Ontario, You're Crushing It
On my last trip home to Toronto I was beginning to think that Georgia spoiled me. This country’s wines are so diverse and exciting, I was dreading walking into an LCBO to find row after row of cookie-cutter wines. My experience with Canadian wine was of over-extracted reds and over-sweet whites. I had, however, a glimmer of hope in Steph a Toronto based importer who came to Georgia and said that Ontario was building a natural wine scene of its own. In about two months back home my scepticism turned to joy, Ontario’s wines, and wine scene, are becoming something special.
I’ll begin by saying that the LCBO (Liquor Control Board of Ontario) and the VQA (Vintners Quality Alliance) are still the largest impediments to a dynamic wine scene in Ontario. To get on the shelves at the LCBO a foreign winery has to guarantee at least 20,000 bottles a year. For small wineries generating large international demand that means selling retail in Ontario is impossible. Winemakers I’ve spoken to would much rather send a few hundred bottles each to London, Tokyo, New York, and Copenhagen than blow their vintage on a single market. Imported wines, as well, have to ‘pass lab’ where they are tested for apparent ‘faults’ such as volatile acidity (the presence of acetic acid in the wine). Many of these ‘faults,’ to my taste at least, can make a wine far more exciting and lively than a bottle dampened down by additives.
If you’re a winemaker in Ontario the LCBO sets the price of your bottles, you have no say. Moreover, the VQA, Canada’s AOC, favours wines that tend towards the inelegant big alcohol and oak of new world reds and whites made in a sweet-and-buttery style. Even worse, the price of grapes in Ontario is set by the level of sugar (or brix) in the grapes. The higher the brix, the more money a grower can charge. High brix can be great for those styles the VQA likes. If you want to make, however, a lower-alcohol, brighter, fresher wine from Ontario grapes you either need to convince a farmer to make less money or buy a vineyard of your own. What all this amounts to is a wine market stocked with, and pushing, wines from, bigger more industrial producers.
So why did I start by saying I’ve come around to Ontario wines? Because despite these forces, a new crop of restaurateurs, importers, and winemakers are hugely expanding the range of choices in Ontario.
In Toronto a generation of restaurants and wine bars are focusing their lists on natural, low-intervention, or otherwise terroir-driven wines. Cava, Archive, The Woodlot, Bars Raval and Isabel, and Ascari Enoteca, among many others, are carrying some amazing bottles in a whole range of styles. A few of them, Cava especially, were doing it way before these sorts of wines became hip.
While home I got to check out two places that gave me the most hope. Grey Gardens and Brothers. Grey Gardens is a new outing from Jen Agg, the owner of The Black Hoof, Cocktail Bar, and Rhum Corner. She saw how downtown was lacking a proper wine bar and built a perfect venue resplendent in white, baby blue, and brass. Head Sommelier Jake Skakun runs a vibrant wine program, which consistently features at least one amber wine by the glass and a whole range of wild basque ciders.
Brothers, thanks to Steph, became my wine-home in Toronto. It’s a gorgeously narrow space right above the bay subway station. I popped in maybe four times in two months, every time finding its wine list and menu had changed. Sommelier Courtney Stebbings keeps a cellar full of happiness with lots of beautiful Sancerres and Vinho Verde. She and Steph poured me the craziest wine I’ve had in Toronto, a gorgeously funky Australian Pinot Noir from Anton Van Klopper called Village of Thiers. Plus they serve dishes like crispy pork jowl with anchovies and green gem lettuce. What’s not to love?
