BY LINDA MONDOUX
Farmers in the Meaford/Blue Mountains area have been tuning in to Mother Nature since the mid-1800s to help them shape Southern Georgian Bay into what today is hailed as Ontario’s premier apple-growing region.
Thanks to a microclimate created by the deep waters of Nottawasaga Bay and the protective arms of the Niagara Escarpment, commercial farmers here also successfully grow pears, peaches, plums, strawberries, raspberries and blueberries in the shadow of Ontario’s premier ski hills.
And are those grapes growing over there?
It was just a matter of time before those escaping the crowds in southern Ontario’s big cities — loved for their fresh, eclectic cuisine and fine wines, despised for their traffic jams and sweltering, smoggy summers — would recognize the full potential of this unique growing region and determine to find out if it could produce a nice glass of red or white to pair up with Southern Georgian Bay’s emerging food scene.
The answer, after years of research and millions of dollars of investment, is a resounding yes!
Coffin Ridge Boutique Winery
in Annan in northern rural Meaford, and Georgian Hills Vineyards
south of Thornbury in The Town of the Blue Mountains, are both producing award-winning wines, while a third, Four Wheel Farm Winery, is gearing up for public sales — initially online — in Glen Huron, 17 kilometres south of Collingwood in the Township of Clearview. At least two other wineries are in the planning stages, with research ongoing across the fledgling wine region to determine what grapes will thrive and survive in Southern Georgian Bay’s cold and snowy winters.
'Everything is an experiment up here'
“We’re all learning together,” says Robert Ketchin, manager and partner at Georgian Hills Vineyards, which is located about 45 kilometres southeast of Coffin Ridge.
“Everything is an experiment up here,” agrees Mike Todd, manager at Coffin Ridge, Grey County’s first producing winery. “It’s expensive growing wine, so you need to have vines that survive, grapes that ripen in your climate and without too much extra work, like expensive spraying or burying for winter.”
While both wineries have kept cold winters in mind when choosing their grape varieties, they have taken different approaches to the unique growing opportunities created between the bay and the Niagara Escarpment.
Georgian Hills, whose founders also include Niagara winery owner Murray Puddicombe and Blue Mountains apple grower John Ardiel, who oversees the grapes grown on the winery’s estate at Victoria Corners and on his own farm, has opted for the “tried and true,” says Ketchin. The winery is focusing on the Old World vitis vinifera
varieties introduced from Europe — including the ever-popular Pinot Noir, long associated with the fine wines of Burgundy, along with Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Riesling — and French hybrids such as Seyval Blanc, Vidal Blanc and Marechal Foch.
Ketchin says the decision to produce vinifera wines in Southern Georgian Bay was deliberate and aimed at adding the “missing link” to the region’s local culinary offerings. “This is a strong tourist area with a proven hard fruit-growing region, so it was natural for us to take the chance to complete the experience: you come to ski, to hike, to eat local, and now you can add a glass of Georgian Bay wine to that,” he tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com.
A wine for all seasons
For the winter crowd, Georgian Hills Vineyards produces a vidal, along with apple and pear wines to salute the region’s fruit-growing past. For summer, there’s also a sparkling pear wine.
It’s one of the winery’s French hybrids — the Marechal Foch 2010 — that brought home a 2012 Ontario Wine Award for Georgian Hills, winning a silver medal.
“We’re very pleased with what we’ve done so far,” says Ketchin. “And we’re very pleased with our Gamay.”
Georgian Hills has plans to expand its vineyards by another 10 acres over the next five years — there are currently 12 acres on the estate and five acres at Ardiel’s farm. While Ketchin says it takes three years from planting before the first grapes can be harvested, and another three years before the grape shows its true flavours, the research and experimentation continues.
Ketchin sees potential for Cabernet Franc, another vinifera wine that will be considered for the future. But the popular Pinot Gris just might be on its way out. Fingers are crossed, but after its first vintage, the grape is showing signs of “trouble with winter.”
“Nature will decide if it is hardy enough to survive,” Ketchin says matter-of-factly.
Georgian Hills is now looking at adding the L’Acadie Blanc grape to its vineyard, borrowing a page from Coffin Ridge Boutique Winery’s cold-hardy hybrid playbook. “I wouldn’t mind trying it,” Ketchin says.
