VQA: The Evolution of a Canadian Wine Law

By / Wine + Drinks / June 7th, 2023 / Like

This article originally appeared in the Fall/Winter 2022-2023 print issue of Quench Magazine.

The room’s decor was minimalist. White acrylic and whitewashed wood. Stainless steel sinks. Chrome wine glass racks. Chrome cocktail shakers acting as spittoons. On the counter against the far wall there would be a lineup of 40 or so clear carafes filled with wines of various colour and composition – most made from grapes, some from other fruits. Also on the counter were touch-screen tablets that displayed information pertaining to each sample. The only details missing were the producer and the intended price.

I assessed these submissions based on criteria displayed on the tablet’s screen: colour, clarity, aromatic integrity, varietal character, balance, finish, and an overall assessment of quality. If all went well, the wine would (assuming other legal criteria were met) be awarded VQA (Vintners Quality Alliance) status.
Having acted as a VQA panelist for close to 20 years, I’d say the organoleptic testing component of the VQA grading scheme was – and likely remains – an integral part of the overall quality evaluation. And it is probably the most controversial aspect.

As with most other wine laws enacted throughout the vinous world – starting with those conceived by the Reichstag in 1498 – VQA Ontario (and its sister – BC VQA for the wines of British Columbia and operated under a different authority) acts as a consumer guarantee that what the label says is in the bottle, actually is what’s in the bottle.

The Vintners Quality Alliance Act, 1999, proclaimed on June 29, 2000, VQA Ontario as Ontario’s wine authority. Broadly speaking, the mandate of VQA Ontario is to enforce the province’s appellation of origin system, control the use of specific terms, descriptions and designations, and set out mandatory winemaking practices pursuant to each specific VQA region and sub-region. Winemakers have some flexibility when it comes to grape varieties – so long as they are either vitis vinifera or an approved hybrid (eg. Vidal).

There are other checks and balances around things like brix (sugar) levels at harvest for specific types of wines, and the pedigree of fruit for particular regional designations (the requirements for a wine labeled as VQA Ontario, for example, will be more relaxed than for a wine identified as an Estate Grown Chardonnay with the designation VQA Beamsville Bench – a geographical sub-appellation). Labelling terminology is also regulated.

Which is all well and good, but if the middle letter of your acronym stands for “quality,” it begs the question: quality by whose measures or standards?
Brian Schmidt, winemaker for Niagara’s Vineland Estates Winery sees the “quality” aspect as being something inherent to the VQA’s overall intent.
“I see the purpose of VQA to guarantee ori-gin, and to provide a platform for winemaker’s wines to be tasted by a panel of qualified tasters that are considering if any flaws or faults in a wine are considered excessive,” he explains,

noting that the majority of the tasting panel must be in agreement that a wine is faulty. “Identifying excessively faulted wine ensures quality as result, but not a defined intent.

The ongoing evolution of wine laws is both unavoidable and necessary to take in everything from winemaking practices to climate change. When I contacted VQA Ontario headquarters to get a status update – and to ask how the pandemic had affected operations – I was somewhat surprised by the response.

“VQA Ontario has changed its operating name to the Ontario Wine Appellation Author-ity,” informed Laurie Macdonald, the organization’s Executive Director. “When the pandemic began in March 2020, LCBO suspended all VQA tasting panels. The sensory evaluation has been conducted by the Appellation Authority using its own panelists since then, and this will continue on a permanent basis.”

To backtrack a bit for perspective: for a wine to become VQA certified, it not only has to comply with labelling and packaging standards, and demonstrate geographic origin, it also has to pass laboratory and organoleptic testing described earlier. Up until the change Macdonald refers to, both of these functions were carried out by the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO), the province’s government-controlled beverage alcohol monopoly. This wasn’t a bad thing.

The LCBO lab is sophisticated and its technicians are, for the most part, top-notch. (Lab analysis is still carried out by LCBO.) The sensory evaluation panel consisted largely of LCBO product consultants – essentially LCBO retail store employees with superior product knowledge and, in the case of those on the tasting panel, proven knowledge of wine defects and various wine characteristics.

