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Ontario Wines – What You Need to Know

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Wine enthusiasts love Ontario wine for a variety of different reasons. It’s not only because of the pride and culture surrounding viticulture, but the golden standards of grape growing and wine production found in Ontario, which gives the wine its superb quality.

Grape-growing and wine production in Ontario has a history which dates back to the 1800s, but it wasn’t until 1988 when wineries of Ontario came together to create the Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA). Committed to quality, VQA Ontario set out the geographical appellations and introduced strict production standards for the province’s vibrant grape and wine industry.

When you see VQA on the labels of certain wines of Ontario, there are several standards which must be met in order to earn this stamp of approval. When considering VQA wines to purchase, it’s helpful to learn about the different unique appellations, what factors determine premium wine, and how to correctly read a VQA label.

VQA Mandate

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Vintners Quality Alliance, or VQA, is an organization that sets the standards for the production of wine grown and sold in Canada. They work with wineries both in Ontario and British Columbia to guarantee high-quality and authentic wine is sold to consumers. VQA Ontario’s mandate outlines the following objectives:

  • Establish, monitor and enforce an appellation of origin system. This allows consumers to identify wines on the basis of where they are grown and methods used in production.
  • Control the use of specialized terms, descriptions and designations associated with the VQA appellation system.
  • Act as the wine authority under the Vintners Quality Alliance Act, 1999, and to participate in discussions with government and other stakeholders which relate to quality wine standards
  • Inform and educate both the grape and wine industry and the public to promote the value and benefits of VQA wine. 
  • VQA Ontario’s long term strategic goal is to build a strong and credible appellation system, supported by quality and label integrity.

VQA Wine Approval

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VQA Ontario does not actually certify wineries, they only certify each individual wine. Every bottle of wine is evaluated by a panel to make sure that it meets the organization’s standards and is eligible for labeling. Each winery will submit its bottled product to VQA Ontario in order to kick off this rigorous process which includes tasting and testing.

When the panel tastes the wine, it’s conducted in a controlled setting. The tasters must pass a yearly proficiency test, and be independent of the wineries that are under consideration in order to avoid conflict of interest. The trained tasters are provided by the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) and are evaluated against an absolute standard, rather than how a tasting competition would be judged.

To be considered for VQA approval, every wine must also be tested in a laboratory, which is also conducted by LCBO participants. This ensures that the wine meets the benchmarks for quality, as well as health and safety standards.

VQA Standards

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There are also several standards that wines must adhere to in order to receive a VQA label.

The wine must be made from 100% fresh Ontario grown grapes (this means no concentrates are permitted) and the grapes themselves must meet a specific standard that depends on each of their own variety. No water can be added during the winemaking process either, and the labels that the winery prints on the bottle must accurately describe the wine that is in the bottle.

All wines must be dated, with the exception of sparkling, table, or fortified wines, and all the wine must have been created following the regulations laid out under the VQA act.

VQA Ontario protects consumers through this process, but acknowledges that they do not want to be too restrictive as this could impact creativity and innovation. Because of this, there are a few things that they do not restrict, such as vine density, grape yield, fermentation temperatures, grape varieties, and global wine styles. Wine styles can include sparkling, dessert or fortified wines, rosé wines, and aromatic white wines.

Reading a VQA Label

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When you’re shopping in the LCBO or a local wine shop, it’s important to know what to look for in a VQA label and how to accurately read the information that’s presented. Part of VQA’s responsibility is making sure that the label presented on any VQA wine is an accurate representation of the liquid.

You always want to first look for the appellation name. VQA Ontario has identified three main areas of origin which include the Niagara Peninsula, Lake Erie North Shore, and Prince Edward County. WIthin the Niagara appellation, there are also ten sub-appellations that could be found on the bottle, such as Creek Shores or Vinemount Ridge.

On the label, you’ll also find the name of the producer, the vintage year, and the vineyard designation. The vineyard designation is optional, but it tells you what percentage of the grapes came from a specific vineyard.

VQA Ontario also helps the consumer by making sure that nothing printed on the label could be misleading or inaccurate. They work directly with wineries to make sure that they can create the best label possible for their products while also accurately describing the product so that consumers will be happy with their purchase.

VQA Ontario: Setting the Golden Standard

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Obtaining VQA approval is important to every Ontario winery, for its credibility and to ensure it produces wine of the highest quality. But VQA Ontario isn’t just about rules and regulations, they also provide important, independent resources to wineries and consumers about Ontario wine and the industry. Since the organization is not directly connected to any marketing efforts for VQA wines, and remains an independent authority purely focused on quality control and strengthening the Ontario wine industry.

If you want to expand your knowledge about Ontario wine production, learning the geographical appellations established by VQA Ontario and the standards for quality wine production is imperative. Ontario has over 181 VQA wineries and they’re still growing today. The industry is fast-paced and expanding, so stay up to date and follow local wineries who are making waves. The Niagara Peninsula is the largest and most diverse Viticultural Area in Canada, and home to the majority of Ontario’s wineries. Try a VQA wine today, like Henry of Pelham, which is an Ontario wine proudly crafted in Niagara.

Disclosures

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All photos have been provided by Henry of Pelham.

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