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Niagara grape growers have been growing vinifera grapes in earnest since 1970’s. Their experience relative to Europeans is limited; but the learning curve has been steep. Many viticulturists have since been able to learn and apply the intricacies of growing the more delicate vinifera vines. Niagara grown grapes and made wines have been and continue to win respectable international awards in blind tastings.

Up to recent times, many so called experts claimed red grapes to be unsuitable for the short growing season. They were proven wrong conclusively ever since several Niagara grown and made red wines were awarded gold medals in Italy and France.
Chateau des Charmes’ 1999 St David’s Bench Cabernet Sauvignon and Reif’s Meritage 1999 come to mind.

There are still many growers trying to determine the most suitable grape varieties.

Niagara’s growing season is now approximately 200 days, and certainly not as long as Mediterranean regions, hence varieties known to need a lot of sunshine must be disregarded.

This writer asked several respected Niagara winemakers about their opinion with regard to most suitable vinifera grapes. In the red category, the winner hands down was Cabernet Franc, closely followed by merlot and Pinot Noir. Cabernet Sauvignon was a distant fourth, Gamay and Syrah were neck and neck, and Zweigelt was the last.
Cabernet Franc is winter hardy, ripens a little earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon, and possesses a spiciness that the Niagara terroir seems to provide.

In the hybrid category: Baco Noir was the undisputed winner, followed by Marechal Foch. But de Chaunac, Leon-Millot and Chambourcin can and do yield fine wines if not over cropped.

For whites, there were no surprises: Chardonnay and Riesling were the most popular with an equal number of votes, followed by Sauvignon Blanc, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris.

In the hybrid category: Vidal was the undisputed winner mainly because of its ability to withstand bursting when ripe and exposed to freezing. Seyval Blanc was a distant second while no other grape was mentioned.

Certainly, some growers may find small pockets of land suitable for even growing Zinfandel, and Syrah. In fact, a few winemakers insisted that Syrah is a suitable grape variety because of its early ripening characteristics. There are a few wineries experimenting with Syrah successfully.  Only time will tell.

What is more important than any other aspect in viticulture – low yield. Growers who can bring themselves to initiate a vigorous “green harvest” after fruit setting will see not only satisfactory results but superior quality.

Lailey Vineyards, Thomas ands Vaughan, Funk Vineyards and Maleta prove the point.

Ontario’s well-made red wines tend to be more restrained, elegant, delicate, fruity and med-bodied.

They must not be compared to wines that come from warm climes, and are made to be fruit-forward, in-your-face style.

The same is true for white wines. Riesling seems to be particularly well suited to Niagara as is Chardonnay.

If you blind-taste a Niagara Bench Riesling in comparison to a Rheingau or Nahe Riesling (regardless of your level of expertise) , you will have a difficult time distinguishing one from the other!

Article contributed by Hrayr Berberoglu, a Professor Emeritus of Hospitality and Tourism Management specializing in Food and Beverage. Books by H. Berberoglu

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