20 reasons why there’s never been a better time to drink wine in Ontario
Trendy cool-climate wines, a coming-of-age county and edgier wine lists are among the 20 signs it’s a great time for wine in Ontario
1. Wine bars are booming in Toronto
The very rare Toronto bar to feature an all-Ontario wine list, Chez Nous stocks a lineup heavily sourced from smaller family-run wineries rather than the province’s traditional heavy hitters. Look for unexpected offerings, such as a big-drinking viognier from Beamsville’s Good Earth Winery. Glasses from the wine list start at a very agreeable $6, which is low for any wine, let alone one made in Ontario. 798 Queen St. E., 416-781-4743, cheznouswinebar.ca
Côte de Boeuf
This Ossington wine cubby, which doubles as a butcher shop, is a nod to Paris’s Le Baron Rouge, a famously raucous market-lane bar à vin. The wines are a crash course in French essentials: chablis for oysters, Côtes du Rhône for dry-aged rib-eye, crémant for charcuterie and Provençal rosé for everything else. 130 Ossington Ave., 416-532-2333, cotedeboeuf.ca
It’s easier to grab a stool at this Kensington restaurant’s no-reservations wine bar than it is to book a table in the dining room. The wine list, punctuated with comprehensible descriptors (“spicy, savoury, herbaceous”), focuses on minimal-intervention wines from all over. Order a Sancerre rosé or a biodynamic, amphora-aged savagnin, and stop to ogle the stacked basement wine cellar before taking an obligatory washroom selfie. 199 Augusta Ave., 647-351-1552, greygardens.ca
2. Brewers and winemakers are teaming up
Grape and grain are starting to shed their stuffy mutual exclusivity with collaborations like Bumo (Version II), a small-batch blend of pinot noir and saison dreamed up by Burdock brewery and Pearl Morissette winery. Is it wine? Is it beer? It’s a hybrid that blows away both wine snobs and beer geeks. Limited quantities remain at Burdock, but look for a fresh batch later this summer. 1184 Bloor St. W., 416-546-4033, burdockto.com
3. Climate and soil are Ontario’s secret sauce
Our sunny days and brisk nights gently turn slow-ripening grapes into nuanced, lower-alcohol wines that embody the wine world’s current cool-climate craze. And where we see dirt, winemakers see opportunity: soils rich in clay, gravel, loam, sand and limestone—both dolomitic and calcareous—contribute to the province’s micro-regional diversity. Southbrook nods at the climate with its Seriously Cool wines: a chardonnay, and a blend of pinot noir, gamay and zweigelt, with a hint of syrah. And Cave Springs boasts of its roots on the label of its Riesling Dolomite, a dry Niagara offering with a faint hint of tingling acidity.
4. We’ve got a competitive sparkling wine league
Once reserved for bowling alleys, league night is now a thing at Leslieville’s Skin and Bones (pictured above). The wine bar hosts a weekly matchup of Ontario producers—they bring their best sparklers and schmooze with guests, who vote for a winner after tasting a flight. Three wineries compete on Wednesdays through July 19, with showdowns for more wine styles to come. 980 Queen St. E., 416-524-5209, skinandbonesto.com/sparkling-league
5. Jamie Kennedy is hosting wine dinners again
The celebrity chef’s history as a (now former) Toronto restaurateur is well established. But the man who once held sway over wine lovers in this town at his eponymous wine bar is still doing his thing in Prince Edward County, pairing with an Ontario winery to host weekly, multi-course dinners at his bucolic Hillier farm. The wine roster reads like a who’s who of the province’s heavy hitters, from the venerable Stratus to the tiny garagiste Hubbs Creek. Book tickets ($250) at jamiekennedy.ca.
6. Fresh sparkling wines keep popping off
Ontario is prime territory for the high-acid fruit required to produce first-rate sparklers, many of which never leave the province because we like them too much. The finest local bubbles are made mostly from pinot noir or chardonnay grapes. And just like champagne, they undergo secondary bottle fermentation and develop on the lees—dead yeast cells that lend top-notch toastiness.
P.E.C. makes superb fizz. Try Huff Estates’ toasty, citrus-spritzed Cuvée Peter F. Huff, and anything from Hinterland’s stacked bubbles portfolio, which includes Whitecap and the very-limited Sacrament. Trius and Henry of Pelham make consistently great sparklers on the Niagara Peninsula. And Fielding’s salmon-hued traditional-method marriage of pinot noir and chardonnay wowed the Cuvée 2017 festival.
7. Ontario wines are going au naturel
Old-world winemaking is trending across the globe, and low- and non-intervention wines—a nod to pre-industrial days—are leading the renaissance. These wines eschew additives, preservatives (such as sulphur) and, when possible, non-indigenous yeasts, giving nature’s whims more influence over the end product and coaxing out the characteristics that give these wines a distinct sense of place.
Wild fermentation can produce funky notes that aren’t for everybody, but lo-fi methods can also achieve thrilling results. Get a taste with Leaning Post’s Freaks and Geeks line and Aure Wines’ Wild Ferment pinot noir and chardonnay.
