Ask the experts

Wondering which varietals are Ontario’s showcase wines? Why swirling a glass of wine is suggested before sipping? Why you need to decant some wines?

We’ve assembled a group of industry experts who know and love wine, and who can help with (almost) any question you have about your Wine Country Ontario experience. 

Q. Over the past few years, there has been an increasing interest in eating and drinking local products. What do you think has sparked this trend?
Q. What are your primary reasons for buying local?
Q. Is this trend happening everywhere?
Q. Can you provide some helpful tips on how best to pair local, everyday wine and food?
Q. How well are Ontario wines selling at the LCBO?
Q. What would you say are some of the latest wine-industry trends?
Q. Have you noticed any innovations in the Ontario wine industry?
Q. Can you provide some helpful tips on the best way to explore and discover new wines?
Q. How can people who are exploring wine country for the first time get the most out of their experience?
Q. What would you say is your favourite Ontario wine?
Q. How would you describe Ontario wines, both in general and in relation to other wine regions?
Q. What does the term “cool climate” refer to?
Q. What does the term “terroir” mean?
Q. What makes each Ontario wine region unique?
Q. What does “VQA” stand for?
Q. Do wines really vary that much from one vintage to the next?
Q. What is the role of Ontario wine in the global wine industry?
Q. How did you become a grape grower and winery owner?
Q. How is Fielding Estate Winery working toward becoming certified organic?
Q. Would you say that the Ontario wine industry as a whole is embracing sustainability?
Q. Do you grow all of your own grapes at Fielding?
Q. What grapes does Fielding grow, and what are the most popular varietals in Ontario?
Q. How long does it take for a new vineyard to produce fruit?
Q. You’re this year’s “Grape King.” What is that?

Q. Over the past few years, there has been an increasing interest in eating and drinking local products. What do you think has sparked this trend?

A. From Kelly Hughes, Local Food Procurement Officer at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre: Local food, I believe, represents a simplicity that has been lost—and this appeals to many people. Food has become confusing. Shopping for food requires us to navigate nutritional labelling, genetically modified products, organic, no fat, low fat, carb free, etc. We’ve become overwhelmed. Buying whole, fresh, locally grown food allows us to get back to food taken from the earth, perhaps within hours, and to buy it directly from the hands of a farmer. It’s liberating. It’s the same with wine: you can drive for an hour and see where the grapes are grown, smell the soil and meet the winemaker.

People are also more educated than ever about food and wine. The ability to see first-hand the process that our food and drink follows to get to our table tells a backstory that provides another layer of richness to our dining experience. We talk about the recipe and cooking techniques, and now the name of the farmer who grew our produce, or the history of how a winemaker came to make wine. It’s a complete education.

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Q. What are your primary reasons for buying local?

A. From Kelly Hughes, Local Food Procurement Officer at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre: Buying local comes pretty naturally to me. When I was younger, my father grew tomatoes and took me foraging for wild mushrooms. I still remember the name of the farmer my mother introduced me to when we bought—straight from the barn—all of our produce for canning. Every year we bought a cow from a local farmer, and chose a lamb for the freezer. I guess it’s in my blood!

Growing up, I watched my parents make the effort to buy locally, and I took that with me. When you’re used to eating food at its freshest and best, it’s difficult to get excited about imported, out-of-season food, often lacking in flavour. Later, when I became a chef and caterer, I offered my clients local, seasonal food. It just happens to be the best raw material for cooking.

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Q. Is this trend happening everywhere?

A. From Kelly Hughes, Local Food Procurement Officer at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre: I’m always struck by the vast selection of local food and drink we have available to us in Ontario. And, through the innovation of our growers and winemakers, it’s only broadening. Technology is amazing, but there are limits to what we can do in a cold climate.

A great thing happening is the development of trans-local relationships, whereby things like coffee and chocolate (which can’t be grown here) are brought to Ontario through sustainable partnerships with farmers in other countries. They are then processed here by local producers. It’s win-win, and allows us to enjoy what happen to be two of my favourite things. I think we’re going to see more of these types of business models as local food evolves.

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Q. Can you provide some helpful tips on how best to pair local, everyday wine and food?

A. From Kelly Hughes, Local Food Procurement Officer at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre: When I’m pairing wine with local food, I focus primarily on the seasonality of the food and then go from there. For example, in the summer, there are lots of clean flavours, bright herbs, ripe tomatoes, fish, greens and fresh vegetables. That’s when I go for the crisper, refreshing wines such as Pinot Grigio and Pinot Noir, or some wonderful reds to pair with grilled foods.

When autumn approaches, and into the winter, local dishes become heavy with richer meats, root vegetables and more robust herbs like sage and rosemary. That’s when I break out the headier, sweeter whites, such as off-dry Riesling and Gewürztraminer, and the richer reds.

