southwest. This gives the vines sun exposure in the morning and evening while providing shade mid-day during the peak heat of the day times.” explains Barclay.

He goes on to say, “the Old vines block slopes slightly to the north which also helps to reduce the heat impact for this grape variety through our hot, dry summers in the South Okanagan while retaining the crisp acidity.”

Typically Barclay and his team harvest the Old Vines block for the sparkling wine early – around the first of September. They allow the crop for still Chenin Blanc to hang for a further 3 weeks to capture more of the ripe melon characteristics that Barclay wants in that wine.
 
In terms of winemaking, the sparkling Chenin Blanc base wines are fermented in stainless steel and aged on the light lees for 6 months before clarifying and prepping for the en tirage bottling. Secondary fermentation takes place in bottle; the wine is then aged for 3 years on the secondary lees before disgorgement, dosage and final packaging. [Note: this is more than non-vintage Champagne which is aged 15 months]
 
The still wine is fermented in both stainless steel and concrete, then aged on lees with daily lees stirring during aging to promote a bigger mid-palate presence.

Barclay says, “By fermenting and aging in both stainless steel and concrete, I get more complexity in the final wine.”

When asked if his Chenin Blanc wines are more in the style of the Loire or South African Barclay laughs and says, “the resulting style is definitely Okanagan … but has leanings more to the Loire style of Chenin Blanc.”

Road 13 Vineyards ~ Chenin Blanc

Chenin Blanc in British Columbia:

  • 2019 – 33.44 acres planted
  • 2020 – 68.91 metric tonnes harvested
  • 2021 – 96.36 metric tonnes harvested
  • Regions with most plantings and production: Oliver, Osoyoos, Penticton
  • Wineries producing Chenin Blanc: Road 13 Vineyards, Quail’s Gate, Inniskillin Okanagan

Road 13 Vineyards Chenin Blanc Wines (Updated, now with my tasting notes.)

2017 ROAD 13 SPARKLING CHENIN BLANC $40
Medium lemon colour. Pronounced intensity aromas of apricot, melon, peach, quince, lemon curd and light toast. This is a dry wine with high acidity, medium alcohol and body. The palate shows pronounced intensity flavours of grapefruit, apricot, peach, melon, and toasted almonds and a touch of salinity. The texture is creamy and the finish is medium (+).

2012 JACKPOT SPARKLING CHENIN BLANC $87
Medium gold in colour. Medium (+) intensity aromas of brioche, biscuit, apple sauce, chamomile tea, toasted hazelnuts and a honeyed note. The wine is dry with high acidity and medium body and alcohol. On the palate there is medium (+) intensity flavours of lemon, apple, chamomile, toasted nuts, brioche, sour dough breadiness and honey. The texture is creamy with persistent bubbles and the finish is long. The wine show complexity.

“There is an additional 5 years of ageing that goes into making this Jackpot Sparkling. That combination of pressure and time creates a creaminess on the mid palate, a little bit more weight, and a very fine, elegant bubble.” – Barclay Robinson, Winemaker.

2020 CHIP OFF THE OLD BLOCK
CHENIN BLANC
$23 Pale gold in colour. Medium (+) intensity aromas of honeysuckle, pear, golden apple, some leesy notes, brioche and bread dough. The wine is dry with high acidity, medium body and alcohol. The palate has medium (+) intensity flavours of ripe lemon, yellow apple, pear, blanched almond and brioche. The mouthfeel is smooth and the finish is long with a touch of spice and a light bitterness.

“The 2020 Chip off the Old Block has had some time in the bottle and is now starting to develop some of those really nice melon and tropical notes. It’s true that not all whites get better with age but Chenin Blanc is one of those wines that gets better with time.” – Barclay Robinson, Winemaker.

Disclaimer: The wines reviewed here were bought by me and I do not receive any form of payment for my reviews.

Love at First Taste ~ Chenin Blanc Part 1

In this blog, I muse about why I love Chenin Blanc wines, just in time for #DrinkChenin Day which falls on June 17. Part 2 is coming and will feature Chenin Blanc in Canada, produced in the Okanagan of British Columbia and the Niagara Region of Ontario.

Granted the loveliness of the Loire Valley had a lot to do with my love of this grape … wide, meandering river, castles and manor houses, history galore, wine caves dug into the tuffeau hillsides (of soft limestone) and of course – the wines. From sparkling to a range of still wines – dry, off dry, medium sweet and sweet – Chenin Blanc shows off its versatility.

Grape Variety Characteristics ~ Chenin Blanc

  • it buds early and ripens late
  • its thin skins are highly susceptible to Botrytis cinerea, or noble rot
  • this enables the production of some of the world’s finest sweet wines
  • it maintains acidity well, making refreshing dry, off-dry, and sparkling wines
  • arguably the world’s most versatile grape variety, rivalled only by Riesling
  • it’s vigorous and high yielding
  • but it can ripen unevenly
  • it’s prone to powdery mildew, botrytis bunch rot, and trunk diseases
  • it produces wines of medium alcohol and high acidity with medium intensity aromas and flavours: from green apple, lemon, quince, greengage (sour green plum) to pineapple, banana, passion fruit; often with steely, flinty, smoky mineral notes and a hint of hay and honey (all dependent on growing environment and winemaking choices)
Vineyard in Vouvray along the Loire River

But it’s not just in the Loire wine region of France (the grape’s historic home) that a wine consumer finds Chenin Blanc. It’s grown in many wine regions around the world producing wonderful wines. So let’s take a look.

South Africa

South Africa is home to more Chenin Blanc plantings than the rest of the world combined. Over 18% of the South African vineyards (17,148 hectares) are planted with Chenin Blanc (accounting for 34% of the white grapes harvested and 23% of the total crop in 2017 according to WineBusiness). The grape variety’s chief virtues in South Africa are: late maturation, wind resistance and stress resilience. It is often called Steen (Steendruiven) and has a long history in South Africa dating back to 1659. Regions that grow Chenin Blanc are coastal regions like Swartland, Stellenbosch, Paarl, and Wellington; Cape South coast regions of Walker Bay and Elgin; as well as inland Western Cape regions of Olifants River and Breedekloof. Despite the hot climate in South Africa, these regions have a cooling influence provided either by elevation, cold sea currents, or wind gusts which lower temperatures (and aided by irrigation in some areas) and make growing conditions sustainable for Chenin Blanc. This grape variety can maintain high yields and bracing acidity despite the hot conditions. Soils are varied but the three most important soils types all retain water well: soils derived from Table Mountain sandstone, soils derived from granite, and soils derived from shale. A recent initiative called the Old Vine Project, set up to preserve the country’s vineyards (that are more than 35 years old) are more than half Chenin Blanc bush vines with low yields but very high quality.

Recently, the Chenin Blanc Association (of South Africa), working toward a greater global market share of wine sales and awareness, created a simple style indicator that will appear on wine labels as an icon from the 2022 vintage. According to wine writer Chris Boiling, it starts with ‘Fresh’ at one end and ‘Rich’ at the other, with ‘Fruity’ positioned in the middle. Wines labelled ‘Fresh’ will be crisp and zesty. Those labelled ‘Fruity’ will show fruit and spice characteristics, while those labelled ‘Rich’ will show some evidence of oaking, and notes of baked or dried fruit with buttery and vanilla flavours. There is now even an aroma wheel for South African Chenin Blanc.

Generally, Chenins from South Africa are richer and more concentrated than those of the Loire Valley, and replace green, mineral notes with fruits like pineapple, melon, and guava.

Loire Valley, France

Chenin Blanc also known as Pineau de Loire, calls the Loire Valley home. With 9,700 hectares under vine – 15% of total vineyard – it spans the regions of Anjou, Saumur, and Touraine (between Savennières and Blois). The climate ranges from cool continental (Blois) to more maritime (Savennières). Soil types range widely from granite and gneiss to limestone and chalk. These various terroirs are expressed in the character of the wines produced.

Important Appellations (AOPs)

Savennières (Anjou) – 150 hectares on the north bank of the Loire River, there Chenin Blanc is used to create particularly concentrated, complex, and long-lived wines. Planted on a combination of schist and volcanic soil, Savennières also includes two famous sub-appellations: SAVENNIÈRES ROCHES AUX MOINES and COULÉE DE SERRANT.

