This series is dedicated to emerging and exciting new wine regions, perhaps not as well known or explored by the mainstream consumer. This entry focuses on Ontario’s west coast and Dark Horse Winery, located in Grand Bend, Ontario, about two hours from Toronto.
Ontario’s west coast is quickly shaping up to be more than just farms, beaches and quaint little towns and villages. As is the case with the emerging wine region of Ontario’s south coast (situated along the southwestern shores of Lake Erie), Ontario’s ‘west coast’ – better known as Huron County – has joined the ranks as a wine and craft brewing community that’s worth checking out.
Located on the southeast shore of Lake Huron, Huron County is one of the most agriculturally productive areas of Ontario, producing wheat, corn, fruits and vegetables, dairy, hops, lavender and yes, grapes. With a steady increase in the number of homes being used as cottage rentals and the beaches of Grand Bend as the destination’s pinnacle attraction, wine touring and tasting is beginning to catch on, making its way onto tourist’s must-do lists.
Leading the way for the region’s newest industry is Dark Horse Estate Winery, a gorgeous property that features a 31,000 square foot facility with state-of-the-art winemaking technology and a guest area complete with an expansive full service banquet and conference space that can comfortably accommodate 300 guests. In addition, there are tasting rooms, an elite VIP space, wine cellar and patios overlooking the vineyards. It’s the first fully functioning estate winery in what is Ontario’s newest and emerging winegrowing region.
Establishing Huron County as an emerging region didn’t just occur by way of happenstance. In fact, in 2011, Huron County took the initiative to commission a complete climatic and soil study on the development of a viticulture industry within the boundaries of Huron County and specifically Huron Ridge. The study looked at the geological formation of soils along the Huron Ridge which was mainly glacial sediment, similar to the soil conditions found in grape growing regions such as Burgundy, Alsace and Loire Valley in France. The region’s relatively high pH alkaline hard clay soils are chalk full of calcium (measuring at a 7.9-8.0) which helps in producing fresh tasting wines.
It was also concluded in the report that Huron County met an adequate number of growing degree days to successfully grow quality wine grapes (the region is about three to four degrees cooler than Niagara on any given day). And winds coming off lake preserves would be seen as beneficial, imparting freshness, ripeness, adding elegance to the fruit.
With the backing of science, county authorities and business owners were now confident in their feeling about a wine and grape growing industry doing well here. It would create new businesses, provide jobs and would broaden tourism. All they needed was for someone to take the lead, someone to bet on the industry and foster success to the area.
That ‘someone’ would be John Rasenberg, who along with his wife Sue Ann was already a success story with the family’s well-established electrical company, J.M.R. Electric. With their daughter and son-in-law in tow, John and Sue Ann set their sights on another business venture, one which would combine her love of wine and his of his community – and so, Dark Horse Estate Winery was born.
In fall of 2014, Dark Horse Winery underwent a complete under tiling on over 20 acres of land to ensure sufficient drainage in preparation of planting vines in summer of 2015. The winery now oversees over 22,000 vines, consisting of such varieties as cabernet franc, chardonnay, riesling, baco noir, vidal and marquette. (The success of the winery has motivated Dark Horse to increase its plantings by an additional 10 acres over the next few years.)
Currently, the winery produces 5,000 cases of wine with a plan to increase that output to 7,000 and even 8,000 cases in due time – significant progress from the modest 1,000 that the winery produced when first beginning.
The Rasenberg family loves to describe their winery as the horse you didn’t see coming; the trailblazer determined to carve a new path. In effect, they’re right, having paved the way for many more to follow. After all, success breeds success.
There are now five wineries situated within Ontario’s west coast, with seven breweries and two cideries, all having been built in the last five years. And there’s more on the way. Fortunately, the excitement surrounding this growing industry is drawing more than just cottagers and beach-goers who are becoming obvious customers. Wine consumers and enthusiasts from outer areas within the province and even the United States are showing that they have a thirst for something new, something different.
During my summer cottage getaway to Grand Bend this year, I managed to visit Dark Horse Winery, located right next to the iconic Huron Country Playhouse (the area’s performing arts theatre). I had the good fortune of being contacted by Ashley Horlor (daughter of John and Sue Ann), whom I had the pleasure of speaking with over the phone. She explained the winery’s story and how it was essentially the “guinea pig” for the region.
Ashley would eventually set up my visit to the winery with Mark Williamson, who is a member of the winemaking team at Dark Horse and a former graduate of Niagara College. Mark walked me through a tasting of most of the winery’s estate bottlings – they make wines sourced from Niagara grapes too, but I was mainly interested in tasting estate-grown wines for this particular visit.
As we toured the property afterwards, Mark shared the winery’s ambitious vision – one that’s surely promising and generating much excitement within a community that’s been set ablaze by this industry. In fact, if I was a betting man myself, I’d be confidently betting the farm on this dark horse too.
