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. What do tourists think of Ontario wines?
Q. What’s the proper way to taste wine at a restaurant?
Q. Are there any new trends in Ontario winemaking?
Q. How do you select the right wine to cook with or pair with food?
Q. Why should I choose Ontario wines to go with local food?
Q. What does it mean when someone says a wine is "corked"?
Q. How long should I expect to keep a wine after I open the bottle?
Q. Why does wine contain aromas and flavours that aren’t associated with grapes?
Q. How does “yield” affect the quality and taste of the wine? What are the yields like in Ontario?
Q. Why are some vintages considered better than others? What constitutes a "good year"?
Q. So how do winemakers define a “good year”?
Q. Do all winemakers agree on the best grape varieties to grow in Ontario?
Q. How does the age of a grapevine affect the wine that’s made from the grapes?
Q. What can a grape grower do to ensure the production of high-quality grapes?
Q. What would you say is a misconception about Ontario having a wine industry that’s “too young”?



  










Q. What do tourists think of Ontario wines?
A. From Jimson Bienenstock, Senior Sommelier: I fundamentally believe that Ontario has world-class wine. So we should be actively promoting local, not just for its own sake, but because we can proudly serve Ontario wines.

People who are from outside Canada don’t question the validity of Ontario wines. They’re looking for the local experience. Sure, some people are going to want a California Chardonnay or whatever, no matter where they go in the world. But one of the fun things about travelling is being able to try things that you wouldn’t be able to try elsewhere.

Where we have a problem is with people from Canada, or more particularly, Ontario, and even more particularly, Toronto. They don’t realize that the times have changed. But, to convince them, it’s pretty straightforward: Just open a bottle.

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Q. What’s the proper way to taste wine at a restaurant?
A. From Jimson Bienenstock, Senior Sommelier: You don’t have to make a big Oscar-winning performance. It’s really about feeling comfortable that you’ve made the right decision.

There are two basic judgments to make. First, is there a problem with the wine? Does it smell kind of musty and earthy or something that doesn’t seem right? Problems can happen because of taint from the cork. Depending on the numbers, one in 10 or one in 20 bottles might be off—and that’s on a sliding scale, because people have different sensitivities.

The second judgment is whether you think that the wine is nice. Do you like it? That’s the important thing. And any decent restaurant, even if there’s nothing wrong with the wine, will take it back if you don’t like the selection.

So, in terms of the tasting, does it smell the way you think it should? Do the taste and the aftertaste feel appropriate? It’s as simple as that. Just smell it and taste it, and see if you approve.

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Q. Are there any new trends in Ontario winemaking?
A. From Jimson Bienenstock, Senior Sommelier: I think Ontario sparkling wine is just about to hit the market big time. There are several boutique people who are making sparkling wine—particularly in Prince Edward County and Niagara. We’re about to see a whole bunch of really, really good sparkling wines come out, and there’s about to be very, very good choice.

Sparkling wine adds another layer of complexity. You know, white wine is one thing. Red wine gets a little bit more complicated because of the juice needing to be in contact with the skins, aging in oak, etc. Sparkling wine is another level of complexity because of secondary fermentation, rebottling, and all that sort of thing. By definition, it’s more complex.

One of the interesting things is that Chardonnay grapes in the Champagne area in France, for instance, are almost always picked underripe, with the idea of increasing the acidity and the freshness. And so we have a wonderful opportunity in that we have a similar climate—probably a little bit warmer than Champagne, but similar—and we’re almost guaranteed to produce grapes that are really suitable for good sparkling wine.

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Q. How do you select the right wine to cook with or pair with food?
A. From Cynthia Peters, Personal Chef and Food Writer: When it comes to pairing wine with food, it’s not just the ingredients; it’s the preparation of the food itself. Whether you’re sautéing, poaching, braising or grilling—the method of cooking has a lot to do with the type of wine that you choose as well. So it’s a combination of a few variables. But, at the end of the day, it needs to be a wine that you’re going to enjoy drinking.

When cooking with wine, look to a quality wine and treat it just as carefully as you would the other ingredients. And, of course, depending on the recipe, it’s knowing when to use white or red. Generally speaking, if it’s a rice- or vegetable-based deglazing that’s going on, it would naturally be a white wine. If it’s a red-meat-based dish like beef or lamb, it’s red. Herbs can also play into the game.

A good rule to follow: If the dish is on the lighter side, with subtle flavours and a gentle cooking method, white rules. Red wine tends to match with heavier, bolder flavours with longer cooking times, like braising.