Coteau du Layon (Anjou) – 1,540 hectare appellation for complex, late-harvested sweet wines made from Chenin Blanc. Located on south-facing slopes above the Layon River, where drying Atlantic winds and river mists help to create the ideal environment for noble rot. COTEAUX DU LAYON PREMIER CRU CHAUME, BONNEZEAUX and QUARTS DE CHAUME GRAND CRU are individual AOP regions located within Coteaux du Layon that reliably produce botrytized, late-harvested, well-balanced sweet wines from Chenin Blanc.

Crémant de Loire (may be produced in Anjou, Saumur, and Touraine) – It is a traditional method sparkling wine made from Chenin Blanc dominant blends with medium intensity apple and citrus flavours and light toasty autolytic notes.

Vouvray (Touraine) – 2,250 hectares specializing in some of the Loire Valley’s finest Chenin Blanc wines, grown on tuffeau limestone subsoil. They may be produced at any level of sweetness, from bone dry to lusciously sweet, and traditional method sparkling wines are made as well.

A few gems in the cellar

California, USA

Chenin Blanc was referred to as the “workhorse” of California grape growing. The grape’s high acidity made it a “go-to” for those producing cheap white blends with a citrus zing. Mostly planted in the Central Valley, Chenin Blanc accounted for 40,000 acres in the 70s and 80s. But Chardonnay became the “it” grape for California so by 2017 Chenin Blanc plantings accounted for less than 5,000 acres (2,023 hectares). Recently, some independent producers have championed California Chenin Blanc in regions like the Sierra Foothills, Mendocino, and Santa Barbara, as well as the Central Valley. These low-production winemakers are making a style that’s closer to the fresh, mineral-driven wines of the Loire Valley, rather than South Africa’s rich and concentrated version.

Argentina

In Agentina, one of the varieties that has shrunk the most in terms of surface area is Chenin Blanc. There are only 1,744 hectares under vine with Chenin Blanc (4.9% of white grape plantings versus 21% planted with Torrontés and 16% planted with Chardonnay); that is half the surface area that existed in 2002 according to Wines of Argentina Blog. It was used to make simple still and sparkling wines and was planted in warm areas of Mendoza (San Rafael, San Martín). Today, however, some producers are experimenting with new styles made from old vines such as famed Argentinian producer Catena Zapata who is promoting a new white blend called White Clay. It is a blend of 70% Sémillon and 30% Chenin Blanc; the grapes are sourced from 70- to 80-year-old vines in the high altitude, cool growing region of Luján de Cuyo (Mendoza).

Australia

Chenin Blanc is grown in almost all of Australia’s wine regions, but plantings are concentrated in Western Australia – particularly in the Margaret River region. It is
often blended with Chardonnay, Sémillon, and Sauvignon Blanc to produce high- volume white wines. But Chenin Blanc can also appear in single-varietal bottling, mostly in the fruit-forward, South African style. Current plantings are 1,000 acres/405 hectares. Take a look at the great review of the top Chenin Blanc wines in Australia by Young Gun of Wine.

New Zealand

Similar to California and Argentina, Chenin Blanc plantings are on the decline. According to Simone Madden-Grey (Happy Wine Woman) Chenin Blanc plantings accounted for 0.7% of the total production area (2015). Historically Chenin Blanc was planted en masse in New Zealand and often used as a blending component in cheap wines. Today, the scant plantings that remain are located primarily on the east coast of the North Island – Gisborne. Some examples of wineries that very sucessfully produce Chenin Blanc wines include Forrest Estate (Marlborough), Margrain Vineyard (Martinborough), Millton Vineyards (Gisborne), Decibel Wines and Esk Valley in Hawkes Bay.

New Zealand Chenin Blanc wine characteristics include : pear, quince, citrus, stonefruit, lychees, floral aromas, and cumquat.

Chenin Blanc in Canada – to be continued in Part 2

Take Away from Part 1:

Why I love Chenin Blanc? Because of its many styles but in particular the dry, still wines that can come from anywhere in the world! They are usually floral, fruity, mineral and honey laden, often complex and have a heady dollop of acidity to refresh the palate.

Minor “Grape” Players in Niagara, For Now

I’ve written about the best grape varieties suited to the Niagara wine growing region as well as climate change – in particular how it is affecting grape growing in the Niagara. Now, I’d like to mention the other grape varieties or minor players appearing in our vineyards. The climate is warming – and a possible silver lining – includes ripening grape varieties such as Petit Verdot, Malbec, Tempranillo and maybe even Nebbiolo!

Success has already been seen with Syrah.

Along with Kacaba Vineyards Winery (discussed below), Creekside Estate Winery has lead the way with Syrah. They offer an entry level Estate Syrah 2019; the Iconoclast Syrah 2019 (single vineyard, St. David’s Bench, with a small addition of Viognier); and two genuinely serious Syrahs: Broken Press Syrah 2016 & Unbroken Press Syrah 2016. The Broken Press is 97% Syrah, 3% Viognier, sourced from the Queenston Road vineyard. Viognier skins are co-fermented with Syrah in tank and 1-tonne bins. Aged 20 months in French oak. Made only from select barrels and not made every year. The wine was named as such because the press broke leaving some Viognier inside when it was time to press the Syrah. Unbroken Press Syrah 2016 is 100% Syrah sourced from the west block the Queenston Road vineyard. Aged 20 months in oak. Only 6 barrels were chosen for the final blend: 2 Hungarian, 4 French, one of which was new wood. Here you have a wide array of Syrah wines made impeccably by winemaker Rob Power – something to please everyone!

Among white wine varieties, producers have introduced Chenin Blanc, Viognier, Sémillon, Melon, and Aligoté to Niagara vineyards. More ambitious producers are attempting Muscat, Glera and Marsanne.

These “moderate climate” grape varieties are only planted in small quantities at this time and are, as such, experimental. But most our grape growers are still not persuaded that climate change is upon us. As farmers, they tend to see each year as habitually different – presenting its own challenges – and not as signs of a changing climate. They grow wine grapes that consumers want, cropping at higher yields ($) without sacrificing too much quality (hopefully) and using conventional vineyard farming methods that actually deplete soils through the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. There are only a few certified biodynamic and organic vineyards/wineries in Niagara and several more that are certified sustainable – however, the latter have only a neutral effect on the climate battle.

Other parts of the world have been more pro-active. Take Bordeaux for an example – there climate warming has meant an increase in wine alcohol levels (the usual varieties – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc are accumulating too much sugar/ripeness and losing acidity) so that growers and winemakers have looked to alternate grape varieties: Touriga Nacional, Marselan, Castets, Arinarnoa – and two white grapes, Alvarinho and Liliorila – all which have higher acidity levels and may be more resistant to fungal diseases. Their potential is to mitigate the impact of climate change without diluting the identity of Bordeaux wines. They can make up 5% of a producer’s vineyard area and 10% of the final blend.

Australia has seen more than its share of extreme weather events due to climate change – from drought to floods to wild fires. The Aussies have been developing hybrids (20 red, 20 white) that address disease resistance and are heat and drought tolerant. They are in a trial stage only with growers and not yet used commercially. Additionally, they have developed a planning tool for viticulturists called Climate Atlas – a free online resource of climate information for all of Australia’s wine regions (GIs) – with climate projections/temperature maps to the year 2100 (based on worst case scenarios).

Back to Ontario/Niagara – grape varieties grown here are evaluated (by the Grape Growers of Ontario) for their climatic adaptation to our winters (hardiness 1-10, 1 being very hardy), length of growing season (Growing Degree Days – the sum of degree days over 10°C from April 1 until October 31, an average of 1590 in Niagara) and susceptibility to spring or autumn frosts (1-5, 1 being least frost prone), among other factors.

Some concrete examples include the following:

Merlot and Syrah have the same winter hardiness (8 out of 10) but Merlot ripens earlier, hence Syrah needs a longer hang time in our vineyards and could be prone to autumn frost damage. Both varieties have a proven track record in Niagara but care must be taken with proper crop load.

Malbec and Viognier have slightly more winter hardiness (7 out of 10) and need fewer Growing Degree Days (than Syrah) to ripen.

So theoretically Niagara can grow and possibly ripen these grapes. But site selection, soils, and vineyard management practices also play significant roles. According to several winemakers (Dean Stoyka at Stratus, Steve Byfield at Nyarai Cellars, Arthur Harder Consulting, and Vadim Chelekhov at Kacaba), the challenges with growing less winter hardy grape varieties in Niagara, beyond proper site selection, are winter bud survival and the application of appropriate “vintage specific” pruning methods (e.g., controlling vigour and yield).

