Wine Industry

 According to Norwegian sagas, Viking explorer Leif ERICSSON discovered grapes when he landed on the American continent around 1001 AD. He named the place Vinland. Although speculation continues as to whether Leif found blueberries or grapes at his landfall, L'ANSE AUX MEADOWS, Newfoundland, it is certain that wild grapes grew along the eastern seaboard of North America. Johann Schiller, who is acknowledged as the father of the Canadian wine industry, made good use of these grapes in the 19th century.

Schiller, a retired German corporal, was given a land grant just west of Toronto and in 1811 he planted a small vineyard from cuttings of wild vines he found growing along the banks of the Credit River. Schiller made wine from these domesticated grapes and sold it to his neighbours. Thirty-five years later the estate was bought by an aristocratic Frenchman, Justin de Courtenay, who had unsuccessfully tried to replicate the taste of red Burgundy in Quebec. He had better luck in Ontario and his Gamay won a prize at the 1867 Paris Exposition.

The first true commercial Canadian winemaking operation began in 1866 when three gentlemen farmers from Kentucky acquired land on Pelee Island - Canada's most southerly (and warmest) point - where they planted 30 acres of native North American Catawba grapes. A few months later they were joined on the island by two English brothers, Edward and John Wardoper, who planted their own vineyard, half the size. Gradually vineyards were planted on the mainland, moving east along the shores of Lake Erie to the NIAGARA PENINSULA, where Canada's major concentration of vineyards is situated today.

The first vineyards in British Columbia were planted in the 1860s at the Oblate Mission of Father Charles Pandosy near Kelowna in the Okanagan, but it wasn't until the 1930s that the first winery was established in the valley.

By 1890 there were 41 commercial wineries in Canada, 35 of them in Ontario. In the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia and along Québec's St. Lawrence shoreline it was the Church rather than the regions' farmers which encouraged the planting of vineyards and fostered the art of winemaking.

During Canada's 11 years of PROHIBITION (1916-27), the making and selling of wine was not illegal (thanks to an aggressive grape-growers' lobby which managed to have wine exempted from the Act) and Canadians could buy sweet wines referred to as ports and sherries with an alcoholic strength of 20 degrees. Following prohibition, the provincial liquor board system was put in place across the country to control and regulate the production, distribution and sale of beverage alcohol.

It was not until the mid-1970s in Ontario and British Columbia that the supremacy of the large wineries was challenged by the appearance of boutique and farmgate ventures. In 1997 Canada had over 110 licensed wineries classified according to the scale of their production: large commercial enterprises, estate wineries and small-scale farm operations.

Wine from locally grown grapes is currently made in four provinces - Ontario, British Columbia, Québec and Nova Scotia - with small fruit wine operations in New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island.

Climate

Canada is a cool-climate wine growing country, like New Zealand, northern France and Italy, and Germany. Quality can vary significantly from vintage to vintage, as it does in Bordeaux or Burgundy.

For many years it was believed that Vitis vinifera (the noble European grape varieties such as Chardonnay, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir) could not survive the rigours of Canadian winters and the freeze-thaw-freeze cycle of early spring. As a result, the majority of plantings in Ontario were (and still are) the winter-hardy North American labrusca varieties (such as Concord and Niagara, now only used for processing in the food industry) and early-ripening, winter-resistant hybrids, such as Vidal, Seyval Blanc, Baco Noir and Marechal Foch.

But the awards and medals won by Canadian wineries in competitions at home and abroad for Chardonnays, Rieslings and the noble red varieties are testimony to the quality of the raw material grown in the vineyard and the techniques employed to turn it into fine wine.

Virtually unique to Ontario and British Columbia is the ability to produce icewine consistently every year. This expensive, honeyed nectar, made from grapes left to freeze on the vine and then pressed in their frozen state, has attracted a worldwide market, winning competition medals wherever it is entered.

Wine Laws

The production and sale of beverage alcohol is a provincial jurisdiction, which means that wine regulations vary from province to province. But a national appellation of origin has been established, called the Vintners Quality Alliance, similar to wine regulations in European wine-growing countries. The national VQA regulations set minimum standards of production and delimit viticultural areas.

The provincial VQA regulations governing the production of wine in Ontario and BC are slightly more stringent. The most significant regulations state that wines must be 100 per cent grown in their designated viticultural area and have minimum sugar values set for specified grape varieties. To receive the VQA seal (VQA will appear on the bottle), the wines must be tested by both a lab and an independent panel to ensure their general quality and varietal integrity.

ONTARIO

 (VQA Ontario, 1996)

Number of wineries: 33

Acres under vine: 16 000 (15 100 in Niagara; 900 in Essex County) (553 vineyards)

Wine grape production: 29 000 tonnes

The vineyard areas of Ontario, where at least 80 per cent of Canadian vines are planted, are on roughly the same latitudes as France's Midi and Italy's Chianti Classico zones. But the climate, in terms of heat units and rainfall, is more akin to that of Burgundy. In most vintages Bordeaux-style red wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet/Merlot blends can be achieved, as well as flavourful Burgundian Pinot Noir and Gamay. Chardonnay and Riesling provide very drinkable to fine-quality white wines thanks to the warming mesoclimates provided by lakes Ontario and Erie and the frost-dispelling wine effect produced by the NIAGARA ESCARPMENT.

