The wines of home

September 2023

Above Niagara Falls and its escarpment, the great high plane of southwestern Ontario stretches westerly to Lake Huron and the Detroit and St. Clair Rivers. This is Ontario’s most productive agricultural region, where once tobacco was king, but now is the source of all types of fruits and vegetables – asparagus, cucumbers, ginger, ginseng, peppers, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, strawberries… – all destined for supermarkets right here at home. And now, increasingly, fine wine can be added to that list. The Lake Erie North Shore has its own VQA, usually called LENS, with more than a dozen wineries now in full production.

The best-known spot here is Point Pelee National Park. A mecca for birdwatchers, this spit of land jutting south into Lake Erie is so popular with field naturalists that, during migration season, you have to come early if you hope to be able to enter the park. But beyond the famous park, lesser known and much less crowded, but just as inviting, is little Pelee Island, sitting out in Lake Erie just south of the tip of the more famous national park. A short ferry ride from either Kingsville or Leamington will land you in this rural, rustic, undeveloped yet enchanting home to some unique fauna and flora, and to a remarkable vineyard. Bring your bicycle, not your car, and arrange your accommodations well in advance if you hope to spend more than a day here, for tourist facilities are few indeed. But you will definitely find it worth the trip.

Pelee Island vineyard is the successor to the oldest successful vineyard in Canada, Vin Villa. Back in 1866 – 157 years ago! – Vin Villa was renowned, winning a bronze medal at the Paris World’s Fair in 1878. Vin Villa was also the first winery in North America to make Champagne-style sparkling wine. This was in the pre-vinifera days for Canadian wine, so by today’s standards we might find the taste strange. Although Vin Villa is long gone, you can visit the ruins of the original winery today. Remember, we are at the latitude of California here.

Today, this island vineyard is by far the largest in Ontario, at over 700 acres of vines, and has its own VQA designation: Southern Islands, a sub-zone of LENS.

It is worked by Pelee Island Wines, well-known in Thunder Bay for their sponsorship of our own Community Auditorium Wine Affair for many years. Although the grapes are grown on the island, the harvested grapes are taken by boat to Kingsville on the mainland for vinification, where the actual Pelee Island Winery is located. For visitors to the island, they maintain a ‘wine pavilion’ at the vineyard, where there is information about the winery, and a cook-your-own barbecue and picnic area; we enjoyed our bison burger with a local Pelee Island Pinot Noir.

Back on the mainland, we find wineries beginning to pop up along the north shore of Lake Erie, with most of them clustered in the sun belt between Point Pelee National Park and the city of Windsor. Winery numbers here are measured in tens, not hundreds, but several have achieved prominence along with a reputation for quality. Colio Estate, Cooper’s Hawk, Crew, Sprucewood Shores, Oxley Estate, Mastronardi Estate are all expanding production, and can often be found at your neighbourhood LCBO. They have not yet reached the pinnacle of prestige from single vineyard sites that have become the hallmark of their older sibling Niagara, but experimentation and innovation are the drivers, and quality continues to rise – these wines are something for us to sample and celebrate!

© Paul Inksetter 2023

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