Climate change also brings greater unpredictability with more frequent severe weather events such as heavy rains, frequent thaw and freeze episodes during winter resulting in trunk damage for vines and vintage variation for wines. So, why have some grape growers and winemakers taken on the challenge of growing these more difficult grapes varieties?

For this, let’s hear from a few who have …

At Kacaba Vineyards Winery, head winemaker Vadim Chelekhov said that Syrah was a staple at the winery right from the beginning, mostly due to owner Michael Kacaba’s love and appreciation of Rhône style wines. Syrah was first planted in 1997 in the Silver Bridge Block (planted with clone 100 from California, on rootstock 3309, thought to promote early ripening). Nestled among Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon vines it has thrived due to a unique microclimate made possible by the moderating effect of the Niagara Escarpment and Lake Ontario.

Silver Bridge Block of Syrah at Kacaba Vineyards Winery – Pruned to 3 canes for 2022 vintage

Since then, plantings of Syrah have been expanded on the slopes of the ravine located on the property (Terraced Vineyard Block, planted with an equal mix of Californian clone 100 and clone 7 from a Canadian nursery on rootstock 3309) and on the south-east facing block above the ravine (Proprietor’s Block, planted with clone 7 on rootstock 3309).

Terraced Block Syrah at Kacaba Vineyards Winery – Spur pruned for 2022 vintage

According to Vadim, the dome shape of the vineyard, row planting direction, the ravine acting as a heat sink during the summer months and a cold wind tunnel during the winter all help to protect and ripen Syrah vines. Additionally, the slopes provide good drainage and air flow decreasing the risk of fungal diseases. Vadim and his crew monitor the vineyard closely, assessing bud survival during the winter, ensuring proper crop loads when pruning in early spring, and conducting soil and leaf matter tests for macro and micro nutrients during the growing season. Harvest dates can vary from vintage to vintage, but typically Kacaba Syrah is harvested in October from all three blocks and vinified/aged in the same way.

These three blocks of Syrah “all have unique features and this resonates in the flavours of the wines produced,” comments Vadim. Having tasted all three, I believe that Vadim speaks truly – they are terroir driven wines. There is also a Reserve Syrah (2018) which won a Silver Medal at the 2021 Decanter World Wine Awards!

Silver Bridge Syrah 2017

An elegant and lean Syrah with lots of red and dark fruit, floral notes, mouth watering acidity, fresh green herbs and a touch of white pepper spice. Aged in old French and American oak, lighter bodied and smooth. (12.9% alc.)

Terraced Vineyard Syrah 2017

This Syrah is medium bodied with darker fruit – plum, blackberry, fig. The floral notes (violets) are still present in addition to some savoury ones of dried herbs and spice. Likewise aged in French and American oak. (13% alc.)

Proprietor’s Block Syrah 2017

Coming from the warmest block, this Syrah is more concentrated with black plum, blackberry and cherry compote. The tannins and oak are well integrated. Lightly floral with savoury herbal notes and black pepper. (12.7% alc.)

At Stratus Vineyards, winemaker Dean Stoyka is enthusiastic about the 16 different grape varieties grown in their 56 acre vineyard. Although 40% of the vineyard is planted with Cabernet Franc, the more unusual varieties include Petit Verdot, Syrah, Sémillon, Viognier, Tempranillo, Tannat and Sangiovese. The last three are far from their original homelands (north central Spain, southwest France, and central Italy) but are doing well in Niagara-on-the-Lake. They account for half an acre planting apiece – at the southeast end of the vineyard which, according to Dean, is 18 feet higher in elevation than the other end of the vineyard around the winery building (providing good drainage). Dean adds that the site of the vineyard is warm to begin with – between the Escarpment and Lake Ontario – a Goldilocks location, not too cold in winter nor too hot in summer. According to Dean, vineyards closer to the Escarpment (warmer) have harvests a week ahead of Stratus and vineyards closer to the Lake (cooler) a week later. There is also a prevailing westerly wind which cools the vineyard in summer and dries it after rainfall (minimizing fungal diseases). Even if substantial climate change takes a decade or two, Dean says that Stratus is prepared. Already a Leeds certified winery, it is dry farmed, worked and harvested by hand , herbicide free; only chicken manure, compost, straw and bio-char are used to fertilize the soil and it is certified sustainable. The winemaking and vineyard management team is careful about clonal selection of their vines and rootstocks – choosing for quality and low yields – as well as virus free nursery stock. Like Kacaba, Stratus has had good success with Syrah and Dean says they are planting more (470 clone originally from France). For Stratus, another practice that will see them prepared for climate change is “assemblage” or blending different grape varieties to make wine that is better than the sum of its parts (particularly when vintages are challenging and the weather unpredictable). For example, Stratus Red is a blend of Tempranillo, Tannat and Sangiovese made every year but good vintages also see a release of single varietal bottling of Petit Verdot, Sangiovese, Tempranillo and Tannat.

Stratus Viognier 2019

Lovely lemon colour with floral (chamomile), Bosc pear and peach aromas and flavours. Some honey notes on the finish. Light-bodied and smooth. (12% alc.)

Stratus Petit Verdot 2019

Deep ruby in colour with black plum, dark cherry fruit, and a whiff of smoke. Some medicinal/herbal notes on the palate, mouth-watering acidity, silky tannins and smooth texture. (Harvested at the end of November; matured just short of 17 months in French oak – 10% new. 13.4% alc.)

Stratus Syrah 2017

Deep ruby in colour, aromas and flavours of red plum, black raspberry with smoked meat and mint notes. Velvety texture with ripe, polished tannins. Medium (+) body. (Aged over 2.5 years in French oak – 20% new. 14.3% alc.)

Photo by Heather Smith on Pexels.com

The owner of Ridgepoint Wines, Mauro Scarcellone, a second generation Italian immigrant, must have longed for the red wines of Italy because he planted grape varieties that should not have survived in Niagara – but with some hard work, they did. His 25 acre vineyard, on an upper bench of the Escarpment (Vineland) includes Muscat, Glera, Corvina and Nebbiolo (as well as the usual varieties grown in Niagara). The installation of a wind machine and some levelling of the vineyard to eliminate cold spots are efforts undertaken recently to protect vines during winter months. The Nebbiolo vines were recently moved to a site with western exposure in the vineyard to aid ripening. Although not reviewed here, the winery also offers both a sweet semi-sparkling Muscat (Fizzy 2019) and a dry (7g/L), still wine Moscato.

Bellisima 2020

A sparkler made in the Prosecco style (Charmat Method) with 85% Glera and the rest Riesling grapes. Grapefruit, lime aromas and flavours dominate. High acidity with a touch of pithy bitterness on the finish. (12% alc.)

Nebbiolo 2011 & 2012

These two vintages were tasted but more vintages are still in the ageing process and will be released in the near future. The 2011 vintage shows dried cherry, red currant, raspberry aromas and flavours. There is a balsamic note here. The grapes were hand picked, sorted and aged 70 months in French oak. Medium- bodied, fine-grained tannins on finish. 14.5% alc. The 2012 vintage is similar but the fruit is fresher with and is slightly higher in alcohol (15.5%)

Corvina 2016

100% Corvina grapes – hand harvested and air dried for 60 days prior to fermentation. The Appassimento process contributes to the semblance of sweetness and rounds out the tannins. Dark ruby in colour with red cherry, rose petal and raspberry aromas and flavours and wood spice in the background. Barrel aged for 48 months. (16% alc.)

Guide to Who Makes What

Grape VarietiesProducers
Whites:
AligotéChâteau des Charmes
Chenin BlancBig Head Wines
Vineland Estates Winery
GleraRidgepoint Wines (Bellissima)
Marsanne Kew Vineyards
MelonMalivoire
MuscatFielding Estate Winery
Ridgepoint Wines (Fizzy)
ViognierFielding Estate Winery
Big Head Wines
13th Street Winery
Stratus
SavagninBig Head Wines
SémillonStratus
Creekside Wine
Reds:
AglianicoVieni Estates
CorvinaRidgepoint Wines
Lemberger/BlaufränkischBetween the Lines Winery
MalbecBig Head Wines
Greenlane Winery
NebbioloRidgepoint Wines
Alvento Winery
Petit VerdotStratus
Syrah/ShirazKacaba Vineyards & Winery
Creekside Wine
Stratus
TempranilloStratus
List not exhaustive

Drinking Wine is More Fun than Reading About Wine

Most of my blogs are meant to explore, explain and educate wine consumers about wine. I just can’t help myself … it must be the teacher in me. But really folks, it’s way more fun drinking wine than reading about it.

