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Canada's Niagara Peninsula Wines

I’ve often been told that the best wine comes from vineyards in sight of water—though to be fair, never by those whose vineyards are not overlooking a lake, river or sea.

The vineyards of Niagara Peninsula couldn’t exist without Lake Ontario. The amount of water in this huge inland sea alters the temperature and the weather on the land surrounding it.

The vineyards are planted on the slopes above the southern banks of the lake close to the border with the USA at Niagara Falls.

In summer the lake chills warm air blowing over it which cools overheating vineyards. But winter is the real challenge. There’s no doubt that Niagara vineyards are at the extremes of wine grape growing and vines do die of cold in bad winters. But the lake heats cold air which rises up the slopes by the side of the lake, moderating the temperature. The moving air also prevents frost—which can be lethal to vines—from forming.

Some cold-hardy French-Amrican hybrid vines are grown, but the emphasis is on vinifera.

Of the whites Riesling makes some of the best wines. It was one of the first vinifera varieties to be planted and its success led the way for others such as Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris.

Among the reds Cabernet Franc makes and excellent vine and is my favourite vinifera from the region. There’s a growing emphasis on Pinot Noir but quality is variable, as to be fair, it is everywhere.

Not all Ontario wine is grown there; some wines are a blend of local and imported juice and to be sure of 100% Ontario grown and made wines look for the VQA logo on the bottle.

The Vintners Quality Assurance is the regulatory authority that administers Ontario’s wine appellation system which controls winemaking, eligible varieties and labelling.

Eight hybrids have been allowed VQA status for their quality. The dense black Baco Noir and white Vidal blanc are my favourites of them. While Vidal makes a pleasant white wine it as an icewine that it comes into its own.

Ice-wine is made from grapes frozen solid on the vine, harvested still frozen and pressed to get the remaining unfrozen pure essence of grapey sweetness. Ice-wine grapes hang on the vine long after harvest, often into the next year, at risk from birds and animals and splitting skins. Vidal has tough skin so is a good candidate, though icewines are also made from vinifera vines. Riesling is the most popular but I find the orange-red colour of Cabernet Franc icewine irresistible.

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Peter F May is the author of Marilyn Merlot and the Naked Grape: Odd Wines from Around the World which features more than 100 wine labels and the stories behind them, and PINOTAGE: Behind the Legends of South Africa's Own Wine which tells the story behind the Pinotage wine and grape.

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