When Jonas Newman, winemaker and owner at Hinterland Wine Company, headed to emerging Prince Edward County early last decade, he intended to make the “next best pinot noir in the world.” But nature had other plans.
Two early seasons saw crops decimated by freeze-outs, then, a wet slog of a harvest resulted in a marginal yield. That’s when Newman decided that sparkling wine could be the key to success.
What is often a liability in making still wine in Ontario can be turned into an advantage with sparkling. Unlike fruit destined for table wine, sparkling wine grapes ripen earlier, which can help a crop avoid disease and rot.
On top of that, grapes grown in cooler temperatures also happen to make really delicious sparkling wine. Their extra acidity is desired to balance the wine’s creamy bubbles. Cold climates also prompt grape vines to dig their roots deeper into the soil for nutrients, resulting in higher minerality – a great quality for sparkling wine.
“Cool climates. Limestone soils. What’s not to love?” Newman says. “Really what makes it great, especially in the County, is how long it takes for the grapes to get both sugar-ripe and flavour-ripe.”
Newman’s switch was a success. Within two years, Hinterland Wine Company’s sparkling wine portfolio racked up accolades from local and international wine critics.
“We’re growing year over year in terms of production,” he says. “Sales are growing year over year. We feel like it’s being embraced.”
Newman is part of a growing contingent of winemakers who are realizing that Ontario has the potential to produce some of the best sparkling wine in the world. And if current trends are any indication, our province is in the midst of a sparkling wine golden age.
I believe Ontario can do a sparkling wine just as good as anyone else outside of Champagne
Over the past five years, the number of VQA wineries making sparkling wine in the province has more than doubled to over 40. Nearly a quarter of Ontario wineries make sparkling wine, and they’re also producing it in greater variety. Last year, the province produced record volumes of sparkling.
Much of this growth is thanks to new wineries, such as Kew Vineyards, making sparkling wine an integral part of their lineup. The boutique winery in Beamsville has quietly built the province’s most exciting lineup of bubbles, with five distinct sparkling wines made in the traditional method (a method used in Champagne).
Winemaker Phillip Dowell, an Aussie transplant, has over three decades of experience in the wine business, including a stint with French champagne producer Moët & Chandon when it set up in Australia as Domaine Chandon. When he came to Niagara in the late 1990s, he was quickly won over by the region’s potential.
“I believe Ontario can do a sparkling wine just as good as anyone else outside of Champagne,” he says. “Next to icewine, sparkling wine should be our most competitive category.”
Stratus Vineyards winemaker J-L Groux echoes the sentiment.
“I really believe Ontario is in the right place to make classic method sparkling wine properly, and we are improving,” he says.
Groux would know. He was a pioneer of traditional method sparkling wine in Niagara, establishing the first classic program there as winemaker of Hillebrand Winery (now known as Trius) in 1991.
Groux describes that first wave of Niagara sparkling as promising but “lonely,” with only one other winery consistently producing serious sparkling wine. The burgeoning Ontario wine industry just didn’t have the resources it needed at the time.
Under Groux’s guidance, Hillebrand became Niagara’s sparkling wine leader. His decision to take inspiration from Champagne – blending chardonnay and pinot noir, two of Niagara’s most promising grapes, and aging the wine for two-and-a-half years – became the template for the region.
By the time the calendar flipped to the new millennium, a second wave of quality local sparkling emerged, led by young, hungry and scrappy family-owned wineries like Henry of Pelham.
Groux took a respite from sparkling wine to establish the winemaking program at Stratus Vineyards, but the winery is expanding its portfolio, so he’s back exploring sparkling. He is working on a long-aged blanc de blanc (a white wine made entirely with white grapes) that will be ready in 2019. “Patience is the name of the game,” he says.
Other Ontario wineries have noticed the potential of these long-aged blanc de blancs. Newman has made one, and Dowell – one of the style’s biggest proponents – has one available at Kew and at Angels Gate Winery.
One of the most consistent producers and pioneers of the blanc de blanc style in Niagara is Henry of Pelham. Its Carte Blanche is aged 60 months on lees (the yeast that gives bottle-fermented sparkling its bubbles).
The winery knew it had something special when an early version of Carte Blanche became the talk of a comprehensive Canadian sparkling tasting held at Canoe restaurant in 2011. The buzz hasn’t stopped for the vintages released since then.