So with this blog, let’s explore some of the wines I recently bought from one of my favourite wine agents, Saša Muradori at Croatia Unpacked. Have you read my article on buying wine beyond the LCBO?

Croatia Unpacked ~ Discovery Sampler

Always curious to taste new grape varieties and discover wine regions around the globe, this latest curated case of Croatian wines is both affordable and delicious! From a traditional method sparkling wine using the Malvasia grape variety, to two indigenous whites and reds, and finishing with a dessert wine – all preferences and palates are covered. (These wines are also available by the bottle at the LCBO.)

Kabola Re Brut Sparkling Wine

Of all wine styles, sparkling wine is the only one showing significant increase globally in consumer preference/consumption. Prosecco’s popularity and affordability has led the way, but now all styles of sparkling wine can be enjoyed everyday (no longer meant just for special occasions) as they are produced in many countries and at a range of price points.

This sparkler from Istria (northwest Croatia neighbouring Slovenia and Italy’s Friuli region) is made using the traditional method (like Champagne) with a blend of Malvasia, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir.

Malvasia is an ancient grape family (thought to be Greek in origin) with both white and red varieties (used for Port, Madeira) and has been grown in the Mediterranean area for 2000 years. Characteristically, white wines from Malvasia have floral aromas of honeysuckle and jasmine, orchard fruit flavours of pear, peach as well as citrus and tropical fruit; there may also be notes of honey, star anise, and Asian spices.

Tasting Note:

In this case Malvasia Fina (or Istrian Malvasia, 2016 harvest) was blended with 10% Chardonnay and 10% Pinot Noir.

  • Certified organic
  • $39.95
  • Medium lemon colour
  • Medium (+) intensity aromas of ripe lemon, Anjou pear, apple, light biscuit note, some vanilla and butterscotch
  • Sweetness level: Dry or Brut (by EU standards between 0-12 g/L residual sugar)
  • Medium (+) acidity
  • Medium body
  • Medium alcohol (12.5%)
  • Medium intensity flavours of lemon, lime, pear, apple, some nuttiness and light autolytic notes of toast
  • Creamy mousse
  • Medium length finish with a slight bitterness
  • Food pairing: shellfish

It’s a good quality wine, drinking now, nicely balanced between fruit intensity and acidity, and offers some complexity. A more pronounced autolytic note would have been nice. Rated 3.5 out of 5.

Kutjevo Empress Graševina 2020 (Slavonia, Danube Kutjevo Vineyard)

This wine was a nice surprise as I visited the winery back in 2014 and wrote a blog about the experience. If I was looking for an easy drinking, everyday wine that offered great flavour, a round mouthfeel, at an attractive price point ($14.95) … this would be it!

The winery is 800 years old and claims to be the spiritual home of the grape variety Graševina. This grape variety has found its best expression in the province of Slavonia and inland areas of Croatia (where it is the most planted grape). Also known as Welschriesling, Laški Rizling or Olasz Riesling, Graševina is planted all over Central and Eastern Europe producing dry to sweet (botrytized) wines. But it is not related to Riesling – although the two share some floral and mineral characteristics.

Typically white wines made with Graševina offer elderberry, apple, and ripe quince aromas, with flavours of green apple, peach and citrus, have crisp acidity, and finish on a slight bitter note. If you like young Rieslings and Chenin Blanc, you’ll like Graševina.

Tasting Note:
  • $14.95
  • Pale lemon in colour
  • Medium (+) intensity aromas of lemon, grapefruit, chamomile, elderberry blossom and a light spice note
  • Dry (4.1 g/L residual sugar)
  • Medium (+) acidity
  • Medium body
  • Medium alcohol (12%)
  • Medium (+) intensity flavours of lemon, grapefruit, apple, chamomile, honeydew melon, Bosc pear and ginger spice
  • Smooth texture and round mouthfeel
  • Medium (+) finish with a touch of grapefruit pith
  • Food pairing: fish, chicken, pork and roasted root vegetables

Young, juicy and easy drinking, this Graševina is a good everyday quaffing wine. Awesome value. Rated 3.5 out of 5.

Ante Sladić Lasina 2018 (Dalmatia)

My palate usually prefers medium to lighter bodied red wines (and yes, it has changed from preferring heavy bodied, in-your-face, style red wines that I drank in my youth), so this Lasina fits the bill.

According to the winery, Lasina is a rare and old (indigenous) variety that’s low yielding, demanding and difficult to grow but produces intensely aromatic fruit of exceptional quality, which is sometimes referred to as Dalmatian Pinot Noir because of its elegance and style. I would concur that Lasina is Pinotesque, but also similar to Gamay (as DNA research shows that Pinot Noir and Gamay Noir are related).

The grapes for this wine were organically grown at elevation, on poor soils (controlling vigour), from older vines (lowering yields but concentrating fruit aromas and flavours) in a typical Mediterranean climate with warm days and cool nights (preserving acidity). The grapes were hand harvested and the wine was aged in neutral Slavonian oak barrels for 14 months. Because of the low yields, small production and the import duties and Ontario taxes, the price point here is discouragingly high at $49.70. But for wine geeks like me, worth a try.

Characteristically, Lasina has higher acidity, lower tannins, aromas and flavours of cherry, redcurrant, raspberry with some earthy and herbaceous notes.

Tasting Note:
  • Made from organically grown grapes
  • $49.70
  • Medium ruby in colour
  • Medium (+) intensity aromas of cherry, raspberry, campfire, wild herbs (fennel) and a spice note
  • Dry (2.7 g/L residual sugar)
  • Medium (+) acidity
  • Medium body
  • Medium alcohol (13%)
  • Low to medium (-) tannins, fine-grained
  • Medium intensity flavours of cherry, raspberry, fennel, smoke, and earthy notes
  • Texture is smooth, silky
  • Finish is medium (+) with a light tannic bite
  • Food pairing: seafood risottos, chicken, pork, veal

Fans of Pinot Noir and Gamay Noir take note. This wine has a soft core, lovely mouthfeel and offers some complexity in the range of aromas and flavours. Very satisfying. Rated 4 of out 5.

That’s it for this blog posting but stay tuned as there are three more bottles to taste!

Disclaimer: The wines reviewed here were bought by me and I do not receive any form of payment for my reviews.

How the Pandemic Changed Wine Sales in Ontario

While most people have lamented the loss of “normalcy” of life during these last two years of living with the pandemic, some have seen it as a time of opportunity. For wine consumers (but also for those drinking beer, cider and spirits), the pandemic has brought about more options as to how and where they purchase their alcohol.

The LCBO is still the go-to place for variety, availability of product at a wide range of price-points – but now there are more options!

Some of these options were not available before COVID-19 and the shut-downs that devastated the hospitality sector (among others). In an effort to support this industry, legislation was enacted by the provincial government that loosened the rules around the sale of alcohol. The Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO) allowed restaurants and bars to include alcohol with sales of take-out food.

That also allowed some quick thinking entrepreneurs to take the next step – opening bottle shops – offering wine, beer, cider and spirits for sale with some ready to eat food item (which can be as simple as a bag of chips).

So what, you say? The LCBO is quick and easy … Yes, but it is also impersonal.

These bottle shops take a personal interest in you and your drink preferences. They pride themselves in offering unique, hard to find, often local, boutique products (mostly not available at the LCBO). They get to know what you like and help you learn more about that bottle of wine and its producer. Some will also help you pair your bottle with suggested foods.

One such local bottle shop is BarBea in Niagara-on-the-Lake. It is also a wine bar offering tapas (small plates of Spanish inspired foods), next door to Ruffino’s Pasta Bar & Grill owned by Chef Ryan Crawford.

Niagara-on-the-lake

I had the pleasure of interviewing Chef Ryan recently and asked what motivated him to open up a wine bar/bottle shop?

COVID-19 and the lock-down of his restaurant, Ruffino’s, were the driving factors. His original plan was to expand the restaurant space to encompass next door (where BarBea is now located) – but with interchanging dining restrictions (at 50% capacity) and shut-downs (3 and counting), the more lucrative concept of selling wine, beer, and ciders with take-out food or a package of wine gums (uniquely at BarBea) materialized.

