NewsNiagara Wine ReviewsTop Stories

UPDATED: Ontario winemakers still fighting for respect at the LCBO, plus Vintages releases

By Rick VanSickle

When the Vintners Quality Alliance was established by a few founding wineries in Ontario over 30 years ago, the last thing they envisioned was fighting the same battle over and over and over again.

Note 1: Adds comment from LCBO and corrects content of the Chardonnay in the photo below to 100% Ontario fruit.

Note 2: Also in this report, Ontario wines featured in the Saturday Vintages release, two Cali wines to try, new Flat Rock and Arterra wine releases, plus top Niagara wines in the September Classics Collection.

The founding members of VQA began as a voluntary, self-regulated organization designed to keep undesirable Ontario wines away from consumers. They hoped that the regulation system would reassure consumers about the quality of Ontario wines and help a young wine industry grow.

By 2000, VQA was enacted into law by the Ontario government as Ontario’s Wine Authority. VQA production standards became part of Ontario law, and the group began operating with authorities granted by the provincial government. At long last, consumers could shop for local wines and be assured that the wine in the bottle was Ontario wine.

Ontario wine

And that is why a photo, above, taken Sept. 2 by the recently elected chair of Ontario Craft Wineries (OCW) association, Carolyn Hurst, was so disturbing to so many. Under the banner headline Let’s Toast To Locally Made, and positioned for maximum exposure in a Burlington LCBO store, were row after row of boxed Peller Family Chardonnay and Rosé. The boxes of rosé wines were the so-called International Domestic Blend brands that have very little to do with Ontario wines, are definitely not VQA and are only allowed to be made under grandfathered licences held by mainly Peller and Arterra in Ontario. These wines contain 75% grapes (or juice) from other places in the world with only 25% Ontario juice. The Chardonnay in a box is made from 100% Ontario and flips from being a 100% local product to IDB depending on the year and size of the crop. Peller will buy up surplus grapes and sub out the international grapes, but doesn’t reflect that on the packaging.

You can imagine the outrage — 10 days before the Ontario Craft Wineries’ most important promotion, a $400,000 campaign held every September in LCBO/Vintages stores to coincide with harvest and designed to increase awareness and sales for VQA wines — from Hurst and others after posting the photo on her Facebook page.

“This is outrageous,” said Hurst in her Facebook post. “The product under this sign in the government of Ontario’s monopoly LCBO is advertising this as a local product. In fact it is made of 75% imported wine and put in bottle in a factory in Ontario. I call this SHAMEFUL ADVERTISING. #VQA IS THE ONLY LOCAL PRODUCT.”

Hurst, owner with husband Grant Westcott of Westcott Vineyards in Niagara and pictured above, approached a clerk at the Burlington LCBO to ask why international blended wines were being promoted as local Ontario wines, he told her “well, it is ‘made’ in Ontario,” Hurst said. “He even gave me the percentage of grape content. So, the LCBO staff have been trained to answer this question. This is not an error.”

Later, in an interview with Wines In Niagara, Hurst doubled down on her concern for the display. “I’m a grower, I have a problem with that, so I took a photo. It’s wrong, it’s just wrong,” she said. Hurst said that she doesn’t really care what people drink and doesn’t have a problem with Peller and other blenders making these wines as long as they stay in their lane, advertise them properly, label them correctly and let consumers make up their own minds. A display like this is “misleading advertising. It’s not appropriate; it’s part of the confusion.”

Allan Schmidt, president of Vineland Estates, former chair of the OCW and now vice-chair working with Hurst, is one of the founding members of VQA Ontario. He said in an interview that VQA was started to separate quality Ontario wines from the proliferating blended industry in the province. “I’m literally fed up with it,” he said. “I’m almost at the point of just giving up. We started VQA to separate our wines from ICB (blended wines, formerly called International Canadian Blends). This sets us back 30 years.”

Schmidt, above, said on the Hurst Facebook post that putting the boxed IDB wines on display as local wines “is not by accident. It is the LCBO’s new merchandizing policy this summer to combine international blends with VQA and call both local,” he said. “I believe their exact quote is ‘a new unified message for International Domestic Blends and VQA.’ So unified meaning the same message that both are local. They have just knocked our industry back 30 years. Can’t believe this is allowed to happen.”

Richard Linley, president of Ontario Craft Wineries, was made aware of the display, flagged the issue to the LCBO and understood the display was being resolved. Wines In Niagara travelled to that particular Guelph Line LCBO store last Thursday and the offending blended wines were replaced with VQA wines. A number of other LCBO stores were inspected for similar displays and none with the non-VQA wine were found to be on display at the stores visited from St. Catharines to Gravenhurst.

