Friday, May 22, 2009

Climatic suitability, not marketing, should decide what grapes we grow

I've written about this before, but certain trends continue to show that building a wine industry from the grape up needs greater attention.

When the market is said to desire a specific type of wine, a wine region may be compelled to focus on grape varieties that aren't wholly suitable to its climate in order to satisfy the perceived consumer taste. That, then, begs a different question: Why not build the local wine industry around grape varieties that are the "best fit" climatically? This isn't to say that other, more difficult-to-grow varieties shouldn't be planted at all, but rather that they shouldn't be the main grapes for which a region becomes known at the expense of those that are a better natural fit.

Let's take some of the so-called "old-line French hybrids" - e.g. Marechal Foch, Baco Noir, Seyval Blanc and Vidal. All these grapes are excellent candidates for viticulture in southern Ontario. They remain players to some extent to this day (especially Vidal, one of the icewine grapes par excellence). But the VQA system denies their table wines - even the best, cleanest, ripest table wines made from them - geographic specificity of origin: the wines cannot be labeled "VQA Niagara Peninsula" or "VQA Lake Erie North Shore"; they can only bear a "VQA Ontario" designation. This strange practice would seem to suggest that terroir only works on vinifera grapes, which is an intuitively absurd notion.

In the late 1990s, estate-grown wines from Marechal Foch and Seyval, even De Chaunac (this last one is unrecognized by VQA for varietal wine purposes) were easily available throughout the Peninsula. Since that time, though, more and more wineries have eliminated those well made, enjoyable table wines with all-vinifera "portfolios". Even the sound of the word "portfolio" makes me uneasy: it's as if we are talking stocks and bonds, not grape and wine farming.

Kudos to Henry of Pelham for keeping the Baco Noir torch going. But I miss Lakeview Cellars' Foch and De Chaunac; I miss Inniskillin's Old Vines Foch; I miss Stoney Ridge Cellars' oaked Seyval.

There should be a re-think in the way wineries conceptualize wines from our region. When you have grape varieties that grow well in our climate, take our winters well, need little chemical input to keep them healthy and produce reliable crops each year, those grapes should be treated as prized material to be elevated with caring hands into clean, crisp, palate-invigorating wines of value. The emphasis should be not on their displacement by what's fashionable - because fashion is fickle and mindless often times. What sort of legacy is built around constant shifting?

We need to want to develop our own long-standing traditions based on cultivars naturally suited to the growing conditions in our region - both vinifera (e.g. Zweigelt, Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir) and hybrid (traditional hybrids or new-generation hybrids) - and to do so without constantly deferring to some unspecified mythical wine authority that will confer upon our efforts that much-coveted nod of approval.


  1. Paul,
    Happy to have discovered your blog. It sounds like I am at the stage that you started at. I am, with every available minute, trying to self educate myself to our local wine region and winemaking. I am driven by my own epiphany which occured with my exposure to the growing wine region in Nova Scotia. However, the Thornbury Meaford area excites me as an emerging region and a little closer to home. Your previous post from 07 re: the Outer limits Ontario wine event is what initial attracted me to your blog. Does this event still go on? When and where would be greatly appreciated. I look forward to reading more of your previous entries.


  2. Hi Neil,

    I found out about the original event through Larry Paterson's Growwine list. Though I haven't heard about a repeat event recently, it's true. If I hear anything I'll post something here on my blog.


  3. Hi Paul;

    My husband and I have been home kit wine making for the last couple of years and are moving from California back east to NY state after a decade of being West Coast transplants.

    And, in a completely illogical move, we're leaving wine country to try and create a small vineyard in an area of NY that has not traditionally been a big wine producing area. (Logic? Who needs logic!) :-)

    As a result, I've been looking a lot at cold climate/regional grape thoughts and innovations, and I just wanted to tell you that I have thoroughly been enjoying your blog.

    I think your points of letting the "genius loci," the terroir, of North American wines emerge from the place and native/heirloom vines make absolute sense. I'm excited to read about your experiments and successes with labrusca grapes.

    When I'm not indulging in wine making fantasies these days, I work in marketing -- and I think you are dead on about how marketing can dictate tastes. I think it's an exciting challenge to think about how to present regionally appropriate wines to wine lovers -- this could be a really fascinating process!

    Looking forward to reading more from you,

    All the best,

    Leigh Melander

  4. Hi Leigh,

    Thanks very much for your feedback! It's nice to have a marketing person back up what I've suspected for so long.

    As for success with labruscas, I look at it this way: it's all about observing and understanding how they differ from viniferas and other hybrids. They can make aromatic, interesting wines all of their own kind, and I look at them more as a resource that's native to this part of the world and that, therefore, should receive some due recognition!

    Thanks again for the feedback and feel free to write any time you have any questions in the future.

  5. Great blog, haven't been through all the posts but interms of hybrids, I've found Nova Scotia wineries are doing amazing things with theirs.

    Have added this as a link on, if you want it removed let me know and it will be done.

    Look forward to your next posting.

    Cheers, as they say...

  6. Hi Paul,

    Thanks for finding me and for your nice comment on my blog! It's fun to read about your experience with cold hardy grapes, even farther north than us in Minnesota! Let's keep in touch.