Chef Ryan and his team of sommeliers curate the wines (beers and ciders, too) – basically they offer what they love to drink and want to share with the public at large. They taste weekly looking for products from small producers both locally and globally working with a select group of local wineries and wine agents (who import wines from around the world).

So who is their clientele? According to Chef Ryan, everybody who loves wine! BarBea offers wines from slightly below $20 to over $600 per bottle. There is a beer dispenser offering cans/bottles at only $3! Most of the wines are not available at the LCBO and they tend to be higher quality (akin to Vintages level).

Some of the selection

There is a mark-up but it is much lower than what you would pay for a bottle of wine at a restaurant. Chef Ryan equates it to buying milk at a variety store versus a grocery store. He also added that when the current stock of wines (at the LCBO and local wineries) is gone, wine will jump in price as much as $3.00 per bottle because corks, labels and bottles (not to mention transport) have all increased the fixed costs for producers during the pandemic.

When asked how bottle shop business was going, Chef Ryan said he was very pleased with sales. BarBea has made its presence felt on social media featuring a wine a day during the lead up to the Holidays, there is a A frame sign on Niagara Stone Road in front of the wine bar/bottle shop to catch the passerby’s eye, ads in the local papers help and diners at Ruffino’s are also informed about the bottle shop. However, it is the wine club (sommelier selected and chef tested) at BarBea that may be the most lucrative aspect of the bottle shop and that I find most interesting.

The Wine Club has three options:

  • Niagara Local Wine Club ~ a selection of the best and most unique wines from the Niagara Peninsula, $150 every 3 months (usually 5 different wines to discover)
  • International Sipper Wine Club ~ a selection of low intervention wines from Chef Crawford’s travels and tastings, $150 every 3 months (usually 5 different wines)
  • The 500 Wine Club ~ the best of the best because sometimes you need that special wine, $475 every 3 months (usually 5 different wines)

At the end of our interview, Chef Ryan wanted to add that he and his staff do not try to up-sell customers in the bottle shop. They want to learn what customers like to drink, how much they wish to spend, and if the wine is for a special occasion. Moreover, they pride themselves on educating the public about the wines they carry – putting good wine in the hands of good people.

BarBea wine bar seating area

Did you know? There is a bottle shop opening in St. Catharines – Archives Wine & Spirit Merchants. They are already selling online and the shop should be opening soon.

Toronto already has dozens of bottle shops (one my fav’s is Loop Line) and Hamilton is making progress too.

Yet another option that has become more available during the pandemic is purchasing wine (by the case, sometimes 3 or 6 bottles but mostly 12) directly from wine agents. While that was always available, many agencies began aggressively marketing direct to consumer because restaurants, bars, and hotels were shut down during the pandemic and not placing orders.

So I checked in with Anne Popoff, a friend and owner of Le Savoir-Boire (a boutique wine importing agency), to ask how her business has changed due to COVID-19. After discussing recent changes at the LCBO (check out Wines in Niagara on that topic), Anne indicated that business (for agents) has changed – buying patterns have changed. Normally, wine importing agents deal directly with restaurants, bars, and hotels supplying them with alcoholic beverages. They can also sell direct to consumer under the LCBO’s special services or consignment program or they can deal exclusively with the LCBO providing niche wines for the Destination Collection (LCBO stores that specialize in particular wine regions, e.g., Spain at Bloor & Royal York in Toronto) or Vintages.

Did you know? In the Province of Ontario, the alcohol beverage market is fully regulated and operated by the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO). In order to export alcohol to Ontario, agents are required to work with the LCBO. Agents need to be licensed by the AGCO (Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario) and then they can work with producers and suppliers (globally) to import and market their products in Ontario.

But now with the latest reorganization at the LCBO, 40 in-store/physical Vintages sections are closing, with sales moving online (there are also virtual sommeliers and events). While the average Ontarian is happy to shop at LCBO stores and buy whatever is on the shelves, not everyone is happy or comfortable buying online. Will that impact sales of Vintages products negatively and consequently that of agents? Anne thinks so!

Still more options are available to purchase wine.

  • Shop locally at Ontario wineries or their online shops and receive delivery (often free) to your doorstep. Many wineries have wine clubs with monthly or quarterly subscriptions and member perks.
  • Join online wine clubs curating domestic and international wines (most with subscriptions and others that are free to join) e.g., Carl’s Wine Club, Kwaf, WineOnline (Alberta based), WineAlign, WineVirgin and OnBev

So with all the options, where will you shop for your wine … bottle shop, curated case from a wine agent, online services, wine club, wineries or sticking with the LCBO?

Climate Change in Niagara’s Vineyards

Although scientists have warned that climate warming will dramatically impact our planet within years, some changes are already noticeable in Niagara’s vineyards.

Who better to consult on this matter than an academic studying climate change impacts on agriculture and a hands-on grape grower!

The Academic & Researcher

Dr. Tony Shaw (Professor Emeritus at Brock University) was kind enough to respond to my inquiry about what is taking place in Niagara’s vineyards. He pointed out that global warming already threatens the stability of wine production. Dr. Shaw noted that the annual temperatures have increased overall with winters becoming more moderate.

The warming trend might seem like a good thing in our cool growing climate – prolonging the growing season, opening up additional regions to grape growing, and making it possible for less winter hardy grape varieties to grow here. But is it all good?

Dr. Shaw warns there are still climatic fluctuations year to year – for example, an increasing trend has been noted in the total growing degree days, while a declining trend is observed for extreme damaging freezing temperatures. A common characteristic to all the trends is the high degree of inter-annual variability. That can translate into vintage variation for medium to small producers, leaving wine consumers wondering why their favourite brand tastes different (whereas large producers may have reserve wines to blend creating a more consistent flavour profile).

During the winter months – when grapevines are normally dormant and resting – vineyards now experience temperature variability with frequent thaws followed by extreme cold snaps which increases winter damage on the trunks of vines and reduces productivity. In addition, production of Icewines may be jeopardized by warmer spells in early winter, leaving grapes unfrozen and susceptible to rot.

Trunk winter damage

With the warming also come extreme weather events – late frosts, excessive rainfall, and hail – all have detrimental impacts on grapevine productivity and fruit quality. Look no further than the damaging thunderstorm of Sept. 7/21 packing 100 km/h winds, large hail and lightning in Southern Ontario or the Jan. 10/20 rain (25 mm falling in one day in Niagara) and snow storm costing $98 million in damages in Ontario and Quebec (as reported by the Insurance Bureau of Canada) – among others in recent years.

In addition, Dr. Shaw noted the increase in annual precipitation, mostly falling as rain, which increases fungal disease pressure in the vineyards. At the same time, sunshine hours have increased and so grape growers now need to be aware of the potential for sunburned grapes!

Ron Giesbrecht, winemaker and co-founder of Wending Home Estate, has asked his vineyard workers not to remove as many leaves (exposing grape clusters to direct sunlight) – called leaf-pulling – on the Chardonnay vines to prevent sunburn damage.

Another significant development has been a decline in the diurnal range (the difference between daytime temperature and night time temperature).

Why does this matter? Phenolic compounds play an important role in colour development, astringency, flavour and aroma for grapes – and these tend to develop during the cooler night temperatures – with a decline in the diurnal temperature range, these compounds may be negatively impacted with resulting wines tasting, smelling and looking a tad different.

Grape Grower/Farmer

Erwin Wiens, grape grower (Niagara-on-the-Lake), says that no year is the same in farming.

However, he too has noted that there are more days with 30+ degree Celsius temperatures during the growing season. Moreover, with winters also being warmer, he notices that vineyard pests are not being killed off and new pests have arrived – mites, aphids, grape berry moths, leaf hoppers, Japanese beetles, sting bugs and multi-coloured Asian ladybeetles to name a few.

Leaf hopper damage

The last, an invasive species, can affect the flavour of wine if inadvertently crushed and incorporated in with the grapes at harvest. Due to the warmer temperatures in Niagara, they live longer and reproduce in higher numbers.

Why is this important? Climate change is having an impact on grape berry chemistry, specifically on methoxypyrazines (a class of molecules that contribute ‘green’ characteristics to wine). Although naturally occurring in some grape varieties, for example, they contribute positively to the overall flavour profile of Sauvignon Blanc wine – in higher quantities, however, they produce an undesirable flavour like green pepper or peanut butter. The multi-coloured Asian labybeetle arriving on grape clusters to the winery and inadvertently crushed also imparts methoxypyrazines flavours to the juice, tainting the finished wine.

