Inniskillin:  A Winery that Changed Ontario’s Wine Landscape

Inniskillin is a winery that played a pivotal role in transforming the Ontario wine industry.  It has long been a favourite of mine not only for their wine, but because of my connection to the name.  Both my parents came from near Enniskillen in Northern Ireland and the winery was named after The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, a famous regiment from that Irish town, since some of their members had settled in Niagara.

 Inniskillin winery changed the Ontario wine landscape in so many ways.  In 1975, it was the first Ontario winery to be granted a license since Prohibition.  Its founders were Karl Kaiser, a chemist and home winemaker, and Don Ziraldo, a Niagara nursery owner.  What was truly groundbreaking about them was they planted European grapes (Vitis vinifera) with the intent to produce superior wine instead of using readily available local grapes like Concord that produced good jams and jellies, but inferior wine.  Their first plantings were Riesling, Chardonnay, and Gamay.  The grapes are commonplace now in Niagara, but were revolutionary in the 1970s.

Their desire to innovate didn’t stop there – they produced the first Ontario Icewine in 1984.  Until then it was only produced in Germany and Austria.  Their Icewine was very good. In fact, it was so good that it put Canada on the International wine map in 1989 when their Vidal won the Grand Prix d’Honneur at Vinexpo, a famous wine completion in Bordeaux.  My European friends identify Canada with Icewine to this day.

Kaiser and Ziraldo left Inniskillin after it was purchased by Vincor in 2006, but their legacy of changing Ontario’s wines for the better lives on. The winery is currently owned by Arterra Wines, whose majority shareholder is the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan.

We have included some readily available Inniskillin wines in our reviews, but you can find some real single vineyard gems at their winery.  As usual, my ratings are based on a 5 star system developed by Michael Broadbent: 5 stars: Outstanding; 4 stars: Very good; 3 stars: Good; 2 stars: Moderately good; 1 star: Not very good, but not bad; No stars: Poor.

Inniskillin Riesling Pinot Grigio 2020 ★★★½   $14.95 (LCBO)

This pale lemon blended off dry wine is pleasurable to quaff chilled in the warm weather.  The Riesling is more prevalent here – it’s nicely fruity with apples and citrus, along with stone fruit from the Pinot Grigio.  If you do want to serve it with food, salads and lighter fare will suit it fine.

Inniskillin Riesling 2018 ★★½   $14.45 (LCBO)

This offers typical Niagara Riesling flavours, although they are a little less intense than those with fruit from the Bench. It’s off dry, but balanced with good acidity and focuses on juicy lemon and lime with a touch of minerals.  Barbecued pork tenderloin with a sweet and spicy dry rub or a mushroom risotto with Parmesan cheese pairs up nicely with this white.

Cavallina Grillo-Pinot Grigio 2018 ★★★+   $9.95 (LCBO)

Here’s an extreme good value from Sicily; Grillo is an indigenous Sicilian grape blended here with Pinot Grigio.   Expect simple fruit flavours of lemon and peach tinged with roasted hazelnut aromas.  It has enough body and fruit to stand up to grilled chicken or shrimp or even pasta with tomato sauce if you don’t feel like a red.

Inniskillin Merlot 2018  ★★★½  $15.95 (LCBO)

Merlot can make good wines in Niagara, but not everyone grows it because it sometimes succumbs to the cold winters.  This pleasant red clocks in at medium bodied, dry, and smooth with pleasant blueberry, plum, vanilla and cedar.  Not one for aging in your wine racks, but it would be good with pork chops adorned with a fruit glaze.

Mas des Bressades Cuvée Tradition 2018 ★★★   $17.95 (Vintages)

An excellent blend from west of the Rhone River made with Grenache and Syrah.  A big red with ripe tannins and deep flavours/aromas in the glass embracing strawberry, plum jam, rosemary, vanilla, cigar box, black pepper, and earth.  It would be great with foods from the grill, but also good with a humble meatloaf spiced with oregano and thyme.

Fontanafredda Barolo 2016 ★★★★  $32.95 (LCBO)

Barolo has been called the King of Wines and the wine of Kings. Indeed, it’s arguably the best wine produced in Italy. Vinified from the Nebbiolo grape from Piedmont, it tends to be a pale red wine that becomes even less intense in colour as it ages. However, this red presents a good example where colour is not indicative of flavour and body. It is a full bodied, tannic colossus that needs some time in bottle to soften, or generous aeration if young, to mellow out those tannins. This excellent 2016 is still tannic, but starting to soften with exceptional notes of violet, dried red cherry, plum, sweet cinnamon, earth, and a hint of cigar box aroma. Serve it up with your favourite mushroom pasta or red meats.

Stave & Steel Canadian Whisky Barrel Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 ★★★½+ $19.95 (LCBO)

Whisky barrel aging of red wines has become somewhat trendy and it adds interesting aromas and flavours. This warm climate California Cabernet sources most of its fruit from warm sites in Paso Robles. The wine is dry and full bodied, brimming with ripe fruit – intense dark plum, blackcurrant jam, coconut tinged vanilla, raisin, and cedar. The Canadian whisky barrel adds notes of smoke and caramelized brown sugar that are not usually found in Cabs. Those make it perfect for your weekend BBQ, whether you cook red meat or sausage (and that sausage can be vegetarian).

Señorío de la Antigua Mencía 2015 ★★★★ $14.95 (Vintages)

This grape from Bierzo region in Spain is not exactly the best known in the wine world, but it is worth getting to know.  It has interesting developing flavours of dried red cherry, red plum, black cherry, oregano, pepper, spice and vanilla.   The tannins are starting to settle down (it is a 2015) and it’s excellent served with BBQ chicken, grilled eggplant drizzled with good olive oil, or smoked beef (and combinations of those).

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