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Q. Why should I choose Ontario wines to go with local food?
A. From Cynthia Peters, Personal Chef and Food Writer: Ingredients of a similar terroir naturally pair well and complement one another. It makes sense to choose grapes from the same region (i.e., from the same minerals and climate conditions) where the vegetables are grown, the cheeses are made and the animals are grazing.

It’s just very symbiotic—the whole experience. It’s a wonderful celebration of what has been produced by the hands of people that live here together in this province, and it’s wonderful to support it in its totality. I see it first-hand all the time, when people are here at the cooking school. It’s the place. To be able to be in one area where you’re picking, cooking and then eating where it’s all been created, it just makes a wonderful celebration at the end of the day.

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Q. What does it mean when someone says a wine is “corked”?
A. From Astrid Brummer, LCBO Product Manager: A wine that’s “corked,” or has cork taint, has had a reaction between three things: the chlorine in the water used to clean or treat the cork, the wood in the cork (lignin), and then the wine. They all create this unpleasant little chemical reaction, which strips all the fruitiness out of the wine, and if it gets really extreme, it makes it taste like wet cardboard or wet dog.

Often, people won’t even notice that that’s what’s wrong. They may notice nothing, or they may just think, “I don’t really like this wine.” It’s not all or nothing. And it’s not harmful. You can drink a corked wine—it’s just not optimal, in that it doesn’t taste the way it was meant to taste.

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Q. How long should I expect to keep a wine after I open the bottle?
A. From Astrid Brummer, LCBO Product Manager: I love this question because, really, it’s up to you. Once you open it, the wine will change as it gets exposed to air. And as long as you still enjoy the flavour, you can still drink it. At some point it will turn completely to vinegar, and you won’t enjoy it any more. But you get to play with it and find what works for you.

In general, if you close it up somehow—you put a screw cap back on or you seal it somehow, and you keep it in the fridge (because it’s better to have it at a lower temperature than a higher temperature)—it will be good for four to seven days. That’s true for red and white wines. Sparkling probably won’t last you seven days, because the bubbles are going to be dissipating during that time, and it won’t be a pleasant drinking experience once all the bubbles are gone. So, for that, you’re probably in the three- to four-day range.

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Q. Why does wine contain aromas and flavours that aren’t associated with grapes?
A. From Astrid Brummer, LCBO Product Manager: People will notice that wine critics talk about nuances of chocolate and raspberry and tobacco—words like that. These aren’t compounds that are added to the wine. It’s totally the chemistry of the grapes.

Part of the beauty of wine is that, as it’s evolving, it develops aromas and flavours that are very much like other things that we experience. Specific grapes will have certain types of aromas. And those will also interact with the wood if it’s had any kind of oak contact. And then you get different types of aromas when those two things come together. And then, when those two things have come together, and more time passes, they change again. So it’s this ever-evolving thing, because wine is alive, and some things are knitting together and some things are coming apart. That changes the texture, and it changes the aroma, and it changes the flavour.

And part of the fun of wine is slowing down and noticing those aromas and flavours, and talking about them.

It’s perfectly fine if you smell a wine and it smells like wine and that’s all you get. But, if you want to notice that it’s actually kind of chocolatey, that it actually smells like blueberries, that’s okay too.

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Q. How does “yield” affect the quality and taste of the wine? What are the yields like in Ontario?
A. From Rob Power, Winemaker: You may see the term “low yield” being used to describe vineyards, and lower yields are often associated with higher-quality wines.

The notion that “less is more” is common, and understandably so: Many of the world’s “classic” wine regions have naturally lower yields, due to soil and climate factors. So we tend to associate low yields with higher quality. And, intuitively, this makes sense: If the vine is concentrating its ripening resources into less fruit, the resulting wines should have more extract, flavour and complexity—all of which are signs of quality.

But high-quality wines are being produced from vineyards in Ontario, and other international wine regions, that yield more fruit per unit of land area than traditional regions.

The key point is that vines need to be balanced in terms of fruit versus “wood” or vine growth. In a site with more water and richer soil, vines will bud more fruit and have the ability to ripen it. Artificially reducing the yield will throw the vine out of balance. It’s all a question of knowing your vines, knowing your climate, understanding all of the other subtle factors, and figuring out the best balance.

There is wide variation in Ontario vineyard yields, from quite low to relatively high on an international scale.

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Q. Why are some vintages considered better than others? What constitutes a “good year”?
A. From Rob Power, Winemaker: First of all, “good” is in the eyes of the beholder. If you like a wine, it’s good; if you don’t, it doesn’t matter if I think it is. As an example, if you like Sauvignon Blanc that is intense, acidic and grassy, 2009 is a good year. If you like a more tropical, full-bodied Sauvignon Blanc, 2010 is a better bet.

