Wines In Niagara

A local perspective

Ontario Wine Vintage Charts for 1998-2014

harvest sliderMother Nature is cruel and never has she been more cruel than in 2014. We are still seeing the effects of the brutal winter and so-called polar vortex that swept through the vineyards of Ontario, leaving a path of destruction in its wake.

Some say it was divine intervention, some are just starting to pick up the pieces, some lucky wineries didn’t feel the sting of the cold one bit. One thing is sure, for many wineries it was a wake-up call and a pretty strong sign that you can’t grow everything in this climate.

While the stalwarts of Ontario grapes dodged the icy bullet, namely Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc, some of the fringe grapes, we’re talking to you Syrah (completely obliterated in Lake Erie North Shore, severely hit in Niagara), Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, were struck a deadly blow. More than a few wineries are rethinking those grapes and replanting to what does best in the worst conditions. It’s too bad, because all four of those varieties have provided a great deal of pleasurable drinking over the years and they provide something different for consumers. In favourable years they make some very nice juice, especially Merlot and Semillon.

It comes down to this when assessing a diverse region such as Ontario: Was it a good year for the so-called Bordeaux red grapes? No. Was it a good year for the so-called Burgundy grapes? Yes, pretty good and some say excellent. Riesling? Never a problem. Gamay. Very good. Rose? You are going to see a lot of rose from 2014, no question about it. Semillon? Barely a drop coming. Sauvignon Blanc? Reduced supply. Syrah? Good luck finding any.

slideroneWe will look back on 2014 as a disastrous year for many of the reasons mentioned above, but consumers should not turn their backs on what survived following the polar vortex; there will be some really nice wines coming out of the vintage from producers who paid attention to their vineyards and made the necessary picking decisions (obviously). That also extends to the decisions in the winery. If your reds aren’t good enough, winemakers should consider de-classifying the grapes to lesser bottlings and blends. I have talked to many who have done just that.

Here’s what VQA Ontario had to say about the 2014 Vintage in Ontario:


Weather conditions in Southern Ontario were unusually cold and snowy in the first few months of 2014 and cool prevailed well into spring.

January through April brought mean temperatures consistently below normal and several regions saw their coldest spring in the past four decades. Finally, May brought a return to normal temperatures. The sustained winter cold and late spring led to a cautious outlook for the vintage, with grape growers concerned about the potential for winter damage and the relatively late start to the growing season.

May saw slightly more rain than normal for Prince Edward County and Lake Erie North Shore but otherwise normal conditions and gave the vines a chance to settle into the season. Slightly wetter and cooler weather prevailed across most of Ontario for June and July, making for a dreary summer but allowing for a slow, steady maturation of the vines and grapes. By early August, it was apparent that harvest dates would be about 10 days later than normal in all regions. It was also clear by this time that the cold winter would result in some crop reductions for tender varieties but in quite a sporadic pattern. The wide range of outcomes this year underscores the basic principle of appellation — that different combinations of specific locations and specific grape varieties matter.

August was relatively normal, and September finally brought enough sun and warm temperatures to push the grapes to maturity.


Harvest began a bit late, but was helped along by a good long stretch of dry and sunny September weather. Prince Edward County was drier than normal, and the other regions about normal for the month. The favourable weather continued into October allowing most of the grapes to ripen and come in before the rather quick onset of colder fall temperatures.

Preliminary registrations for Icewine and Late Harvest grapes show that production is likely to be just over half of that in 2013, with an estimated total of 3850 tonnes of 11 different grape varieties left on the vine after November 15.


This year highlighted the craft involved in growing good grapes and making quality wine. Technique and experience play a very important role in getting the best wine to the consumer.

Viticulturalists and winemakers are faced with continuous decisions about the care of vines, when and how to prune or pick, grape sorting, time on lees, stainless or oak, varietal or blend, and many, many other things. These are all tailored into a unique combination to yield the best grapes and wine from the vintage.

As is often the case, nature eventually found a balance by the end of the season. Early reports suggest a solid vintage, but perhaps with limited availability for some varietals from some producers. This year was quite variable so each wine is likely to reflect the care and attention of its coach.

For a look at what Ontario winemakers had to say about the 2014 vintage, go here from a previous post.

The Charts

I have been doing this vintage chart for Ontario for many years. It was originally commissioned by Wine Access and updated on an annual basis. I have tried to keep it current and relevant.