Still, Schmidt believes it is “the LCBO doing this. The LCBO thinks they are one and the same,” referring to blended wines and 100% VQA wines.

And in times like these, where predictions by both Schmidt and Linley suggest about 45 Ontario wineries face temporary closures with 18 shutting down permanently due to the COVID-19 pandemic, even one rogue LCBO store lumping international blends in with Ontario VQA wines is cause for great concern.

It’s not the first time LCBO stores have confused blended wines with VQA wines. In March 2018, at the grand opening of the new Winona store, situated at the gateway to Niagara, the store’s Ontario wine section consisted of a full aisle of VQA Ontario wines, shown above, and then another aisle that had a sign reading: “Our Wine Country, 100% Ontario” and loaded with an array of wines that on first blush looked like they are all from Ontario.

The trouble was, a large portion of those wines were DIB wines — wines that deceptively look Canadian but are actually anything but Canadian. There was very little difference between the labels on those wines or the VQA wines further down the shelf. Some had VQA on the labels, others didn’t. Some had in small type convoluted words that mention something about the composition of the blend, the others don’t. Few people if any understand what it means anyway.

These wines trade off the good name of 100% Ontario wines, and those who make them, and have no business on the same shelf as VQA wines or, for that matter, anywhere even near the real Ontario wines.

The error was rectified about two weeks later after complaints to the LCBO.

For people like Hurst and Schmidt, these lapses in judgment are an insult to their craft of growing and making 100% Ontario grapes and wines. And they don’t know why these incidents keep happening.

Note: The LCBO did get back to Wines In Niagara a day after this was published with this statement from the Press Office:

“LCBO is proud to champion Ontario’s local products and producers, offering customers VQA wines from Ontario’s 180-plus VQA wineries. The error in product placement, isolated to this particular store, was corrected upon notice to showcase locally made product to shop and discover.”

Coming to LCBO/Vintages
stores on Saturday

This Saturday sees the second big release in September of local wines during the key Ontario VQA promotion. Here’s what we can recommend.

Bachelder Les Villages Gamay Noir 2018 ($24, 89 points) — Les Villages is a blend of older Gamay vineyards from the limestone-laced vineyards of Niagara. It has a lighter colour in the glass, more a trait of the vintage than his style, with a nose of pristine red berries, elegantly scented red plums, mineral intensity, subtle meaty/savoury notes and spice (the wine spends 14 months in French oak, all neutral barrels). It’s rich and stony with surprising structure on the palate that reveals raspberries, cherries, red currants, earth and spice in a rich style that is all together quaffable while also cellarable for a couple of years.

Huff Estates Cuvée Janine Sparkling Rosé 2016, Prince Edward County ($30, 91 points) — The bubbles program at Huff is on point. This blend of 90% Pinot Noir and 10% Chardonnay from estate grapes spends 20 months on the lees and gets a 22 g/L dosage. It has a vigorous mousse with persistent bubbles and an attractive nose of fresh red berries, brioche, minerals and touch of citrus. It pops on the palate with lovely cherries, raspberries and rhubarb flavours to go with biscuit, minerals and leesy/baked bread notes on a crisp, balanced finish.

Tawse Dry White Vermouth ($23, 92 points) — The Tawse distillery is rocking these days, churning out all manner of innovative spirits overseen by head of winemaking Paul Pender. This Vermouth is unlike any I have tried. I can remember the days when Vermouth was but a seldom used spirit that you basically squirted a mere drop into a dry Vodka martini just so you could say you weren’t drinking pure vodka on ice. A bottle would last years and years. The spirit here is sourced from certified organic estate Riesling that’s steeped with 14 different botanicals and fortified to 18.5% abv. On Pender’s advice, I tasted this straight up on ice with a big wedge of lime. It had a beautiful nose of citrus, herbs, sage, wild flowers and some exotic tropical fruit notes and, of course, lime. It was smooth and refreshing on the palate with notes of chamomile tea, pear, fresh herbs, citrus and a zesty, refreshing finish. A lovely afternoon cocktail.

Also released, but not reviewed:

• Rosewood Mead Royale Honey Wine 2018 ($20 for 500 mL)
• Adamo Lepp David’s Vineyard Rieslng 2017 ($20)
• Kin Vineyard Civil Grit Chardonnay 2019 ($21)
• Wayne Gretzky Whisky Oak Aged Chardonnay 2018 ($19)
• Cave Spring Cabernet Franc 2017 ($18)
• Megalomaniac Sparkling Personality 2019 ($15)
• Kew Soldier’s Grant 2017 ($20)
• Henry of Pelham Speck Family Reserve Baco Noir ($25)

Niagara wines in the
September Classics Collection

Three special Niagara wines are available through online ordering here now.

