This series is dedicated to emerging and exciting new wine regions, perhaps not as well known or explored by the mainstream consumer. Our second entry focuses on Ontario’s south coast and Burning Kiln Winery, located in St. Williams, Ontario, south of Hamilton.
Ontario’s south coast is like a phoenix rising from the ashes. Characterized by its charming small towns, scenic forests and fields of green on either side of its meandering roadways, this area is an agricultural hub for Ontario farmers and growers. In fact, it’s one of the most biologically and agriculturally diverse regions in all of Canada.
To be more specific, this is Norfolk, Elgin and Haldimand Counties, an area along the shores of Lake Erie that was once the epicentre for the nation’s tobacco crops, accounting for 90 percent of the country’s yield (or a whopping 100 million pounds of the stuff per year!). Three decades ago, this part of Ontario basked in riches; not even so much as a pothole to be found on its rural side roads.
But all that changed by the end of the 1990s with the steep decline of cigarette smoking. It threatened to ruin the area. What could be done about the massive hemorrhage that was taking place? Surely these farming communities would find something else to prosper in.
No longer identified by one main crop, the area has taken the better part of the past two decades to re-invent itself. Among the cattle farms and fruits and vegetable growers, a new industry is rising: wine making.
Already a very lucrative industry in Niagara and other parts of Ontario, the wine industry contributes greatly to the economy of the province and the country, specifically to the tune of $4.4 billion. The sector also generates thousands of jobs for Ontarians in retail, farming and product development. When one door closes, another one opens, and this seems like the right opportunity to capitalize on something that is in high demand with consumers.
Ontario’s south coast is not exactly considered an official Ontario VQA designated viticultural area (DVA). Not yet anyway. However, this emerging wine region hopes to join the ranks of existing DVAs Niagara Peninsula, Prince Edward County, and its closest neighbour to the west Lake Erie North Shore, and become the nation’s newest official wine region. (In 2017 the Ontario South Coast Wineries & Growers Association submitted its application to the Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA) to grant the region this special status. The status is still pending.)
Plotting terroir and explaining its influence through appellations of origin is a trusted system for consumers to measure the quality and distinctiveness of the wines they are buying. It also has serious impact for grape growers.
But just like their westerly neighbours, the region’s location presents certain challenges, the greatest of them being winter. Unlike the deep waters of Lake Ontario, which moderate temperatures year-round on the Niagara Peninsula and to a lesser extent in Prince Edward County, shallow Lake Erie has a much weaker influence, and on occasion freezes over. This means that vineyards are left unprotected and temperatures can drop to vine-killing depths for all but the hardiest varieties. It presents certain limitations, but growers remain intent on developing an identity for the area.
With roughly 130 acres of vines planted in the sandy soils within this south coast region, things are merely just getting started (there are 13,600 acres planted in the Niagara Peninsula). There’s close to a dozen wineries that have staked their claim thus far, with Burning Kiln Winery leading the way as the region’s torchbearer.
Rooted in the agricultural significance of tobacco and Norfolk County, Burning Kiln offers a vision of this emerging region’s bright future. The picturesque winery is a repurposed tobacco pack barn situated on top of the escarpment, overlooking Long Point Bay on Lake Erie, close to vacation areas and beaches.
It’s a place that combines scenic and idyllic charm as the forests meets the lush countryside, the vineyards stretching out to join the two. The first vines were planted in 2007 and the first vintage was 2011. There’s just over 27 total acres now planted on the estate. Its calling card is the re-purposed use of the old kilns that were once used to dry tobacco leaves. The winery uses these kilns to dry all of its red wine grapes for an appassimento style of wine and has earned an Agri-Innovation award for this specific re-purposing.
I visited Burning Kiln for the first time this past summer. The drive through the scenic countryside was one that brought back memories of a childhood spent traveling through farm country to visit my grandparents and their 200 acre beef cattle farm. Spend enough time surrounded by high rise buildings and pavement as far as the eye can see and I guess one gets excited and nostalgic when they see a sea of green.