Orange wines, made by macerating white grapes with their skins, with the resulting tannins acting as a preservative, also have serious throwback cred. Southbrook’s Small Lot Natural Orange Wine (pictured, left) is a cool example. (It’s organic and biodynamic, too.)
Unfiltered wines like the lovely 2013 Tenacity chardonnay from 16 Mile Cellar, and Norman Hardie’s sulphur-free Cabernet Franc Sans Soufre, are vibrant and very chain-drinkable. If only those claims that natural wines won’t cause hangovers were true.
8. Toronto bartenders are big into wine cocktails
The Tremolo, served at the bar at Alo, is a contemporary classic: it’s a tequila sour with house-made ginger-almond syrup and an inverted float of Punt e Mes for a bittersweet finale. (The bar gets bonus points for also having a killer wine list.) 163 Spadina Ave., 416-260-2222, alorestaurant.com.
The Killah Punch at Parkdale’s PrettyUgly combines dry vermouth, white port and Niagara verjus with Canadian whiskey and a syrup made in-house from Seville oranges. It’s delivered in a vintage decanter for two to four people. 1237 Queen St. W., no phone, prettyuglybar.com.
The Sangria Blanco at the Shangri-La mixes Niagara riesling, pisco, calvados, salted pineapple, lemon and soda into a patio-ready mash-up of white sangria and pisco punch, poured to order from a dispenser brimming with fruit. 188 University Ave., 647-788-8888, shangri-la.com/toronto/shangrila.
9. Our pinot noirs are challenging Burgundy for bragging rights
Burgundy is pinot noir’s ancestral home, but Ontario, with its similar soil and latitude, puts its own stamp on the hard-to-grow grape. Prince Edward County, in particular, delivers some of the most thrilling local examples: Rosehall Run’s pretty 2014 JCR pinot noir was a medallist at the National Wine Awards last year, and the pinot noir from Stanners, a small family-run winery, is so alive you can almost have a conversation with it.
10. And our chardonnays are even better
Chardonnay is one of the world’s most popular whites, and Ontario’s fresh and frisky take is among our greatest (drinkable) assets. Château des Charmes’ barrel-fermented version and Trail Estate’s expressive Chardonnay Musqué are fine weekday wines, but look to the oeuvre of Bachelder, Tawse’s Quarry Road chardonnay, Norman Hardie’s County chardonnay and Exultet’s lauded and extremely limited The Blessed for something with more swagger.
11. Ontario’s next-gen winemakers are starting to make their mark
Maggie Granger-Belcastro, 29
Co-winemaker at the Grange of Prince Edward
Granger-Belcastro grew up on the vineyard and has helped her mom, Caroline Granger, run the estate full-time since 2010. She’s steadily nudging the terroir-driven wines in a playful but precise direction. One of her pet projects—a pair of expressive red and white blends called Almanac—recently hit the LCBO, and there’s a delightful gamay-pinot blend in hand-labelled magnums at the winery.
Mackenzie Brisbois, 33
Winemaker and vineyard manager at Trail Estate
The Prince Edward County native makes small batches of straight-up delicious wine at Trail Estate, one of the county’s newer wineries. Her edgy and nuanced skin-contact rieslings are sourced from single vineyards in Niagara because many of her estate vines haven’t yet come of age. She’s also experimenting constantly with wild fermentation.
Ryan Corrigan, 30
Winemaker at Rosewood Estates Winery
Corrigan has been making wine (and mead) at Rosewood Estates in Beamsville for a year, after stints in Australia, Napa and the Okanagan, and progressive Ontario wineries Leaning Post and Pearl Morissette. He’s big into experimentation. Ontario is “a young wine industry,” he says. “It’s presumptuous for us to say we know how everything can be done here.”
Mike Traynor, 39
Owner, winemaker and viticulturist at Traynor Family Vineyard
When he’s not running the P.E.C. Winegrowers Association, Traynor toes a wild edge with his wines. His work with new hybrid grapes and other products, like vermouth made from foraged botanicals and a chardonnay–sauvignon blanc blend called the 5th Element, have wine watchers curious about his next moves. “There’s no place in the world that grows grapes the way we do here,” he says.
12. These new canned wines are crushing it
They’re compact, shatterproof and easily concealed—a BYOW-er’s dream. But how do they taste? Though the container suggests cheap and tinny, the early results are pretty sparkling. (No data yet on whether any of these can be shotgunned.) Origin from Niagara’s Between the Lines Winery, is effervescent and rounded out with a splash of vidal icewine. It comes in slim 250-mL cans for occasions when it’s not acceptable to pop a bottle of bubbles for one. Big House’s California cans come in a rainbow of zinfandel, pinot grigio and rosé. New Zealand’s off-dry Joiy sparkling Riesling is best accessorized with sunglasses and a beach towel.
13. Soaking up wine wisdom has never been easier
iYellow Wine Club offers two-hour à la carte sessions on topics both general (the popular Wine 101) and niche (the wines of Germany), in a zero-pretense classroom.
