Drink Canada - The Other Ontario: Lake Erie North Shore and Pelee Island

Aug 22, 2009

When wine lovers think of Ontarian wine, the Niagara Region comes to mind first and foremost. While talking about Ice Wine, the name ‘Inniskillin’ of Niagara-on-the-Lake is the first name that springs to experienced palates. Not only that, the Rieslings and Pinot Noirs of such exciting and well-established wineries as Cave Spring, Tawse, Henry of Pelham and Thirty Bench are responsible for putting our offerings on the world wine map.

We can boast well over 60 wineries here on the shores of Lake Ontario, but what about the rest of Ontario?

This past week I found myself on the northern shores of Lake Erie, making my way along the wine country route, eager to discover some hidden gems and diamonds glistening in the rough.

Back in the early 1900s, the region could boast just as many wineries as present day Niagara. Within a decade, the majority closed and tobacco became the new cash crop. Today there are 11 well-established wineries in the Lake Erie North Shore Appellation. The region experiences more sunshine than elsewhere in Canada, with vineyards growing on south and southeast facing slopes and on Pelee Island, 20km south of Leamington (the Island has 243 hectares of vineyard compared to the north shore’s 142). In relationship to other great wine growing regions of the world, the latter appellation lies at 42 degrees which puts it along the same latitude lines of Northern California and Tuscany, Italy.

The mainland area is nearly surrounded by water with Lake Erie to the south, the Detroit River to the west and the cool breezes off Lake St. Clair in the northwest providing a moderate, calming effect.

But there are some hazards. The precipitation can be higher than average during the growing season and there have been some years when serious winter damage has been hazardous to the vines. Yet the soils here are ideal, with sandy loam and gravel deposits providing good drainage.

The effects of the longer growing season have made the region perfect for growing Bordeaux varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc) and hybrids such as Baco Noir, Marechal Foch and Vidal for both varietal and Ice Wines.

Leamingston is a small city of 30,000 people and is rightly called the Tomato Capital of Canada (the Heinz factory is not easy to miss, looming on both sides of Erie St. between Oak and Morgan – I feel assured now that I know where my ketchup is coming from). The city boasts the largest concentration of greenhouses in North America - they are just about everywhere - with well over a 1000 acres under glass. The agricultural landscape is perhaps the most diverse in Canada and if you’re a bird watcher, there are plenty of places to view the wildlife.

Kingsville is a smaller community (population 20,000 plus) and, like Leamington, attracts bird watchers, many of them to the Jack Miner Bird Sanctuary. For nature lovers there is Colasanti’s Tropical Gardens in the community of Ruthven.

Between the outskirts of these two cities, you can find three excellent wineries: Aleksander Estate, Mastronardi Estate and Pelee Island. I had a chance to visit the latter two with Pelee Island being the most famous. It is also has the largest estate vineyard in the province.

The winery was founded in 1982 by Austrian winemaker, Walter Strehn. Pelee Island’s portfolio is quite expansive with 40 wines to choose from (I had the chance to try 10 wines at ten in the morning… I say a fair sample) made by German winemakers Martin Janz and Walter Schmoranz. I found the Gewürztraminer Reserve reminiscent of the Alsatian styles (lychee, grapefruit and apricot-floral) with a lovely viscous quality. As for the reds, the Bordeaux variety Cabernet Sauvignon does especially well, much better, in my opinion, than in Niagara (we offer excellent Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Riesling and Chardonnay – something to focus on and be proud of). Pelee Island makes excellent ‘Reserve’ line wines but their heavy hitters are The Vinedressers series. The 2003 Meritage has a leafy-cedar-red currant beauty with notes of pencil shavings and a rustic barnyard touch, making it an ideal steak wine. If you prefer New World wines similar to California, the Cabernet Sauvignon/Petit Verdot blend offers a robust vanilla-red fruit chocolate touch.

At Mastronardi, I found their 2006 Merlot to have the right balance of acidity and tannin with nuances of chocolate and black fruit. It is a gentle, pensive wine. The 2007 Cabernet Franc is leafy and vegetal with black fruit and chocolate. Simply delicious. I was especially impressed with their 2007 Syrah which reminded me of Chilean Syrah with the black pepper, the black fruit and a curious hint of earthy mint. These wines are fabulous and wine lovers can be thankful that when the brothers Mastronardi bought the land from Colio Estates, they decided not to go into greenhouse production.