Dark Horse 2019 ‘Unapologetically’ Brilliant Rosé
From the winery’s ‘Unapologetically’ label – a more consumer-friendly collection that’s made up of a selection of whites, reds and this rosé. It’s a blend that’s composed of riesling, chardonnay and cabernet franc that’s semi-dry in style (residual sugar is on the sweeter side at 18 g/L) but the balanced and fresh acidity – a true hallmark of this cooler region – is what keeps this wine in check and prevents it from tipping the scale. The wine is crisp with notes of strawberry, cranberry, apple and some citrus. A textbook rosé. ($15.95)
Dark Horse 2017 ‘Unapologetically’ Brash White Blend
This is a blend of five grape varieties, including vidal, riesling, chardonnay, gewürztraminer and muscat. Each was fermented separately in stainless steel tanks and then blended to create this final product. It’s flinty with hints of kerosene, smoke and sweet orange aromas. Flavours of pear, pineapple, grapefruit and additional citrus fruits are enjoyable. There’s some floral and spicy notes on the finish. A rather complex, food friendly and tasty wine at a very attractive price point. ($12.95)
Dark Horse 2018 ‘Unapologetically’ Sinful Red Blend
A red blend that’s made up of estate baco noir and mainly Niagara sourced merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc. It’s an approachable, easy drinking wine with notes of cherry, blackberry and subtle spice. As opposed to its white blend counterpart, this is not a very complex wine. And at this price point, you probably wouldn’t expect it to be. But one can’t deny its food friendly nature. ($14.95)
Dark Horse 2018 ‘One Horse Town’ Marquette
The ‘One Horse Town’ label is the winery’s next level up; a more premium portfolio which includes this estate-grown marquette – a hybrid grape that’s winter hardy and reliable in cooler climate regions. This expression is quite flavourful and concentrated with present, but smooth tannin structure. Aromas of ripe dark cherry and spice are a foreshadowing of things to come, as richened flavours of dark fruits coat the palate with a spicy warm embrace. Its six months in both new and used American and French oak barriques have helped impart structure and character to the wine that also underwent full malolactic fermentation. I’m told it’s a popular wine and I can understand why. ($24.95)
Dark Horse ‘One Horse Town’ Baco Noir
Baco Noir is another hybrid varietal that’s known for its winter hardiness and it’s still a very popular choice among consumers, at least here in Ontario. Usually a wine that’s higher in residual sugar, this particular offering is noticeably less sweet (at 5 g/L) – a stark contrast from the flabbier and over-extracted bacos one mostly tends to find coming out of the Niagara region. This wine is fresh tasting, with lively acidity over full-bodied palate flavours of blueberry, plum, vanilla and spice. A very good wine that came out of a very successful vintage for the region. ($21.95)
Dark Horse 2018 ‘Valegro’ Riesling
Inspired by a champion horse, the Valegro collection makes up Dark Horse’s ultra-premium offerings, “crafted for people whose passion for living life to the fullest includes the enjoyment of a great wine.” Included among the portfolio are a chardonnay, red meritage, a traditional method sparkling, a selection of two different Icewines and this riesling. Produced from 100 percent estate-grown fruit from the winery’s Stirling Gait Vineyard, this riesling is superbly crafted, one that’s a real conversation starter. Don’t be put off by the wine’s nearly 40 g/L of residual sugar content. You’ll barely notice it. Yes, it’s a lower alcohol, sweeter wine, but the balance between sugar and acidity here is bang on. It’s made in a low intervention style with the wine spending much of its time resting on its lees, not over-pumped or transferred from one vessel to the next. This helps to preserve freshness. The nose has hints of flint, minerality, honey and bees wax. The palate is an explosion of flavours that sing and dance in complete harmony on the tongue, with peach marmalade, honeysuckle and orchard fruits all working seamlessly. It’s zesty, crisp and very food friendly – will pair perfectly with spicy Asian cuisine or fish with salsa. Made to enjoy now but will cellar beautifully for the next decade and beyond. A truly memorable wine that’s classic in its old world style. ($34.95)
Dark Horse 2018 ‘Stirling Gait’ Chardonnay
Included among my tasting was this unreleased single vineyard chardonnay, which is sourced from their two acres of chardonnay vines within a block called Stirling Gait. It’s a beautiful wine, with subtle notes of petrol, flint smoke and orange peel (I’m beginning to realize that these are the signature flavours of this specific terroir). The mid-palate is creamy, soft and rich with intensified flavours of peach and pear. There’s even some spice on the finish that comes off as a nice touch. Previously this wine was part of the ‘Valegro’ series, but I’m told that the winery will soon begin to branch off from that line and will use the Stirling Gait Vineyard name where applicable. ($29.95)