When you think of wine regions, Eastern Ontario probably isn’t the first place that pops to mind. After all, it’s too cold to grow grapes here—right?
That used to be true, but thanks to the enterprising minds at the University of Minnesota, aspiring vintners have an increasingly large selection of cold-resistant grapes to choose from, such as Frontenac and Marquette. Novelty-seeking foodies are also opening their minds to fruit wines, mead and all sorts of other beverages that don’t rely on warm-climate grapes.
As a result, over a dozen wineries have sprung up across the region in the last decade. However, ask the average Ottawa foodie to name more than one or two, if that, and you’ll likely get a blank stare. That fact spurred long-time friends Iona Green and Ruth McKlusky to start La Vida Local Food + Wine Tours in spring 2018.
“I’m a big Canadiana person,” says Green, a former CBC journalist and producer who is also the chair of Doors Open Ottawa. She and McKlusky, an event planner, thought they were pretty familiar with the local culinary scene. However, while hosting tastings at local LCBOs, they heard about commercial wines made in Eastern Ontario and West Quebec that weren’t on liquor store shelves. A quick Google search turned up wineries in spots as diverse as Vankleek Hill, Westport and Carp.
“What is going on?” Green wondered. “I had no idea.”
When they realized that no one was running public tours to these spots, a business idea was born.
La Vida Local currently offers four public tours, ranging from five to seven hours long, featuring locavore hot spots such as St-Albert Cheese, Needham’s Market Garden, Farmgate Cider and Top Shelf Distillers. (Custom tours can be arranged, too.)
On a recent iteration of the South Ottawa Wine Tour, eight customers hit the road from Ottawa in a mini-coach to discover a bit of the local wine landscape. Our first stop was just southeast of Kemptville.
Smokie Ridge Vineyard, Mountain, Ontario
At Smokie Ridge Vineyard, at picnic tables under a white marquee, sommelier Julie Ricard poured small samples of Smokie’s le Blanc into — surprisingly — plastic glasses. “It has a very dynamic and aggressive flavour,” Ricard’s husband and fellow wine enthusiast, Tony, said of the pleasant estate white wine made from a blend of Louise Swenson, Frontenac and Vidal grapes. He explained that they use plastic glasses first in these tastings to help visitors understand how plastic messes with the nose and flavour of even a bold wine. We sipped the wine first from the plastic, then tried it in glass. Not surprisingly, he was right.
As the tasting continued, the Ricards encouraged us to try the five wines with particular cheeses and chocolates they’d set out for us. Then, having asked us to pick our favourite, they poured us each a full-sized serving (in glass) that we could carry as we strolled among some of the more than 10,000 grapevines with winemaker Claude LeBlanc, son of vineyard owner Paul “Smokie” LeBlanc. LeBlanc père bought the property in 2006 after a 32-year career in the military, and the family bottled the first wines five years later.
The sun beat down as we walked past carefully staked vines. Claude LeBlanc pointed out the different varietals of grapes and explained some of the labour required to keep the trellised vines bearing fruit. “They’re still young. They’re only seven years old. So every year, I cut all the green off, every winter,” he explained as we examined some Frontenac vines.
Someone asked where the irrigation system was. “You’re looking at it,” LeBlanc said with a wry laugh, glancing up at the cloudless sky. “Mother Nature.” One dry year, he recalls, they had to apply 660,000 litres of water to the bases of the vines with a sidewalk-sweeping machine. (You can’t just shoot large volumes of water at the tops of the vines with a sprinkler, he added, because too much water on the grapes can cause them to rot.)
As I sipped my wine, I had a newfound appreciation for the work that went into that glass.
After exploring the vineyard, we toured the tasting cellar and popped by the small retail store. Then we boarded the bus for our second destination, a 15-minute drive away.
Green Gables Vines, Oxford Station, Ontario
Winemaker Richard Deslandes is an engineer by trade, and he’s as fascinated by the winemaking process as by the beverages themselves. On this stop, we learned the basics of turning grapes into wine. Who knew that a bladder press produces less juice than other types of presses, but does so more gently?
Deslandes happily answered questions from the mechanically minded. Meanwhile, the less technical types drifted over to the table that Deslandes’s partner, Marie Chinnatamby, had packed with everything from hummus and veggies to salami and cheese. Thus fortified, we embarked on an ambitious tasting of seven different wines.
“You don’t have to taste them all!” Deslandes reassured us, as we eagerly waved our empty glasses. “And if you don’t like one, it’s OK — I will not get offended, because I’ve tried to do wines for different tastes.”
The wines tended toward the off-dry, due to the characteristics of the grapes used to make them. I usually like my wines as dry as the Sahara, and I’m not a big fan of spritzers and coolers, so I was surprised that my favourite wine of the bunch was a quirky one called Strawberry Swirl. Deslandes makes it by tossing fresh strawberries into a batch of one of his blended white wines, Honey I am Home. After a few weeks at the bottom of the barrel, he explained, the strawberries are bleached white and they’ve added some of their colour, flavour and aroma to the wine. I wasn’t overly fond of the result on its own, but it was delicious with sharp cheddar crackers, of all things.
Less than 15 minutes after leaving Green Gables, our mini-coach pulled up at our last stop.
Blue Gypsy Wines, Oxford Mills, Ontario
Husband-and-wife owners Louis Gaal and Claire Faguy built the small but pretty tasting room at this off-grid fruit winery from the ground up. “There are 10,000 bolts in this building, and we tightened all of them,” Louis noted. They’ve also managed the heroic feat of getting the tradition-bound LCBO to stock their cranberry wine.
Fortunately, the couple’s quirky sense of humour has remained intact throughout. As we stepped off the bus, a chalkboard sandwich board announced, “Wine slushies? Yes please.” In the small boutique inside, we could buy clocks on which every number had been changed to 5 (as in, “It’s 5 o’clock somewhere”). And as Gaal poured samples of five wines, he regaled us with stories of his behind-the-scenes debates with Faguy (who wasn’t there that day to defend herself).
“Let me tell you about why I didn’t want to make this wine, and how I lost my first battle,” he said as he poured a golden liquid into tasting glasses. “Claire loves mead. I don’t. I’m not a fan. Never have been.” He smiled ruefully.
Five years ago, Faguy asked him to make chocolate mead. He resisted. She persisted. He capitulated.
“I said, ‘Fine. I’ll make chocolate mead, but nobody’s going to buy it.’ And so, because I became petulant about it, I made 18 cases. The entire barrel. I converted an entire barrel into chocolate mead.” He paused for effect. “And it was gone in six weeks.”
The tasting room erupted into laughter.
I wasn’t entirely sure what mead was, besides being the preferred tipple of Robin Hood and/or the characters in Spamalot. (Answer: It’s a beverage made from fermented honey.) But when Gaal assured us that the contentious chocolate mead — regular mead with chocolate added — was an excellent choice with chili, I had to try it. Sweet, yes, but I could see how it would work with spicy foods. Intrigued, I bought a bottle and made a pot of chili that night. And it really did make a great change from beer.
So, the bottom line? If you want to break out of your chardonnay and merlot mindset, and spend an entertaining day with fellow food lovers discovering parts of Eastern Ontario you may have never seen before, check these tours out. If you tend to get lightheaded when drinking in the afternoon, ask Green and McKlusky about the stash of snacks (granola bars and so on) on the bus, as the nibbles at each stop don’t add up to a full meal—at least on this trip. And, given the generous pours at each winery, be judicious with your tastings…or arrange for someone to pick you up when the tour ends in Ottawa.
La Vida Local Food + Wine Tours
Public tours are $125 to $145 per person, including all tastings and snacks