Ontario’s south coast is peaceful, clean, friendly, and above all else, beautiful. My visit to Burning Kiln included having a delicious lunch and a glass of wine on their spacious patio before taking a walk around the grounds, touring the facilities, and ultimately tasting through much of their portfolio. Below is a complete review of my tasting notes from much of what I sampled:
Burning Kiln 2017 ‘Sparks’ (Pinot Noir Rosé)
Tank method rosé sparkling made with pinot noir grapes. It’s dry and elegant, with fresh acidity and delicate flavours of pear, apple, strawberry and citrus elements. ($26.95)
Burning Kiln 2017 Cureman’s Chardonnay
The name Cureman’s chardonnay – like many of the brand names within the Burning Kiln portfolio – takes its cue from the tobacco industry. This is fermented in French oak which gives off flavours of honeyed melon, apple and vanilla. Subtle mineral notes can be detected in an otherwise light bodied and typically pleasing cool climate chardonnay. ($24.95)
Burning Kiln 2018 ‘Sweet Leaf’ Riesling
Made using estate-grown fruit, the grapes for this riesling are kiln dried which produces a more concentrated and sweeter flavour profile in the wine. Listed as medium sweet, this wine sports nearly 46 g/l of residual sugar content and boasts a generous 13.5 percent alcohol/volume. But you wouldn’t notice it. It’s beautifully balanced with lovely floral aromas that act as a preview to tastes of dried apricot, candied orange and pineapple. It’s an intriguing wine and bound to be a favourite among many visitors. ($28.95)
Burning Kiln 2017 ‘Stick Shaker’ Savagnin
Perhaps the most interesting wine of their entire portfolio is this – an appassimento style white made from the savagnin grape, a varietal that originates from the Jura region in France. It’s so scarce in Ontario, just eight acres are planted in total throughout the province, with two of those acres planted at Burning Kiln. It’s got generous and pleasing aromatics and a palate profile that sings of butterscotch, caramel apple and toasted almonds. Medium sweet and highly memorable. ($29.95)
Burning Kiln 2016 ‘Prime’ Pinot Noir
Appassimento style pinots are generally not my sort of thing. I’m not particularly a fan of the often excessive and forced concentration of flavours that tends to unfold in what should be a wine less about wine ‘making’ and more about showcasing its sense of place. Nevertheless, this is the Burning Kiln way of doing things and it’s to be respected and viewed as an experience unto itself. When putting my reservations aside, I’m able to enjoy this wine’s inviting aromas of raspberry jam and strawberries and cream. The palate is noticeably rich and fruit forward with flavours of dark, ripened cherry, strawberry and raspberry. There’s further notes of smoke and a sly dose of minerality. It’s a different expression of pinot noir, not a wrong expression. ($24.95)
Burning Kiln 2017 ‘Kiln Hanger’ Cabernet Franc
This is the winery’s flagship offering. A bold, appassimento cab franc with a lifted nose of ripened fruits, spice and leather. It’s deeply coloured, indicating a rich concentration of ripened plum and berry flavours that include blackberry, raspberry and strawberry. It finishes warm and spicy with hints of pipe tobacco, nutmeg and some tannic grip. At 16.2% alc/vol, don’t be shy to cellar this for a decade. ($49.95)
Burning Kiln 2017 ‘Strip Room’ Red Blend
A blend of merlot and petit verdot, this deep crimson coloured wine is quite floral in its aromatics. It’s densely concentrated and firmly textured with noticeable tannin structure. A slight bit warm, it’s got palate pleasing flavours of wildberry fruit, vanilla and baking spice. It’s a wine to keep note of, especially at this attractive price. ($34.95)
Burning Kiln 2016 ‘M-1’ Merlot
There’s a lovely raspberry purée nose to this bold and generously flavoured merlot that hails from the super vintage that was 2016. It’s richly layered, smooth and structured with fine, chalky tannins. Notes of dark cherry, plum and leather round out this impressive wine that’s delicious now but ultimately built to age for years and years to come. ($59.95)
Burning Kiln 2016 ‘Inferno’ Petit Verdot
This single varietal petit verdot seems to be made in a style that’s going to please many. Usually a quite tannic wine – especially while young – the winery’s signature appassimento method has really been able to concentrate the wine’s structure and tame those wild tannins. The palate is therefore able to fully embrace a whole whack of flavours that include dark berry fruits, chocolate, smoke, spice and earth. It’s very smooth and silk-like; consumer friendly in taste, but maybe not so much in price. ($59.95)