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Why Are Ontario Wines So Expensive, Anyway?

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If you've been reading us for a while, you know we are huge fans of Ontario wine, but inevitably we get asked, "Why is it so expensive to buy Ontario wines? Especially when I can buy something for $8 from Argentina?"

So we decided to take it to the pros, and let them give you the straight goods on why Ontario wine costs what it does.

"We just go to the 'apples to apples' argument: compare appellation wines to appellation wines and you will see tremendous value in Ontario wines," says Michèle Bosc, Director of Marketing at Château des Charmes in Niagara, one of Ontario's pioneer wineries. "Just like any wine region there are 'value' wines and more premium wines ....Compared to many other regions, our wines seem inexpensive."

Ed Madronich, President of Niagara's Flat Rock Cellars, agrees, saying Ontario should be compared with other cool climates like Burgundy, New Zealand or Oregon.

"I had some French wine makers here, and they told me, 'if I could put a French label on your wine, I could charge five times as much,'" Madronich told us, noting Pinot Noir from Burgundy can cost more than $70 and from New Zealand $40 or more. But in Ontario (which has similar climate and soil) a Pinot Noir costs only about $20 to $30.

Cool climate also means more vigilance in the vineyard. Last spring, a snap freeze forced Vineland Estate Winery to hire helicopters at $110 an hour to hover over the vineyards to push warm air down, and keep the vines from freezing.

"Cool climate viticulture is by its nature more expensive to establish and operate. We do not have the luxury of boundless sun and heat... we also must combat disease and pests more in cooler climates," says David Hulley, Vineland's Director of Customer Experience. "Due to these factors and more, we concentrate on premium wines and not bulk.  There is no point to trying to compete with warm climate bulk wines."

Hulley adds foreign wineries enjoy government subsidies that Ontario wineries do not. Tack on Ontario's cost of land, a multi-tiered regulatory system, taxes and the cost of labour ("Vineyard workers in Argentina are paid in a day what we pay our vineyard workers in an hour!" says Bosc) and the dollars and cents on local wine keep rising. Hulley says Vineland's $85 Meritage sells out every year because despite the higher price point, it still offers value.

"Niagara boasts more international gold medals per capita than any other wine region in the world.  Our region is small and it produces premium, world-respected wines.  It is a waste of our time, energy and scarce suitable land to try and produce 'cheap' wines ..."

It's possible to find very inexpensive Ontario wines in the LCBO; but they're often blended with bulk grapes from foreign countries, and the same effort does not go into those bottles.

"If that's what you like, great, go buy it," says Madronich. "[But] hand sorted, gravity fed, French oak barrels ... doing all that stuff means quality, and I want to wake up every morning knowing that I've done everything I can to make a great bottle of wine."

Each winery in this article makes a range of wines from less than $20 to $40 and up. Here are our recommendations for save and splurge wines from each:

Chateau des Charmes:

2007 "Old Vines" Cabernet-Merlot, VQA Niagara Peninsula $19.95
Cabernet Sauvignon, Franc & Merlot hand sorted and sourced from various vineyards. Flavours of dark berry fruit, chocolate and spice.

2010 "Equuleus" VQA St. David's Bench $40
The flagship wine that's only made in select years. A Bordeaux blend sourced from 25 year old vines. Dark berry, coffee and dark chocolate flavours, with a potential to age another decade.

Vineland Estate Winery:

2009 Dry Riesling VQA Niagara Peninsula $12.95
Created with Riesling grapes from five vineyards, this is a refreshing, mineral driven wine that's great with fried seafood, cheese plates or grilled white fish.

2009 St. Urban Riesling VQA Niagara Escarpment $20
Focused and energetic with zippy acidity look for citrus, mineral and orchard fruit notes. Drink now or over the next 5 years.

Flat Rock Cellars:

2008 Chardonnay VQA Twenty Mile Bench $17.15
Tropical fruit, vanilla/ginger spice, wet stone and light toasty notes. Easy drinking, try with mushroom stuffed, roast pork loin or broiled lobster and butter.

2009 "The Rusty Shed" Chardonnay VQA Twenty Mile Bench $25.15
This wine took gold at the International Wine Challenge alongside two Burgundian producers. Elegant and focused, with tropical & orchard fruit flavours, mineral, and sweet spicy oak notes.