A Riesling Experience – Part 2 – Riesling in Ontario

Happily, Riesling, especially the dry and off-dry categories, is on the rebound after many years of neglect and misunderstanding.  While Riesling has had an illustrious history of making highly sought-after wines – in the 19th century, the finest Rieslings from Germany actually fetched higher prices than First Growth Bordeaux – its popularity took a nose-dive in the mid-20th century.  Two World Wars and the large quantities of mass-produced, sickly-sweet German wines of questionable quality, probably helped contributed to Riesling’s demise.  However, interest seems to be piquing once again.  Wine Enthusiast Magazine says that Riesling is “the fastest-growing wine variety in the top 10, with increased sales in all price points.”

Riesling, the first vitis vinifera vine to be successful in Ontario, played an integral role in the development of fine wine-making in this province, and its importance continues to this day.  In 1986, Riesling made up 40.6% of Ontario’s vitis vinifera production with 1,147 tons being crushed.  In 2000, the proportion of Riesling was much lower at 18.1%, but it did jump up to 18.8% in 2010.  However, it’s important to note that 6,088 tons of Riesling is produced today – that’s almost 6 times the amount produced in 1986.  And, it’s only just behind Chardonnay, the number 1 grape. Our talented winemakers don’t just make perhaps the best Riesling Icewine in the world, they can also craft this versatile grape into a wide range of styles, from bone dry to lusciously sweet, and everything in between.  Fantastic sparkling Rieslings can even be found.

Last month, I attended the Riesling Experience held at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario (Please read, “A Riesling Experience – Part 1 – Keynote Speaker: Pierre Trimbach“).  Angelo Pavan, winemaker and co-founder of Cave Spring Cellars in Jordan, Ontario, spoke about Riesling in Ontario and presented many interesting statistics.  Most of the information for this post is taken from Angelo’s presentation and from a follow-up conversation I had with him.

Angelo describes Ontario Riesling as being “stylistically between Alsace and the Mosel.”  Alsatian Rieslings are traditionally bone-dry (recently some are being made with higher levels of residual sugar), while Mosel Rieslings tend to be on the sweeter side.  Almost 70% of Ontario Rieslings have between 9 and 25 g/L of residual sugar, making most fall into the off-dry or semi-dry categories.  Only 11.5% have less than 9 g/L of residual sugar.

Angelo went on to compare Ontario’s climate with those of Colmar in Alsace (France) and Geisenheim in Rheingau (Germany).  I don’t know why, but I found these numbers fascinating (geek!).

Niagara

Colmar (Alsace)

Geisenheim (Rheingau)

Mean Temp during growing season (˚C)

15.6 ˚C

15.6 ˚C

14.6 ˚C

Growing Degree Days

1392

1186

1042

Mean Precipitation during growing season (mm)

536 mm

355 mm

333 mm

Latitude (˚N)

43 ˚N

48 ˚N

49 ˚N

Interesting Notes:  While both Niagara and Alsace have mean temperatures of 15.6 °C, Niagara is significantly warmer in July and August, but much cooler in the spring. Niagara also receives higher amounts of precipitation during September and October than either Colmar or Geisenheim.  Angelo believes that at 43 °N Latitude, Ontario’s vines are at the most southern point to grow good Riesling.  Any further south and the wines can be flabby.

Brix levels in Ontario Riesling at the time of harvest have been on a steady increase in the last 25 years.  In the 1980s, Brix levels generally hovered between 17 and almost 19 degrees.  In the 2000s, only  2008 was below 19 degrees.  In 2003, grapes were even picked at above 20 degrees Brix.  Is this increase in Brix levels due to global warming?  Angelo doesn’t think so. He believes it’s the result of better viticultural practices.  Because we are such a young wine industry, our vine-growers and winemakers have had to learn so much about viticulture in such a relatively short period of time.  Through advancements in vineyard practices, they are now better able to ripen grapes than they ever used to be.

What about the controversial Petrol aromas in Riesling?  Angelo thinks the term ‘petrol’ is used too generally and that it should probably be referred to as a ‘toasty’ character instead, especially in younger wines.  The  ‘toasty’ character could be the result of many things: stress in the vineyard, stress during fermentation, or even terroir.  Angelo does not believe ‘petrol’ to be a fault in the wine.  If it were unpleasant then it could be considered a fault, but, like Angelo, I don’t find it unpleasant, in fact I like it.

Some of my favourite Ontario Riesling producers:

Cave Spring Cellars

Tawse

13th Street

Thirty Bench

Hidden Bench

Charles Baker

Creekside Estate

Ravine Vineyard

Chateau des Charmes

With so many wonderful producers of Ontario Riesling out there I’m sure I missed some.  Please leave a comment and let me know what your favourite Ontario Riesling is!

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