There are three viticultural areas in the province: Niagara Peninsula, Lake Erie North Shore and Pelee Island.

BRITISH COLUMBIA

 (VQA British Columbia, 1996)

Number of wineries: 45

Acres under vine: 2800 (132 vineyards)

Wine grape production: (1996) 6 102 tons (1995 8 018 tons)

The Okanagan Valley, where most of British Columbia's wineries and vineyards (96.5%) are located, is technically a desert. The southern part of the valley, which borders on Washington State, can have daytime temperatures that reach 35° Celsius with very cool nights. This valley is on the same latitude as Champagne and the Rheingau but, unlike these northerly European regions, the intense heat of summer, the lack of rainfall and the cool evenings require that the vines be irrigated.

Many lesser-known German varieties have been planted (Optima, Ehrenfelser, Kerner, Seigfried Rebe), as well as Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Bacchus and Auxerrois. Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, and Pinot Gris are producing top-flight wines. Red varieties include Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Marechal Foch and Syrah.

British Columbia has four viticultural areas: Okanagan Valley, Similkameen Valley, Fraser Valley and Vancouver Island.

The growth of vineyards and wineries since 1988 (the FREE TRADE agreement year) has been impressive, with 100-150 acres being planted every year, virtually all in Vitis vinifera. Major growth in the industry has affected both the estate wineries and the smaller, more site-specific farmgate operations.

QUÉBEC

Number of wineries: 28

Acres under vine: 220

Production: 330 tonnes (250 000-300 000 bottles per year)

Québec is the least likely of all Canadian wine regions. The centre of the province's small but enthusiastic winegrowing zone is the old town of Dunham. The wineries, for the most part strung out along the American border, have to battle the elements to produce wine for the tourist trade. During the winter months the vines have to be covered with earth by the method of back- ploughing to protect them from the fierce cold; they are uncovered by machine in the spring. Vines overlooked by the machines are uncovered by hand.

Average sunshine hours during the growing season in Dunham are 1150 (in Burgundy there are 1315; Niagara has 1426 and the Okanagan Valley 1423), but topographical features create highly localized warm spots that allow the hardiest vines to survive, if not flourish.

Québec's cottage wineries produce mainly white wines (80% white, 20% red), mostly very fresh Seyval Blanc. Vidal, Chardonnay, Riesling, Aurore, Cayuga, Ortega, Bacchus and the Geisenheim 318 clone are also grown. In reds, de Chaunac, Marechal Foch, Gamay, Cabernet Franc, Chancellor, Vidal Noir and Dornfelder are grown.

NOVA SCOTIA

Midway between the equator and the North Pole, Nova Scotia boasts two farm wineries and a total of 200 acres of vineyards which concentrate mainly on hybrids as well as unfamiliar Russian red grape varieties such as Michurinetz and Severnyi. The short growing season restricts the number of varieties that can be planted in the Annapolis Valley and Northumberland Strait. The major plantings are in L'Acadie, Vidal and Seyval in whites, Marechal Foch, De Chaunac and the above-mentioned Russian varieties in reds.

Much effort is being put into finding new early-ripening clones. Like Québec, Nova Scotia has yet to sign up under the Vintners Quality Alliance.

Awards

For close to a decade Canadian wines have begun to garner awards at important international wine festivals such as Vinexpo (held in Bordeaux, France, once every two years); Vinitaly (held yearly); and the International Wine Competition held once a year in London, England. The first important award won by a Canadian wine at an international festival was in 1991 when Inniskillin won the Prix d'Honneur award for its Vical Icewine 1989 at Vinexpo. Since then Ontario and BC wines have garnered many awards at international festivals. At the 1997 Vinexpo in Bordeaux, six Ontario wines won gold medals and the Konzelmann Estate Riesling Traminer Icewine 1995 received the Civart Trophy for wines deemed to be the very best among gold medal winners.

Wine festivals are now being organized in Canada, primarily attracting attention on a regional basis. The Okanagan Wine Festival, held annually in September and based in Kelowna, BC, is perhaps the most well known. Wine awards are also given by a host of organizations associated with wine marketing or with the tourism industry. Air Ontario, for example, gives awards each year in a number of categories for VQA wines made in Ontario, as does the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) through Cuvée, the annual celebration of Ontario wines held in March.

Issues for the Future

The mood of the Canadian wine industry is extremely upbeat, with new vineyards being planted in Ontario and British Columbia and new wineries opening apace. Growing sales at home and in the Far East have given added confidence to entrepreneurs who are investing in large projects that will attract tourists to the wine regions (see WINE TOURING). One reflection of the growing importance of the wine industry to the Canadian economy is the opening in the 1997/98 academic year of a cold-climate oenology course at Brock University in Ontario to encourage a new generation of Canadian winemakers.