So, grape growers are learning how to adapt to the climate changes they are experiencing in their vineyards through consultation (Integrated Pest Management, IPM) and experimentation (e.g., trying out better rootstocks, testing for winter hardiness of new varieties such as Malbec, Syrah, Petit Verdot, Sémillon and others that consumers seem to want).

Viruses such as leaf roll and Pearce’s disease (which moved north from the U.S.A.) also affect grapevines and can be spread by some pests (e.g., leaf hoppers). Unfortunately there are no cures, so parts or whole vineyards are pulled out, the vines burned and the vineyard eventually replanted with healthy, virus-free vines.

This all adds higher costs to production and is a financial drain according to Wiens (who indicated that grape growers work on average 11 years to break even).


We are now in code red for humanity and the planet according to the 2021 report from the United Nations on climate change.

So far, only small changes have been noted in Niagara but grape growers and wineries need to seriously begin planning for the future.

In other wine growing regions across the globe, steps to address the impacts of climate warming have been taken, for instance:

  • Bordeaux, France – reduction of the use of pesticides in vineyards (e.g., fumigants more detrimental to environment than carbon dioxide); selecting drought-resistant rootstocks; managing weather extremes in the vineyard through agroforestry – adding shade over vineyards; introduction of new red and white varieties for warmer growing conditions -Arinarnoa, Castets, Marselan, Touriga Nacional, Alvarinho and Liliorila
  • Sustainability Programs – introduced in South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, California, Oregon, Washington State, Chile, Portugal among others, and yes … Ontario. These programs include reduction of energy consumption such as transportation costs and use of light weight wine bottles, reduction of water consumption, increasing bio-diversity around vineyards, increasing organic and biodynamic practices, and respecting the health and safety of workers.


Finally, consumers, too, need to take steps to reduce their carbon footprints. After all, we are all on the same ship … and it may be sinking.

Best Grape Varieties for Niagara

Now that you already know what makes Niagara Wine Country unique, let’s take a look at which grape varieties grow well here.

Keeping in mind that we are a cool climate wine growing region with harsh winters, this limits the number of grape varieties that can thrive here … but I think you will agree that fresh fruit flavours, refreshing acidity, and a noticeable tannic structure (of the reds) are hallmarks of Niagara wines!

So what does Niagara grow well?

Whites: Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris/Grigio, Vidal

Reds: Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Gamay Noir, Baco Noir

There are other varieties grown in the Niagara wine region such as Sauvignon Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon among many others. But the defining point of this blog is what grows well in Niagara and is consistent vintage to vintage.

For example, the harsh winters in 2013 and 2014 killed most of the fruiting buds on Merlot vines with fruit developing only for the 2016 harvest.

Riesling

Riesling is considered one of the best food-pairing wines. It is the 2nd most planted white grape variety in Niagara.

Riesling wines are aromatic (floral, fruity), delicate, lower in alcohol, refreshingly high in acidity, have finesse and are capable of ageing for decades in the bottle. Riesling’s aroma & flavour profile includes citrus, green apple, apricot, white peach, white blossom/jasmine, mineral notes and petrol.

Yup, you heard correctly – petrol. This is due to a chemical compound 1,1,6-trimethyl-1,2-dihydronaphthalene (TDN). As the wine ages, wine acid breaks down the aromatic compounds known as terpenes and creates a petrol aroma. In small amounts, this is desirable, too much and it can be a fault.

There are two misconceptions about Riesling:

The first misconception is the pronunciation of the grape variety/wine … the correct way to say it is reese-ling.

The second … is that all Riesling wines are sweet. Not true!

The reason why wine drinkers think Riesling is sweet has to do with the high acidity inherent to this grape variety. So, in order to balance the wine, many winemakers leave some residual sugar to round out the acidity. Hence, Riesling wines can be completely dry, off-dry or sweet – that depends on what the winemaker desires or the winery’s style.

Originally from the Rhine region in Germany, Niagara’s Riesling vines are mostly based on the Weis clone (21B) imported from Germany’s Mosel Valley (also a cool climate region).

Riesling is a hardy grape variety, fairly resistant to grapevine diseases and thrives in cool climates like Niagara. It buds late so it is usually not affected by spring frosts. Although Riesling prefers well drained, sandy loam, and slate soils, the vines will tolerate a variety of Niagara soils and that is reflected in the ripening time of the grapes and in the finished wine’s flavour profile – expressing terroir.

Riesling

Chardonnay

Chardonnay is often referred to as the winemaker’s grape because it is fairly neutral and the wine can be made in a range of styles … all influenced by winemaking processes. So, the wine can be crisp, light, and lean with citrus and apple aromas/flavours  – often found in Niagara’s unoaked versions; or it can be round, full bodied, buttery with peach, apple, even pineapple aromas/flavours with hints of vanilla and toast – found in Niagara’s oaked versions. 

Don’t forget, sparkling wine is often made with Chardonnay.

Did you know that Ontario hosts a yearly celebration of Chardonnay, called i4C, International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration?

Thought to be indigenous to Burgundy (Bourgogne, France), today Chardonnay vines grow in all wine growing regions of the world. In Niagara, it is the the 3rd most planted white grape variety. It is fairly cold hardy, grows well in a wide range of soil types, ripens early and is a dependable producer – ripening consistently in Niagara’s short but sunny growing season.

Chardonnay

Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio

Pinot Gris is also known as Pinot Grigio – the labelling of the wine will depend on the winemaking style. If labelled Pinot Gris, the wine will be fuller bodied, higher in alcohol, and may have aromas/flavours of citrus, peach, and tropical fruit (if very ripe) with some spice notes. If labelled Pinot Grigio, the wine will be light, crisp, lower in alcohol and with aromas/flavours of lemon, pear, and green apple with some floral notes.  

It is Niagara’s 4th most planted white grape variety. Pinot Gris is considered a white grape but its skin can range from pale pink to bronze often giving a pinkish or bronze hue to the finished wine. It also happens to be a natural mutation of Pinot Noir.

Pinot Gris is relatively cold hardy, ripens early producing moderate yields, and it is suited to a range of soil types – and so it does well in Niagara.

Pinot Gris

Vidal

Vidal is a white hybrid grape variety (meaning one parent was a French grape variety and the other parent a North American grape variety) used to produce white table wine, late harvest wine and Icewine. Also known as Vidal Blanc (developed by French grape breeder, Jean Louis Vidal), it was brought to Canada in the 1940s and planted widely because of its ability to survive harsh growing conditions. Vidal is the most planted white grape variety in Niagara.

As a dry table wine it is medium to full bodied, with bright acidity and aromas/flavours that are both floral and fruity – peach, pear and finishes with a spicy note. As a sweet wine, Vidal offers honeyed fruits and caramel.

Why does it do well in Niagara?

Vidal is cold hardy, produces consistently and is versatile – making a range of wine styles.

Vidal blanc

Cabernet Franc

Ontario’s finest red? Well, okay that’s a matter of opinion. But the backbone of Ontario’s red wine industry is Cabernet Franc (most planted red grape variety).

Cabernet Franc wines are medium bodied, with refreshing acidity, and soft tannins. Its aromas/flavours include raspberry, red currant, sour cherry, bell pepper, some herbal notes and a touch of spice.

Originating in the Basque country of the Western Pyrenees (straddling the border of France and Spain … but in terms of climate think cool, damp and windy), Cabernet Franc is now planted internationally in a variety of climates. It is also a parent grape of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Carménère.

Did you know it is a blending partner with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot for Meritage blends? That’s what Canadians call a Bordeaux type blend.

So why does Cabernet Franc do well in Niagara? It’s all about climate adaptability & versatility.

It buds and ripens early (so great for our short growing season); it adapts easily to a variety of soils; it can be fermented and aged in stainless steel, concrete, oak etc. – thus expressing either an easy drinking lightness or something more complex.

Cabernet Franc

Pinot Noir

Often called the heart-break grape, Pinot Noir can be difficult to grow. It is quite fussy about climate and soils. It is the 4th most planted red grape variety.

Luckily, Pinot Noir performs best in cool climates like Niagara where there is just enough heat and sunshine to slowly ripen the grapes. Pinot noir buds early and ripens early, and the longer the berries can stay on the vine developing flavour compounds and without becoming too ripe, the more complexity the resulting wine will have. It prefers well drained soils such like those found on the slopes of the Niagara Escarpment – called benches (e.g., Beamsville Bench).

