Lake Erie North Shore Report
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Regional Report: Ontario’s Lake Erie North Shore

September 14, 2021

If you work hard and speak your truth with honesty and integrity, people will read and listen to you. The same work ethic and desire to do the best you can is one of the many things that appeals to me about the winemakers, growers, viticulturists, marketers and industry representatives of Ontario’s Lake Erie North Shore region. They share a goal: to continue to establish their region’s wine not just within Ontario, but within Canada. – Carmelo Giardina

Lake Erie North Shore (covering Essex County and the South Islands sub appellation) is Ontario’s southernmost wine appellation, about three hours from the Greater Toronto Area and Hamilton and only minutes from Windsor and the U.S. border. This official VQA designated viticultural area is located at a latitude of approximately N42° and stretches along the bow-shaped shoreline of Lake Erie from Amherstburg to east of St Thomas, including Pelee Island.


Introduction

My visit to Essex County this summer (July 2021) was a five day discovery of what this region truly had to offer its visitors. Aside from having visited Windsor in the past, this was my first visit to the Lake Erie North Shore (LENS) region, and the goal was to soak up as much of the area as possible and get the full experience.

This favourable southerly location combined with the warming effect of the shallow waters of Lake Erie allow this appellation to enjoy a long growing season highly suitable for ripening grapes that require those extra weeks of summer heat (think: cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah). Whereas Ontario’s coolest region, Prince Edward County (at a latitude of N44°) struggles to ripen many grape varietals with its shorter summer, LENS is able to deliver the heat, making it a region that seems more the obvious choice to target as a consumer if you’re into those Bordeaux-style reds and whites.

Read Also: My report on Prince Edward County, Ontario

On a sheer quality scale, the region is still under a work in progress banner – which many winemakers aren’t afraid to admit. Winemaking may have been around in the region for decades (even for over a century in the case of Pelee Island), but to be fair, quality winemaking has really only been synonymous with most Ontario regions for about a decade and a half, and in the case of Lake Erie North Shore, this means winemakers are merely scratching the surface on unlocking the region’s true potential.

This work in progress does not have a direct correlation with how the region’s wineries choose to price their wine however. Many visitors will notice that, on the whole, wines here are priced much lower than their Niagara, or Prince Edward County counterparts. It seemed to be an underlying theme discussed at most wineries I visited. “Why are your wines priced so much lower?”, I would ask. It isn’t due to inferior quality, that much I know is true – though the optics of this disparity can suggest that. When I asked this question to Bernie Gorski, owner of CREW (which is an acronym for Colchester Ridge Estate Winery), his response seemed to make the most sense when examining the marketplace and what its consumer demand indicates: “The clientele needs to appreciate what we have here,” he said. “It may take another 10 years for that to take shape.”


Lake Erie North Shore

Appellation Overview

The waters of Lake Erie, the Detroit River and Lake St. Clair surround this peninsula. The moderating effect of the climate gives Lake Erie North Shore the highest accumulation of heat units in Ontario each summer – its southern exposure complemented by the moderating effect of the lake and an abundance of sunshine. The light-textured, well-drained soils around the lakeshore contain mostly sandy loam and gravel deposits punctuated by small, irregular stony ridges, which overlay shale limestone bedrock.

The South Islands sub-appellation – officially declared in July of 2015 – is the nine islands that comprise the municipality of the Town of Pelee Island, part of the Lake Erie North Shore appellation, and located at the most southerly point in Canada, and lies about 25 kilometres off the mainland of southern Ontario on Lake Erie.  Lake Erie is the shallowest of the Great Lakes, with the warmest surface temperature of the five lakes. Its moderating effect produces a temperate climate on the island, which has a longer growing season than any other wine region in Canada, often thirty days more than the mainland.

Grapes are grown on the largest island, Pelee which is the site of Canada’s first commercial winery, VinVilla, that began operations in 1866. More than a hundred years later, its vineyards of native grapes were replanted with vitis vinifera vines. The winery was renamed to Pelee Island Winery in 1979 to better reflect the area.


