Pinot noir isn’t Ontario’s most planted grape. It barely even lands in the top ten. But when it comes to growing and nurturing this very fickle variety, Ontario is right there among the very best regions in the world to do it, though you probably never knew that (or maybe you don’t even believe it). A great wine, after all, is the result of both nature and the skill and art of those who can translate its best qualities into a glass.
Undoubtedly one of the most sought-after red wines, pinot noir is praised for its soft texture, bright fruit and captivating spicy and earthy notes. It’s possibly the one wine that forces us imbibers to truly contemplate its distinctive personality.
Burgundy, France, has long been the spiritual home of pinot noir, where it produces some of the best single-varietal wines in the world. As the wines of Burgundy rose in fame and price, winemakers all over sought to emulate the region’s success. This led to plantings of pinot noir throughout other parts of Europe and the New World.
“I believe we are right at the very top when it comes to pinot noir.” – Ilya Senchuk
Pinot noir does better in cooler climates, as its trademark acidity, delicacy and finesse tend to disappear in warmer climates and hot weather. Southern Ontario lies in the centre of the world’s wine belt, between 41° – 44°N. While the area does not have a climate identical to other cool climate growing areas of the world within the same band, such as Burgundy, it does share many aspects with these regions that are crucial to the production of fine wine.
More specifically, both the Niagara Peninsula and Prince Edward County are the most ideal spots for pinot noir to thrive in Ontario.
Prince Edward County – located about three and a half hours east of Niagara – is prized for its limestone bedrock and lake effect breezes, lending a savoury and minerally taste to pinot noirs. Its climate tends to produce wines with strong acidity, the kind that unmistakably identifies this specific place on the wine map.
What makes Prince Edward County so intriguing to grape growers and wine critics alike, is the fossilized cocktail of porous limestone, shale and sandstone that feeds and nourishes the grapes. It’s the same underlying bedrock that contributes the elegance and delicious mineral backbone to the wines of Chablis, Champagne and, yes, Burgundy. Grape growers here know these soils are the dream environment for forcing pinot noir’s roots deep, thus capturing those complex and nuanced flavours.
“Outside of Burgundy, Ontario has the best soils for terroir grapes.” – Moray Tawse
In Niagara, the secret ingredients to producing world-class pinot noir wines stem from the limestone soils and the Niagara Escarpment’s relation to Lake Ontario. Furthermore, the distance that the vineyards lie between the lake and the foot of the escarpment determines, in large measure, the character of the wine. This would be why the Niagara Peninsula was decidedly broken down into ten sub appellations to help further distinguish the region’s diverse terroir as it relates to wine.
Some of these sub appellations tend to stand out more than others when discussing pinot. The mere mention of designated areas such as the St. David’s Bench, Beamsville Bench, Lincoln Lakeshore, and the Twenty Mile Bench, for example, tends to get the blood flowing and mind racing of any pinot enthusiast.
Prince Edward County isn’t divided into further appellations, but its approximately 50 wineries are scattered across several small towns and communities, including Wellington, Hillier, Bloomfield, Consecon and Lake on the Mountain. There are several more. Each area is perhaps ever so slightly unique, which helps lend to the final story that the wines are telling.
Adam Lowy is a former wine merchant with a passion for Burgundy wines. He decided he wanted to make wines based on his love for Burgundy, and so, he formed Cloudsley Cellars in 2015. But it’s where he decided to acquire his grapes from that really puts his love for pinot into perspective.
“I ended up choosing the Twenty Mile Bench (in Niagara) because this is where I think the best vineyards are for making Burgundy style wines,” he said when the two of us spoke last summer. With no vineyard property of his own, Lowy tends to source his grapes from a variety of vineyard sites situated throughout the small territory, many of which are owned and managed by the Wismer family. Their Parke, Homestead and Glen Elgin Vineyard locations are largely considered to be cru sites among producers who are fortunate enough to get their hands on its fruit.