Pinot Noir wines are light ruby in colour, medium bodied, and have aromas/flavours of raspberry, cherry, plum and cranberry with some earthy notes like mushroom and wet leaves. If aged in oak the wines will also have some vanilla and spice notes.

Gamay Noir

Gamay Noir is a light-bodied, fruit forward wine – similar to Pinot Noir – but perhaps without the complexity. It’s also extremely food friendly (yes, with fish, too) or can be enjoyed on its own. And it’s delightful when chilled for summer sipping. It’s also lower in tannin so there is none of the furry mouth feel and no tannin-caused headaches.

Fun fact: Gamay Noir is related to Pinot Noir! DNA analysis has revealed it is a natural cross between Pinot and Gouais Blanc, believed to have occurred in the Burgundy region … home to Beaujolais (which is Gamay Noir by the way).

The colour of the wine may be light, almost transparent ruby red, but can be deeper in hue depending on the winemaking process (e.g., carbonic maceration and oak ageing). Expect juicy flavours of sour cherry, cranberry and strawberry, floral notes, some earthiness and subtle white pepper spice on the finish.

Why does it grow well in Niagara? 

Gamay Noir performs well in a cooler climate and is less fussy to grow than Pinot Noir. In 2019, 1770 tonnes of Gamay Noir were harvested (up from 1586 tonnes in 2018). If Ontario has become known for quality Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, Gamay is not far behind and gaining popularity.

Gamay Noir

Baco Noir

Baco Noir is a French-American hybrid red wine grape (meaning one parent was a French grape variety and the other parent a North American grape variety), it was created to withstand cold winters and the phylloxera pest. It is one of the most successful hybrid grapes in Ontario and the 3rd most planted red grape variety in Niagara.

Sometimes called a meatier Pinot Noir, Baco Noir produces a deeply coloured wine with medium body, high acidity and light tannins. The aromas/flavours include cherry, dark berries and plum with overt smoky notes. Due to the high acidity, Baco Noir wines are often aged in oak to mellow the acidity and to add a toasty finish to the wine.

Climate Warming and Niagara’s Future Grape Varieties

Climate change has already impacted the Niagara wine growing region with more severe weather events (on the negative side) and new areas opening up (within the province of Ontario) for grape growing like Huron County (on the positive side). With the climate warming, more experimentation with grape varieties is already happening in Niagara – such as Syrah, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Sémillon and Chenin Blanc … but more on that in the next blog.

Niagara Wine Region: An Introduction

I love to write about wine and help wine enthusiasts delve deeper into the science and the art behind winemaking – which inevitably leads to wine growing regions and their peculiarities. This in turn often involves a discussion about climate, soil types, vineyard management, grape varieties and the people who are passionately devoted to all things wine.

Besides this blog, I also write for frogpondfarm.ca and have started a series of wine related articles for winevirgin.ca – the following content was published in part for their members’ newsletter.

Some of my blog readers are part of the global community of wine enthusiasts and may not understand how Canada can be a thriving wine growing region considering our northern climate – so let’s begin with that in mind.

Where do wine grapes grow in Canada: Ontario, British Columbia, Nova Scotia & Québec

Ontario has several appellations of origin – but our focus in this blog is the Niagara Peninsula.

What makes Niagara Wine Country unique? Well, it has a lot to do with location, climate, topography, a range of soils and grape varieties, pioneering and hard working people, not to mention several wine industry educational and research bodies.

Let’s take a closer look at each of these influences.

Cool Climate Viticulture

Niagara Peninsula’s grape growing area stretches from Niagara-on-the-Lake in the east to Grimsby in the west. It is a cool climate wine growing region and the largest viticulture area in Canada. Situated at approximately 43˚ N, Niagara is in fine company with wine regions at that same latitude – like Northern Spain, Southwestern France, Central Italy, plus 17 additional countries around the globe. But that does not mean all of these regions have cool climates – that really depends on other influencing factors (altitude, prevailing winds, proximity to large bodies of water etc).

Typically, cool climate wines have bright acidity and fresh fruit characteristics – like raspberry or sour cherry in red wines. Often there are also herbaceous notes. So, don’t expect heavy bodied, jammy wines such as those produced in warm climates like California and Australia. Niagara’s red wines are more delicate and elegant, with a tannic backbone. The whites are refreshing … offering zesty acidity, green apple, citrus and peach fruit, some with floral or herbal notes, and a touch of minerality.

Minerality – wine aroma & taste that is non-fruit, non-herb, and non-spice related. Think of briny, saline sea oysters, chalk, flint, crushed gravel or wet stone notes.

Cool climate viticulture can be a risky business. Growers may face frost hazards in May, heavy rains at harvest, and when winter temperatures dip to -20˚ Celsius, severely damaged vines – all impacting yields, the viability of grape farming, and profitability. However, Niagara has not only weathered these challenges, it has thrived with more acres under vine and new wineries cropping up every year.

Niagara Fun Facts:

  • A total of 13,600 acres under vine (approx. the same area as St. Emilion in Bordeaux, France)
  • Production (2020) 1,718,667 (9 litre cases)
  • Home to 55% of Ontario’s VQA wineries (that’s 97 wineries)
  • The Niagara Peninsula accounts for over 93% of Ontario’s grape-growing volume
  • The Peninsula is divided into two regional appellations:
    Niagara Escarpment and Niagara-on-the-Lakeplus 10 sub-appellations.
  • Niagara Escarpment sub-appellations:
    Beamsville Bench, Short Hills Bench, Twenty Mile Bench
  • Niagara-on-the-Lake sub-appellations:
    Niagara River, Four Mile Creek, Niagara Lakeshore, St. David’s Bench
  • Other sub-appellations:
    Creek Shores, Lincoln Lakeshore, Vinemount Ridge

An appellation is a legally determined and protected wine region and wines produced there are referred to as wines of origin. Each appellation is unique and characterized by its soil, geology, climate, and topography; it may also have a reputation for a specific wine style or grape variety.

Land & Water Working Together

Two major topographical features work in tandem here in Niagara to create a unique microclimate that makes growing wine grapes (vitis vinifera) possible – that is Lake Ontario (to the north) and the Niagara Escarpment (to the south).

Benefitting from the moderating effects of Lake Ontario and Niagara River, and the protective influence of the Niagara Escarpment, Niagara’s monthly temperatures during the growing season are similar to those in Bordeaux and Burgundy in France.

So how does this work?

The constant circulation of off-shore breezes between Lake Ontario and the Niagara Escarpment profoundly moderate seasonal and diurnal (day-night) temperatures across this appellation. In the fall, breezes from the summer-warmed Lake Ontario waters raise land temperatures and prevent cold air from settling, thus extending the growing season well into November. In spring, breezes from the winter-cooled Lake lower land temperatures, holding back the development of fruit buds until the danger of late spring frosts has passed. In summer, when the land heats up faster than water, cooling Lake breezes aid in slowing ripening so that more complex flavours can develop in the grapes while also preventing the loss of acidity.

Variety is the Game

Niagara Wine Country’s varied and complex soils, along with its microclimate, have given rise to an abundance of grape varieties that are grown here – in fact 46 different varietals!

However, only the following are grown in significant quantities for the production of wine:

  • Top white varieties – Vidal, Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, and Gewurtztraminer
  • Top red varieties – Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Baco Noir, Pinot Noir, Gamay and Chambourcin

Yet, the dedicated and curious visitor to Niagara’s wineries can find wines made from lesser known grape varieties such as Aligoté, Pinot Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Dornfelder, Zweigeltrebe and Lemberger.

Many wine grape varieties have a preference for specific soil types (e.g, Pinot Noir performs well in loamy soils, Chardonnay prefers limestone soils, whereas Merlot likes clay). The Niagara Peninsula has a range of soils (laid down by alluvial and glacial deposits thousands of years ago) – from sand to clay – with complex mixes of gravel, loam, and silt thrown in – all covering a bedrock of shale, sandstone, dolomite rock and limestone. With this range of soil types, the region is understandably home to many varietals.

Pioneering People

The modern era of winemaking in Ontario began in Niagara Falls in the 1950s when Brights Wines (today part of Alterra Wines Canada) planted vitis vinifera and hybrid grapes and produced the first vinifera wine in Ontario.

Twenty years later, due to the efforts of Donald Ziraldo and Karl Kaiser, Inniskillin was granted the first new winery licence since the 1916 Prohibition.