A Regional Report

Within this regional wine report, which accounts for about 80 percent of the total scope of the region, I have included tasting notes for most of the wines that I sampled during my visit. You’ll also find price points and my quality-to-price-ratio score, measured on a scale out of 100 points.

Scores range from moderately recommended to highly recommended. A total of 97 wines are included in this report.

With approximately 15 wineries now operating in the region, it would be fair to assume that this report is a true indicator of how things are shaping and progressing in the region. I do feel that I acquired a trusted sampling and that my opinions reflect the state of the region and its potential.

You’ll find from reading this report that I very much think that the cabernet sauvignon made here holds true promise in becoming the grape that can and will define the region. Cool climate cabernet can be a wonderful wine, and the Lake Erie North Shore region has the ability to prove wrong those who are convinced that cabernet sauvignon cannot and should not be made in Ontario. Alas, I would invite you to experience, discover and taste for yourself, and come to your own conclusion.

Lake Erie North Shore


Quality-to-Price-Ratio Scoring (QPR)

The point of the QPR score is to help source out the very best buys for the consumer based on the quality of the product vs its price point. In the case of the wines from Lake Erie North Shore, price points are much lower than the wines from the Niagara and Prince Edward County regions. The reason for this variable discrepancy, as noted earlier, can largely be explained when considering the marketplace. Fine wine, as it would seem, is not high on the list of buyer priority. Therefore, QPR scores aren’t necessarily judged as a comparison to Niagara or Prince Edward County, but rather, are more so judged against the wines of its fellow regional peers.

QPR scores of 90+ points are highly recommendable. Scores of 89, 88 and 87 points are recommendable, with certain reservations, while a score of 86 is merely average and satisfactory for the style or varietal. Those wines which I scored lower than 86 points did not qualify for this report. For the sake of transparency, a full explanation of how I score wines can be read here.

VineRoutes QPR Scorecard


Report Statistics

Of all the wines that were sampled and scored, the average score came to 89 – which constitutes an evaluation of “very good” when referencing my QPR scorecard. Incidentally, this average score matches the score assigned to Prince Edward County after my report was completed in 2020 (just 67 wines were showcased for that report). To break this evaluation down even further, if we are to look at how the different varietals and styles of wine each scored, the results are:

  • Cabernet Sauvignon (9 wines tasted): Avg Score = 90.1
  • Pinot Noir (just 5 wines tasted): Avg Score = 90
  • Red Blend Wines (13 wines tasted): Avg Score = 89.3
  • Chardonnay (11 wines tasted): Avg Score = 89.1
  • Cabernet Franc (7 wines tasted): Avg Score = 89.1
  • Riesling (9 wines): Avg = 88.9
  • Rosé (9 wines): Avg = 88.8
  • Sparkling Wine (6 wines): Avg = 88.8
  • Other Red Varietals (5 wines): Avg = 88.8
  • Merlot (5 wines): Avg = 88.2
  • Sauvignon Blanc (Just 3 wines tasted): Avg = 88.3
  • Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio (6 wines): Avg = 87.8
  • Other White Wines (7 wines): Avg = 87.7
  • Dessert Wines (2 wines): Avg = 93

Lake Erie North Shore

Scores by Winery

The following are the average scoring results of each winery, at a glance, based on the wines that were included in this report only – with their corresponding summarized evaluation noted in parenthesis:

  1. North 42 Degrees Estate Winery: 91 (Very Good)
  2. Mastronardi Estate Winery: 89.9 (Very Good)
  3. Cooper’s Hawk Vineyards: 89.5 (Very Good)
  4. Vivace Estate Winery: 89.4 (Very Good)
  5. Viewpointe Estate Winery: 89.3 (Very Good)
  6. Pelee Island Winery: 89 (Very Good)
  7. CREW (Colchester Ridge Estate Winery): 88.8 (Very Good)
  8. Colio Estate Wines: 88.8 (Very Good)
  9. Oxley Estate Winery: 88.4 (Good)
  10. Muscedere Vineyards: 88.4 (Good)
  11. Paglione Estate Winery: 88.2 (Good)
  12. Sprucewood Shores: 87.4 (Good)