All VQA wines are tested and reviewed for compliance with the origin, composition and label regulations before they may released using VQA regulated terms.
Wineries may submit wines for approval to use the regulated terms and descriptions once they are finished and ready to bottle.
To apply, a winery must be licenced by the Alcohol and Gaming Commission and a member of the Appellation Authority. Applications are made through a secure online portal, providing details on origin and composition, proposed labels and samples of the wine are sent for testing.
All wines undergo a chemical analysis, sensory evaluation, composition review and label review. The review assesses whether the wine meets the standard for its category (for example vintage dated Sparkling Wine) and whether terms used on the label match the application and test results.
No wine is permitted to use VQA regulated terms until the wine approval process is successfully completed.
All VQA wines are subject to a full chemical analysis. The analysis includes health and safety components and wine chemistry and is performed to confirm that the wine meets standards set by The Ontario Wine Appellation Authority, the LCBO and the federal government. The Ontario Wine Appellation Authority also uses this analysis as a benchmark to verify through random testing whether the wine released for sale is of the same provenance as the wine submitted for approval.
Pesticide Residues and Trace Heavy Metals
Wines are tested for a range of contaminants. Any wine that exceeds limits for identified contaminants are rejected by the Wine Authority.
All samples are analysed for basic wine chemistry, including sulphites, volatile acidity, alcohol content and residual sugar. Sulphite levels and volatile acidity are subject to limits for quality assurance purposes and, in the case of sulphites, for health reasons. Alcohol and residual sugar are used to assess the wine character and ensure accurate labelling.
A sample of each VQA wine is evaluated by a tasting panel before approval. This sensory analysis determines whether the wine is generally representative of the category and is free of unacceptable faults.
Tasting panels are drawn from a roster of experienced wine professionals such as sommeliers, winemakers and wine educators. Minimum qualifications include successful completion of a formal and recognized wine education course that includes a sensory component. Examples of panel qualifications include Masters of Wine, WSET diploma, Certified Sommelier, Bachelor degree in Oenology or Viticulture.
Wines are evaluated to assess compliance with the VQA standards. This includes being reasonably representative of the stated category and free from an unacceptable level of faults. The process is not similar to a wine competition or rating by a wine critic and does not reflect the personal preference of the tasters.
Each wine is evaluated on its own merits with respect to appearance, aroma, taste and overall balance. For example, an Icewine should show characteristics consistent with the rules - sweet with aromatics associated with juice from frozen grapes, and lacking wine faults that materially detract from the wine.
Rigorous procedures are in place to ensure consistency and remove biases. All wines are tasted “blind” with no identification of the producer. Limited information is provided with the tasting samples that may include wine category, vintage, varietal content, specific attributes such as “bottled with lees” and method of production for Sparkling wines.
Proposed labels are reviewed as part of the wine approval process. Each label is checked to confirm it
- Declares the appellation of origin on the front label
- Declares all mandatory federal information, including alcohol content within 1% of tested value, net contents, country of origin, product name (wine) and allergens if applicable.
- Accurately represents the composition of the wine declared in the application.
- Meets specific requirements for the individual wine
The VQA legislation sets a framework of enforceable standards for wines made in Ontario that use specific labelling terms. Ontario wineries are free to make and sell wines outside of the VQA system but cannot use the VQA brand or VQA-regulated appellation terms to describe non VQA certified wines.
The VQA Act provides the Appellation Authority with a number of tools to ensure and verify wines are compliant with the standards and regulations. These include:
- A prohibition on using regulated terms without approval
- Powers for inspectors and investigators, including the right to enter, collect samples, records and other information
- Authority to issue compliance orders to correct labels, remove wine from sale or other means to achieve compliance
- Penalties up to $100,000 for a contravention
Regulations and rules set out more detailed criteria for evaluating wines and approving the use of regulated terms, refusing or revoking approvals, collecting mandatory information and the right to appeal.
VQA wineries are required to complete and submit detailed monthly reports of VQA wine sales. These reports are reviewed against actual sales records and the volume of each approved wine.
Retail Store Inspection
Retail inspections are conducted annually at every VQA winery retail store. These inspections are unannounced and examine wines that are available for sale to ensure they are approved and labels are compliant. Retail inspections include online platforms and a sampling of stores that are not at a winery site, including LCBO and grocery locations.
Winery audits are conducted annually. The purpose of the audit is to examine winery records and inventory and determine whether all volumes of VQA wines and wines destined to become VQA wines are substantiated with respect to origin and other requirements.
The audit process is risk-based, taking into account a matrix of factors such as complexity and previous compliance history. The frequency and depth of the audit for each winery is established based on the risk matrix. An audit may involve filing detailed records for a remote assessment up to a comprehensive onsite visit and physical inspection of inventory and records, or a combination of both.
The audit reviews documentation of all inputs of grapes and wines, inventory, bottling and sales by specific origin, grape variety, vintage and other relevant information. Each wine is tracked from harvest to shipped finished bottle to ensure the origin and composition is as claimed. At the time of the audit, a record is established for all wines in process. The rolling audit provides early awareness if a wine or anticipated label will not meet the VQA composition standards before it is submitted for approval. This is a key factor in identifying non-compliance and guiding wineries to a compliant outcome. Prevention is the most effective compliance tool.
Once discovered, non-compliance is addressed through escalating measures. Preventing non-compliant wines reaching consumers is the goal. Violations typically involve inaccurate or non-compliant label claims and are resolved by removing the wine from sale until labels are corrected.
For more serious, misleading or repeated violations, compliance orders may be issued or wine approvals may be revoked. If a winery fails to comply with a formal order, charges may be laid under the VQA Act. These charges are heard in Provincial Offenses Court and result in monetary fines.
Compliance actions and regulatory decisions may be appealed through Ontario’s Licence Appeal Tribunal and ultimately to the Ontario Divisional Court.