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Key changes coming to VQA standards, plus two killer value wines, new Hip wines

By Rick VanSickle

Three key changes to VQA rules, that include the creation of a West Niagara regional appellation, amended labelling for Charmat wines, and approval of three new hybrids, is awaiting government approval.

Also in this Ontario Wine Report: Two incredible values wines from MW Cellars and Vineland Estates, plus new Tragically Hip and Stoney Ridge wines, and our pick from Stratus in another sparse Niagara wine release from Vintages.


The Ministry of Public and Business Service Delivery has now posted these VQA regulation changes for public consultation on the Ontario Regulatory Registry. The posting will be open for comment until July 5.

Still under discussion is an expanded list of authorized grape varieties by adding additional vinifera and hybrid varieties. Feedback received from wineries and stakeholders will be reviewed by the board at its June meeting and will determine next steps.

The three changes awaiting government approval would:

Ontario wine

  1. Add a new regional appellation and amend the boundaries of Niagara Escarpment.

  • This proposed change would create a new regional appellation named West Niagara and amend boundaries of the existing Niagara Escarpment regional appellation to include St. David’s Bench.
  • Under this change, West Niagara would include the Niagara sub-appellations Beamsville Bench, Creek Shores, Lincoln Lakeshore, Short Hills Bench, Twenty Mile Bench and Vinemount Ridge. As a result, the new Niagara West regional appellation would encompass all sub-appellations west of St. Catharines. This is consistent with the existing regional appellation Niagara-on- the-Lake that encompasses all sub-appellations east of St. Catharines.
  • Amending the boundaries of the Niagara Escarpment regional appellation to add St. David’s Bench would better align the Niagara Escarpment appellation to the physical boundaries of the escarpment. Overall, these changes will make the Niagara appellation framework similar for the east and west areas of Niagara and more consistent with consumer perceptions, tourism and marketing conventions linked to regional travel, VQA said on its website.
  1. Amend the labelling rules for regulated terms.

  • This proposed change would amend the labelling rules for regulated terms to permit Cuve Close and Charmat method sparkling wines to use all appellation terms instead of Ontario only. Currently, sparkling wines using the Cuve Close or Charmat Method of tank fermentation must be declassified to VQA Ontario.
  • The proposed change would permit these sparkling wines to be labelled with the viticultural and sub-viticultural area, vineyard designation and estate bottles if the wine otherwise meets the requirements of those designations. This change would provide wineries with the flexibility to label Cuve Close and Charmat wines with appellations more specific than Ontario.
  1. Amend the list of permitted grape varieties.

  • This proposed change would amend the list of permitted grape varieties to add Frontenac Noir, Frontenac Gris and Frontenac Blanc (above) to the list of hybrid grape varieties permitted to be used in varietally labelled wines. As well, the grape variety Hibernal would be moved to the list of hybrid varieties permitted to be used in varietally labelled hybrid wines.
  • These proposed changes would increase choice among VQA varietal wines while retaining transparency for consumers for hybrid grape content. The number of hybrid grape varieties would be increased but all existing rules that apply to wines containing hybrid grapes would remain.

These proposed changes would provide more flexibility to Ontario Wine Appellation Authority member wineries, including flexibility to label wine made from grape grown across all western Niagara sub-appellations with a region smaller than Niagara Peninsula; to blend grapes from all Bench sub-appellations under the Niagara Escarpment label; and to label Cuve Close and Charmat wines with appellations more specific than Ontario.

Two outstanding value wines

I travel around this wonderful wine region of Niagara as often as I possibly can to seek out the best wines that I think consumers will enjoy. I love it when I find a wine or two that punch well above their weight class and bring both quality and price into perfect harmony. Here are two — one that has already been on your radar and the other, brand new — that absolutely deserve your attention.

MW Chardonnay 2022 ($18, available at the new wine shop at Ironwood Cider, 93 points) — I almost loath to tell you about this, it’s like a little local secret wine that over-delivers in the sub-$20 category. It’s sourced by Martin Werner from a St. David’s vineyard planted to Clone 76. It’s rich and generous on the nose with baked pear, lemon cream, white flowers, yellow apple, a touch of freshening salinity and just enough oak spice to bring depth and complexity. On the palate, it’s concentrated and creamy with flinty notes and then persistent, elevated orchard fruits, bergamot, elegant spices and wonderful salinity and freshness on a finessed finish. Quite the wine for $18, the kind you buy by the case. Hint, hint. There is a “reserve” edition of this Chardonnay, and it’s a stunner as well, with more elegance and finesse and costs $26. I did not take notes when I tasted it at the retail store but promise to get back there for a review. You don’t have to wait on the regular bottling, it’s rocking right out of the gate.

