Varietals & Styles

VQA wine varietals and styles

Wine Styles

Ontario Grapes

Many different styles of wine are made in Ontario. The character of the finished wine is determined by natural conditions but can also be greatly influenced by practices in the vineyard and by the wine-making process. A great wine is the result of both nature and the skill and art of those who can translate its best qualities into a glass.

The grape variety or varieties used in wine-making establish the range of flavours that can be expected in the finished wine. Typical flavours for common varieties are described below. These common characters can be influenced by many things such as the amount of sweetness left in the finished wine, the temperature and speed of fermentation, aging in oak and other processes. These decisions can result in many different styles of wine from one grape variety.

Wine aging process

A winemaker may create several different wines with Chardonnay grapes, for example. With cool fermentation and aging on their lees ("sur lie") in stainless steel, a clean crisp fruity wine will be produced. Alternately, removing the lees then aging in oak will result in a smooth buttery wine with characters of toffee or pears. Sweet wines may also be produced by using riper grapes, retaining more residual in the finished wine.

VQA defines the major wine styles by category:

Table wine
Still wines, typically dry to medium dry.
Late Harvest wines
Still wines, typically richer and more concentrated in flavour and medium dry to sweet (but could be fermented to dry). Made from grapes harvested after the regular season, the sweetness of the grapes used increases from "Late Harvest" through "Select Late Harvest" to "Special Select Late Harvest".
The sweetest and most concentrated of late harvest wines.
Sparkling wines
Wines that contain bubbles formed by trapped carbon dioxide gas that results from natural fermentation of the grape juice.
Skin Fermented White wines
Mostly still wines, typically dry to medium dry. Made from white or pink grape varieties, fermented in contact with the grape skins for a minimum of 10 days. This skin contact fermentation results in wines with more tannins and herbal notes with restrained fruit flavors and tea-like characteristics. These wines are labelled "Skin Fermented White".

Grape Varieties

VQA wines must be made from grape varieties authorized in the VQA regulations. Permitted grape varieties include most grapes of the species vitis vinifera (traditional in European and international wine communities) and 8 "best of class" varieties developed by hybridizing vitis vinifera varieties with North American grapes species. The majority of VQA table wines are made from familiar grape varieties such as Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling. The Vidal grape variety has performed exceptionally well in Icewine and has garnered many international accolades for the Canadian wine industry.

Most common white grape varieties
Classically exhibits refreshing citrus, peach or floral aromas with a light "petrol" element and racy acidity on the palate. Made in a range of dry, off-dry and sweet styles, including Icewine. Typically not oaked but good examples will age well with the petrol nose evolving.
Can show a wide range of character including fruit cocktail (peach, pear, apple or tropical fruits), mineral notes and rich full-bodies buttery, caramel flavours if aged in oak.
Vidal Blanc
Table wines usually made in a light and fruity style but Vidal Icewines are sweet, rich and concentrated with a palate cleansing backbone of acidity.
Pinot Gris
Also known as Pinot Grigio, these grapes produce wines with notes of honeydew melons, apples and spring flowers. Typically made in a fresh, unoaked style they are meant to be consumed young.
Sauvignon Blanc
This grape variety is known for its grassy, green, gooseberry fruit, and asparagus characters. It is unique with a herbaceous character and most often made in a dry, bracing style.
Another flexible grape variety, gewurztraminer is made in all styles from bone dry to the sweetest Icewines. Classic aromas and flavours include lychee fruit, rose petals and spicy floral notes. These wines are usually rich in character and with aging sometimes described as oily belying their depth of character.
Most common red grape varieties
Cabernet Franc
Often shows plum, bell pepper and herbal characters, most often aged in oak for toasty, complex and elegant style. Commonly blended with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon to make "Meritage" wines and also used with great success for Icewine.
Baco Noir
A full flavoured grape used for dry table wines that is almost unique to Ontario. Typically shows spicy, leathery and currant flavours and can produce big earthy red wines.
Cabernet Sauvignon
Grown in both warm and cool climate regions, Cabernet Sauvignon grapes produce wines with flavours of currants, prunes and herbal notes. The high tannin content of the grapes often makes these wines good candidates for aging.
Shows blackberry, blueberry and dark fruit flavours with a softer, rounder mouth feel than the more tannic reds. Used both on its own, and for red blends, Merlot is a traditional red grape variety iin many wine regions.
Pinot Noir
Made in classic cool climate style, Pinot Noir is a medium bodied variety producing strawberry and cherry fruit flavours, often with undertones of earthy or "barnyard" aromas. Wines are silky and smooth and approachable.
Gamay Noir
Gamay wines are often made in a lighter style with fruity cherry notes dominating. In Ontario, Gamay is also made in a richer style, aged in oak and with more concentration than typically seen in other wine regions.

Grape varieties on the label

Most VQA wines carry a grape variety name on the label. These "varietal" wines are made from at least 85% of the named variety if they carry a single grape variety name. Varietal wines are popular with consumers since the grape used to make the wine is often a good indication of the weight and style of the wine and a good guide to matching with food.

Dual varietal wines and triple varietal wines also must follow rules about minimum content – for example, to list three varieties on the label, the wine must be made from at least 95% of the listed varieties.

Non-varietal wines

Many exceptional wines are artful blends of a few or many grape varieties. These are a tribute to the winemakers ability to balance all of the best character from each grape in the blend and make a wine that is more than the sum of its parts. These wines normally carry a brand name of the winery and some may list the specific varietal content on the label in order of proportion. Blends can be made in any combination, as long as the grapes used qualify for all other aspects of the VQA standards. Wines that contain hybrid grape varieties are not permitted for use in non-varietal wines.


The generic term "Meritage" is used to describe the popular red wine combination of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot and the white blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Muscadelle.

For more information on reading VQA wine labels see our page on Label Integrity.