As the fourth most planted red grape in the world, one might expect syrah to be more popular among growers and consumers in Ontario. Yet, according to VQA Ontario’s 2022 annual report, syrah accounts for just one percent of total production (by volume).
When it comes to Ontario wine, consumers and critics tend to fuss on the nuanced, acid-driven wonders of pinot noir, chardonnay, riesling and cabernet franc – varieties that thrive within the province’s chilly regions. Many other grapes are grown in Ontario, and many people would argue whether certain ones should continue to be grown. But Ontario is a big province, with multiple wine regions that can vary significantly from each other in terms of climate. Not every grape grows well in this province, that is a certainty, but winemakers have learned what grows best where and when to give up on trying something that just doesn’t stick.
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Prince Edward County, for example, is Ontario’s coolest wine region, and can be, on average, up to four degrees cooler than Ontario’s warmest and most southern winegrowing region, the Lake Erie North Shore. Whereas cabernet sauvignon is popularly planted at most Lake Erie North Shore wineries, it isn’t grown in Prince Edward County, and for good reason – it just doesn’t fully ripen.
So, it’s safe to say that many types of wine grapes grown within this vast province can find success, producing unique aromas and flavours that reap the rewards of endorsement among consumers and critics alike. So long as the right balance is struck between climate, soil and grower, anything is possible.
For fans of Ontario’s cool climate red wines, syrah is making an impression, desperately trying to join the big boys club, but perhaps still needs that extra show of confidence (merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, pinot noir and gamay noir all seem to take much of the spotlight). As mentioned, it’s nowhere near atop the chart when it comes to acreage or yield, nor is it a grape that many wineries want to bother farming due to its cold weather sensitivity. But those who are patient and have stuck with it have arguably been rewarded. And drinkers know that they’ve hit on something special.
Typically producing a deep, brooding, and jammy wine, with red and black fruit when grown in warmer environments (think Australian shiraz), syrah develops a distinctly spicy and savoury side when the average temperature is turned down a dozen or so degrees. It’s been noted for centuries in the Old World wines of Côte-Rôtie, at the northern tip of France’s Rhône Valley, and regions in New Zealand are now finding tremendous success with it – maintaining that classic cool climate style, purposely avoiding a jammy shiraz-like expression.
A full-bodied wine known for its excellent aging potential, syrah is revered for its powerful and rich tannin structure yet can be wonderfully fruity with a fresh tasting palate that’s designed to stand up to a variety of foods – especially barbecue. It can even take on meaty notes, with mouth watering bacon fat, black olive, pepper and smoky aromatics.
Michael Kacaba was the first to plant syrah in Ontario. His Silver Bridge and Terrace Vineyards on the Beamsville Bench are the oldest known parcels, with 1,500 vines planted in 1997. Kacaba’s impact on the variety is telling. His winery is making some of the finest expressions in the land, with his 2018 vintage earning a Silver Medal at the Decanter World Wine Awards in 2021 and landing a top ten spot in VineRoutes’ Ten Best Ontario Wines list the same year.
Jordan, Ontario’s Creekside Estate Winery has seen tremendous success with the grape also, with winemaker Rob Power becoming one of the variety’s most championed ambassadors. In fact, it can be argued that Creekside’s claim to fame is syrah and their excellent expressions of it that include the traditional splash of viognier in the final blend of their ‘Broken Press’ label.
Others making worthy expressions include Essex County’s Mastronardi Estate, Winona’s Leaning Post, Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Stratus and Beamsville’s Redstone.
Although it may never receive the same amount of attention as those ‘other reds’, Ontario syrah is making a statement with its limited production. Those in the know have been buying it for years, while others are now catching on. Can we move the dial from that one percent? Time will tell.
