Faithful readers will recall that my favourite Canadian wine region is the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia, prized for its big and bold red wines, thanks to its sun-drenched desertlike microclimate.
I have typically given short shrift to the wine regions of Ontario, being much further from Alberta, and requiring transit through the dreaded Toronto airport, which unfailingly manages to lose my luggage, regardless of my ultimate destination.
In the spirit of domestic wine solidarity, I have been making a point of selecting Ontario wines while visiting my local bottle shop.
My last visit to Ontario took me through two of the three officially recognized growing regions, namely the Niagara Peninsula and the north shore of Lake Erie.
The Niagara Peninsula is the largest wine region in Canada, and is blessed with a unique microclimate, thanks to the moderating effect that Lake Ontario has on the Niagara Escarpment.
Wineries are plentiful in the region, stretching for 50km from Niagara-on-the-Lake to Hamilton, and mostly hugging the shores of Lake Ontario.
The big players in the Canadian wine industry are located here, including Inniskillin, Jackson-Triggs, Peller Estates, and many others.
This region is also home to the Niagara College Teaching Winery, where aspiring Canadian winemakers have learned viticulture and the business of wine for almost two decades.
The Lake Erie region is much smaller, although it does boast Canada’s most southern winery, located on Pelee Island, just barely on the Canadian side of Lake Erie, and quite a bit south of Detroit.
The third wine region of Ontario is Prince Edward County, and is also the newest, receiving its official designation in 2007.
Prince Edward County is winning accolades both in our domestic market and internationally, with its main claim to fame being a terroir and latitude very similar to the Burgundy region of France, home to the top Pinot Noir in the world.
Prince Edward County is on the north side of Lake Ontario, around 200km east of Toronto, or just west of Kingston for the Tragically Hip fans in the audience.
Similar to the Burgundy region of France, Price Edward County rests on limestone bedrock with plenty of gravel in the soil to promote drainage for the finicky Pinot Noir vines whose roots are prone to rot in wet soils.
At 44 degrees north in latitude, Prince Edward County is just slightly below Burgundy’s 47 degrees, still in the prime growing latitude for cool climate grapes like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
Unlike the Pinot Noir wines of Grand Cru vineyards of Burgundy that regularly fetch hundreds of dollars per bottle, our local examples in Prince Edward County are priced within reach of mere mortals, generally in the $30 to $50 range.
Pinot Noir is often referred to as the heartbreak grape, as it is very fussy about temperature and humidity changes during the growing season, leading to many tears of sorrow from winemakers.
Our cold Canadian winters are no friend to the Pinot Noir vines planted in Prince Edward County, leading winemakers to protect the vines from freezing by burying them in mounds of soil during the winter months, then uncovering them again each spring.
Pinot Noir pours into the glass a much paler colour than other red wines, but do not mistake it for a light-tasting wine. Aromas on the nose are of rose and plum, with hints of currant and red fruits. On the tongue, expect flavours of raspberry, cranberry, vanilla, mushroom, and tobacco.
The flavours of Pinot Noir are subtle and complex, making it a favourite of wine snobs the world over, although less so for the novice boozer who enjoys big and jammy reds.
The region is home to 35 different wineries, most of which are small and family-owned affairs. With only 700 acres under vine, Prince Edward County is tiny even for Canada, only 5% the size of the nearby Niagara wine region, and close to 8% of the size of the Okanagan wine region of BC.
What Prince Edward County lacks in size, it makes up for in quality, and has quickly become the destination for premium Pinot Noir in Canada. Although its official designation has only existed for a dozen years, the earliest grapevines go back for about 35 years, and they get better every year.
Look for a bottle at your friendly neighbourhood booze merchant and see for yourself!