Moray Tawse is the owner of two Niagara Escarpment wineries (Tawse Winery and Redstone Winery) along with his Marchand-Tawse winery in Burgundy. He too has an incredible passion for Burgundy’s wines, which drove him to wanting to own his own winery. Twenty years ago, he was convinced that Niagara was the place to start – and specifically the Twenty Mile Bench and Vinemount Ridge – another standout appellation designation that locates itself further up high along the escarpment.
Tawse knew Niagara was a global diamond in the rough for producing pinot noir upon learning about its soils and geologic history. “Outside of Burgundy, Ontario has the best soils for terroir grapes,” he says. “This was so important to discover because all the flavours and personality of our wines come from our soils.”
“You have to remember that our soils are even older than the soils in Burgundy,” explains Tawse. “It’s just a matter of time before we get those complexities that we are meant to discover and we’re able to taste truly exceptional wine.”
Lowy tends to agree, saying that “while there are many great pinot producing regions, nowhere comes as close to Burgundy stylistically. Some people may prefer the big pinots of California or the intensely fruit driven wines from New Zealand, but for those who love Burgundy, Ontario offers a similar profile.”
Leaning Post Winery is located within the Lincoln Lakeshore sub-appellation in Niagara and owner/winemaker Ilya Senchuk is a pinot fanatic, making his pinots from various sites across the Niagara Peninsula, including his own backyard in Winona. “I believe we are right at the very top when it comes to pinot noir,” he says.
Senchuk studied at Niagara’s Brock University along with so many others who have gone on to become talented winemakers throughout the country. He thinks that “the big change in the last 15 years or so is that we now have winemakers with enough experience to coax the best out of our terroir. Along with the fact that we now have a consumer who wants to go on that journey and explore these terroirs with us. It has allowed us to finally put our best foot forward.”
“If we want to be known for pinot, we must plant more pinot.” – Thomas Bachelder
Senchuk is proud to admit that “we are very lucky to live in such a beautiful place like Niagara. We have many different soil types and aspects in relatively short distances (clay, limestone and gravel, slopes and flatter areas) which also give different expressions of terroir. In all these ways we are quite like Burgundy, although definitely not identical but that is the definition of terroir!”
And then there’s Thomas Bachelder, a self-described terroir junkie who’s made pinot in four countries, spanning three continents, including Burgundy. If there’s anyone who’s best qualified to give a lesson on the difference terroir makes, it’s him. “I’d say Ontario is the closest thing to Bourgogne outside of Europe,” he says. “There are, of course, similarities that will continue to be highlighted but I think the more interesting aspects of winemaking are revealed in the differences between both regions. One unique element (of Ontario) is the beautiful minerality and pop from the region’s limestone-laced soils that, over time, I’m hoping the rest of the world will come to appreciate and covet as much as I do.”
So, with all this fanfare, you’d think that more people the world over would know more about and appreciate Ontario’s penchant for producing top quality pinot noir. “We are currently insignificant in terms of hectares planted and market share,” admits Bachelder. “If we want to be known for pinot, we must plant more pinot.”
If you ask Tawse, he seems to think it’s a matter of just needing more time to catch up. “We still have a couple decades to go, I think. Only because our vines need more time in the soils.”
Right now, we will all just have to settle for quality over quantity.
