Lake Erie North Shore Gathers Momentum

Wine Access, November 2006

Locals refer to the area as "the Deep South", but they have a point: on a late-August visit, 22 degrees and rain in Toronto at 1 p.m. became 28 sunny, humid degrees in Kingsville at 5 p.m. Mexican labourers, who harvest Essex County's bounty, rode their bicycles after a day in the fields.

Erie North Shore does not look like a wine region. There are huge greenhouses everywhere and fields full of produce. Roadside stands in Niagara tempt with peaches, plums and berries; here, you get tomatoes, cucumbers and bell peppers. But things are on the move on the vinifera front. Laurie MacDonald of VQA Ontario confirms the region's rapid progress: "It's definitely developing and we've seen a spurt of growth - from 3 VQA wineries in 2000 to 11 today."

Winemaking has been happening in the area since Confederation. Vin Villa, on Pelee Island, was up and running in the 1860s. Pelee Island Winery's "Vinedressers" series features historical photos of Victorian-era staff on the labels - suits and ties all round, even among the field workers. But, as with Niagara, vinifera grapes were not planted until about thirty years ago. Today the area produces good quality whites like chardonnay, riesling, and gewurztraminer, but the pinot gris (or, increasingly, "grigio") is also reliable. But the distinguishing feature is its Bordeaux-style reds.

"This area is particularly suited to producing good red grapes," says Colio Estates winemaker Carlo Negri, whose 2002 CEV Reserve Merlot won a gold medal and "Best Merlot" at Cuvée 2005 in Niagara-on-the-Lake. "The summer heat is similar to Niagara's, but our growing season is at least 10 days longer and so the grapes mature more slowly."

Negri, who was named ontario's Winemaker of the Year in 2005, will retire next year after four decades. He has a word of caution for those who trumpet pinot noir as Ontario's next great wine: "My view of pinot noir [in Ontario] is that it must be a good year. In poor years, you can have a decent cabernet franc or merlot, but not a decent pinot."

Pelee Island Winery winemaker Jeff Kah presides over Ontario's largest vineyard at 550 acres, providing impressive economies of scale that result in lower prices. He says his winery is focused on super-cleanliness and attention to detail in the production area, and it too is expanding. "We were inspired by some of the bigger Niagara wineries who have amazing tasting rooms," says Kah, whose ambition couldn't have come at a better time.

John Fanscy is the affable giant spearheading the ambitious Viewpointe Estates Winery in Harrow. With millions invested, he and his partners are taking a bold bet that the area's time has indeed come. "We want to position ourselves as the destination winery in southwestern Ontario," says Fancsy. "At Viewpointe we're offering something special - a winery experience, a cooking experience, or just a great place to just hang out by the lake." The nearly-completed complex features an impressive kitchen with a dazzling row of frighteningly industrial-looking stainless steel stoves and a large area for cooking-demo spectators. Viewpointe has also invested in winemaking technology, like an automatic "de-leafer" - a useful in a high humidity region where there's a danger of mildew and diseases. And like Colio and Pelee Island Winery, Viewpointe is experimenting with clones and rootstocks to see which perform best, as well as a range of different grapes - auxerrois anyone?

So how is all this Erie activity translating in the glass? Check out the Buyer's Guide on page 60, where David Lawrason profiles some of the best quality and value wines of the region.

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Alan McGinty
Toronto

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phone 416.737.7215
fax 416.366.3811
write alan@alanmcginty.com