Vineland Estates Cabernet Franc 2023 ($16, not released yet, 92 points) — Vineland winemaker Brian Schmidt was so excited with this “entry level” general list Cabernet Franc that he couldn’t wait to get a bottle over to me before it’s even released. I can now understand his enthusiasm; what a beauty. Schmidt makes a lot of different Cabernet Francs (his favourite Niagara grape), but the one that always sets the stage, is this. Such a ripe and juicy nose of black cherries, black raspberries, a touch of anise, subtle herbs and just a pinch of spice. It’s textbook Niagara CF on the palate at an enticing price that reveals brambly red berries, a touch of savoury/earthiness, fennel seeds and integrated spices that is barely perceptible under all the juicy fruit, and a lifted finish. Another Niagara wine with a price that suggests you buy it by the case once it’s released. This one you can cellar up to five years.

New Hip and Stoney Ridge wines

Tragically Hip Fireworks Sparkling 2023 ($27, released online and at The Crush on June 28 and Vintages in December, 91 points) — This is the inaugural vintage of The Hip Fireworks sparkling wine. It was produced in conjunction with the band to celebrate their 40th anniversary as one of Canada’s most iconic bands. A celebratory sparkling wine seemed a natural fit. Fireworks is one of the main singles from the band’s 1998 album Phantom Power, which debuted at No. 1 on the Canadian Albums Chart upon release. The album went on to win Best Rock Album at the Juno awards in 1999. Working in conjunction with guitarist Rob Baker, the label concept pays homage to the award-winning album design of Phantom Power while mingling elements from the original single release of the Fireworks track. The goal was to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the song and album, as well as the 40th anniversary of the band with the wine’s release in 2024.

The blend for this charmat style sparkling wine is 82% Chardonnay from Lincoln Lakeshore and 18% Riesling from Four Mile Creek. The wine spent six months on its lees. The nose starts with a toasty/brioche note followed by bright apple, pear and citrus with a gentle bead in the glass. The bubble is more robust on the palate followed by apple, quince and bergamot with subtle stony minerality and baked bread that all leads to a bright, clean finish with a just a touch of sweetness.

Tragically Hip Flamenco Rosé 2023 ($20, available online here, at The Crush, and Vintages July 6, 91 points) — This is the 5th vintage in the successful collaboration between Stoney Ridge and The Tragically Hip. It’s a blend of 95% Gamay Noir from the Bucknall Vineyard in the Vinemount Ridge sub-appellation and 5% Pinot Gris from Four Mile Creek. It shows a bright pink colour in the glass with a nose of dark cherries, strawberries, cranberries, citrus and subtle herbaceous notes. It’s generous on the palate with mouth-filling red berries, a touch of earth and herbs, rhubarb and a bright finish. Fans of the more robust style of rosés will absolutely love this.

Stoney Ridge Small Lot Bucknall Vineyard Gamay Noir 2022 ($23, online and at The Crush retail story, 92 points) — The Gamay is from the oldest planting (1988) at the Bucknall Vineyard. After fermentation in a single small stainless-steel vat the wine was racked and put into 100% 1-year-old American Oak barrels where 80% malolactic fermentation was allowed to occur. After 9 months in barrel the wine was bottled. The nose is rife with black cherries, cranberries, wild strawberry compote, plums, savoury herbs and just a touch of toasty vanilla spice. It’s a more structured and substantive Gamay on the palate with juicy red berries, a touch of pepper and spice, wild herbs, plums and pepper with a vibrant, long finish. Gamay that packs a punch!

Our pick from the Niagara wines
coming to Vintages on Saturday

This is another abbreviated summer release that’s only available at flagship stores and online. A grand total of two Niagara wines are being offered, that’s one less than the last release. If the trend continues, there won’t be any local wines released by the end of July. Why do you suck, LCBO? Why do you not support the hard-working farmers and winemakers in your own province? Anyway, the one wine available is delicious, so support these releases and maybe one day the LCBO will wake up!

Stratus Chardonnay 2021 ($35, 91 points) — This is the baby sister Chardonnay to the signature “bottled on the lees” version. It’s barrel fermented and aged in neutral oak for 10 months. The wine is highly aromatic with ripe white peach, yellow apple, lemon curd and a touch of tropical fruits. It’s ripe, round, and juicy on the palate and shows stone fruits, lemon tart, and a touch of citrus zest on a freshening finish.

Also released from Niagara but not reviewed by Wines in Niagara:

• Riverview Angelina’s Reserve Gewürztraminer 2020 ($25)