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The Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA) System
Canada joins other leading wine-producing countries in developing a body of regulations and setting high standards for its wines. For example, in 1935 France introduced its “Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée” system that remains in place today. Italy introduced its “Denominazione d’Origine Controlata” designation in 1963. Germany’s “Qualitatswein mit Predicat” system was finalized in 1971, and the U.S. system in 1978.
In Ontario the VQA officially started in 1988. The Ontario VQA then requested that British Columbia undertake a similar system, which it did in 1990. Each region maintains several unique rules and regulations that are specific to it, just as Burgundy and Bordeaux do.
Based on generations of trial and error, these regulations delimit the geographic areas where the grapes can be grown and how the wine must be made. Experience has shown that certain vineyard areas, because of their favoured soils, exposure and microclimate, produce the best wines year after year. By designating the appellations of origin on the label, vintners offer consumers information about the origin of the grapes, particularly the terroir in which they are grown. As in the centuries old wine regions of Burgundy and Chianti, refinements to the existing regulations within the VQA are continually being made. Noble wines do not happen by accident. They are the happy result of the finest grapes being planted in the right soils, ripened in a conducive climate, then selected and vinted with care. Only high quality grapes make great wine, so Canada’s VQA regulations stipulate which varieties can be used for products that bear the Vintners Quality Alliance medallion. The VQA in Ontario is an independent alliance, with representatives from Ontario’s wineries, grape growers, the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, and academic, hospitality and research institutions forming its Board of directors.
There are four dinstinct wine-growing regions in Canada — the provinces of Ontario, British Columbia, Nova Scotia and Quebec – but to date only Ontario and British Columbia are producing wines to VQA standards.
Ontario’s VQA Regulations:
In Ontario, a distinction is made between two levels of superior quality. Each has its own set of guidelines, but for either designation, the wine shall be entirely fermented, processed, blended, finished, and bottled in Ontario.
a) Provincial Designation in Ontario: 100% of the grapes used to produce the wine shall be grown in Ontario from an approved list of Vitis Vinifera grapes or preferred Vinifera hybrids.
- if labeled by a single varietal name, it must contain a minimum of 85% of the variety named on the label and must exhibit that variety’s predominant character.
- grapes must reach a minimum natural sugar level expressed in degrees Brix.
b) Viticultural Areas: a more demanding appellation based on specific growing areas that have been identified and isolated as capable of producing consistently, wines of distinct character attributable to the geographical features of the area in which the grapes are grown. Only select, perfectly matured premium grapes may be used in order to merit the Viticultural Area distinction.
- The VQA recognizes within Ontario three Designated Viticultural Areas (DVA):
- Niagara Peninsula, Pelee Island and Lake Erie North Shore,
- A minimum 85% of the grapes shall be grown within the specific named viticultural area,
only Vitis Vinifera — classic European varieties — may be used (except for Vidal used in the production of icewine).
- A Single Varietal must have a minimum 85% of the variety stated on the bottle, and must exhibit the predominant character of that variety.
- The remaining 15% must also be from Ontario,
- Minimum natural sugar levels in the grapes have been set for all viticultural areas including Late Harvest and Icewine.
For specific definitions and a complete detailed list of regulations please see Ontario Regulations 406/00
“The single most important factor in the advance in quality of Ontario wines has been the introduction of the VQA. This appellation system and the minimum standards it set in place brought Ontario into the twentieth century and set the course for global recognition.”