Not only is Coffin Ridge the first in Ontario to produce L’Acadie Blanc, the white Chardonnay-like wine won a Double Gold at the 2012 All Canadian Wine Championship in the single white hybrid category. Also winning a Double Gold was the winery’s Marquette — the first such variety vinified in Canada — in the single red hybrid category.
For Mike Todd, who manages the winery and the vineyards for owners Neil and Gwen Lamont, the top awards are proof that Coffin Ridge’s years of research into matching grapes to the local terroir have paid off. “L’Acadie and Marquette are two varieties that do very well up here (in Southern Georgian Bay) and only here, so it makes it unique,” Todd tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com. “These varieties best express our climate.”
Cold climate hybrids a tough sell
The award-winning grapes — along with other hybrids chosen by Coffin Ridge for their cold-climate hardiness — are also disease resistant, which makes them easier, and cheaper, to grow. “Our theory is start with what grows here, then figure out how to sell it,” says Todd, adding that the goal from the beginning was to produce quality local wines that could sell in the $20 range.
Todd has nothing against vinifera wines — Coffin Ridge produces a Riesling from Niagara grapes because that’s a popular wine that helped get the winery’s brand into the LCBO — but says the emphasis is on growing quality grapes that thrive in the local microclimate without too much maintenance, which adds to the cost.
He points to the Prince Edward County wine-growing region, known for its Pinot Noir. “The whole area only makes about 16,000 cases of wine a year and with 30-plus wineries, that’s just not enough,” he says. “That says to me that the variety is wrong. Sure, they can make a great Pinot. But at what cost? Thirty-five dollars a bottle is not within most people’s price range.”
Even at the Vineland research station in Niagara, the Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris grapes are rated a “three” on the winter freeze damage scale from 1 to 10, where 1 is most susceptible and 10 is most tolerant. Avoiding freeze damage means the vines are usually buried after harvest, adding to the cost. With more snowfall cover in Southern Georgian Bay, however, growers are opting to use snow as a natural protection, saving money on burial costs. Only time will tell if this method will work for the long haul. The most hardy when it comes to freeze damage are hybrids, such as Leon Millot and Marechal Foch which score a 10, rather than the more popular Old World varieties.
In L’Acadie Blanc and Marquette, the latter of which is designed to withstand temperatures of -36C, Todd believes Coffin Ridge has what it takes to wear the VQA label of excellence in Ontario. “We’ve been working on getting the VQA designation for a couple of years,” Todd says. “The holdup is the hybrid debate in the industry.”
Coffin Ridge must convince the folks at VQA Ontario, the regulatory agency that sets the rules and standards of winemaking and labelling, that the little-known L’Acadie and Marquette hybrids can not only produce wines with a distinctive imprint of origin, but wines that are of such high quality they rightly deserve a spot beside the province’s best-selling vinifera brands.
VQA Ontario shuns native grapevines
That Coffin Ridge’s two cold-climate favourites have won Canadian gold medals can only help the cause. A VQA designation would help get the word out about the winery’s star wines to a wider public, and it would also bring monetary rewards, with more profit to keep when sold to restaurants, for example. But as Todd says, “it’s a political thing.”
With the European vitis vinifera
grapes now the standard in Ontario’s wine industry, no one wants to be reminded of the days of Baby Duck, when the province’s sweet and musky-tasting wine was made from the native vitis labrusca
grapevines. Since the catawba and concord grapes were swept to the curb en masse in the 1970s in favour of Old World grapes, Ontario has been busy producing mostly vinifera wines crafted in the province’s four official viticultural areas, or appellations: Niagara Peninsula, Lake Erie North Shore, Prince Edward County, and Pelee Island.
There are only eight hybrid varieties on VQA Ontario’s approved list — including two developed in North America: Baco Noir and Vidal Blanc, used for Canada’s famous icewine. The others, mostly French hybrids, are used primarily for blends. Not surprisingly, L’Acadie Blanc, new to Ontario, and Marquette, new to the world, are not on the list.
According to VQA Ontario: “The permitted hybrids have been carefully selected based on a demonstrated record of quality achievement. Of particular note is the success of the Vidal Blanc for making icewine. Other hybrids have not been included on the list of permitted varieties because of a history of association with an undesirable character described as ‘foxy.’ More specifically, hybrids with vitis labrusca
parentage are not permitted to be used in any VQA wine. Wineries are free to produce wines from grape varieties that do not appear on the authorized list, however these wines must not be labelled with VQA appellation terms.”
