1 August 2012

Niagara terroir

Posted by Jessica Ball

No, nothing to do with the thrill of going over the Falls in a barrel, or anything like that. I’m talking about terroir – the combination of geography, geology and climate that contributes to a favorable environment for growing something. In this case, grapes! The Niagara frontier is one of the biggest wine producing regions in the US and Canada, and last week I had the chance to sample wines from the Canadian side of things.

A vineyard near Niagara-On-The-Lake, Ontario

The Niagara area isn’t what most people think of when they think of wine-growing. In fact, most people assume that we’re locked in some sort of perpetual winter with mountainous snowdrifts and that we have to use snowmobiles to get around nine months of the year. As it turns out, that’s not the case, especially once you go over the Niagara Escarpment. The Niagara Escarpment is a line of cliffs that extends from New York all the way to Wisconsin, along  It’s where the Niagara and Genesee (in Rochester) Rivers first formed waterfalls.

The extent of the Niagara escarpment marked in red; image from Wikipedia (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Niagara_Escarpment_map.png)

The cliffs result from differential erosion of the resistant caprock (Lockport dolostone) and the underlying layers (Rochester shale, and shales and limestones of the Clinton group).

Stratigraphy of the Niagara Region, from the NY State Museum (http://www.nysm.nysed.gov/nysgs/experience/sites/niagara/index.html)

The soil in the area – a mix of clay and silts deposited during glacial advance and retreat – seems to be well-suited for wine-growing, but the climate below the Escarpment is also key for making the region favorable for wine-growing. According to the “Wines of Canada” website,

…The climate during the growing season is comparable to that of Burgundy, France…A ledge or tier called the Bench runs parallel to the base of the Escarpment where vineyards benefit from the lake’s offshore breezes, which are buffeted back to the lake when they reach the escarpment, maintaining a constant active flow of air. This circulating activity prevents cold air from settling in lower-lying areas during threatening periods of frost.

The region’s temperatures are influenced by Lake Ontario, which acts as a hot water bottle in winter — raising winter temperatures on land from its summer-warmed waters. In spring, breezes from its winter-cooled waters help to hold back the development of fruit buds until the danger of late spring frosts have passed. Lake Ontario also cools the summer air so that grapes do not ripen too quickly, and then keeps the fall air comparatively warm so that the first frost is delayed, thus extending the growing season.

The Burgundy claim is an interesting one – so let’s test it. We’ll compare Niagara-On-The-Lake, Ontario, with Beaune, a town in the Burgundy region of France (all data from Wunderground.com):

From what I can tell, this claim doesn’t hold up too well precipitation-wise; the Niagara region gets much more rain than Burgundy during the growing season, and definitely gets more snow (since it doesn’t seem to snow much at all in Burgundy). But the temperature ranges are comparable, if slightly cooler in Niagara (an average high of around 26C/78F vs. Burgundy’s 27C/80F). The wintertime temperatures are significantly lower in the Niagara region, however, which allows them to produce their specialty: icewine. When grapes are allowed to freeze on the vine (meaning they aren’t harvested until December or January), water is locked up in ice and the must (juice) pressed from the fruit is much more concentrated in sugars than from unfrozen grapes. This results in a very sweet wine, but the trickiness of the harvesting (the grapes have to freeze before they rot) and the larger amount of fruit needed to produce it means it’s also very pricey.

Icewines are delicious, but if you’re looking for something a little less sweet, there are lots of other varieties to try. I’ve found that whites – particularly Rieslings, Vidals and Gewurztraminers – do very well here, and there are some excellent red wines as well. (One red that’s locally popular is made from Concorde grapes; I find it an odd taste in the wine, a bit like drinking spiked Welch’s grape juice.)

For more information on the Niagara wine-growing region, the VQA Ontario and Niagara Wine Trail websites have a few blurbs about geology and terroir.