I’ve always loved the idea of Ontario wine – that is, the idea that our province is home to a wine-producing community that wine aficionados from around the world recognize alongside some of the old-world giants like France and Italy. Unfortunately, try as I might, I’ve never quite managed to fall in love with Ontario wines. Many of the local wines I’ve bought from LCBO shelves just haven’t done it for me, for several reasons: I’m a red wine drinker, and while Ontario produces both reds and whites, it’s usually the rieslings and chardonnays that get the accolades. And as much as I enjoy reds, while I haven’t met many Cabernet Sauvignons or Tempranillos I didn’t enjoy, the Cabernet Francs and Pinot Noirs that dominate Ontario vineyards haven’t dazzled my palate.
These were the preconceived notions I took with me on a recent media tour of the Niagara wine region to mark the start of the LCBO’s goLocal campaign. I joined several dozen food and wine writers on a Via Rail trek to St. Catharines, where we were split into two groups, each group boarding a different shuttle bus to explore different wine producers. This year marked the twentieth consecutive year of the LCBO’s annual fall promotion of Ontario wines, and the theme of its 2011 campaign – find your favourite – seemed apropos considering my apprehensive attitude toward local wines. We were going to be given the opportunity to taste our way through more than a dozen whites, reds and sparkling products from the Niagara region, and I was determined to leave with a better understanding of our province’s wine industry and, hopefully, to have found a few bottles that I loved.
Over the course of the day, my group met with winemakers from Hillebrand Estates, Trius, Vineland Estates, Peller Estates, Angels Gate, Henry of Pelham and Diamond Estates (producer of the Dan Ackroyd line of wines). Being given the chance to connect with the producers, listen to them talk about their passion and knowledge for winemaking and the Niagara region, and taste a number of their wines back to back made me realize just how lucky southern Ontarians are to live so close to such a vibrant wine-producing region. This is key to really understanding local wines, because while standing in your LCBO and trying to choose an Ontario wine from a wall of products and labels you’re not entirely familiar with can be intimidating, spending a few hours immersed in the land that bears these wines and having the experts walk you through the differences between each grape, blend and vintage can help you zero in on something you’ll enjoy.
Hillebrand Estates winery tasting room being prepped for a busload of food writers.
The wine that ended up having the biggest impression on me was the 2010 Sauvignon Blanc from Trius. This was a surprise to me, in that I didn’t expect to enjoy a white wine this much. But the bright, fruity flavour and really fresh grape bouquet won me over. My runner-up pick (a bottle of which made its way home with me) was 2009 Angels Gate Gamay Noir. AJ McLaughlin, the company’s VP of sales and marketing, commented that Gamay Noir was a grape that didn’t necessarily have the same cachet as some of the more well-known Niagara grapes, but that it produced a “good crossover wine” that often appeals to white drinkers who aren’t big on red wines… or in my case, a red drinker who tends to avoid whites.
The Angels Gate winery in Niagara.
The LCBO goLocal tour reminded me that a visit to Niagara is easily achieved, from Toronto at least, and is a great way for wine lovers to learn more about what makes Ontario-produced wines so special. I may have started the trip as a skeptic, but I definitely left as someone who’ll be a bit more inclined to consider the local racks at the LCBO.