I also love to drink wines that come from the same regions as my food, for that true taste of place. There’s nothing better than a local wine paired with cheeses made just down the road.

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Q. How well are Ontario wines selling at the LCBO?

A. From Astrid Brummer, LCBO Product Manager: They are selling very well. The growth that we’re seeing in Ontario wines is actually outpacing the growth in import sales.

I think the reason for this is a combination of many factors: There’s such great wine being made in Ontario right now, and we’re at a time where we have a lot of consumers who are interested in wine, maybe because they’re getting older. And the younger consumers that we have—folks under 35—are really responding to the idea of “local.” So, the fact that we have great wine, at a time when there are lots of people who are oriented to it, is just spectacular.

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Q. What would you say are some of the latest wine-industry trends?

A. From Astrid Brummer, LCBO Product Manager: Ripe red blends are definitely one of the trends. A lot of the ones that are very popular right now have a high volume of Baco Noir in them. Some of them don’t, but that’s one of the things that we’re noticing as a trend—rich red blends.

Appassimento wines—which are made with a portion of dried grapes—are also very popular. “Appassimento” is the name of the technique. Originally, it’s an Italian technique, and it’s something that they use to make Ripasso and Amarone wines. But there are now a fair number of wineries in Ontario that are using that technique, and making great stuff.

And sparkling wine—I’ve been amazed over the past year or so at how many wineries are either now making a sparkling or they’re in the process of getting to that stage, because you usually need to invest a few years in production before you’re making great bubbly. And a lot of it is really fantastic!

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Q. Have you noticed any innovations in the Ontario wine industry?

A. From Astrid Brummer, LCBO Product Manager: Packaging would be one. This is an area where Ontario has made huge leaps in competitiveness. Labels and packages are of enormous importance to wine drinkers. Right now, I think it’s the Ontario section of LCBO stores that’s really the most interesting looking. There’s lots of variety and there are lots of attractive brands: If your thing is tradition, elegance and high quality, it’s there. And if what really grabs your attention is something funky, unusual and quirky, then that’s there, too.

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Q. Can you provide some helpful tips on the best way to explore and discover new wines?

A. From Astrid Brummer, LCBO Product Manager: What I always suggest—because this is actually a pretty frequent question—is any opportunity that lets you taste a whole bunch of wines at once is a great idea. Minimize the risk. Because it’s risky to just go and buy a bottle: you take it home, and you may be unhappy.

At the LCBO, we offer educational classes on lots of different topics, and they’re a great way to taste and learn at the same time, which really solidifies what you’re learning and exposes you to a lot of different wines. You can look for ones that are themed around Ontario, or any classes in which you do the tastings blind. That’s the best way, because it takes you out of your typical choice pattern and opens you up to new possibilities.

You could also try any of the wine-country passport events. Last year, I went to the New Vintage Festival. It took place outdoors in a vineyard, so it was beautiful and romantic, and there was a ton of wine and lots of different things to try. It’s a great opportunity to find some new things that you like, and to rule out others that aren’t your personal favourites, because buying wine is all about what you like.

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Q. How can people who are exploring wine country for the first time get the most out of their experience?

A. From Astrid Brummer, LCBO Product Manager: My suggestion is that you plan ahead. Definitely use any of the Wine Country Ontario apps, maps or visiting tools, because there are so many wineries. You’re not going to go to all of them, so that’s a great way to do it.

And it depends on how much you love wine. For the casual lover, four wineries in a day is completely the maximum. There’s no way you could do more and still be interested. But it’s probably a better idea not to pack in too much, and to plan a couple of different trips. Go more than once. It’s totally worth it—there’s so much to see!

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Q. What would you say is your favourite Ontario wine?

A. From Astrid Brummer, LCBO Product Manager: People ask me that a lot. It’s so hard, because my favourite wine is really the one that suits my mood. I feel like there’s a perfect wine for every moment. But right now, most of my moods require a white that has a rich texture and then a zesty freshness, or reds that are ripe and rich, and that really grab onto hearty winter meals. And also Cabernet Franc—it’s my favourite varietal.

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Q. How would you describe Ontario wines, both in general and in relation to other wine regions?

A. From Norman Hardie, Winemaker: Well, I think the beauty of Ontario wines is that they have a wonderful vibrancy and an energy to them. This is because we are cool climate, and we also have a lot of beautiful clay and limestone soil scattered throughout Ontario. The combination of these two things gives us a ripeness and acidity. It gives us a freshness; it gives us a vibrancy. But, at the same time, the white wines are very well textured.

