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Province approves hybrid grape for VQA Ontario

Eastern Ontario wine producers are welcoming the provincial government’s addition of Marquette grapes to VQA Ontario’s approved list of grape varieties, but they want the province to do more to encourage the industry.

The Marquette hybrid grape is a sturdier variety that survives more easily in colder climates. The decision opens the door for vintners to sell wines made with those grapes at LCBOs and farmers markets.

Sandor Johnson, owner of Potter Settlement Artisan Winery in Tweed, Ont., has won international competitions with wine made from the grape and had been frustrated that he couldn’t sell it at home.

“If the VQA doesn’t recognize the grape, we can’t get it out to a wider market,” Johnson said.

“We’re building our inventory, getting ready to launch this wine. We’re going to join the VQA and we’ll do our best to get it to a wider market for folks to enjoy.”

‘These grapes can survive’

Johnson said the wines resemble an Old World Bordeaux but are made with grapes that survive in colder weather and don’t require the same amount of pesticides. He said the change could contribute to the growth of small wineries across Ontario.

“We have to come to terms with where we are,” Johnson said. “This isn’t southern France; this is Ontario, Canada. We get some really cold winters here, especially with the polar vortex. These grapes can survive it.”

But Johnson said a lot can still be done to improve the market for Ontario-grown wines. Non-VQA wines sell at the LCBO with a 53 per cent tax and the VQA has a small panel that determines which wines are up to quaff.

Paul “Smokie” LeBlanc, president of Eastern Ontario Wine Producers, said the process for approving grapes is too long and complicated.

“It’s a pain,” he said. “You have to do research, jump through hoops, prove this and prove that, and it has to be taste-tested by their organization.”

‘Just want a level playing field’

Approving the Marquette hybrid grape is a good first move, but LeBlanc said there are many more grapes that should be approved to support the 16 vineyards in eastern Ontario.

“I have seven different varieties in my vineyard, you’re talking about one variety,” he said.

He said he’ll be barrelling some Marquette-only wine this year, but he’s unlikely to join the VQA to try to get his wine in LCBOs and he’d like the rules changed about farmers markets.

“We just want a level playing field. We’re selling all of our wines in stores around Ottawa. Eleven of the 16 vineyards are now open and they give tours and tastings, do weddings, win awards and we have our own wine map and we’re developing this as the next wine region.”

In a statement, the Ministry of Government and Consumer Services said the government is in the process of reviewing the tax system for beverage alcohol. It said it’s also reviewing proposals to approve more grape varieties.

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