When the chart was designed by Wine Access the ratings were based on a seven-star scale. I am not sure why, but I have continued to rate the vintages that way. Perhaps one day I will get around to converting it to a 10-point system, but for now, seven stars it is.

2014    ★★★★½ (Out of seven, tentative)

The year was highlighted by a brutal winter that ultimately caused wide-spread bud damage leading to vine death in several varieties including (but not limited to) Syrah, Merlot, Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc. Couple that with a cooler year that always seemed a couple of weeks behind, varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc were tested. It won’t be a year for big red blends, but, on the bright side, the early-ripening Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Gamay enjoyed a very nice harvest and should provide some very good wines from the vintage. Look for de-classified reds from wineries with a trickle-down portfolio (or a larger than usual supply of rose), good to excellent Riesling, Pinots, Chards and Gamays. I have spoken to many winemakers who will not be making their top red blends in 2014 and many others who are replanting their damaged and dead vines with varietals more suited to all weather conditions in Ontario. Wines from Prince Edward County weren’t hit as bad as Niagara and Lake Erie North Shore for two reasons: They bury their vines and they don’t grow that many varietals outside of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Whites: Drink now or hold Chardonnays, Rieslings
Reds: Just being released now

2013    ★★★★★½

It was a late start to the season with every kind of weather imaginable tossed into the equation. Hot, cold, wet, dry … it was a rollercoaster ride, especially in Niagara. When it was all said and done, the season played to each region’s strengths — Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Riesling and Cabernet Franc in Niagara, Pinot and Chard in Prince Edward County and early ripening varieties in Lake Erie North Shore. Most aromatic whites across the board have shown promise in 2013. Quality will be spotty for the other Bordeaux varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and anything that was left out on the vine to ripen late. I would call it a typical vintage for Niagara that plays to the strengths of what the region does best but some of the top bottlings, especially in big reds, have been de-classified. It was a record crop both for table wines and icewine grapes, which could come in handy for 2014 after a severe January cold snap caused wide-spread damage to vines, mostly in Niagara and Lake Erie North Shore.

Whites: Drink now or hold Chardonnays, Rieslings
Reds: Just being released now

2012    ★★★★★★

The mood in Niagara during the early harvest of 2012 was one of pure joy. Ripe fruit in pristine condition after a long, hot summer and early fall sent grape pickers into the vineyards in mid-August to harvest early-ripening varieties. It was one of the earliest harvests on record for all varieties with only a slight hiccup during a brief rainy period in September. Reports from all regions in Ontario indicated a near-perfect season with the Bordeaux-style red grapes leading the way. Winemakers were also excited by the white grapes, especially Chardonnay, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc, that all showed both juicy ripeness and natural acidity. The largest icewine crop was netted since 2007, an indication that Canada’s most famous export was set for a rebound in 2012. Since first writing this report I have now tasted most of the key 2012 reds from this vintage and have re-evaluated many of the whites. I have upgraded the rating from 6 stars to a perfect 7 because I feel strongly that 2012 will prove to be the best vintage in Ontario ever. It’s not just the big red wines that are showing such promise, but all varieties across the board. Sort of unheard of until now. My suggestion, buy what you can from 2012 and cellar what you can, it’s as good as it gets in Ontario. Drink 2013s and 2014s while you wait.

Whites: Drink now, or cellar 3-5 years
Reds: Cellar 5 years or more, Bordeaux blends up to 15 years

2011    ★★★★★½

The extremely wet fall, during the peak of harvest for most varieties, has meant careful buying strategies. Quality varies from winery to winery, and it will depend a lot on picking decisions that were made. Pinot Noir, Gewürztraminer, Baco Noir and Cabernet Franc escaped the worst of the wet harvest, while chardonnay was hardest hit. Late-harvest and icewine Rieslings were also affected by late-season rain. That being said, there are some very nice wines from 2011. Shop carefully.

Whites: Drink now or hold 1 to 3 years
Reds: Drink some now, or cellar 3 years, but no more

2010    ★★★★★★½   

Winemakers across Ontario have never been happier with a vintage. The harvest started in the extreme heat of August and continued without concern through October. The red varieties, especially cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon and merlot, are some of the best grapes grown in Ontario and should age gracefully. Even the whites show wonderful complexity, without being flabby and soft. You can purchase most Ontario wines from 2010 with confidence.   