In relation to other regions, the new world is very warm-climate driven—California, Australia, South Africa, Chile, Argentina, and a lot of New Zealand is actually fairly warm as well. We’re different from those regions, and that’s what makes us exciting. The wines from those regions don’t have the vibrancy, they don’t have the acidity, they don’t have the freshness that we have here in Ontario.

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Q. What does the term “cool climate” refer to?

A. From Norman Hardie, Winemaker: “Cool climate” is a term that bounces around, and you see regions like Mornington Peninsula in Australia say they’re cool climate, and Hemel-en-Aarde Valley in South Africa say they’re cool climate, but cool climate to me is two things: First of all, it’s the flavour profile of the wine. The climate allows us to have the freshness and the vibrancy. But what’s also very important is that last ripening stage, the last of the four or five weeks, when we have these warm days and cool nights. And having the warm days and the cool nights really helps us preserve that freshness and vibrancy, and gives us those textures that are very, very well defined.

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Q. What does the term “terroir” mean?

A. From Norman Hardie, Winemaker: Everyone specifically talks about the soils—but there’s more to terroir than the soils. The foundation is the soils, but terroir is more of a sense of “place.” It’s the climate, it’s the wind and it’s the sun exposure, combined with the soils. I choose my terroirs not completely on soil; I look at their exposure, the amount of wind that they have, etc. You have to start with great soils, but then you bring it even more into focus by finding those right microclimates, the right wind exposure. This all helps in the ripening of the grapes.

I chose two areas for grapes: Prince Edward County and Niagara. Prince Edward County because I thought there were incredible terroirs with beautiful exposure—great sun exposure and great wind exposure—but the spring, fall and summer microclimates were also a factor. We warm it up in the spring to get going. We are close enough to the lake that, in the midsummers, we don’t get the 35-degree heat. And then, in the fall, we still benefit from the lake because we get that extended growing season. When I looked at Niagara as well, where great Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling came from, I applied those same qualifications. Do I have the exposure, and do I have the wind? The soil is what I want, but do I have the rest of that? And then, do I have the right people down in Niagara looking after those grapes? The people are a huge factor as well.

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Q. What makes each Ontario wine region unique?

A. From Norman Hardie, Winemaker: The soil in each of the regions—even within Niagara—is fairly diversified. You look at the bench and it’s primarily clay and limestone. Then, when you get down to Niagara-on-the-Lake, you get into the sandier soils. And then you go down to Lake Erie North Shore and there’s a nice mixture of clay and sand. And then, up in the county, we have a different type of limestone that’s more fractal and lots of clay. So I think the foundational soils in all the wine regions of Ontario are very, very good. That gives us some great diversity in what we can grow and what we can ripen.

Temperature variation plays a factor as well, including when you get frost and when you don’t. Pelee Island and Lake Erie North Shore are doing really well with the big reds. They’re just a little bit warmer, and the seasons are a little bit longer down there, and that allows them to do the big reds. Niagara is doing exceptionally well with Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Noir, Gamay and Cabernet Franc. And then the county, when you move up here, is a little bit cooler than Niagara, and our season starts a little bit later, and definitely all the varietals from “Burgundy North” do exceptionally well here. There were some people who planted Cabernet Sauvignon here in the early days and then actually pulled it out, because it hasn’t worked here. The nice thing about the county is that we look back at Niagara and Pelee Island and say, “What did they do well, and what did they do wrong?” And, in the end, the county learned a lesson from being able to look at it in hindsight and learn from others.

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Q. What does “VQA” stand for?

A. From Norman Hardie, Winemaker: “VQA” stands for “Vintners Quality Alliance,” but I think the message that needs to come across with the VQA is the sense of origin. “VQA Ontario” means grapes that are grown here in Ontario—100% Ontario grapes that grow in all our soils. Promoting the new sub-appellations is important too. It gives a little more definition that these wines come from a specific place.

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Q. Do wines really vary that much from one vintage to the next?

A. From Norman Hardie, Winemaker: They certainly do. I think that viticulture from a global perspective is getting better and better, and there’s a sort of realization that if we’re going to produce quality wines every single year, then we have to have yields that are realistic.

In more difficult years, viticulture plays a huge part. I’ll give you an example: the summer of 2008 was not very good, and we really reduced our yields down to probably two-thirds of what we normally carry. And we did the same thing in 2009. It rained right until the beginning of September, and then the sun came out. But I think two of the best vintages that we ended up making were in 2008 and 2009, because we reacted viticulturally. Financially, it is a little expensive. But, at the same time, if you make great wines in tough years, that all helps to build and strengthen your brand. And, ultimately, three or four years down the road, it will pay for itself.

Between 2010, 2011 and 2012, what we’re going to see from high-quality producers is less of a vintage variation, because none of the years was really difficult to start out with.

