- Q & A
It's hard to believe that Canada has a thriving wine industry with over 24,000 acres of vines. The main growing areas are Ontario, British Columbia, Quebec and Nova Scotia. Grapes are almost exclusively grown near large bodies of water to moderate the effects of the weather. The Canadians have also put their emphasis on vinifera vine varieties. Riesling and Chardonnay are particularly important in Ontario while Pinot Blanc and Merlot are specialities of British Columbia. In warm pockets Viognier, Syrah, and Petite Sirah can be found and some success has been recorded with Cabernets and Pinot Noir in warmer years.
Perhaps the most notable accomplishment has been the consistently high quality of sweet wines produced here, especially ice wine, late harvest Riesling, Vidal, Ehrenfelser, and Optima. Now producing more than 50,000 cases a year, Canada is the world's largest producer of Icewine, primarily due to the consistent temperatures of 16° F that can be relied upon each winter.
The Canadian wine industry dates from the early 19th century when retired German corporal, Johann Schiller, domesticated the labrusca vines. He planted a 20-acre vineyard along the Credit river west of Toronto. In 1866 the country's first major winery was established on Pelee Island on Lake Erie. By 1890 there were 41 commercial wineries across the country, 35 in Ontario.
Prohibition hit Canada in 1916. Unlike the US, however, it was actually a boon to the wine trade. Wine was exempted from the scourge accounting for 57 new wineries being founded in Ontario by the time it ended in 1927, six years before the failed experiment ended in the US.
Unfortunately, the prohibitionist spirit was still alive because that same year The Liquor Board was created which sold alcohol and collected millions of dollars in tax revenues as it does today.
Things began to normalize in 1974 when Inniskillin, near Niagara Falls, was granted the first commercial winery licence since Prohibition. The wineries that followed in Ontario and British Columbia were dedicated to satisfying the new found taste for dryer wines. Inniskillin has continued to make oustanding wines, proving that vinifera vines could survive the worst of Canadian winters.
The major concentration of Canadian vineyards is on the same latitude as the Languedoc and Chianti, but polar temperatures and unpredictable weather at harvest rank Canada as a cool climate wine region.
While some of Canada's vineyards may enjoy hotter summers than either Bordeaux or Burgundy, the growing season tends to be shorter. According to one estimate, average sunshine hours during the growing season are 1,430 in Niagara, Ontario; 1,420 in British Columbia's Okanagan Valley; and 1,150 in Dunham, Quebec. As a comparison, Burgundy averages 1,320.
Ontario is Canada's largest wine province. It boasts over 60 wineries and over 18,000 acres of vineyards. It has a climate similar to the Finger Lakes region in New York state, ameliorated by two bodies of water, Lakes Ontario and Erie. The major concentration of vineyards around the Niagara Peninsula is further protected by an Ice Age lake. This bluff above the vineyards encourages onshore air drainage which dissipates fog and minimizes frost damage.
Ontario produces excellent Rieslings in the Kabinett to Beerenauslese range as well as impressive Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc and Merlot in warm years. Good to excellent Pinot Noir has been made at Inniskillin in concert with the house of Jaffelin in Burgundy. Other successful grape varieties include Grüner Veltliner and Pinot Grigio.
Hybrids still play a significant role, however, especially Vidal, treasured for its Icewine which can easily be on a par with the finest German versions.
British Columbia houses 55 wineries and 4,000 acres. It is much nearer to the vineyards of Washington state than any other Canadian wine region. It is centred on the arid Okanagan Valley in the south east of British Columbia where the deep Okanagan Lake warms the vineyards in winter. The southern part of the valley is just across the border from Washington's Columbia Valley and is influenced by the same dry and warm conditions that Washington enjoys. As the district spreads North, however, the influence of the Arctic becomes greater and makes grape ripening more of a challenge.
Quebec's 330 acres houses 30 wineries. The wineries found primarily along the American border. Despite the low temperatures, there are a few warm spots that allow the hardiest vines to survive, if not flourish. Quebec's cottage wineries produce lighter-styled white wines from Seyval Blanc, Vidal, Chardonnay, and Riesling grapes.
Midway between the equator and the North Pole, Nova Scotias four wineries and 150 acres concentrate mainly on hybrids. The short growing season severly limits the number of varieties that can be planted with the most successful being Vidal, Seyval Blanc and Marechal Foch.