Ottawa has a circle of wineries within easy reach of every area, but most people don’t know about them. They’re run by passionate artisans who use northern varietal grapes you may have never heard of. The grapes have names like Frontenac, Marquette, and Swenson. The vines can take our brutal winters, with an ability to survive below -30 degrees, with the Petit Pearl recorded as surviving -45c nights.
The grapes that do grow here are unique in taste and character and the wines produced from them have won awards in tastings.
The flavours are fruit forward, with a food loving acidity. The winemakers have French, American, Hungarian, and yes, even Canadian Oak barrels to work with as they coax out balance and flavour. But bureaucracy is doing everything it can to keep you from knowing about these Eastern Ontario wineries next door.
It’s fortunate that local sommelier and Eastern Ontario wine expert Julie Ricard is doing everything she can to help you experience these unique local products. She organizes tour groups, helps design parties featuring local wines, and works closely with winery owners to help them tell their story to the community around them. I met her while visiting Domaine Perrault where she gave me some background information to help with my upcoming winery visits.
Ottawa’s wineries are caught in a catch-22 situation: in order to get wines into the LCBO or restaurants, they must only use VQA certified grapes which have a European heritage, or they will be crippled with financial penalties. But VQA certified grapes can barely survive here.
However, there are some uncertified grapes which are well adapted to our winters. The grapes that do grow here are unique in taste and character and the wines produced from them have won awards in tastings.
Working with a unique local product to produce distinct quality wines seems like a no-brainer concept for sustainable agriculture and tourism. But the bureaucracy prefers to force wine makers to import truckloads of grapes from the Niagara region and not have anything grown locally. Instead of helping with Foodland Ontario local producer types of promotions, or giving featured shelf space in the LCBO stores, the regulators do everything in their power to keep these artisans hidden from view. So, don’t look for them at your local farmer’s market. That too is not allowed.
This regulatory hardship has fired up the creative spirit in Ottawa’s wine producers. The benefit for us as consumers is well crafted wines, using innovative techniques, and a collaborative spirit that builds the communities around them.
So, drop Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger” into your playlist, pack your picnic basket, roll down the windows, and join me as we hit the county roads.
We start on the east side of Ottawa at Stonehouse Vineyard. If you see the big Highland Games sign along highway 417, you’ll know you’re getting close. Craig MacMillan had an opportunity to buy his family’s 1793 homestead and decided to add wine making to the renovations.
Sommelier Julie Ricard commented, “Stonehouse Vineyard winery is one of the most technical wineries around, and it shows in the wine.” They’ve decided to stay true to the estate winery concept, and only use their own grapes for production. The vineyards have been planted to maximize the sun and protect them from the cold. This “vineyard first” approach to winemaking was evident in our conversation with John’s wife, Joanne. It’s the only time in my tour where I heard the term “coverage” (leaf stripping) where grapes are exposed to morning sun and hidden in the hot afternoon. She also spoke about that anxious time in the fall where it is important to watch for the sudden drop of acidity in the grapes. The bottom line is that this passion for detail results in some outstanding wines. Only available at the farm.
Vankleek Hill Vineyard is just down the road and demonstrates the other quality I found in the Eastern Ontario winemakers: community and collaboration. Teresa and Scott Lambert have recently taken over the winery, and the wine shop will be back open for business in October 2019. But that hasn’t stopped the wine production, or the visitors.
During the renovation period, they’ve had help from the Niagara region to get a transitional batch of wine ready for sale. And they need it. People are constantly dropping by, thanks to their PopSilo Crow.
Theresa’s plan for the wine shop is to leave room for local artists and artisans to come in and interact with the visitors. She was so impressed with the help of community maker Louise Sproule that she wants to make Vankleek Hill Winery a central part of a whole destination experience. I don’t know if she’s told Scott yet… So, check out their website for the current news, and look for the Crow.
Just outside of Orléans, there are two wineries which work in close communication to give a wide spectrum of taste:
Domaine Perrault was our first Ottawa winery discovery. I was amazed at how busy it was, considering the nonexistent signage on the main roads. I knew we had stumbled on a local secret. This was confirmed as I watched car trunks opened and cases loaded. But what clinched it was tasting the wine. It is very food friendly, and you are invited to bring a picnic hamper to relax on the lawn for a lazy weekend afternoon. Or you can attend one of the many events they host. You’ll see Denis and Lyse hard at work, with Denis disappearing to check up on “his girls”. His girls are up in the dairy barn.
