Our Own Back Yard
Lake Erie North Shore and Pelee Island Appellations
Canada’s Lake Erie North Shore (LENS) and Pelee Island appellations feature all the hallmarks of the great wine-growing regions of the world: proximity to a large body of water, moderate climate, sun-filled days and cool nights, adequate rainfall, fertile soils and a long growing season. Situated in the southern-most region of Canada near the same latitude as Tuscany and the northern California border, the short, modern history of wine-making here is filled with great promise.
Though today’s modern wine-making is our focus, wine production is not a new thing in this part of southern Ontario. Going back to the late 1800’s and into the early 1900’s, the Lake Erie North Shore region was the largest wine production area in Canada, with dozens of small wineries located on farms between Leamington and Windsor. These “mom and pop” operations were based on native North American varietals such as Concord, Niagara, Catawba, and others. These aren’t the wines we seek and enjoy today, but to the folks of those times, a glass or two of Concord wine with the evening meal was enjoyed and appreciated as much as the fine vinifera and hybrid wines we enjoy today.
The health of the wine industry changed, though, as other agricultural products proved to be more profitable, particularly tobacco. In the ten years between 1904 and 1914, vineyard acres in Essex County alone were reduced from almost 1,800 to less than 300 as farmers switched to tobacco and other crops that yielded higher profits. Seventeen years of anti-alcohol policy that followed in Canada and the U.S. further dampened demand, as did two world wars and the Great Depression. It was not until 1980 when Colio Estate and Pelee Island wineries received their licenses that a resurgence of wine-making on Lake Erie’s North Shore and Pelee Island occurred.
Today, including three wineries not yet in active production, twenty-two wineries are found between Windsor and Tillsonburg, the eastern edge of the LENS region, with the greatest concentration in the Leamington to Windsor corridor. This makes for great day-tripping or weekend wandering as one visits and tastes at any of these friendly locations. Wine types cover the gamut, from classic Vitis vinifera-based table and sparkling wines to incredible late harvest and ice wines. With the plethora of tree and soft fruits in this bountiful region, excellent fruit wines can be found, as well.
The 2012 All-Canadian Wine Championships saw 13 wineries representing the LENS and Pelee Island appellations enter the competition, garnering among themselves a total of 33 medals, including 2 Double Gold, 7 Gold, 10 Silver and 14 Bronze. Lake Erie North Shore and Pelee Island slightly out-performed the rest of Ontario as they accounted for 21.3% of Ontario wineries in the competition, but went home with 23.2% of the medals awarded within the province.
If you want to experience the essence of this wine region but just can’t afford the time to day-trip or spend a weekend, there’s a special event that puts many of these great wines at your fingertips. On July 22, 2012, the area’s winery association, EPIC (Essex Pelee Island Coast), puts on its annual “Vintage Tasting”. Eleven wineries will be represented, each showing several wines. Food tastings from fine area restaurants are included in the $65 ticket price. This year’s event is being held at Holiday Beach Conservation Area, which abuts Lake Erie, about 15 minutes southeast of Amherstburg on Essex County Road 50, close to Sprucewood Shores Estate Winery. For more info, go to http://www.epicwineries.com. For on-line ticket sales go to: www.onlineregistrations.ca/uncork/. If you’re serious about going, get your tickets in advance!
Lake Erie North Shore and Pelee Island have bright futures. Whether you visit one of the larger wineries or one of the smallest, you’ll find wines that you’ll want to take home. Best of all, long after the wine is gone, you’ll remember the beauty of the region and the friendliness of those you met here. This is a wine region that’s not just about wine; the wines are friendly — and so are the people.