Grapes for Wine

Soil, microclimate, geography – all play a key role in producing a good bottle of wine, as does the winemaking process itself. But the most important element of winemaking is the grape itself, and the family of vines to which it belongs. In Ontario, we grow more than 50 different varieties of wine grapes. The following are the largest commercial sellers. 

European Hybrids

White Hybrids

Seyval Blanc
This cultivar is also known by its selection number of SV-5276 as bred by Bertille Seyve. It was first planted in Ontario in 1951. This white cultivar has large conical clusters with medium-sized berries that take on a bronze hue as they ripen. This cultivar ripens in late September and has a moderately vigorous upright growth characteristic. One of its identifiable traits is the shiny leaves that appear to fold upward and the prominent teeth on the leaf margins. It is prone to mildew infection and bunch rot under wet or highly humid conditions.

vidalThis is one of the most widely planted hybrids in all of Ontario. It has a multitude of uses as a table wine, a late harvest wine and Icewine. It has a long growing season with harvest, most years, in mid to late October or later. The clusters are large with a conical shape and medium sized berries. It has tendency to carry a large crop and can benefit from crop thinning in years with excessive fruit set. The fruit is thick-skinned and the bunches hang well. The fruit has a relatively neutral flavour and maintains its acid levels late into the year, making it a great cultivar for Icewine production.

Red Hybrids

Baco Noir
This cultivar was bred by Francois Baco and released in 1902. Baco Noir is the first cultivar to begin growing in the spring in Ontario. This early bud break leaves it prone to late spring frost injury. It grows vigorously, producing a large canopy that is sprawling. It has a tight cylindrical cluster with small berries and some juice pigmentation. The vines are capable of carrying a large crop and are fruitful on a wide variety of soil types and locations. It is prone to injury from the leaf-feeding form of phylloxera. In Ontario, this cultivar ripens in early September.

This vine is beginning to be planted across Ontario. It is moderately cold hardy and possesses long cylindrical clusters that remain loose. The berries are blue in colour, medium size and produce a neutral-flavoured juice. The cluster shape reduces the incidence of fruit rots, though the vine has a tendency to over crop if left unchecked. It ripens late in the season in mid October or later, depending on the location.

Marechal Foch
An early-ripening grape, Marechal Foch matures in late August and early September. It has a small berry in a compact medium sized bunch that is tight and cylindrical in shape. The fruit produces a pigmented juice and has a noticeable herbaceous flavour. The vines can be vigorous and display a drooping character while growing. It is prone to infestation by the leaf-feeding form of phylloxera.

Vitis Vinifera

White Vinifera

This is another recent addition to Ontario production that is gaining consumer acceptance. This cultivar has moderate growth with medium size clusters that are conical with shoulder or winged shapes. It produces a neutral juice that can have floral and fruit tones. It is harvested in mid to late September.

The most widely planted vinifera cultivar in Ontario. It displays a moderately high vigor depending on the location and has an upright growth habit. It is reasonably cold hardy and matures in late September. The clusters are medium size, possessing a conical shape with a shoulder. Berries are round with a neutral flavour and the skin achieves a golden hue as the berries ripen. It is prone to powdery mildew and bunch rot. In Ontario, there are many clones of Chardonnay that provide a diverse flavour profile. A particular clone 77F is known as the Muscat clone that makes the wine known as Chardonnay Musque.

Under Ontario conditions, this cultivar is widely recognized for its compact growth and dense canopies. The spicy flavours of the berries are also a key identifying feature. The clusters are small, conical and have berries with pink to light red skins. The juice has a spicy or lychee nut flavour. The dense canopies with multiple leaf layers can lead to disease problems if not properly managed. This cultivar usually ripens in late September.

Pinot Gris
This cultivar also goes by the name of Pinot Grigio or the “grey pinot.” Similar to the other pinot grapes (pinot blanc, pinot noir), this cultivar is distinguished by the colour of its fruit. It produces small round berries that have a light red or pinkish colour in the skin. Due to its close parentage with the others, sometimes the berries will revert and produce green fruit or split colour with half the berry pink and the other half green on the same cluster. The clusters are small and cylindrical beneath a moderately shaded canopy. This cultivar can carry a moderate crop load and benefits from canopy management and shoot positioning. It ripens in late September.

Pinot Blanc
Another in the pinot grouping that is sometimes referred to as “white” pinot noir. Berries are medium size and green in colour. The clusters are well filled to tight, conical in shape with a shoulder and medium size. It produces a juice of neutral flavour with crisp tones and is usually harvested in late September.

rieslingAn aromatic white cultivar that was one of the first viniferas planted commercially in Ontario. This grape has proven very versatile, being harvested at multiple times for different wine styles as a table wine, late harvest or Icewine. Depending on the site, Riesling can be moderately vigorous and benefits from training in the half bow or pendelbogen system to get vine fruitfulness. Crop load and canopy management also helps this cultivar. It is susceptible to mildew and, more recently, Erineum mites, but these are not a serious pest. Clusters are medium size with round green berries having a floral flavour. Depending on the winemaker preference, this cultivar can be harvested from late September through mid to late October for table wine. Hanging the grapes until January has commonly been practiced with netting (to prevent loss to hungry birds) to make Icewine.