Like neighboring Kingsville, Harrow is another quiet community with its diverse agriculture taking up the majority of the landscape (I saw a lot of corn, to be honest). Wine lovers should be sure to visit the neighboring wineries which include Colchester Ridge Estate, Viewpoint Estate, Erie Shore Vineyard, Sprucewood Shores, Muscedere Vineyards and Colio Estates.

Of these six wineries, it is Colio, (the pioneer of Lake Erie North Shore) that is the largest, not only in the region but in Canada as well, producing nearly a quarter million cases a year. The company’s first winemaker Carlo Negri came to Canada from Friuli in northern Italy in the 1980s, skeptical about our country’s winemaking. In the 1990s, Negri helped launch the CEV (Colio Estate Vineyard) series, making high quality wine worthy of competing with international wines from France and California. Today, Negri has handed over the reigns to Tim Reilly and there is certainly no lapse in character.

The Colio Tasting Room and retail shop is located directly in the town of Harrow and situated conveniently on Colio Drive. (The majority of local tasting rooms are found at the wineries along Seacliff Drive). Here you can find a quaint little shop with stained-glass windows and a team of wonderful, helpful staff members. It feels both rustic and yet five-star at the same time. Like Pelee Island, I found their Gewürztraminer similar in style to Alsace with an interesting lighter note of kiwi (reminding me of New Zealand Gewürztraminer). Colio has become famous – or infamous - for their ‘Girls Night Out’ series (first launched in 2008). I highly recommend the Riesling which is less German in style and more New World with notes of apple, peach, pineapple and banana.

The Colio Estate series was my personal favourite, offering great value with an excellent varietal Cabernet Franc and a Cabernet Merlot blend. The Cabernet Franc is layered with leafy-green pepper, red fruit, coffee and a vanilla bright acidity. The Cabernet Merlot was my personal favourite, offering black fruit, pencil shavings and violet-cedar finesse. The wine has soul, a balanced nuance I fell quietly in love with.

Their Meritage and Pinot Noir from the CEV line were equally good. I feel the Pinot needs a bit more time but the Meritage is drinking great now, a wine to pair with a hearty steak dinner.

The Vidal Ice Wine also stole my heart. A honey-apricot treat with apple and pear. This is the kind of dessert wine you want to have with a late night apple cobbler or decadent butter tart.

Gail of Colio was helpful and told me about the winery’s plans to expand. The company bought 8 hectares of land near Inniskillin in Niagara-on-the-Lake with the intention to build a winery in the near future. She also informed me there are more wineries slated to open in the region, bringing the number up to fifteen or sixteen.

My stay in the region was brief. Travelling with my father and brother, we found the amount of money we spent on the local wines to be well beyond the limits of our budget. After Colio, we headed to historic Amherstburg, a town famous for being the Canadian entry point for many African-American slaves on their journey to freedom. Established in 1796 as a British military fort, there is still an aura of the 19th century to the many buildings along the river.

We had a late lunch at an Italian restaurant on the river off Dalhousie. Beleaguered by bees, we ate our sandwiches while my brother and I sobered from the numerous wines we’d sampled that day (I admit, I didn’t spit; I was on vacation).

Behind us, couples and families walked along the river side, posing for pictures. A young couple sat on a park bench, eating ice cream cones. The ferry between the mainland and Bois Blanc Island chugged back and forth under a solemn, overcast sky. A cool wind passed under the leaves. For those who love Niagara-on-the-Lake’s village feel, Amherstberg is another ideal tourist point, not only for the Victorian houses and parks, but also for their various festivals, the primary one being held at harvest time in the fall. Between September 10th and 13th, at 100 Laird Avenue, visitors cam enjoy the Shores of Erie International Wine Festival at historic Fort Malden.

From Amherstberg, we drove back south and east along Seacliff Dr. I felt my heart sink at the prospect of not checking out any more wineries. I still wanted to visit D’Angelo Estate near Amherstburg, not to mention Sanson Estate in neighbouring McGregor. However, when time and my pocket book allows, I shall return.


Phillips, Rod, Ontario Wine Country. North Vancouver, WhiteCap Books, 2006.

Wine Access 2009: Canadian Wine Annual – 431 Wineries


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My focus is mainly on wine culture, history and education. I love the stories behind wine - the people, places and the regional personalities of the wine-countries around the world.

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