Daniel Speck, a co-owner at Henry of Pelham, likens long-aging on lees to oak-aging wine: the right amount rounds a wine’s edges and adds complexity, texture and irreplaceable elegance, but overdo it and you end up with unbalanced excess.
“Too much of a good thing is not that great,” Speck says.
Helping demystify those secrets and aiming to ensure Ontarians continue to have better bubbles in their glasses is Fizz Club.
Part support group, part professional development symposium, Fizz Club is where Ontario’s current and future sparkling winemakers share and discuss the latest research and wines they’re working on.
Dr. Belinda Kemp, an oenologist at Brock University and the leader of Fizz Club, is palpably optimistic about the state of Ontario’s sparkling wine.
“Some of the long-aged traditional method wines we’re doing sit right up there at the top of the pyramid with champagnes,” she says. “But we’re catering to the market that wants prosecco-style bubbly, too.”
Fizz Club aims for practical solutions to improve each stage of sparkling wine production from vineyard to bottle.
Many winemakers consider Kemp to be the behind-the-scenes leader of this third wave of Ontario sparkling.
Over the past few years she has become a go-to wine whisperer, using science to find solutions to some of the local wine industry’s biggest production challenges.
“She has been instrumental in reviving the category with Fizz Club,” says Groux. “It is going to help the entire industry make better and better traditional method sparkling.”
Last year, record volumes of sparkling were produced in Ontario
Fizz Club has already led to some very practical changes, such as Trius changing its rosé dosage; a conference; a vineyard trial rethinking how to grow the best sparkling grapes; and a trip to Champagne that filled Groux and 26 other Ontario sparkling winemakers with inspiration.
Harnessing this newfound energy will be key to the success of this third wave, which faces some challenges.
“It’s kind of like that baseball thing: ‘If you build it, they will come,’ ” says Toronto-based master of wine Eugene Mlynczyk. “And we haven’t quite built it yet.”
Mlynczyk is one of five Canadians with the world’s top wine distinction. To complete the program last year, he conducted an extensive survey on VQA sparkling wine with hundreds of local wine professionals.
He found that they believe local sparkling wine is better in terms of quality and value than VQA table wines. Still, there is a lack of consensus on how to translate this into consumer support.
Sales of VQA sparkling wines have more than doubled in the last 10 years, but that growth lags slightly behind the growth of sparkling wines globally.
Mlynczyk believes Ontario’s sparkling hasn’t quite caught fire with local consumers because some Ontario wineries are trend-chasing. They might add a sparkling wine to their portfolio in an attempt to “be all things to all people,” he says.
That’s a problematic strategy, because sparkling requires significant investment, equipment and expertise.
“You can’t cowboy sparkling,” he says, recalling a quote from Henry of Pelham’s Daniel Speck. “It’s not like the wild west out there. You need an organized plan. Ideally it’s not just a one-off wine, but a coherent part of your production that you’re also focusing on. Not every winery in Ontario is doing that. There are bunch of additional players coming onto the bandwagon.”
His advice to make sparkling sales flourish is greater focus.
At Kew, Dowell is taking this advice with a sparkling program that showcases the full spectrum of Niagara’s traditional method sparkling. Modern takes on classics sit alongside evolutions on recent trends, like a barrel-fermented blanc de blanc, which lends a creamier texture without compromising fruit or getting too yeasty.
But most importantly, Kew’s sparkling portfolio includes unique trendsetters like the province’s first sparkling pinot meunier. It’s done in a natural brut style, meaning there’s no added sugar, resulting a product that is clean and pure.
Ontario brut natural sparkling wines are ascending, with a handful producers releasing one within the last year and more to come in the near future.
But what Dowell has done differently with this brut natural is opt for a shorter-aged traditional method wine and a grape that lends itself to an approachable, fruitier style bursting with wild berries.
He might be onto something with this unique approach. Mlynczyk found in his study that while wine professionals tend to evangelize the complex, toasty, yeasty flavours of traditional method wines, when asked what style of sparkling their consumers prefer, it’s usually fresh and fruity.
While the future of Ontario’s sparkling wine is looking bright, Newman is careful to observe that we’re not Champagne.
“I think we’ll keep finding ways to improve,” he says. “I see people working to make more and better sparkling wine. Let’s just hope it doesn’t go the way of merlot.”