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VQA Explained

By Richard Reichert

When you enter a LCBO store and you come across the section that sells Canadian wine, you see two categories; VQA and Cellared in Canada. I just want to give a brief explanation on what these terms are so that you have a little more knowledge when you are considering a purchase from a Canadian winery. If you want more information on VQA just click on the link further along in this article.

When wines are made, the location of the grapes can play a significant role in its price, taste and quality. Old World countries such as France and Italy have a system of classifying grapes so that consumers have an idea of where the fruit that made up the wine came from. In France it is called Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC), in Italy, Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) and Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG). In both cases it is a system of rating the quality of the wine produced from the area of the country it came from. This system does not provide a guarantee that a consumer will automatically like the wine they try if they purchase one based on the designation the appellation system has given it, but at least it will assure the consumer that the grapes came from the area mentioned (if it is on the label). The grapes from each area are associated with a certain level of quality. (Again, please do not confuse this with a certainty that you will like the wine.)

Canadian wines have their own appellation system known as the Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA). Originally an industry-organized entity, the VQA has become enshrined in law and is now the official appellation system used to verify origin and quality of Canadian wine. It operates out of Ontario and British Columbia and is administered separately in each province. I am going to focus on the two main designations for the Ontario VQA. They are the provincial and defined viticultural area.

The Ontario designation is less stringent and allows wineries not located in a designated viticultural area to carry the VQA label. Examples would be Ocala Orchards winery in Port Perry, northeast of Toronto, and the wineries of Prince Edward County in the Picton area (for the present anyway). To qualify, the grapes must meet minimum sugar levels that are set for each grape variety at harvest and also indicate on the label the year in which 85% of the grapes used in the wine were grown and be made of 100% Ontario grown grapes which are of an approved varietal. The more stringently defined viticultural area requires meeting minimum sugar levels that are set for each varietal at harvest. Eighty-five percent of the grapes used in a wine must come from a single designated vitcultural area (100% must be Ontario grown). The grapes used must be of approved vitis vinifera varieties and indicate on the label the year in which 85% of the grapes used in the wine were grown. The defined viticulture designation allows the winery to add additional label information of either estate bottled or the name of the vineyard where the fruit came from. (It must be 100% grown from the mentioned estate or vineyard).

When an area develops (like Prince Edward County) individuals with expertise and experience from the academic and Ontario wine communities are assigned to assess the suitability of a region and to define the area it will encompass. When it is determined that an area qualifies, then government regulation formalizes the viticulture designation.

The standards for the VQA designation are among the most stringent in a world. Wineries must apply and meet standards set for record keeping productions methods and vinification procedures. Every five months regular audits are performed on member wineries on these aspects, as well as checks on wines that have made claims for VQA approval to verify that they are consistent all along. Spot checks are made on wines that have already been granted VQA approval to ensure there has not been any alteration. All wines must be blind tested by a board of independent tasters to ensure that the characteristics associated with approved varietals are present. Any winery caught during an audit of falling short of standards set, can have their VQA designation revoked. Wineries can also be prosecuted if they use terms regulated by the VQA without approval.

There is another term used in labeling wines that consumers should be aware of and that is "Cellared In Canada" which essentially means that the wine can be made from any grapes sourced from any part of the world. The wine could be mostly from Canadian vineyards or literally from elsewhere, there is no way of telling by looking at the label. I don't like to tar all these wines with one brush as plonk, but I think it is fair to say though you have a higher chance of scoring a loser than you would otherwise.

There are no guarantees when you buy a VQA wine other than you know that it has met certain standards for quality and the grapes come from a Canadian vineyard. You could be just as liable to purchase a VQA wine and a Cellared in Canada wine and windup liking the second one better. In the end, all you can really do is try different wines and find the ones you like, but if you find that you like a certain VQA wine take satisfaction in knowing of all the extra steps the winemaker took to ensure that the product he made for you was a certified Canadian wine of quality.

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