Ontario’s economy would benefit if VQA Ontario added cold climate hybrids to the list, Todd says. “We would have a lot more wineries up here if we had a grape you could grow easily.”
The dilemma is that L’Acadie Blanc — the signature white in Nova Scotia — is a hybrid currently unique to Ontario, and the Marquette, a North American-French hybrid patented by the University of Minnesota as part of its renowned cold climate grape research, hasn’t been around long enough anywhere to make a name for itself.
“A lot of these hybrids don’t have a track record,” says Todd. “We got our hands on the Marquette when it was released in Minnesota in 2006. We knew we wanted to get it in the ground. We planted 1,000 vines the first year and 6,000 the next. Our first harvest was 2009. It’s been working out really well; the vines are holding up.” It’s the 2010 vintage that took the gold.
Award-winning L'Acadie Blanc sold out
As for L’Acadie, the hybrid was invented at the Vineland research station in the early 1950s. Researchers got rid of the cultivar — then known only as V-53621 — after deciding it was not suited to Ontario’s (read Niagara’s) hot summers. Lucky for Coffin Ridge, test samples that had been sent out to a research station in Nova Scotia and later planted in Grand Pre were spared and continued to thrive, giving birth to Nova Scotia’s wine industry in the 1970s. V-53621 was renamed L’Acadie Blanc in honour of the province’s French settlers.
“The wine it makes is amazing,” Todd says of L’Acadie. “It’s a great variety for our microclimate. It would be too hot for it in Niagara or Prince Edward County. But we have the perfect climate for it here.”
With only 1,000 vines in the first planting — 2,000 more were planted later, with plans to add more in the future — only 100 cases of L’Acadie were produced. Sold only at the Coffin Ridge Boutique Winery, it didn’t take long for people who dropped by for a tasting to develop an appetite for the full-bodied white wine.
“We’ve also had some nice write-ups in wine letters,” Todd tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com. “People have caught on to L’Acadie, and we’re sold out. People are already lining up for next year’s vintage.”
As for Marquette, the award-winning red wine, it too was well-received locally. The University of Minnesota describes the wine as having “attractive ruby colour, pronounced tannins and desirable notes of cherry, berry, black pepper, and spice on both nose and palate.”
Word about this new cold-hardy red wine is spreading, with a few other winemakers in Prince Edward County and the Ottawa area adding the Marquette grape to their vineyards.
“If you treat it right, in a blind tasting you could not pick up that it’s a hybrid,” Todd says.
The winery’s other unusual-for-Ontario cold-hardy white grapes grown on the 25-acre estate include Frontenac Gris and La Crescent, two hybrids also developed at the University of Minnesota, Geisenheim 318, a hybrid also grown in Nova Scotia, Prairie Star, a French-American hybrid developed in 2001, and Auxerrois. Estate red grapes also include Baco Noir, Marechal Foch, Leon Millot, Frontenac and Pinot Noir. Three other local vineyards grow another nine acres of grapes for Coffin Ridge.
While Coffin Ridge’s vines can thrive without too much work, marketing is another story. “The challenge is selling new things people have never heard of,” Todd says. “If we want to get the cold climate wines into the LCBO, it’s an uphill battle.”
That’s why winning the blessing of the Ontario wine industry regulator is so important. But with VQA Ontario obviously convinced that too many hybrids will spoil the show, getting L’Acadie Blanc and Marquette approved, along with other cold climate grapes, will take time. Getting Southern Georgian Bay added as Ontario’s fifth appellation area will take even longer.
Wineries in this new winemaking area would have to produce at least 250 tons of grapes before VQA Ontario would even consider giving Southern Georgian Bay its won appellation designation, according to Todd. With Coffin Ridge the largest producer at about 50 tons — about 4,000 cases of wine a year — reaching that production level could take 20 years.
In the meantime, Todd will keep working on getting the VQA folks to put his award-winning hybrids on the list, while concentrating on what Coffin Ridge does best. “Our plan is to keep making quality wines and eventually, something will happen.”
Patience is also in abundance just west of Clarksburg in the Town of the Blue Mountains, where a geologist has been researching and cultivating grapes since 1999. “I look at this venture as a 10-year odyssey — a legacy thing,” Laurie Curtis says in the Summer 2012 issue of On the Bay
magazine. “With a geology and terroir identical to Niagara, there is no reason why this can’t be done here.”
MyNewWaterfrontHome.com — July 2012