I took a trip to the Niagara Peninsula near Toronto in late May, seeking a respite from the Florida heat. I packed heavy clothes expecting cool and refreshing weather. Big mistake. Little did I know that Toronto and its surrounding areas can swelter at up to 90 degrees, and it can get even hotter around Lake Ontario, where they grow much of Canada's wine grapes. I ended up sweating my butt off and had to bee-line to the Gap for shorts and T-shirts.
Unlike me, grapes thrive in this type of heat, which puts the lie to what many people assume about Canadian wine: that it doesn't exist.
First, a few things you may not know about the Ontario wine region: (1) the grapes grow at the same latitude as France's Bordeaux and Northern California; (2) Canadian wineries grow many of the same grapes as everyone else: chardonnay, riesling, pinot noir, et al; and (3) it's sunny and dry during most of the summer.
In the Niagara Peninsula, there's something called a "lake effect," where the water in Lake Ontario stores up the heat generated during the summer like a rechargeable battery and releases it during winter. Winds from the lake circulate the pent-up warmth, keeping the fruit safe from freezing temperatures. The lake effect opens up plenty of grape opportunities for the Niagara region.
In the early '80s, the Canadian government noticed a lack of worldwide attraction to the country's wine, and subsidized growers who would plant more competitive grape varieties like chardonnay and pinot noir. Many yanked out their existing hybrids, and it took some time to figure out each variety's sweet growing spot (in fact, they're still working on that). They did learn, because of their shorter growing season, to only plant grapes that mature quickly, like the group mentioned before. Cabernet and merlot, which need more time to ripen, don't do as well.
But some of the Canadian roots remain intact. Baco noir, a hybrid red grape, still prospers in the Niagara Peninsula. Producing a wine with some distinct heft and deep purple color, bacos are rich, rustic and spicy.
Due to its northerly location, Canada is associated with a dessert pleasure called ice wine -- also named Vin de Glacière or Eiswein in various parts of the world. Each winter, Canadian wineries allow a certain amount of riesling or vidal grapes to stay on the vine after the first freeze. This concentrates the sugars in the fruit, so after being harvested and pressed the liquid is unctuous and really, really sweet. The result is rather sexual ... silky, exquisite -- liquid bliss.
Some Niagara Peninsula ice wines are available south of the border, and many can be purchased online, depending on where you live. The best examples are Inniskillin, Cave Spring, Henry of Pelham and Jackson Triggs. They're not cheap, though. Ice wine is expensive to produce, so you'll normally pay more than $40 for a half-bottle. I might also add that they are worth every nickel.
But Canada's really not all about ice wine. When I was winery hopping, I tasted some amazing barrel-fermented chardonnay from Henry of Pelham (weird name, but, hey, it's family-owned), and then tried and bought an excellent dry riesling from Vineland Estates. To really experience Canadian wines, may I suggest a visit? Fly into Toronto and take the hour drive south to wine country. It's also on the way to Niagara Falls.
Sterling 2004 Shiraz Vintner's Collection Smooth, elegant and friendly. Fragrant plums, spicy black pepper and jammy raspberry define its personality. Sw = 1. $13. *** 1/2
Bonny Doon 2005 Big House Pink Smells like pork tenderloin with a bing cherry sauce. This rosé has some woodsy earthiness to it, but also bright strawberry and tart cherry. Sw = 1. $10. *** 1/2
Sweetness (Sw) rating is out of 10, 10 being pure sugar. Star (*) rating is out of 5, 5 being wine nirvana.