Ontario Wine Country Through A Different L.E.N.S.

When most people think of Ontario wine country, they think of Niagara, which has eastern Canada’s largest production volume and concentration of wineries. However, there are several small emerging Ontario wine regions worthy of your attention.

A mere 30 minutes from downtown Detroit is the Lake Erie North Shore wine region of Ontario, Canada. As I recently snaked my way through the Detroit-Windsor tunnel under the Detroit River, I asked myself, “Why don’t I do this more often?”

I’ve visited the Lake Erie North Shore a few times, but it’s usually just a quick stop on my way to and from Niagara or New York. I sell barrels and ceramic amphorae, but harvest is not an opportune time to talk to winemakers about products, and so visits usually consist of a quick hello and good wishes for a smooth harvest, a delivery of cookies or snacks to keep the winemaking team sustained on the crush pad, and a thank-you for their business. So while local winemakers were pulling ripe fruit in from their vineyards during the last week of September, I took some time to acquaint myself with their individual and regional winemaking styles.

Approximately fifteen wineries are wedged between the Detroit River and Lake Erie, which moderate growing temperatures enough so that both Vitis vinifera and hybrid grape varieties thrive here, including Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Regent, Baco Noir, Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay, Auxerrois, Vidal, and Sauvignon Blanc. There’s even a specially grafted grape called HG, which stands for “Harrow-Grafted,” developed about 15 years ago by Viewpointe Winery owner John Fancsy and local viticulturist Peter Pfeifer to showcase Essex County terroir, according to a 2014 article in The Windsor Star

That terroir is “blessed with long, sunny days, light lake breezes, and rich sandy loam soil over a limestone ridge about 30 feet down,” according to Oxley Estate Winery, a charming place with no shortage of wine tasting options at their restaurant, tasting bar, group tables, tent, or gorgeous patio framed by dusty pink hydrangeas. (I found myself wondering if this climate-and-soil combination contributes in some way to the pleasant cedar/black licorice character I’ve picked up across many of the Essex County red wines.) 

Like other Great Lakes regions, though, they remain susceptible to the occasional polar vortex; this year’s extremely cold temperatures knocked out much of the crop. While the harvest quantity is smaller than usual, the winemakers I met were happy with fruit quality.

Over the course of three days in the Lake Erie North Shore, I lightened my load of marketing materials and harvest treats to conveniently make room in my trunk for wine. Some of my booty includes standard cool climate varieties like Riesling and Cabernet Franc from CREW (Colchester Ridge Estate Winery) and Pinot Noir and Syrah from Muscedere Vineyards.

But don’t think I passed up some of the more unique finds. I eagerly scooped up the unicorn variety, HeritaGe H-G wine from Cooper’s Hawk Estate Vineyards, a crisp sparkling Sauvignon Blanc from North 42 Degrees Estate Vineyard & Winery, and Auxerrois and varietal Regent from Oxley Estate Winery. 

Once this year’s grapes are all tucked away in tanks and barrels for the winter, I’m looking forward to visiting with winemakers in their cellars to learn more about their regional history and what’s to come.

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