In 1866, three gentleman farmers from Kentucky began planting Catawba vines on Pelee Island and formed a wine company called Vin Villa. Barnes winery, which opened in 1873, was for the longest time the oldest continuously run winery in Canada. Brights followed closely, having been open since 1874. Two brothers, A.N. and J.C. Knowles, started the London Winery in 1925. One of their first wines was called Vinroi Blanca, a wine with grape alcohol added to it that was only available at the local drug store through a doctor’s prescription.
During the period immediately following Prohibition there were major changes in the wine industry. The formation of the LCBO with new regulations and controls meant that many wineries, which had survived during Prohibition, couldn’t meet the newly established standards. They simply closed, or were bought out by the larger wineries.
Business seemed to remain stable during the 1950s and 1960s with fortified wines, like ports and Sherries, as the mainstay of the industry. Most Canadians were not frequent wine drinkers. Then, in 1973, Andres introduced baby Duck, “a fun product that introduced millions of Canadians to the world of wine,” notes wine writer Tony Aspler in his book “Vintages Canada.”
At about the same time, Inniskillin Wines in Niagara-on-the-Lake was established as a cottage winery. Their philosophy was that Ontario consumers were ready for quality varietal wines made from hybrid and vinifera grapes. Over the last 20 ears many more wineries have been issued licenses, continuing the excitement of the industry.
In 1988, the Ontario wine industry took a huge step forward with the creation of the Vintner’s Quality Alliance. The VQA established its set of rules and regulations based on the French AOC, Italian DOGG and German QMP rules systems. The VQA regulates the growing and vinifying of Ontario wines with the specific purpose of essentially guaranteeing that the Ontario wine consumer gets what the wine labels says. If it says its Chardonnay, it is Chardonnay. If it says it’s from Niagara, it is from Niagara. If it says it’s from 1991, it is definitely from 1991.
There are now around 42 commercial wineries in Ontario, including the large Canada wide companies and the ever-growing number of cottage or boutique wineries. Most of these are located in the Niagara Peninsula, along the north shore of Lake Erie, and on Pelee Island. These three regions are designated as quality wine growing areas by the VQA. As such, wines from these areas can bear the VQA medallion as long as they follow the rules established by the VQA and pass a blind taste test conducted by an independent VQA tasting panel.
AS is done in every quality wine producing area in the world, our winemakers are quickly discovering which varieties grow best and in which locations. The winemakers are in turn using their personal backgrounds, their training, and their ancestry in finding their own individual styles. Racy Rieslings, at once both peachy and citric, okay Chardonnay with broad hints of tropical fruit and Pinot Noirs of near Burgundian complexity are being produced throughout the winegrowing areas of the province. Each of them are distinct, yet each of them further define a style that is fast becoming “Ontario.”
The wineries, whether big or small, are all interesting and friendly places to visit. Almost all of them offer tours and tastings in a very relaxed atmosphere to help you learn more about their products. Get a group together. You’ll be amazed at how welcomed you are!
Today the Societe des Alcools du Quebec is the largest bulk buyer of wines in the world. They buy refrigerated grapes, juice or juice concentrate, which is then fermented in Quebec. To this, finished wines from Europe, California or South America may be added to the final blend.
Traditionally, Quebec has not been one of Canada’s popular wine growing areas. The climate us often harsh and late spring frosts are common. Winter kill- vines frozen to the point that ice inside them splits them in half- is also not uncommon. But despite these odds, efforts have been made in Durham region along the Quebec, New York State/Vermont border to plant and tend vines for wine production. 15-licensed cottage wineries have appeared since 1985 and 90% of their production is white wine mostly from the Seyval Blanc grape.
Nova Scotia Wines
Nova Scotia has a much shorter growing season than either Ontario or British Columbia and, as a result, their wine production is limited. The varieties used are hardy hybrids such as Seyval Blanc and Marechal Foch, along with something called New York Muscat and two Russian Varieties, Michurinetz and Severnyi. You occasionally see wines from Nova Scotia’s Jost Vineyards on the export market.
British Columbia Wines
The Okanagan Valley, technically a desert, is situated on the same latitude as the Champagne region in France and the Rheingua in German. As is true of all three regions, the Okanagan has sunny, warm days with low humidity and cool nights for long, slow ripening. This climate produces wines that are fruity and full-bodied with a good, distinctive acidity. The summer weather in B.C. tends to be fairly consistent and this produces even quality from year to year. Like Ontario, the wine industry in B.C. is growing rapidly. In 1960, the government in British Columbia passed a law stating that all wines vinified in the province must contain a minimum of 25% locally grown grapes. Then, to encourage new vineyard plantings, the quota was gradually increased over the years until it reached the current requirement of 80% locally grown grapes. The 20% balance of imported wine usually comes from California, Washington or Oregon. Currently there are 24 wineries in B.C., some of which are familiar to us- national companies such as Andres and Brights. Calona Wines Ltd. is the largest winery in B.C. There are a number of interesting cottage wineries in B.C. but, as is true of many Ontario wineries; their production is very small.