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Q. So how do winemakers define a “good year”?
A. From Rob Power, Winemaker: Many of the world’s better wine regions have marginal climates for growing grapes. The years are not always the same, and this risk/reward thing is what fascinates us about wine. A good vintage is one where the million things that can go wrong simply didn’t, and the grapes ripened well and stayed clean enough to make good wine.

There are many factors that contribute to a good vintage:

  • weather in previous vintages, as it relates to vine health in the current year
  • in Ontario, a biggie is the previous winter—hopefully no extreme (-23°C) events
  • lack of untimely frost (hello, Lake Ontario!)
  • timing and amount of rainfall over the growing season
  • temperature, both day and night
  • sunshine hours over the growing season
  • disease and pest pressure, related to the weather factors above.

I’m often asked, “Does the great summer we had mean a good vintage is in the works?” My answer is always, “Maybe.” A good spring and summer set the year up well, but the weather between Labour Day and Halloween calls the tune for quality.

Another complication: Because varieties ripen at different times, a good year for whites might not be great for reds, and a good year for Merlot might not be a good year for Cabernet.

Finally, a good year in Ontario will probably be quite different from a good year somewhere else.

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Q. Do all winemakers agree on the best grape varieties to grow in Ontario?
A. From Rob Power, Winemaker: It’s hard to get winemakers to agree on anything (except maybe that it’s time to meet for a beer at the pub). I think there would be a consensus that our Rieslings are of the highest quality. Ditto for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. But, after that common ground, debate would heat up a bit.

Everyone has a variety to champion (for me, it’s Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah/Shiraz). Some varieties, like maybe Zinfandel or Grenache, evolved in much warmer climes and probably either won’t survive the winter or won’t ripen in our shorter season. But, having said that, I think we are still discovering what’s possible here.

The key is to stop thinking about “Ontario” as one wine region.

There are some sites in Niagara that are great for Riesling, and some that grow exceptional Pinot. But there are also vineyards that consistently ripen Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. And these great wines originate within a few kilometres of each other.

That’s what makes Ontario such a cool “cool-climate” region, unlike any other in the world.

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Q. How does the age of a grapevine affect the wine that’s made from the grapes?
A. From Albrecht Seeger, Grape Grower: Basically, for grapevines, it takes two and a half years for whatever was planted to produce fruit. For anything that was planted this spring, fall 2013 is going to be the first crop. It is a very big investment.

With young vines, the roots are not as established as an old grapevine. So, after the first two and a half years, the vine produces, and then, for the first two or three years of the actual grape production, the wine could be a little lighter. Once you’re in the fourth or fifth year, you’re dealing with a plant that is fully matured.

That’s a general theory. On the other hand, I have tasted a Pinot Gris from three-year-old vines that was fantastic.

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Q. What can a grape grower do to ensure the production of high-quality grapes?
A. From Albrecht Seeger, Grape Grower: When you have a fantastic year, like 2010—a mild spring, so the buds break very early, a nice summer that was not too hot, with occasional heavy rain, the grapes start veraison (a sign of ripening, when the grapes start to change colour from green to red or blue) early, a nice fall—in years like that, everybody can grow a top-quality grape.

But, in a year like 2009, when we had an awful summer, because it rained every second day, that’s when you have to work at it.

In that year, just as an example—especially with the red grape varieties—we went into the vineyard with an army of people when the majority of the grape bunches had turned blue. Any bunch that had not changed colour to blue but was still pink, we cut out. And we did that three times throughout the fall. And, at the very end, we had a very limited quantity of tonnes per acre, but we managed to bring the quality of the grapes up to a level where the winery was able to make really good wine.

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Q. What would you say is a misconception about Ontario having a wine industry that’s “too young”?
A. From Albrecht Seeger, Grape Grower: It’s true—Ontario is a young wine region, but California is not much older. And the Europeans—if you go back 50, 60 years ago—they always made good wine, but it didn’t have the quality they have today. They had standards, but they weren’t as stringent or tight as they are today. I think we are at the same level as the rest of the world.

Think of the high-tech cars we drive today, and compare them to the cars we drove 50 years ago. Like that, the wine industry worldwide got better, and we got better.

And, you know, being young as a wine region, you have the advantage that you can import knowledge from around the world. You’re throwing a lot of knowledge and expertise into the ring. And that’s what we have been doing for the last 20 years. I’m very proud of what the industry has achieved.

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