Southbrook Witness Block Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 ($45, 92 points) — This organic and biodynamically farmed Cab Sauv was wild fermented in new open top barrels with daily punch downs. It was aged in French oak barrels for 12 months in a combination of old and new wood. Such a pretty nose of blackberries, black currants, underlying cherries, sage and elegant spice notes. It has firm tannic structure and bright acidity with juicy blackberries, forest berries, currants and lovely spice notes on a highly structured frame that should only improve in the cellar for 10+ years.

Tawse Cherry Avenue Pinot Noir 2016 $49, 94 points) — The best Cherry Avenue I have tasted, which is surprising as I usually prefer the cooler vintage Pinots in Niagara. This version, even with 16 months in French oak, is made with a deft touch (assuming mostly older barrels) and shows a lighter colour in the glass than the Quarry and reveals pretty darks cherries, brambly raspberries, light spiced notes and an intriguing vein of minerality/iron on the nose that is pleasingly inviting. It dances lightly on the palate with savoury red fruits, a floral note with that intriguing minerality that builds in intensity through the silky smooth and finessed finish. Niagara Pinot at its best.

Tawse Robyn’s Block Chardonnay 2016 $46, 93 points) — Consistently one of the finest Chardonnays made in Niagara and the riper 2016 version follows that winning trend. Certainly more robust than previous vintages with pronounced pear, ripe apple, saline minerality and elegant spice notes. This Chardonnay is layered and textured with ripe orchard fruits, tingly acidity, stony minerality, creamy notes and elegance that benefits from a zesty citrus accents on a finessed finish. Drinking perfectly right now, but can cellar up to three years.

Two Cali wines to seek out
at Vintages stores

Robert Mondavi Reserve Chardonnay 2017 ($60, Vintages now, 94 points) — Mondavi hand selects the majority of the fruit for this ethereal Chardonnay from Hyde Ranch in the famed Carneros appellation. If you are a fan of this style of full-on Chard, as I am from time to time, this is a gorgeous example that finds some sort of harmony between ripe fruit, oak treatment and finesse. The grapes are wild fermented, aged in nearly all new Burgundian oak with twice a week lees stirring. It has a fabulous nose of poached pear, baked apple, floral notes, caramel, cream and ripe apricot. It’s generous on the palate, but shows some level of restraint and elegance to go with rich, ripe and creamy stone fruits, apricots, layers of toasted vanilla and spice with length and freshness of the finish. Old style Chard that is hard to put down. A special treat.

Meiomi Rosé 2018 ($22, Vintages now, 89 points) — This is a Pinot Noir dominant rosé crafted from the three appellations on California’s coast. It has a savoury nose of raspberries, cherries, watermelon, herbs and subtle citrus notes. It’s juicy on the palate with a dry impression and shows a ripe profile of red berries, savoury herbs and zesty finish.

New from Flat Rock Cellars

Flat Rock Cellars Good Kharma Chardonnay 2019 ($17, Oct. 3 release at the LCBO, 88 points) — A portion of the sales from this Good Kharma wine goes to Feed Ontario, which provides meals for Ontarians in need. This unoaked style of Chardonnay has pure and fresh aromas of tropical fruits, peach, bright apple, minerals and just a hint of creaminess. It’s clean and fresh on the palate with orchard fruits, peach, pineapple and zippy acidity through the finish.

Flat Rock Twisted 2017 ($18, 88 points) — This is an aromatic white blend with all three varieties bringing something to the party — lime, peach and grapefruit from the Riesling, lychee and spice from the Gewurztraminer and pear and apple from the Chardonnay on the nose. It has some flesh on the palate to go with a rich broth of orchard fruits, lychee, ginger and a crisp, vibrant finish.

New bubbles from Arterra

Saintly The Good Sparkling NV ($19, Wine Rack, 88 points) — A new product from Arterra, this cuvé close (charmat) style of sparkling wine has a nose of fresh pear, citrus, peaches and apples with a brisk mousse in the glass. It’s made in a refreshingly dry style with notes of orchard fruits, citrus/lime with a zippy finish. Pretty good bang for the buck here.

Saintly The Good Sparkling Rosé NV ($19, Wine Rack, LCBO now, 87 points) — The rosé bubbles under the Saintly label also has a vigorous mousse with notes of fresh strawberries and citrus. It’s lively and dry on the palate with some creamy notes to carry the basket of red berries and subtle citrus notes through a finessed finish.