Another recent introduction to Ontario for commercial production, this grape is best known from warmer climates. It produces large clusters with medium to large berries that attain a golden hue when ripe. It can over crop and benefits from good vine management practices such as shoot positioning and crop load balancing/thinning. There are few commercial plantings but those with this grape indicate it appears to ripen in early October.

Sauvignon Blanc
An extremely precocious and vigorous cultivar in Ontario, even on sites of low vigor potential. It is somewhat winter sensitive but fruitful on secondary buds. Its growth habit leads to dense canopies and subsequent fruit rot at harvest if left unmanaged. It ripens in late October and is known for its “ bell pepper” taste and vegetal characteristics. Many other regions of the world produce this cultivar with a great range of aroma and flavour profiles. The fruit clusters are small and tight with round green berries. The fresh juice is noted for its vegetal or herbaceous flavours.

Relatively new to Ontario, this cultivar is proving a challenge to grow as vines can display vigorous growth under good conditions and small vines under less favourable conditions. It produces a medium size cluster, conical in shape with a shoulder and having small green/yellow berries that are often sweet but may be low in acid balance. It ripens in early October.

Red Vinifera

Cabernet Sauvignon
Cabernet SauvignonThis is the latest maturing red vinifera in Ontario. The berries are small, round and blue and produce an intense herbaceous flavour. The clusters are medium in size, conical with a partial shoulder and remain reasonably loose. The vines are easily identified by the “Swiss cheese” appearance of the leaves. This cultivar achieves its peak performance during long, warm fall periods and is usually harvested in the latter half of October

Cabernet Franc
Cabernet FrancThe most productive and cold hardy red vinifera. It ripens about a week before Cabernet Sauvignon and can carry a crop load to full maturity that is 20% greater. It has medium size clusters that are conical and may have shoulders. The berries are blue, medium size and produce a juice with an herbaceous flavour. It is relatively tolerant of most diseases and is used as a varietal table wine or blended with others to produce a classic red wine.

MerlotThis cultivar is the most cold sensitive of the Bordeaux reds. Similar to the Cabs, it has blue berries of medium size with herbaceous flavours. It is best known for its velvet feel on the tongue when made into wine. This vine must be balanced for crop load and have a managed canopy to get optimum sunlight and fruit quality. It ripens about the first week of October. It is only recommended for planting in the best locations to reduce threat of cold temperature injury.

This cultivar has found favour with some winemakers, especially when blended with Gamay Noir. It is a large vine noted for large leaves and medium-sized clusters of conical shape sometimes having a shoulder. The berries are medium size with neutral flavour and ripens in late September.

Gamay Noir
GamayAn interesting grape in Ontario as it can produce brilliant grapes one year and average grapes the following year. It has a tendency to over crop and is greatly enhanced by selective cluster thinning at veraison. The berries are blue, medium to large and have a neutral flavour. The conical clusters can be medium to large, which sometimes leads to uneven ripening of the fruit. They must then be thinned to achieve peak quality. It ripens in mid to late September.

Pinot Noir
PinotAptly nicknamed the “heartbreak grape,” Pinot Noir has the ability to dazzle in vintage years. Many clones exist in commercial plantings, with the majority having small compact clusters, some with shoulders and small berries. This configuration, combined with a thin berry skin, can lead to complications and breakdown if left unmanaged for canopy shading and cluster exposure. Botrytis bunch rot can be a problem with this cultivar. The need for fruit exposure is important, as skin colour can be hard to achieve some years, leading to light-coloured wines. The utility of this grape has been exploited to make sparkling wine by doing a “green harvest” when the fruit is still somewhat immature and acid levels remain high. Normally, this cultivar is harvested in late September through early October.

A very recent addition to Ontario production, this cultivar produces large oval berries as part of large, conical tight clusters. It has a very long maturation cycle (maturing in October) and there is still debate over the optimum time to harvest for peak quality.

Wine grape variety descriptions have been provided by Kevin Ker, an internationally recognized specialist and educator in grape and tender fruit production, and integrated pest management (IPM). Kevin holds the position of Industrial Associate and lecturer at the Cool Climate Oenology & Viticulture Institute at Brock University in Niagara. He operates Ker Crop Management Services, an independent consulting firm specializing in education, training, advisory research and agricultural services.