With the new changes, the panel roster is made up of qualified wine professionals, including sommeliers, winemakers, wine educators, Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET) diploma and MW holders. Another change is that wines are no longer given scores (out of a possible 20 points, with 13 required for a passing grade). In the early days VQA actually had a two-tiered scoring system. If memory serves me correctly, a score of over 13 counted as a pass and the wine could carry the VQA medallion on the bottle. Those scoring over 15 points could carry a gold VQA medallion. Whether or not I’m completely accurate on this point is more or less moot, as this system was eliminated early on in the history of VQA.

The move away from any type of numerical scoring apparatus is likely a good thing, at least in the eyes of winemakers. In fact, some have grumbled (in varying levels of volume) that the tasting panel itself should be scrapped.

The argument for this stance centres around the possible “subjectiveness” of the panel and the awarding of passing grades to wines that are personally preferred as opposed to those which are technically sound. It also, perhaps in an indirect way, points to an issue with section (c) of the Act’s sensory guidelines that reads:

(c) To the extent that an applicant identifies a varietal designation in the application, such wine should exhibit the predominant character of a wine produced from the designated grape variety or varieties.

Simply put, if you submit a Riesling to the panel for evaluation it should smell and taste like Riesling (and, of course, be defect-free – we’ll get back to that). Some winemakers claim that this forces them to conform to some arbitrary “standard” that determines what the “predominant character” of a specific grape variety actually is. The “T word” – typicity – is often bandied about, along with the notion that an emphasis on typicity limits innovation.

In fact, Niagara’s Pearl Morissette winery’s website offers this:

“We’ve all been blackballed. Some more than others. But whether it was not getting selected on the school soccer pitch or having the VQA repeatedly pass over your Niagara Riesling on the basis that it ‘lacked typicity’, getting blackballed has not always been a positive experience.”

“It is important to note that ‘typicity’ is not mentioned anywhere in the VQA regulations or procedural documents,” Macdonald points out. “We do not prescribe any typical presentations of varietals for Ontario and aim to recruit tasters with global exposure to a wide range of styles. Innovation is welcome as it should be for a relatively young region. For example, we have seen oak-aged Rieslings which are certainly not typical but have been approved based on soundness.

during the sensory testing, for example, sparkling wines must be carbonated, Icewines must be sweet. In my opinion, this discussion is really about what is or is not perceived as an unacceptable flaw. Problems typically arise when the “style”characterized by unacceptable levels of H2S, volatile acidity, brett [anomyces], etc.”

But surely (it could be argued) a profession-al winemaker should be able to determine if a wine is of sound quality without some paternal body pointing out when the kid hasn’t lived up to expectations. Granted. But having a profes-sionally-trained panel of experts available to lend guidance can’t be a bad thing. In fact, it may be helping to improve overall wine quality.

Macdonald reports that since 2000, submission failures have declined by 10 percent to a range of about two per cent over the past five years. She also notes that some failures are not the fault (or the sole fault) of the winemaker. Still, technical and microbiological issues make up the bulk of the reasons for failures. Part of the VQA mandate is to help eliminate these.

“We facilitate winemakers forums to encourage winemakers to share their experiences, challenges and best practices,” she informs. “This is intended to assist in making the best wine possible given any set of parameters – vineyard, varietal, vintage conditions,price point, style, and so on, and it necessarily includes preventing and managing faults.”
Schmidt reports on the many positive changes he has witnessed over the years. “VQA is not static,” he emphasizes. “I have absolutely seen positive changes. Deregulating packag-ing, introduction of skin-fermented wines as a category, modifying sugar standards to rec-ognize the unique and evolving characteristics of grapes grown in Ontario to name just a few. There are dozens of other examples.”

As Ontario’s (and Canada’s) vinous landscape continues to broaden, the Vintners Quality Alliance Act,1999 will no doubt continue to be modified to reflect changes within the industry. This sort of flexibility ensures that innovation and creativity can thrive, with the Act lending a degree of guidance to winemakers, while ensuring geographical authenticity and, ultimately, consumer confidence and international respect.


Tod Stewart is the contributing editor at Quench. He's an award-winning Toronto-based wine/spirits/food/travel/lifestyle writer with over 35 years industry experience. He has contributed to newspapers, periodicals, and trade publications and has acted as a consultant to the hospitality industry. No matter what the subject matter, he aims to write an entertaining read. His book, 'Where The Spirits Moved Me' is now available on Amazon and Apple.

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