New York (Finger Lakes)
Ontario, a cool-climate wine growing region, enjoys a special status as one of the few regions in the New World where Riesling is a signature variety. At 43 to 45 degrees latitude, similar to the center of Europe, some of the region’s Riesling vineyards are now older than 30 years and the quality of grapes improves with every vintage.
In the early 1970s when Ontario’s wine renaissance began in Niagara, Riesling topped the list of Vinifera plantings. This was Canada after all – a northern place – so it seemed a natural location for Riesling, Europe’s great hardy northern grape.
In 1976, with the assistance of a federal agricultural grant, the first Riesling was planted at Vineland Estates on bench land of the Niagara Escarpment (the same limestone ridge over which the mighty Niagara Falls tumble). The vines came from Herman Weis, a nurseryman in Germany’s Mosel Valley.
By the early 1980s Riesling’s reputation had started to spread, attracting the interest of German émigrés like Herbert Konzelmann and Ewald Reif, as well as Austrian Karl Kaiser, who had co-founded Inniskillin – Ontario’s first new winery since Prohibition – in 1974. This group planted on flat lands near the shores of Lake Ontario.
But it was a family of Italian origin that moved Riesling into the mainstream of Ontario’s wine culture, where it has remained to this day. Len and Tom Pennachetti founded Cave Spring Cellars, based on a spectacular Riesling vineyard inland on the Niagara Escarpment bench land near Beamsville. They made estate-grown Rieslings – dry and off-dry, a late harvest and one of the first Riesling Icewines. Today these remain staples on wine lists throughout all of Canada.
Since then dozens of other Riesling producers have joined in, including some in warmer Lake Erie North Shore and colder Prince Edward County. New Niagara “bench” wineries opened in the 2000s and elevated Riesling by aiming for high quality and price. Those in turn gave rise to small Riesling specialists making tiny quantities from single vineyards.
Most of Ontario’s Riesling is still based on the Weis clone (21B) imported from Germany’s Mosel Valley. It produces racy examples with citrus, green apple and mineral notes. Two other clones play a minor role – an Alsatian, Clone 49 and Clone 239 from Geisenheim, Germany, which produce somewhat soft, richer styles. Niagara can, and occasionally does, make botrytis-affected Rieslings (notably Henry of Pelham in rare vintages) but Riesling is more often turned into Icewine.
With a quarter century of Riesling experience Ontario is clearly emerging as a New World leader with this classic grape – not as a mass market, easy sipping, off-dry wine, but as a terroir-driven, collectible and fine dining wine that ages well and reflects individual vintages and sites. Those who follow German Riesling for all those reasons have a new world to discover in Ontario as well.
CAVE SPRING CELLARS – Known as Canada’s preeminent Riesling producer, Cave Spring Cellars has forged an international name, especially for its age-worthy Rieslings. The estate has more than 70 hectares of vineyards on the Beamsville and Twenty Mile Benches on the Niagara Escarpment overlooking Lake Ontario. It is this area’s unique combination of geology, elevation and proximity to Lake Ontario that enables Cave Spring to produce wines of depth and complex character. The glacial till limestone, shale and sandstone soils provide a nutrient-rich base for feeding the vines, while the estates’ gently sloping cliffs capture the temperate lake-effect breezes that extend the growing season. CAVESPRING.CA
VQA WINES OF ONTARIO/WINE COUNTRY ONTARIO – With its cool-weather climate, Canada’s Ontario Province enjoys a special status as one of the few regions in the New World where Riesling is a signature variety. More than 96 wineries produce an annual average of 400,000 cases of Riesling from 1650 acres, some with vineyards that are now more than 30 years old. Riesling accounts for 17 percent of Ontario’s total annual production. VQA Wines of Ontario and Wine Country Ontario, brands of the Wine Marketing Association of Ontario, invite consumers to experience 100% Ontario-grown Vintner’s Quality Alliance (VQA) wine. Dedicated to promoting Ontario’s wine-growing regions–Niagara Peninsula, Prince Edward County and Lake Erie North Shore–Wine Country Ontario is an expression of how the wine tastes, where it’s made, how it marries with local food, and how grape growers, winemakers, food artisans, chefs, B&B owners and innkeepers, tour guides and tourists come together to celebrate a unique wine and culinary experience. WINE COUNTRY ONTARIO.CA