Grape Big Dreams

Ot­tawa, the next wine desti­na­tion? Like a fine wine, the re­al­ity is more com­plex. Joanna Tymkiw-Castillo ex­plains

Ottawa Magazine - - INDULGE -

Slop­ing hills crawl­ing with grape vines, sun-drenched pa­tios brim­ming with oenophiles, cool cel­lars with rows of oak casks — are we day­dream­ing to imag­ine Ot­tawa’s coun­try­side as the next Ni­a­gara or Prince Ed­ward County wine desti­na­tion?

Given our long, cool sea­sons, the Ot­tawa re­gion as a wine-pro­duc­ing desti­na­tion seems like pure fan­tasy. And yet, be­lieve it or not, we’re be­gin­ning to pro­duce wine — in fact, there are plenty of winer­ies al­ready up and run­ning. That said, Ot­tawa as a wine re­gion is in its in­fancy, and it will take years of hard work and pa­tience be­fore wine pro­duc­ers see a pay­off in their in­vest­ment — if they ever do. Any skep­ti­cism, how­ever, should be tem­pered by the recog­ni­tion that it wasn’t long ago when Prince Ed­ward County, now a wine desti­na­tion, was in the same po­si­tion our re­gion finds it­self: strug­gling for a place in On­tario’s VQA-ap­proved (Vint­ners Qual­ity Al­liance) wine mar­ket.

“The County went through quite a process, and it took sev­eral years work­ing with the vine­yards there to get that re­gion strongly de­fined,” re­calls Lau­rie Mac­don­ald, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of VQA On­tario, a reg­u­la­tory agency that ad­min­is­ters the provin­cial wine stan­dards act.

The process she’s speak­ing about is Prince Ed­ward County’s abil­ity to take clas­sic VQAap­proved grapes (Mer­lot, Pinot Noir, Chardon­nay, Ries­ling, and so forth), which are ac­cus­tomed to warmer, more arid cli­mates, and grow them in such a way that they can sur­vive cooler climes such as Ot­tawa’s. (These clas­sic grapes are from a species called vinifera that in­cludes the afore­men­tioned grapes, which makes up the bulk of wines pro­duced around the world.)

How­ever, this is only a sliver of the rig­or­ous process that a wine needs to go through in or­der to be VQA-ap­proved. Even be­fore these vines can be nur­tured in cooler tem­per­a­tures, they must be rec­og­nized by the govern­ment as be­ing 100 per­cent On­tario grown and of a ver­i­fied ori­gin. If these vines hap­pen to be suc­cess­ful and a wine is pro­duced, it is then sub­mit­ted to thor­ough lab­o­ra­tory test­ing where con­tam­i­nants like pes­ti­cides, sul­phides, and met­als, among other chem­i­cal qual­ity stan­dards, are as­sessed.

But un­like the vint­ners of Prince Ed­ward County who favour nur­tur­ing these clas­sic va­ri­eties, Ot­tawa vine­yards are grow­ing hy­brid grapes that can more eas­ily sur­vive our win­ter months.

The hy­brid grapes our re­gional vint­ners turn to are the re­sult of the grape-breed­ing pro­gram at the Univer­sity of Min­nesota, which has pro­duced dis­ease-re­sis­tant vines that are able to with­stand tem­per­a­tures of -33 de­grees Cel­sius. Rev­o­lu­tion­ary? Yes. Ro­man­tic? No. But they’re re­li­able and well suited for east­ern On­tario’s cli­mate.

The most com­monly used hy­brids in the Ot­tawa re­gion are from the Fron­tenac group (patented in Risky busi­ness Re­gional vint­ners are turn­ing to hy­brid grapes that are hardier but are not rec­og­nized by On­tario’s VQA

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