Whites: Drink now or cellar 3 years or less
Reds: Cellar 3 to 7 years

2009    ★★★★★   

In many ways, 2009 was similar to 2008. A cool, wet summer put the harvest up to 14 days behind for most red varieties, but a long, warm fall saved the vintage. Aromatic whites, particularly many exceptional rieslings, are the stars of the vintage, along with the fabulous pinot noirs that are proving to be the best in recent memory. Bordeaux varieties had trouble ripening, especially cabernet sauvignon. Many wineries didn’t make their top red wines.   

Whites: Drink now, rieslings a couple more year
Reds: Drink now or cellar 3 years (especially pinot noirs)

2008    ★★★★★½   

It was a wet growing season in Ontario, especially in Niagara and Prince Edward County, and grape ripening in all appellations was a challenge. The quality of this vintage depended entirely on vineyard management. Whites and cool-climate reds (pinot noir and gamay) fared better than other varieties. The ’08 rieslings and other white varieties are superb, but consumers should be selective with the reds. Complex chardonnays are the stars of the vintage.   

Whites: Drink now or cellar 3 years or less for rieslings
Reds: Drink now

2007    ★★★★★★★   

The growing season across Ontario was just about perfect. The 2007 vintage was the best in Ontario’s history, up to this point. It was warm, dry and ideal for extended hang time on the vines. The 2007 whites showed beautiful concentration of flavour, but lacked acidity and fell apart quickly. The red wines are proving extraordinary, especially with some age on them, from variety to variety. Look for rich, ripe, concentrated Bordeaux-style reds built to last.

Whites: Drink now
Reds: Drink now or cellar 4 years or more

2006    ★★★★★½   

Not as wet as 2008, but still humid and slightly cooler than normal. The mood was upbeat in Ontario as vines recovered from the terrible winterkill of 2005. There was plenty of sunshine in August, but a wet September meant wineries had to employ good vineyard selection. It was a decent year for chardonnay, riesling, merlot, gamay, cabernet franc and pinot noir, and a great year for icewines.

Whites: Drink now
Reds: Drink now

2005    ★★★★★   

This was a disastrous year. An extremely cold winter killed any hope for a healthy vintage, with more than half of the vintage wiped out. Many producers didn’t have enough wine to sell and suffered hefty financial losses. Both Lake Erie North Shore and Pelee Island fared better than Niagara. The irony of the vintage was that, even with a tiny crop, what was grown ended up being pretty good.

Whites: Drink now
Reds: Drink now

2004    ★★★★★½   

The 2004 vintage was a major relief for producers following the bad winter of 2003. Conditions improved immensely, and vines recovered from the previous winterkill. Some of the stars of the vintage include riesling, chardonnay, pinot noir, cabernet franc and gamay. Tender varietals didn’t fare nearly as well.   

Whites: Drink now
Reds: Drink now

2003    ★★★★★½

This vintage had it all: a horrible winter resulting in another short crop (a reduction of 45 percent of all vinifera vines), the reappearance of the Asian lady beetle (which causes a nasty taint in wines) and, despite all of that, the emergence of some mighty fine whites. The rating for this vintage is really split between red and white wines: a 4.5 for red wines and a 6.0 for whites.   

Whites: Drink now
Reds: Drink now

2002    ★★★★★★½   

A lot of winemakers rank this vintage up there with 2007 and 1998. This vintage was highlighted by severe drought conditions in all Ontario appellations for most of the summer. The resulting grapes ripened beautifully, with small, concentrated grapes, high sugar levels and tannins. A tasting of top 2002 cab-merlots in 2010 showed just how wonderful most of these reds have come along. Most are just now coming into balance and show wonderful fruit, spice and tannins.

Whites: Drink up
Reds: Drink up, but some Bordeaux blends holding on nicely

1998    ★★★★★★½

The best examples from this benchmark vintage are still showing beautifully. Even the whites — the top, oaked chardonnays, in particular — are still drinking fabulously. This is considered by many to be the vintage of the last century and the most significant vintage in Ontario’s history. Recently opened bottles from this vintage are superb. The top Bordeaux-style reds continue to age gracefully but all should be consumed soon.

Whites: Drink now.
Reds: Drink now



1 Comment

  1. Coyote’s Run will release a 2014 Red Paw Vineyard Syrah. 100 cases or so. It is tasting nice out of the barrel.

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