The following is an article with a close-up focus on the wine-making happening at Vankleek Hill Vineyard. It was written by Leah Beauchamp. Leah lives in Montreal, but is originally from the Vankleek Hill area. She is a sommelier and DipWSET (Diploma in Wine & Spirits Education Trust) candidate.

It’s been operation-overhaul for Scott and Teresa, the new owners of Vankleek Hill Vineyard, who purchased the property a little over a year ago. It came with a working winery and five acres of vines, both of which required much enterprising in order to make this place quality-focused and destination-worthy. Originally from Montreal, the couple was in search of a change of pace and came across a beautiful 55-acre farm for sale and fell in love. The land and winery are now enthusiastically family-run and two oenologists head the winemaking. 

New to the wine industry, the couple has fortunately experienced a right-time-right-place moment with the surge in popularity of boutique wineries over recent years, the millennial-driven consumer habits, and a paradoxical effect of the pandemic.

A “boutique” winery

Also known as cottage wineries, boutique wineries are a niche category within the wine industry and are increasingly supported by the growing source-conscious consumer segment; people who want to know exactly where their product is coming from and who made it. Boutique wineries are small-scale, often family-run, whereby every step of the production process is closely monitored, lending an artisanal touch to every bottle. Not only is it a way to ensure the authenticity of the wines, but it also creates an awareness as to what a producer’s ethics are, whether that be socially, economically or environmentally. And if the seller has grape juice stains and dirt on his hands – even better. 

The notion of terroir is also closely associated with this model as the traceability of a wine adds to its sense of place. It’s like Vankleek Hill in the glass.

The experiential leitmotif

One of the foremost aspirations that Scott and Teresa had in mind when embarking on their wine adventure was to establish a place where visitors could unwind and socialize. An experiential movement has emerged in the beverage industry: a trend – or preference – for experiences over possessions, driven by the emergence of the experience-seeking consumer – mainly under the impetus of the open-minded millennials. There is a desire for engagement, learning and a collection of memories to show for it. Wineries the world over are becoming creative to lure in wine-lovers and to increase their bottom line. Many wine bars as well are aiming to create an inviting atmosphere that can convey a less stuffy perception to the snobbery often associated with wine. Their aim is to break down the barriers, engage with their visitors by increasing knowledge and by making wine accessible and within reach to the low-involvement consumer. 

The Vankleek Hill Vineyard has begun by creating a venue with the vines in full view against a bucolic backdrop. Tours of the facility are available as well as food and wine pairings – something for which Teresa has a natural flair, as it turns out.

Sustainability credentials

Supporting local businesses is part of the team’s objectives. An on-site boutique showcases many local products such as jams and jellies, coffee, and other gift items.

On the environmental side, although Ontario, in the realm of iconic world wine regions, has a rather humid climate which can lead to vine diseases, and farmers especially, are all too aware of how the weather dictates comings and goings, the vineyard is taking the lutte raisonnée approach (or low-intervention viticulture): treating their vines to the bare minimum in order to maintain a healthy biodiversity whilst making their endeavours financially viable. 

In addition to being so mindful, the winery also plays host to a bee population of 30,000, the apiary within yards of the vineyards. Bees play a vital role in ecosystems, and many world-famous vineyards have taken up bee-keeping to support a teeming biodiversity as well as to stay true to terroir which can provide a mysterious conduit of the ground to the glass. 

Hybrids gaining street cred

The land was endowed with the hybrid grape varieties Frontenac Noir, Frontenac Gris and Frontenac Blanc. Hybrids are a cross between the European vine species, vitis vinifera (which naturally possesses attractive flavours and aromas) and the various North American vine species. They have been crossed and propagated for the North American vines’ inherent disease- and frost-resistance. Hybrids can withstand Canada’s extremely cold temperatures, as well, and their late bud-break and early-ripening characteristics are well-suited to the short growing seasons of northerly latitudes.

The Frontenac progeny can produce high yields at no expense of quality, providing the potential for fruit-forward, food-friendly wines. 

Although many wine consumers face a psychological barrier when it comes to the unfamiliar names of such varieties, this perception is diminishing with the increase in high-involvement wine consumers – largely driven by curious millennials who prefer esotericism in their wines and are thus more apt to take the adventurous route when it comes to wine tasting. This acceptance is also backed by the fact that viticulturalists the world over are progressively seeking out grape varieties that can combat the mercurial personality of climate change.

The Vankleek Hill Vineyard Frontenac Noir has an alluring earthiness, a depth of velvety dark ripe fruit with subtle notes of licorice balanced by great acidity. The vineyard’s Frontenac Blanc wine is delightful as well: bright and broad with tropical fruit character and herbaceous undertones.

The micro-négociant

To complement the fruit of their own vines, Scott and Teresa also source various international grape varieties from Ontario’s wine-centric Niagara region, from growers who are conscientious of their art. The fruit is brought to Vankleek Hill and subsequently undergoes fermentation and bottling there.

Micro-négociants are what wine industry icon Jancis Robinson refers to as the “producers [with] grapes and a label, but not land”; grower-merchants which are increasingly common in the global wine trade with France’s Burgundy region as a prime example and, to a lesser extent, Portugal’s Alentejo. By sourcing grapes from other growers, producers can expand their range of wines and thus offer a wider selection of styles at different price points to satisfy many types of consumers. But the point is that it is the more innovative generation that is emerging who is pursuing this small-scale way of business, producing wines by their own convictions about what true wine should be.

I recently had a chance to taste some of these wines; they are dry with a wonderful purity of fruit and wholly cool-climate-style. The winery offers both an oaked and unoaked Chardonnay – the former modestly vanillic and buttery and offset with a lemon-accented linearity; a delicate, floral Pinot Noir; a vegetal, black plum-fruit driven Merlot-Cabernet Franc blend; among others – each displaying Canadian wine’s tell-tale freshness.

Another speciality they offer is their 2016 Riesling Dessert Wine at 15% abv – the perfect accompaniment to pungent cheeses especially during the holiday season. The winery also boasts a wide selection of sweet fruit wines, and all of the winery’s labels qualify as 100% Product of Canada.

Similar to the rest of Canada’s wine industry which has bloomed into a serious player, the Vankleek Hill Vineyard shows great promise, and the owners humbly attest to being very well-received by the community. Furthermore, as nearby rural dwellers were confined within county limits this year and as urban dwellers were running for the hill due to the coronavirus, the winery has experienced a wave of visitors who’ve helped to further encourage these newcomers. If you haven’t popped in yet, I urge you to – you’ll be greeted with a healthy humility and kindness that’s contagious. 𑿿