This article is over 5 years old and may contain outdated information.


Is there a terroir for maple syrup?

We know weather influences the taste and quality of Canada's national condiment, but some producers say geography plays a role as well 

  • Feb 27, 2018
  • 696 words
  • 3 minutes
Maple syrup dripping from a tap into a collection bucket Expand Image

We’re all familiar with wine tastings, and much to the delight of caffeine addicts, a growing number of independent Canadian roasteries, including Toronto’s Merchants of Green Coffee and Ottawa’s Ministry of Coffee offer cupping and tasting workshops where acolytes learn to chart a coffee’s acidity, body and complexity, and how to differentiate among the three main growing regions. Yet, the Canadian analogue to “as American as apple pie” should only be so lucky. Maple syrup remains, in most people’s minds, a generic, commodity product. It’s perceived merely as the higher-priced alternative to that ubiquitous high-fructose goo, Aunt Jemima’s.

For years, I’ve had a nagging dissatisfaction that the condiment so bound up in our national identity couldn’t, like Rodney Dangerfield, get no respect. So, in my travels as a writer and photographer, I ask, when I encounter a maple-syrup producer, if the concept of terroir — the expression of local climate and soil — exists for maple syrup in the way it does for wine and coffee.

I first inquire while visiting the sugar shack at McLean Berry Farm near Peterborough, Ont. “Yes,” says director Erin McLean — but only if the sap is boiled down the old-fashioned way, over a wood stove, rather than the gas stove method preferred by large-scale commercial producers. (Maple sap is so watery that it takes about 40 litres of sap to yield one litre of syrup.)

Over lobster boil at Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Highlands National Park, fiddler and Parks Canada interpreter Doug Aucoin lets slip that he once made maple syrup in the nearby Chéticamp River valley.

“Because it wasn’t a commercial production,” he recalls, “we didn’t have any of the filters for the reverse osmosis process they normally use to speed up the boiling process. But in doing this, you lose the particular flavour notes. We filtered it through a cheesecloth and I was very surprised at the flavours we were getting. It was delicious, fantastic. Some of the woodiness of the maple syrup was left; you knew that this came out of a tree.” To compare it to the supermarket variety, he says, would be like comparing unaged whiskey to a 21-year-old Highland Park.

“Each tree, each region should give you a different taste,” he concurs. “I’ve tried maple syrup made here compared to some made by my friend 45 minutes down the road in Margaree and there were definitely differences.”

The sugar shack at McLean Berry Farm near Peterborough, Ont. Expand Image
The sugar shack at McLean Berry Farm near Peterborough, Ont. (Photo: David Lasker)

But how, exactly, does one describe those differences? And are they consistent? I ask Ray Bonenberg, owner-operator, with his wife, of Mapleside Sugar Bush in the Ottawa Valley near Pembroke, Ont. 

“Maple syrup from southwestern Ontario has a more earthy flavour,” he explains when I reach him on his cell as he’s putting up pipeline for the coming syrup season. “I can tell if a syrup was made on the granite of the Canadian Shield country up north around Huntsville. It has more of a, not vanilla, but a lighter flavour that’s not as heavy in the maple bouquet.”

Still, these differences are anecdotal. Asked if there’s an agreed-upon system for sorting out terroir, he replies (speaking now as President of the International Maple Syrup Institute and immediate Past-President of the Ontario Maple Syrup Producers Association), “Our more corporate high-level answer is: No.”

Flavour differences are attributable less to the site and more to the weather, he insists. “If you have a warm sugaring season, during March and April, the syrup has a different flavour than if it’s a cold season. Given that maple syrup is made from Maine to Minnesota, and West Virginia to Northern Ontario, it’s a very big geography, and trying to pick something that is unique in regard to a flavour [for each region], well, we haven’t got our minds around it yet.”

Related: Meet Canada’s maple syrup makers 


Are you passionate about Canadian geography?

You can support Canadian Geographic in 3 ways:

Related Content


Climate change isn’t the only thing threatening maple trees

Climate change is creating extreme weather, but it may also be having an effect on what you put on your pancakes. Researchers from Memorial University of Newfoundland have found…

  • 710 words
  • 3 minutes

People & Culture

Photos: Meet Canada’s maple syrup makers

The sugar bush is a Canadian institution. Especially so in Quebec, where about 70 per cent of the world’s maple syrup is made. Although the industry has grown and big…

  • 460 words
  • 2 minutes
Canadian Mosaic Project


50 years of multiculturalism: It’s as Canadian as maple syrup

Michael Adams, president of the Environics group of companies and the Environics Institute, and a regular contributor of published commentary on Canadian values and social trends, says most Canadians view multiculturalism as an important symbol of what we aspire to as a society

  • 1018 words
  • 5 minutes


Go with the fleuve: 5 days in La Belle Province

Following the St. Lawrence’s winding course through Quebec delivers a feast of history, culture and food

  • 2137 words
  • 9 minutes

You may also like

A crowd of tourist swarm on a lakeside beach in Banff National Park


Smother Nature: The struggle to protect Banff National Park

In Banff National Park, Alberta, as in protected areas across the country, managers find it difficult to balance the desire of people to experience wilderness with an imperative to conserve it

  • 3507 words
  • 15 minutes


A tour of the best skiing in the Rockies

Leslie Anthony shares the best of the big hills

  • 1847 words
  • 8 minutes