Behind the ‘Black Ball’

(In response to Rick VanSickle’s article on the VQA’s rejection of Pearl Morissette’s ‘Black Ball’ Riesling – original here. Also posted in-part as a comment.)

Kudos to Mr. VanSickle, as his piece is the most well-researched commentary that I have seen about the ‘Black Ball’ – a subject that is undoubtedly (and justifiably) being followed closely by the Ontario wine community and has now garnered international attention.

There are however a couple of critical discussion points that are aptly raised in the article but demand elaboration:

1) The role of the VQA and its legal Act as an Appellation System needs to be put into the appropriate historical context;

2) The importance of producers like François Morissette and his role as an industry innovator.

Do I intend to defend the VQA and its decision? Absolutely not. Is it fair for Mr. VanSickle to systematically dismantle the VQA’s ruling on the ‘Black Ball’ using its own legal code and statements from its executive director? Most certainly. In fact, my argument is that the VQA (as a lethargic bureaucracy), VanSickle (representing the vocal and critical wine community) and Morissette (as the avant-guarde innovator) are all neccessary to the long-term development of the Ontario wine industry.

The case-in-point was alluded to by Mr. Peter Boyd’s tweet: “If no one challenged the status quo there’d be no Tignanello, no Nyetimber, and no vinifera in Ontario.”


In 1970 when Piero Antinori began experimenting with his Sangiovese in the Chianti Classico zone, he was forced to label his wine Vino da Tavola (table wine) and lose the widely-recognized Chianti Classico designation because of his ‘unconventional’ methods. What was so blasphemous about his practices? He chose to age his wine in small oak barrels, forgo the requisite proportion of white grapes in the blend (legally required by Chianti appellation law at the time) and eventually, audaciously, include a small percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Since he couldn’t call his wine Chianti, Piero needed to give the wine a name. That name was Tignanello.

The wine received high acclaim, being evaluated by the international wine community without the bias associated with the narrowly defined ‘Chianti’ indicated on the label. The market determined the value of this vino da tavola, irrespective of appellation status. Tignanello shocked the wine world when it became one of Italy’s most prestigious and expensive wines; an honour it holds to this day.

Antinori was a rebel. A revolutionary. He and a handful of Tuscan producers started a chain of events leading to the creation of an entirely new tier within the Italian appellation system (known as IGT) and the eventual re-writing of the legal definition of Chianti. In fact, much of what we consider to define Chianti today are the things that Antinori was experimenting with: oak aging, high percentage Sangiovese wines often blended with Bordeaux varieties and certainly no white grapes. Under the new requirements, Tignanello could carry the Chianti name. But the Antinori family chooses to remain ‘declassified’ under the Toscana IGT designation, as it was precisely the decision to operate outside the traditional system that begot Tignanello.

To come full-circle, Mr. VanSickle quotes directly from the VQA website: “The ultimate purpose of the VQA tasting is to ensure that the wine is likely to fulfil the consumers’ expectation based on what appears on the label.” That’s a good thing! Appellation systems are designed to ensure a minimum level of quality and typicity of style that should be closely related to the terroir from which the grapes originate. In other words, when you buy a bottle of Chianti, you expect there to be Chianti inside, as defined by the law, tradition and convention of the region.

Under the current VQA system, there is something (apparently) indescribable about the ‘Black Ball’ Riesling that makes it atypical. We must accept that innovators like François Morissette are the next phase in Ontario’s evolutionary process as a wine region. In fact, he is an ideal revolutionary because his winemaking practices are non-interventionist. As Mr. Morissette has said himself many times: how can a wine that ferments to dryness using ambient yeast and zero manipulation in the winery be considered atypical of the region? It’s a rhetorical question because the answer is intuitive: it must be typical; it just isn’t common. Yet.

The natural progression of things based on the Tuscan example is this: we will see more and more innovators creating wines in Ontario outside the VQA system. We will continue to discover, explore and isolate the unique terroirs of this province. We will continue to experiment with different varieties that are well-suited to those terroirs. (Remember that Ontario Gamay wasn’t even on the map a couple of years ago. And many leaders in the industry now consider Cabernet Franc to be Niagara’s best-suited red grape – not Pinot Noir.) So fight on, wine-rebels. Go forth, Morissette and friends and teach us what we don’t yet know about ourselves. Our wine community will be right behind you tasting, buying, selling and promoting your wines.

The VQA will be the last ones to catch up. It will be steadfast (read: stubborn). But that’s okay. That’s what they are supposed to do. And critics like Rick VanSickle: be critical! That’s what you are supposed to do.

The Ontario wine industry (from production to distribution) is going through its adolescence. If we all continue to play our roles as best we can, perhaps it will blossom into a well-adjusted adult with a strong sense of tradition and a keen eye for innovation. It may take 20 or 30 or 50 years, but we’ll get there. As in all facets of wine, patience is key.


3 thoughts on “Behind the ‘Black Ball’”

  1. There’s a big difference here – the tax break associated with VQA status. No one can afford to work outside the VQA in the way the IGT guys do on Europe

    1. Thanks Jamie!

      According to the page on winery grants here, the break allows producers to keep an additional $1.37 per bottle of wine retailing for $10.45. This equates to a mammoth 28% profit increase. I don’t know if this applies proportionally at all price points, but that loss could certainly be crippling for a small winery.

      If anyone has specific info about cost/benefit to operating outside the appellation system in Canada or elsewhere in the world, please add it here.

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