Following soon after were pioneers like Herman Weiss, who planted 50 acres of Riesling in the St. Urban Vineyard (Vineland Estates Winery), Paul Bosc Sr. of Chateau des Charmes, Herbert Konzelmann of Konzelmann Winery. Other pioneers of note are Donna and John Lailey, John Marynissen and Ewald and Klaus Reif. They set the stage for today’s growers and winemakers who work with over 91 wineries in the Niagara Peninsula.

Fun Facts About Niagara Wines

  • 1984 first commercial Icewine is produced with “grapes frozen on the vine”
  • 1988 Ontario wineries create the Vintner’s Quality Alliance (VQA) setting geographic appellations and strict production standards (becoming law in 1999)
  • 1991 Inniskillin Icewine wins Grand Prix d’Honneur at Vinexpo in Bordeaux France
  • 1996 CCOVI (Cool Climate Oenology & Viticulture Institute) is established at Brock University
  • 2011 An annual international Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration is launched in Niagara (the first Ontario event assembling international winemakers)

Education & Research at Your Service

The Niagara Region is lucky to have several institutions that promote wine education and agricultural research. This means that there are graduates every year capable of working in the wine industry and that research for the grape and wine industry continues to provide information and innovation.

Niagara’s Brock University – BSc in Oenology and Viticulture

Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute – established in 1996, the Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute (CCOVI) at Brock University (St. Catharines, Niagara) was developed in partnership with the Grape Growers of Ontario, the Winery & Grower Alliance of Ontario, and the Wine Council of Ontario. CCOVI is an internationally recognized research institute focused on research priorities of the Canadian grape and wine industry, and the continuing educational and outreach services needs of that community

Niagara College – offers several wine/beer/spirits industry programs such as …

  • Winery & Viticulture Technician Program
  • Wine Business Management
  • Beverage Business Management
  • Brewmaster and Brewery Operations Management
  • Artisan Distilling

Grape Growers of Ontario – located in Niagara, is the voice of the viticulture industry, serving grape growers by providing them with current, informative and supportive services in order to maintain and grow the industry in Ontario
Vineland Research & Innovation Centre – located in Niagara, is an independent, not-for-profit organization, funded in part by the Canadian Agricultural Partnership and dedicated to horticulture science and innovation, delivering innovative products, solutions and services

With all this going for it, it is no wonder that Niagara Wine Country is unique and worth exploring!

Next blog: What grape varieties grow best in Niagara and why

How Low Will You Go?

I’ve been drinking wine for some time now … (but please don’t ask a lady her age) and have definitely noticed that alcohol levels in wine have been steadily rising.

Table wines used to hover around the 12% abv … now it’s rare to find them below 13%; moreover, wines with 14 or 14.5% alcohol are common place.

Is it a result of consumer preference for certain wine styles or is climate change impacting growing conditions in the vineyards globally?

Jaime Goode back in 2007 noted a red wine trend he termed the international style: “red wines showing higher levels of ripe fruit, accompanied by softer tannins and plenty of new oak influence often get very high scores from the leading critics, whose ratings then influence sales … When grapes are picked late to achieve this style, and lots of new oak is employed in the elevage, the sense of place (or terroir) of a wine is often masked. Wines ending up tasting similar no matter where they have come from.”

Climate change/Global warming: data show that over the last 50 years average temperatures in most wine regions have risen noticeably. Warmer growing seasons usually result in riper grapes with higher sugar levels.

A recent study conducted by LIV-EX has tracked rising alcohol levels of wines from 1990 to 2019 in California, Italy (Piedmont, Tuscany), Burgundy and Bordeaux. These regions show an increase in alcohol levels over that time span with wines now averaging 14%. Only Burgundy has remained somewhat steady at 13%-13.5% over that period.

Where does wine alcohol come from? The sugars in fermenting grape must is converted to ethanol/alcohol by yeast. The more sugar – the higher the alcohol. Weather conditions during a particular vintage may affect alcohol levels in the final wine. But so can many stylistic decisions taken by winemakers in the cellar and in the vineyard.

Three key factors can determine sugar content in grapes: climate, altitude, and varietal. So grapes grown in moderate to cooler climates (hint: Ontario), or at higher altitudes, don’t ripen as quickly as those in warm climates (like California and Australia). This allows for skins to slowly develop flavour compounds and pips to mature (e.g., they turn brown) – called phenolic ripeness – without excessive sugar levels, thus producing moderate alcohol levels in wine.

Some Examples of Lower Alcohol Wines

Wine StyleGrape Variety and/or Wine Region
Sparkling (5.5% – 12.5% abv)Moscato D’Asti (Italy)
Brachetto D’Acqui (Italy)
Lambrusco (Italy)
Prosecco (Italy)
Cava (Spain)
Champagne (France)
Ontario VQA Sparkling
Whites (5.5% – 12.5% abv)Vinho Verde (Portugal)/Albarino (Spain)
Moscato (Italy)
Falanghina (Campagna, Italy)
Soave (Italy)
Gavi (Cortese grape, Italy)
Pinot Grigio (Northern Italy)
Vermentino (Sardinia, Italy)
Riesling (Ontario, Germany)
Muscadet (Loire, France)
Vouvray (Loire, France)
Sauvignon Blanc (Loire, France)
Moschifilero (Peleponnese, Greece)
Semillon (Hunter Valley, Australia)
Grüner Veltliner (Austria)
Reds (Cool Climate, 12% – 13.5% abv)Gamay Noir (Ontario, Beaujolais/France)
Pinot Noir (Ontario, New Zealand, Oregon)

Yet alcohol (as part of the balance of a wine) is not all bad … it adds sweetness and body. However, when it gets beyond 14% it can smell and taste “hot” as well as mask the grape variety’s fruity aromas.

The most important thing with any wine is how it tastes. Does it taste over-ripe, jammy? Does it taste alcoholic (hot on the mid-palate and finish)? If it does, then the winemaker got it wrong. If a wine is in good balance (acidity = tannin = flavour intensity = alcohol) then the alcohol does not show.

And Now

There is a push from wine influencers (sommeliers, journalists, bloggers, buyers, critics, and makers) to have wines of moderate alcohol. Moreover, there has been a change in the public’s attitude toward alcohol consumption (e.g., drinking & driving, health concerns).

Miguel Torres Maczassek of Bodegas Torres was quoted at the launch of Natureo 0.5% white in 2007: ‘De-alcoholised wine doesn’t compete with classic wine, but [it does compete] with water, juice and soft drinks, which aren’t always ideal to match with food. Food and wine – be it with or without alcohol – bring people together and help them enjoy life a little more.’

So if you are looking for lower alcohol wines or are brave enough to try the alternatives (de-alcoholized wines – where sugar makes up for the lack of alcohol usually), here are some to consider.

Alternatives

  1. Spritzers – this one is easy, just take any wine and add ice cubes, some bubbly water/soda, and a dash of lemon or lime
  2. Choose low alcohol varieties (see list above) or Miguel Torres’ Sangre de Toro Garnacha 5.5% abv @ LCBO (but look out for the high residual sugar 26 g/L) or Outset Sparkling @LCBO or Between the Lines Winery, 10%abv.
  3. De-alcoholized wines such as St. Regis or Loxton (at local grocery stores) or Torres Natureo (0.5% abv @SAQ)
  4. Piquette – a low-alcohol wine made from the second pressing of grape pomace, (enjoyed by French farmhands and vineyard workers and derived from the French word for “prick” or “prickle” – describing the drink’s slight fizz; in Italy, piquette is known as acqua pazza, acquarello and vinello). Alcohol levels are between 4–9% abv. Piquette is packaged in Belgian beer bottles under crown caps or in cans. The following Ontario wineries offer Piquette: Leaning Post, Tawse, Trail Estate (PEC), Traynor (PEC), Red Tail Vineyards (Erie North Shore)

Making & Drinking Wine

Having made wine without chaptalizing (the addition of sugar to raise the potential alcohol level), my Chardonnay and Riesling wines (made from Niagara’s ripe grapes) hovered naturally around 10% abv. The wines were fruity and easy drinking. Likewise, having travelled often in Portugal, the lunch time wine that is normally served is low alcohol (around 9% abv) and slightly fizzy, making it perfect for mid-day drinking – refreshing without the heaviness and dulling effects of alcohol.

So what am I drinking that is lower alcohol? With only 6 g/L of residual sugar this Loureiro/Arinto blend from Portugal proves my point – refreshing, crisp, with green apple, white pepper spice, and a touch of wet-stone minerality at 10.5% abv. ($13.95 @LCBO)