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Q. What is the role of Ontario wine in the global wine industry?

A. From Norman Hardie, Winemaker: Some of the most cosmopolitan markets in the world are starting to sell our wines, because they’re good. I sell quite a lot of wine in New York, we’re doing quite well in Tokyo, and we’re working on a fantastic distributor in China. The whole world is going after these markets quite competitively. And these markets are looking at us and buying our wine, and they don’t need to. That, I think, says something about the quality of the wines we can potentially make in this province. That’s a really important message. With Canadians, what I’ve noticed—and I’m Canadian, but I’m also an immigrant to this country—is if you succeed overseas, then you do well here. So, I think we’ve got to get that message out. The rest of the world is taking note of what we have here, and we have something that’s very special. And these wines are great, so let’s drink them here at home.

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Q. How did you become a grape grower and winery owner?

A. From Curtis Fielding, Grape Grower: Some people travel after school—I went and worked on a full-time race team. I also raced my own car (in the CASCAR Sportsman Division, which is now the NASCAR Canadian Tire series), and it kept me very busy. I kept my race car on a cash-crop farm down in a little town called Petrolia. This is where I caught the farming bug. On my days off, when I wasn’t fixing the car or getting it set up for the next race, I would go out and help them on the farm.

When I finished racing, I decided to make the move down to Niagara, and my parents and I started laying the groundwork for our winery. We bought two farms in Beamsville in 2001: One was an established vineyard about five kilometres from the winery site. The other was an old pear and peach orchard with some juice grapes (now the winery site). We pulled everything out, land levelled, underdrained it, and planted vinifera grapes. A few years later, we built the winery, which opened in 2005.

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Q. How is Fielding Estate Winery working toward becoming certified organic?

A. From Curtis Fielding, Grape Grower: We just finished our first year of organic certification—it’s a three-year process. We looked at the sprays we’ve been using traditionally and realized that, with just a few small changes in our program, we could be classified as organic. It does add to the bottom line: it takes money to do organics over conventional. There’s a lot more labour involved, but I felt it was definitely worth the effort.

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Q. Would you say that the Ontario wine industry as a whole is embracing sustainability?

A. From Curtis Fielding, Grape Grower: Yes, for sure, everybody’s doing their own part, even if they’re not classified as organic or biodynamic. Wineries and growers might not be talking about it, but everybody’s using very good practices and working to be as sustainable as possible.

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Q. Do you grow all of your own grapes at Fielding?

A. From Curtis Fielding, Grape Grower: We grow many of them, and we also buy grapes from local growers. It’s site specific; we look at where we or a grower can grow the best of a specific varietal. Where the winery’s located—on the Beamsville Bench—we grow Riesling and Chardonnay. We’ve found that both of these varieties do really well here. For some of our other varietals, we’ve contracted growers that have been growing these grapes for over 20 years, to ensure that supply is sustainable going ahead and to bring consistency to our wines. We work with some tremendous growers in the Niagara Peninsula.

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Q. What grapes does Fielding grow, and what are the most popular varietals in Ontario?

A. From Curtis Fielding, Grape Grower: We grow Riesling, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay Musqué, as well as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc.

In terms of popularity, I would say there’s been a huge shift: we’re trying not to hang our hat on Icewine anymore. Icewine is still definitely something that we do and do well, but we want to be known for our other exceptional wines as well—which would be Riesling, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay for whites, and for reds, consistently, I would say Cabernet Franc and Merlot. Those are the varieties that we’re trying to key in on each year and that we can do consistently well at Fielding.

There’s also been a huge shift in the local consumers buying wines. We appreciate the local support, and we see a lot of younger people supporting local and choosing Ontario wines as their go-to wines. It’s great for the wineries, and it’s great for the growers. We sell more wine—we buy more grapes. It’s good for the economy.

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Q. How long does it take for a new vineyard to produce fruit?

A. From Curtis Fielding, Grape Grower: Usually, by third leaf (the third year), you get a very small crop. It’s usually year five when you get a full crop. All weather dependent, of course!

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Q. You’re this year’s “Grape King.” What is that?

A. From Curtis Fielding, Grape Grower: Essentially, I was named Grape Grower of the Year for 2012/2013, which also includes the historic title of Grape King. It’s a huge honour, and I am very proud of it. To be Grape King, you must be nominated by fellow farmers. A team of independent researchers—one from the Ontario Tender Fruit Producers Marketing Board; one from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA); and one from Brock University—do a vineyard inspection and a five-page Q&A with you. Your name is then put forward to the board of the Grape Growers of Ontario, and they nominate you from there. It’s very cool. You’re judged on your vineyard practices, how healthy your vines are, how the crop looks and how well you work within the industry.

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