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