Vignoble Clos du Vully “Etter” is just down the road. Jan has a close relationship with Domain Perrault; sharing knowledge and planning taste profiles. Jan has a rare Canadian Oak barrel to add to his flavour mix, but his Swiss Family roots are also in wine making. The Swiss influence is seen in the wine and the names on the wine bottles. These are impressive easy drinking wines to bring to a party. Just prepare to be scolded for not bringing more.
On the west side of Ottawa, there is the one winery in Ottawa you may have heard of: KIN Vineyards sits across from the Diefenbunker in Carp. So, you can take in the bunker, go to the famous Carp Farmer’s Market and then relax with a glass of wine, and enjoy the tranquility of the vineyards. KIN is blessed with near perfect wine grape soil. The only problem is our winters. They’ve decided to grow the familiar vinifera grapes, and then go to the considerable effort and expense of covering and uncovering them and crossing their fingers every year. The cost is reflected in the price but justified by the taste. They have a loyal customer base, so there is a reserve list of buyers for some wines. KIN has expanded Ottawa’s choice for those looking for local but familiar sustainable wines.
Jabulani Vineyard and Winery is just past the corn fields of Richmond. Tom and Janet are producing award winning wines. They are driven by a pride in the quality of local wine. So far, they’ve racked up 15 international awards and 5 Canadian championship awards. With a mike-dropping Double Gold for their 2015 Marquette Chete. You can stop by for a glass on the patio, but the best experience is to pre-book a tour with Tom. Once you meet Tom, you’ll know why.
Stone Crop Acres is another example of the spirit of community in the Eastern Ontario Wine Producers. Norene and Marc are just starting sales after letting their wines mature. The soil gives Stone Crop wines a unique mineral crispness that’s hard to find in North America. The soil is one factor, but daughter Kennedy told us that her mom is like a mad scientist in the wine lab. Sommelier Julie tells me that the wine makers have 500 different strains of yeast to choose from. The winery shop is young but already has the feel of a community hub. We arrived just before opening hour and watched as people just kept sauntering in across the lawn, flopping down on the Adirondack chairs, and catching up on the day with a custom-made tasting flight.
Green Gables Vines highlights the artisanal passion for purity among Ottawa’s local winemakers. Green Gables wines have been tested by the LCBO laboratories and no inorganic chemicals were found. These wines could be certified organic if Green Gables paid the certification fee. But as Marie in the wine shop said, “we’d rather keep the price down so our neighbours can come by and pick up an affordable bottle whenever they feel like it.” Richard Deslandes, the vintner, ensures that this affordability is not reflected in the taste of the wines. They are high quality wines and dangerously easy to drink!
Smokie Ridge Vineyard and Domaine Perrault are bookend wineries for Ottawa’s local wine industry. Both have been supporting their fellow winemakers and ensuring a legacy of high quality in local wine production. But, as Julie says, they came at it with different goals. Denis at Perrault hoped to bring in a few visitors to keep “his girls” company, and then found himself in a new adventure. Smokie (yes that’s partly how the winery got its name) came into this with a vision.
R-E-S-P-E-C-T (time to drop a little Aretha Franklin into your playlist) through craftsmanship and innovation has been Smokie’s guiding philosophy as he tries to build a legacy for his family and for Ottawa. So, just as Green Gables gets as close to organic as possible, so too is Smokie Ridge using painstakingly patient gravity settling techniques to make their wines vegan friendly.
That’s why I call it a “quest for purity”. It’s infectious in Ottawa’s wine producers. So infectious that you may find yourself in the vineyard with a grape hook in your hand instead of a glass of wine. It’s been known to happen quite often in the fun, fanatical, and forbidden world of Ottawa wine.
Do you know any good songs for a grape harvesting playlist?
If you’re interested in tasting Ottawa’s wines but don’t have access to transportation, then contact Julie Ricard at Fortified Grape. Julie can arrange group trips and events to meet a variety of needs. Almost all the wineries welcome picnic baskets and lawn chairs. Many have wine-matching charcuterie platters and local food items available to purchase. Licencing restrictions prohibit any other food service. Lawn games, fire pits, and entertainment are common. Check the websites and come to enjoy a local experience. Use this link for more information on the Eastern Ontario Wine Producers Association.