Below is a selection of my highest-recommended Ontario pinot noir wines, all tasted within the past year, representing both the Niagara Peninsula and Prince Edward County:
A real showstopper of a pinot, this was my pick for Ontario wine of the year (announced via our newsletter back in December). It’s single vineyard pinot in all its glory. Deep and intensely flavoured, this is an extraordinarily complex wine that deserves to be contemplated and discussed. The palate is rich and savoury, inducing flavour notes of brambled fruit, herbs, earth and minerality. The acids are impeccably balanced. Cellar worthy for years to come, this one had me pondering it long after I tried it. It undoubtedly finds itself sitting among a small handful of excellent, stand-out worthy pinots to come out of Ontario’s impressive 2017 vintage. ($50)
It’s just the third vintage of his namesake home vineyard pinot noir but already Ilya Senchuk has touted this particular wine as the best pinot noir he’s made to date. Back when the 2016 vintage was released, Ilya told me he wanted to release wines that were indicative of place and high-quality. For a wine coming from vines so young, the 2016 was astonishingly complex. This 2017 version kicks things up a notch and, thankfully, he’s made more of it (2016’s vintage only saw 59 cases produced, while 2017’s output has almost doubled at 110 cases). If you’re into terroir – like really into terroir – this is a wine that’s sure to excite you. There’s a real earthy vibe happening on both the nose and the palate. Beet root, mushroom, pine needle, floral and herbal notes. It’s further complemented with savoury fruits, spice, a dose of minerality and vibrant acidity. It’s got structure that will allow it to age throughout the latter half of this decade. This is a snapshot of a place and time that oenophiles shouldn’t hesitate to buy multiple bottles of. The journey of evaluating and contemplating it over the next several years will be an exciting one. ($65)
This is St. David’s Bench, otherwise known as the bench of Niagara-on-the-Lake. And this is the main event. The wine that seems to put everything into clear focus. It’s quite possible that there is no other vineyard in Ontario growing better pinot noir. Ontario’s grand cru if such a classification existed. The fruit is so coveted that only a select few winemakers get to access the original rows that were planted in 1984 and ‘88. Thomas Bachelder describes this wine as being a ballerina with great core strength. “It is the most perfumed and elegant wine we make,” he says. Since I began tasting the wine from this vineyard several years ago, I have known it was something special. The deep core of dark fruit, the silky-smooth texture on the palate, the earth and spice notes. Such finesse in a bottle. It’s very firm at the moment, so by all means, don’t rush this baby. Only about 3-4 barrels are made per year (about 1,200 bottles). A true collector’s wine. ($47.95)
From Prince Edward County, this is a blockbuster of a pinot noir. Designed to complement the winery’s Grande Cuvée chardonnay, and from the stunning vintage that was 2017, this is a wine that takes Ontario’s (already) distinguished capabilities of crafting magnificent pinot to another level. It opens with a mineral freshness before expanding voluptuously with richened red fruits, spiced plum, Christmas pudding and dried cherry lending support. No tart flavours at all. Subtle earth notes round out the extremely lengthy experience. It’s a complex wine that deserves your full attention. Cellar potential is 10 years. I wasn’t joking around when I said that this takes Ontario-made pinot to a new level of sophistication. It’s pricey, but very well done, nonetheless. ($90)
Hand-tended and hand-picked fruit, grown with organic materials when possible and minimal chemical use are fundamental to achieving excellent wines – especially wines that are true expressions of terroir, like pinot noir is. Soil, climate, and geography all coming together to produce an identifiable wine is icing on the cake. ‘The Royal Road Recipe’ is made of estate grown pinot noir, of multiple clones, and is quite complex and beautifully structured. Strawberry jam and raspberry sorbet aromas are accented by subtle earthy notes. The wine is minerally fresh and clean tasting on the palate with ripe red fruits, balanced acids and a savoury finish. It’s definitely approachable now but it will age nicely over the coming three to five years. ($44.95)
It’s easy to see why this pinot was selected as Ontario’s red wine of the year at last year’s Ontario Wine Awards. It’s an excellent wine and it sells for a very attractive price as a bonus. Entirely grown and selected from the estate’s north block vineyard (planted in 2001 and 2002), this is a deeply expressive pinot that’s managed the warmer 2018 vintage beautifully. There’s excellent structure here, with rich red fruits, dominated by cherry flavours that overlay an earthy, mineral finish. There’s a nice gentle grip to it that I like as well. Watch it develop further complexities over the coming five to seven years. I wouldn’t expect such an inviting price point to last too much longer. ($42)
Made from fruit grown in Keint-he’s oldest southern sloping vineyard, this pinot is composed of a three-barrel blend. It was spontaneously fermented with wild yeast before undergoing spontaneous malolactic fermentation. The wine was then aged in 33 percent new French oak for 20 months and bottled without fining or filtration. There is a certain elegance about this wine, with palate pleasing bright fruit, balanced acidity, mineral notes and a cran-cherry edge. It’s refreshingly clean and should cellar well for the next few years. ($55)
-Cover photo taken by Elena Galey-Pride for Wineries of Niagara-on-the-Lake