But who’s supplying these fantastic lists? Though you’ll never see their bottles at the LCBO, a few risk-taking importers are bringing in cuvee after cuvee of awesome juice. These guys sell by the case or half-case to restaurants and private clients, avoiding some of the retail mess at the LCBO. All the Right Grapes has a wicked sherry and vermouth portfolio, some great wines from California and Oregon, oh and they’re bringing Pheasant’s Tears wines over, all the way from Georgia. Le Caviste is bringing over some of the best producers in Alsace and the Beaujolais, Pierre Frick and Matthieu Lapierre respectively. The Living Vine has a wicked portfolio of Italian producers including La Stoppa, Arianna Occhipinti, and Elisabetta Foradori. These importers are the real MVPs.
till, despite these amazing restaurants and importers, I was cautious about Ontario wines. I knew a few, like Tawse and Pearl Morisette, were working biodynamically, but I had yet to really taste any of their stuff. For my birthday in May I took a trip out to Niagara that totally changed my view of Ontario wine. Staying in St. Catharine’s with my friends Marissa and Matt, we went for a tour and tasting at Southbrook vineyards. Southrbook is the first biodynamic and natural winery in Ontario. Located halfway between St. Catharine’s and Niagara on the Lake, their vineyards are teeming with weeds and bugs, always a good sign of biodiversity. They use a whole lot of high-tech infrastructure, including heat-supressing windmills to deal with the harsh Ontario winter. Their LEED certified tasting hall features prominent displays of biodynamic preparations, and they raise sheep to act as natural lawnmowers and fertilizers in the vineyards.
Their wines toe a great line between marketable and audacious. During our tour we tasted their Petillant Naturel, sold under the label of ‘biodynamic bubbly.’ Based on a cold-climate variant of Ugni Blanc called Vidal, their Pet-Nat balanced funk with straight up refreshment. Back in the hall we tried their ‘Allier’ Chardonnay, a rich, round chard which worked beautifully with its time spent in new oak casks. That was followed by their ‘Orange,’ a skin-macerated white made from Vidal grapes. With a full 28 days of skin maceration, the wine had gorgeously tense tannins and an exciting touch of volatility. We finished off with their Cab Franc, a definite crowd-pleaser though still elegant and restrained.
For dinner that evening we had booked three seats at the Chef’s Table at Niagara on the Lake’s Backhouse. Seated right in front of the roaring wood-fire grill we went through a kickass ten-course tasting menu from chef Ryan Crawford. The meal was unbelievable in and of itself, but a few wine pairings really elevated the whole experience.
After our amuse bouche, the sous-chef brought out boards of house-made sourdough with a gorgeous cultured butter from stirling creamery. This was paired with a 2013 Marsanne from Kew, a nearly-secret Niagara winery. This Marsanne, which is notoriously impossible to grow outside of the Rhone valley, had aged on its lees for a full eight months. That rich, yeasty, character worked perfectly with the sourdoughs. Halfway through our glasses the pairing got even better with the arrival of a wild leek and potato soup, garnished with a potato chip, a dollop of crème fraiche, and some thin-sliced prosciutto.
The next wine was the 2015 Meldville Sauvignon Blanc. On the first sip it seemed like a standard grassy Sauvignon Blanc, and its hard to do better than that with this grape unless you’re working in legendary soils. The pairing dish of wood-fired asparagus with mangalitsa lardo and black-garlic aioli, gave the wine a whole other life. It was, so far, the best food-wine pairing I’ve had.
The last of the three Ontario beauties was the 13th st Gamay Noir. Made without carbonic maceration, this Gamay managed to be both turbid and lively in equal measure. Chef Ryan paired it to a wood-fired oyster mushroom and fire-grilled pork belly with a sharp tomatillo relish. The dish and the wine each played off richness and acidity harmoniously.
To my young and inexperienced eyes, the pieces are in place for an awesome wine scene in Ontario. Toronto’s restaurants are pushing boundaries. Ontario importers are taking risks and aiming for passion over marketability. Growers and vignerons are making inspiring decisions that speak to Ontario as a specific place. Not to mention the wine-country restaurants like Backhouse that serve as the perfect showcase for these wines. We’re not Paris, London, or even Tbilisi, but why would we want to be? Ontario’s doing its own thing, and seems to be doing it really well.