These 10 syrahs below demonstrate just how serious some Ontario wineries and winemakers are about keeping the variety in the discussion circle for many years to come:
Kacaba Vineyards 2018 Reserve Syrah
Grapes for this seriously stunning, award-winning syrah were handpicked from Kacaba’s Terrace and Silver Bridge Vineyards and this ‘reserve’ is the best of the lot when it comes to their syrah program. All grapes were hand sorted, gently destemmed, and left as whole berries for open top fermentation. After fermentation the wine was pressed off the skins and moved to a mixture of new and second fill French and American oak barrels to complete malolactic fermentation. The result of this meticulous process is a very smooth wine with well integrated, polished tannins and a subtle, yet complex array of cherry, raspberry, minerality and pepper. Named to VineRoutes’ list of Ontario’s Top 10 Wines of 2021. ($55)
Creekside 2018 ‘Broken Press’ Syrah Reserve
Not to be confused with their ‘Unbroken Press’ Syrah – a much bolder expression of 100 percent syrah grapes – this one gets co-fermented with some lightly pressed viognier skins before being aged in mostly older French oak barrels for 20 months. The added viognier results in the wine being more tame, smoother, and more approachable in its youth (although this could certainly age a decade and beyond). It’s one of Creekside’s most revered bottlings for good reason. Loaded with bright berry fruit on the nose, hints of peppercorn and all-spice, this syrah is backed with a firm structure and focused acidity. A premier wine from Ontario. ($55)
Stratus 2019 Syrah
Stratus is a winery with an established pedigree and is very well-known for its assemblage wines, but their single variety offerings are not to be discounted. This syrah is simply stunning. A deep nose of red currant, clove and black pepper, with meaty notes that waft the longer this decants. The palate is classic syrah with its sweet chewy black fruit, peppery tar and savoury black olive flavours. Excellent depth with a lovely rich mid palate that segués into a long-lasting finish. Will reward with some added time in your cellar. ($49)
Leaning Post 2019 ‘Keczan Vineyard’ Syrah
According to the winery, the 2019 vintage harvest was short and sweet, with the syrah grapes being picked on October 29th, just before the cold weather set in at the beginning of November. Leaning Post has been making its syrah using the Keczan Vineyard fruit (located within the Lincoln Lakeshore sub appellation) for a number of years now and the relationship between winemaker and vineyard is expressed wonderfully through the wine. Allow this wine to open up in your glass and experience a full nose of ripened cherry, raspberry, leather and violets. Flavours of pepper and clove are accented with notes of vanilla on the palate. The finish is incredibly long, with leafy notes and a hint of gravel at the very end. Decant and enjoy now or cellar it and enjoy in four to eight years from now. ($55)
13th Street 2020 Reserve Syrah
Sourced from select vineyards within the Niagara Penninsula, this 100 percent syrah from the highly touted 2020 Ontario vintage displays complex aromas of ripe raspberry, freshly cracked pepper and some smoke. There’s even a scent of crushed rock that comes through. Meat and fatty notes begin to appear after several minutes of swirling and contemplating. The palate is nicely concentrated with flavours of raspberry, black olive, savoury herbs, spice and freshly cracked pepper. Tannins are smooth and the mouthfeel is ultra soft. Acidity is wonderfully balanced despite a higher residual sugar amount than expected (7 g/l). Love the approachability here. (Wine Club Member wine)
Redstone 2019 Syrah
One of the hallmark wines coming from this winery, the Redstone Syrah is very consistent with its quality each year. Aged 18 months in French oak, this is beautifully structured with flavours that match a style from the Rhone Valley. One can expect black currant and violet on the nose and drying herbs, pepper, and fruit flavours on the palate. Approachable in its youth but will also benefit from mid-term aging. Very food friendly. ($40.95)
Mastronardi 2016 Syrah
When comparing Ontario’s southern-most wine region to its most popular wine region in Niagara, one realizes it not only gains from a warmer growing season, but also from an extended summer – about two extra weeks – which benefits those varieties that could use the extra hangtime. This Lake Erie North Shore region syrah, from established vines, displays a bold and balanced character with a deep nose of warm black fruits and hints of wood spice. The palate has flavours of dark cherry, blackberry and plum with earthy, spicy undertones and a cedar and white pepper finish. Tannins are smoothened nicely. A wine that nicely characterizes the warmer 2016 Ontario vintage. Named to VineRoutes’ list of 50 Standout Ontario Wines of 2021. ($24.95)
Meldville 2018 Syrah
Derek Barnett is an Ontario legend when it comes to winemaking. The wines he made for Lailey back in the early 2000’s and into the early 2010’s were true examples of how Ontario wine can be crafted to age gracefully and taste exceptionally good 10-12 years later – including the syrah he’d make. Derek now has his own virtual label, he calls Meldville, and once again, he’s making small batches of syrah that tend to sell out quickly. From grapes grown very close to the shores of Lake Ontario comes an expression that’s funky, almost natural wine-ish at first, but true to the style’s penchant for producing a flavourful wine. Both French and American oak barrels were used and where malolactic ferment was completed. The wine continued to age in these barrels for another 18 months, then lightly filtered before bottling. Those funky aromas steer towards fatty and meaty notes (think grilled sausages), and flavours are intense, with a leafy savouriness, backed by firm acidity and some spice on the finish. ($27)
Creekside 2019 ‘Iconoclast’ Syrah
This is the more affordable tier of syrah from Creekside (they also bottle a $16 version). This 2019 iteration is a single vineyard selected blend of wines from the east, centre and west syrah blocks at Creekside’s Queenston Road Vineyard site. It’s juicy, with finely tuned tannins. The nose begins to remind one of cured meats. Save your ‘Broken Press’ Syrah for another day and drink this one in the meantime. ($25)
Muscedere 2017 Syrah
Another from the Lake Erie North Shore region, this small lot syrah was made exclusively with grapes hand-harvested from the winery’s estate vineyard – which consist of less than an acre of planted syrah. It was fermented in half-ton bins and aged in French barriques for 18 months, then in bottle for one full year before release. It comes across velvety smooth on the palate and exhibits dark fruit flavours. There’s some white pepper on the nose initially, with fruit making its way through after some time in the glass. Decanting before-hand for around 30 minutes is recommended. ($41.95)