WEST Wines: Ontario Syrah

by Carmelo Giardina | 

As the fourth most planted red grape in the world, one might expect syrah to be more popular among growers and consumers in Ontario. Yet, according to VQA Ontario’s 2022 annual report, syrah accounts for just one per cent of total production (by volume).

When it comes to Ontario wine, consumers and critics tend to fuss about the nuanced, acid-driven wonders of pinot noir, chardonnay, riesling and cabernet franc – varieties that thrive within the province’s chilly regions. Many other grapes are grown in Ontario, and many people would argue whether certain types should continue to be grown. But Ontario is a big province with multiple wine regions that can vary significantly in terms of climate. Not every grape grows well in this province, that’s a certainty, but winemakers have learned what grows best where and when to give up on trying something that just doesn’t stick.

Prince Edward County, for example, is Ontario’s coolest wine region and can be, on average, up to four degrees cooler than Ontario’s warmest and most southern wine-growing region, the Lake Erie North Shore. Whereas cabernet sauvignon is popularly planted at most Lake Erie North Shore wineries, it isn’t grown in Prince Edward County, and for good reason – it doesn’t fully ripen.

So, it’s safe to say that many types of wine grapes grown within this vast province can find success, producing unique aromas and flavours that reap the rewards of endorsement among consumers and critics alike. So long as the right balance is struck between climate, soil and grower, anything is possible.

For fans of Ontario’s cool climate red wines, syrah is making an impression, desperately trying to join the big boys club, but perhaps still needs that extra show of confidence (merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, pinot noir and gamay noir all seem to take much of the spotlight). As mentioned, it’s nowhere near the top of the chart in acreage or yield, nor is it a grape that many wineries want to bother farming due to its cold weather sensitivity. But those who are patient and have stuck with it have arguably been rewarded. And those who drink it know that it’s something special.

Typically producing a deep, brooding and jammy wine with red and black fruit when grown in warmer environments (think Australian shiraz), syrah develops a distinctly spicy and savoury side when the average temperature is turned down a dozen or so degrees. It’s been noted for centuries in the Old World wines of Côte-Rôtie, at the northern tip of France’s Rhône Valley, and regions in New Zealand are now finding tremendous success with it – maintaining that classic cool climate style, purposely avoiding a jammy shiraz-like expression.

A full-bodied wine known for its excellent aging potential, syrah is revered for its powerful and rich tannin structure yet can be wonderfully fruity with a fresh tasting palate that’s designed to stand up to a variety of foods – especially barbecue. It can even take on meaty notes, with mouth-watering bacon fat, black olive, pepper and smoky aromatics.

Michael Kacaba was the first to plant syrah in Ontario. His Silver Bridge and Terrace Vineyards on the Beamsville Bench are the oldest known parcels, with 1,500 vines planted in 1997. Kacaba’s impact on the variety is telling. His winery is making some of the finest expressions in the land, with his 2018 vintage earning a Silver Medal at the Decanter World Wine Awards in 2021 and landing a top ten spot in VineRoutes’ Ten Best Ontario Wines list the same year.

Jordan, Ontario’s Creekside Estate Winery has also seen tremendous success with the grape, with winemaker Rob Power becoming one of its most championed ambassadors. It can be argued that Creekside’s claim to fame is syrah and their excellent expressions of it that include the traditional splash of viognier in the final blend of their ‘Broken Press’ label.

Although it may never receive the same amount of attention as those ‘other reds,’ Ontario syrah is making a statement with its limited production. Those in the know have been buying it for years, while others are now just catching on.


Kacaba Vineyards

2018 Reserve Syrah

Grapes for this seriously stunning, award-winning syrah were handpicked from Kacaba’s Terrace and Silver Bridge Vineyards and this ‘reserve’ is the best of the lot when it comes to their syrah program. All grapes were hand sorted, gently destemmed, and left as whole berries for open-top fermentation. After fermentation, the wine was pressed off of the skins and moved to a mixture of new and second-fill French and American oak barrels to complete malolactic fermentation. The result of this meticulous process is a very smooth wine with well-integrated, polished tannins and a subtle, yet complex array of cherry, raspberry, minerality and pepper. ($55)

Creekside 2018

‘Broken Press’ Syrah Reserve

Not to be confused with their ‘Unbroken Press’ syrah – a much bolder expression of 100 per cent syrah grapes – this one gets co-fermented with some lightly pressed viognier skins before being aged in mostly older French oak barrels for 20 months. The added viognier results in the wine being tamer, smoother, and more approachable in its youth (although this could certainly age a decade and beyond). It’s one of Creekside’s most revered bottlings for good reason. Loaded with bright berry fruit on the nose, hints of peppercorn and all-spice, this syrah is backed with a firm structure and focused acidity. A premier wine from Ontario. ($55)

Stratus 2019 Syrah

Stratus is a winery with an established pedigree and is very well-known for its assemblage wines, but their single variety offerings are not to be discounted. This syrah is simply stunning. A deep nose of red currant, clove and black pepper, with meaty notes that waft the longer this decants. The palate is classic syrah with its sweet, chewy black fruit, peppery tar and savoury black olive flavours. Excellent depth with a lovely rich mid-palate that segues into a long-lasting finish. Will reward you with some added time in your cellar. ($49)

Mastronardi 2016 Syrah

When comparing Ontario’s southernmost wine region to its most popular wine region in Niagara, one realizes it not only gains from a warmer growing season, but also from an extended summer – about two extra weeks – which benefits those varieties that could use the extra hang time. This Lake Erie North Shore region syrah, from established vines, displays a bold and balanced character with a deep nose of warm black fruits and hints of wood spice. The palate has flavours of dark cherry, blackberry and plum with earthy, spicy undertones and a cedar and white pepper finish. Tannins are smoothened nicely. A wine that nicely characterizes the warmer 2016 Ontario vintage. ($24.95)