This past Sunday in the Toronto Star there was an article about the Vintners Quality Alliance of Ontario (VQAO) standards and their standardized testing for certifying Ontario Wines. As part of their certification testing there is a taste test that approves the wines. Part of the taste test is to determine typicity of the wine. This is apparently a qualifying factor of a wine becoming certified.
There is a lawsuit under-way against a winery, Royal DiMaria, that the VQA has charged with falsely advertising his wines as VQAO certified after the VQA did not pass a wine of his and stripped Royal DiMaria of its VQA status. The VQA had agents undercover go to his winery and charged him for selling wines on his vineyard with the illegal use of key VQAO terms, including “icewine,” “VQA,” and “Niagara Peninsula.” These wines that he was selling on his vineyard had passed this taste test and were certified VQA, but the Association is stating that by revoking a status on a wine means that all precedent wines are banned from using the certification. This case will, itself, set precedent for vineyards all over Ontario.
One point made in the article by Norman Hardie, who happens to be a former board member for the VQAO, is that these taste tests entrusted to certify Ontario wines rule out any irregularity based on natural occurring effects of terroir. According to Hardie, this goes against what the VQA directly states their role is and how they say they support Ontario’s wines, and in fact promotes middle-of-the-road conformity.
Now, over the years that I have really started to taste, learn and appreciated wine more I have had my ups and downs with Ontario wine. There are Ontario wines out there that I think are absolutely fabulous! They are like finding hidden gems, as you very often HAVE to go to the winery to find them. They are not readily available in the LCBO, though the LCBO does strongly promote local wine. The wines they promote, however, are those wines that conform with the VQA and, sorry to say this, middle-of-the-road typicity. Most Ontario wines that you can easily purchase all have the same sort of flavour profile of each other, which I think is a large part to do with this test. Every Reisling should not taste the same, every Chardonnay shouldn’t taste the same, every Ontario Cabernet Franc should not taste of mushrooms and green bell pepper, but they very often do. It can be largely disappointing, until you go to a vineyard and find their true pieces of art.
This is something that both Hardie and DiMaria argue in this article, that the VQA has limited artistic ability, expression, and terroir and appellation variances in their approved and certified wines. For DiMaria, some of his wines that were not accepted by the VQA won medals and awards all over the world. So which certification has higher value on the wine? All that really matters to be able to sell your wine at the price that it deserves is the ability to call it “icewine” which means it needs to be certified by the VQA, so though these wines may win medals and be placed as the wine of the year in Wine Spectator (which happened to Norman Hardie’s 2008 Chardonnay), you need to be on the good side with the Alliance.
I believe that the VQA does a lot to regulate and certify wines of Ontario. Just like other governing bodies of wines all over the world do for their regions. I don’t feel, however, that such a taste test should be used that promotes the same flavour profiles in all wines, and discounts a wine for its originality, expression of terroir, or experience beyond what is “typical”. If the VQA requires a taste test to continue, perhaps they should review and make necessary amendments to the test. It is not the test that is the issue, its the requirements the test promotes.