For serious students
Sommelier Factory, run by master sommelier Bruce Wallner, offers blind-tasting clinics (think CrossFit for the palate), six-week foundational courses and rigorous prep programs for aspiring sommeliers.
For party animals
Grape Witches (pictured above) hosts hour-long monthly wine seminars that segue into low-lit, velvet-draped “wine séance raves,” with dancing that lasts well past the witching hour.
14. Online wine is delivering big-time
Many wines are available through LCBO.com or direct from winery websites, but these online alternatives to bricks-and-mortar buying are the best sources for out-of-the-ordinary bottles, from Ontario and beyond.
The Charlie’s Burgers Wine Program ships a monthly surprise lineup of private-order wines. Most are meant to be enjoyed with food, and select Toronto restaurants that partner with Charlie’s Burgers won’t charge a corkage fee for them. Other bottles, such as a champagne with custom labels bearing Toronto’s iconic Lovebot character, look more like a collector’s item.
The pro palates at Kwäf, a winery-direct wine club, scour the niches of Ontario wine country so you don’t have to. Members can opt for mixed or red-only boxes that are regularly filled with site-exclusive wines, delivered every three months.
Winewire connects buyers with wine agents, prying open a world of wines—from artisanal grower champagnes to obscure Italian varieties—typically available only to restaurants and not found at the LCBO. It’s the place to find a case of that wine the sommelier poured the other night.
15. Good Gamay never goes out of season
Gamay is finally being embraced for its light, spicy, fruit-forward tendencies, which can be enjoyed chilled in the summer or fireside in fall. Malivoire winemaker Shiraz Mottiar, who was named winemaker of the year at the 2017 Ontario Wine Awards, has a special way with the grape: his 2015 Courtney Beamsville Bench pings every pleasure centre.
16. Pét-nat is the cool kid wine crush du jour
Pétillant naturel (or pét-nat) wines—the name means “naturally sparkling”—could be the new rosé. They’re young, frizzante and super-trendy, and Ontario wineries are cranking out excellent options. Pearl Morissette’s Svet Nat is a zesty, low-impact example. Traynor Estates makes a trio of pét-nats in white, red and orange expressions. And Rosewood’s Nebulous (pictured above), the winery’s first pét-nat, sold out faster than anyone at the winery expected. (Look for it to return in spring 2018.)
17. With cab francs like these, who needs cab sauv?
Cab franc usually plays understudy to cabernet sauvignon, its flashier, fuller Bordelais kin. But it’s beloved here for being an early ripener in a short growing season, and its savoury flavours pair so well with dinner that it’s practically a condiment. Rosewood’s Origin Series cab franc is ample and juicy. Karlo Estates winemaker Derek Barnett crafted an especially fierce 2015 County cab franc. And The Old Third produces a next-level cab franc out of its high-density estate vineyard in P.E.C.
18. Riesling, Ontario’s grand dame, is still going strong
Riesling’s sharp, citrusy and crisp formula is timeless, and still evolving. OG Ontario riesling whisperer Charles Baker makes incredible wines from the Picone and Ivan vineyards that exemplify the province’s distinct style. Pearl Morissette’s 2014 Cuvée Black Ball riesling takes a more experimental approach: it’s a totally dry, unfiltered and sulphur-free wine with grapes fermented in whole clusters, which makes it as trendy as a wine gets right now.
19. A hip wine list is the new craft cocktail list
Sommelier Courtney Stebbings tries to evoke a sense of place with each pour behind the bar of this Bay Street bolthole: a glorious Loureiro reminds her of gunflint and smoke—a “Wild West wine.” Her list of up about 30 artisanal wines is a showcase for lesser-known grapes, some of which she came across during a five-year stint workin in London. 1240 Bay St., 416-804-6066, @brothers_toronto.
Patrons and peers once thought owner Jacob Wharton-Shukster’s wine list was too freaky. Now, it just looks proper: the list highlights natural, organic and biodynamic micro-producers, including darlings of the raw wine scene like Baden’s Enderle and Moll, and Sicily’s Arianna Occhipinti. 1320 Queen St. W., 416-628-3586, restaurantchantecler.com.
Who wouldn’t be tempted to order “intergalactic space wine”? That’s the logic behind the playful tasting notes Superpoint’s Lauren Wilton and Duncan MacNeill create for each of the 60-plus low-intervention wines, including that particular astronaut-worthy sangiovese-trebbiano blend, on offer at the rowdy Ossington pizza parlour. 184 Ossington Ave., 416-519-6996, superpoint.ca.
20. The rosé Resurgence shows no signs of slowing down
Relaxed and flexible, the pink stuff pairs with everything, offers pure refreshment on a blistering afternoon and demands zero intellectual effort for optimal enjoyment, all while looking totally glam. Tiny county winery Domaine Darius makes a pale and pretty rosé with gamay and auxerrois sourced from Niagara. Creekside’s berry-bowl cab sauv rosé won’t last long on a sticky midsummer afternoon. And Pelee Island Winery’s lightly sparkling Lola is about as gulpable as it gets.