In honour of it being Ontario Wine Week (Yes, the Ontario Legislature made it official in 2005 when it passed the Ontario Wine Week Act that proclaims the third week in June as Ontario Wine Week), I thought I would write a little history about wine in the beautiful province of Ontario. I can’t think of a better or more delicious way to support our local economy than to buy and enjoy the excellent and award-winning wines produced in our own backyard. Yes, it’s time to discover the mouth-watering bounty that nature, along with a little help form the men and women who work in Ontario’s vineyards and wineries, can offer. Ontario, indeed Canadian, wine has come a long way in the last three or four decades. Remember Baby Duck, which incidentally, is still being produced? Well, Ontario is now also producing wines of quality that are turning heads in the rest of the world. Le Clos Jordanne, Claystone Terrace 2005 Chardonnay, from the Niagara Peninsula, recently won top prize in a tasting in Montreal where it was pitted against wines from California and the illustrious Burgundy region of France.
Wine has been made in Ontario for quite some time. It may be a surprise for you to hear that the first winery in Ontario was started in Cooksville by a German immigrant, Johann Schiller. Although his was not a commercial endeavour, he did make enough wine to supply his family and friends. In 1866, the first commercial vineyard and winery was established on Pelee Island and was called Vin Villa. Vin Villa’s first vintage release was 1871. In 1873 and 1874, the Barnes and Brights wineries were founded in the Niagara Peninsula. Then, in 1916 Prohibition was brought into law. However, instead of crippling the Ontario wine industry, Prohibition actually promoted it. Wine was the only beverage alcohol legal in Ontario as long as it was sold in bulk and from the winery. At the beginning of Prohibition, there were 10 wineries in Ontario, but by its long overdue demise in 1927, the number had jumped to 47 wineries. Still, the Temperance movement was concerned that the drink would erode society’s moral well-being so the LCBO (Liquor Control Board of Ontario) was instituted to regulate the production and private consumption of beverage alcohol, including wine. No new retail wine licences were issued. Large companies, such as Brights and Jordan, began buying up smaller wineries in order to take over their existing licences. During this time, the number of Ontario wineries was reduced to just eight. The quality of wine was poor as most wines were made using the inferior quality labrusca grapes. The Concord grape was king.
Things looked pretty grim for Ontario wines until 1974 when a man named Donald Ziraldo and his business partner, Karl Kaiser, were granted the first winery licence since Prohibition. Their goal was to make high quality wines from locally grown grapes. Their winery, Inniskillin Wines, was founded and tha ball started rolling. Soon after, many other wineries with similar goals began to spring up: Chateau des Charmes, Newark (now Hillebrand), Reif Estates, Vineland Estates, Cave Spring Cellars, Collio Estates, Henry of Pelham, Konzelmann Estates, and others. The list continues to grow today. As of 2007, there were over 130 wineries in Ontario.
The year 1988 proved to be a significant year for winemaking, not just in Ontario but within the entire country. Canada entered into the North American Free Trade Agreement which lifted tariffs on imported wine that had previously protected the Canadian wine industry. Many thought this was the end of Canadian wine. On the contrary, it actually turned out to be a new beginning. Canadian winemakers knew they had to create a product that would be able to hold its own in terms of quality against the onslaught of imported wines flowing into the country. Inferior grape varieties were pulled out and many vineyards were replanted with the higher quality vinifera varieties. Modern viticultural and winemaking techniques were employed and the wines of Canada, particularly British Columia and Ontario, began to improve.
That same year, the Vintner’s Quality Alliance was formed in Ontario to help promote Ontario wines. At first it was a voluntary organization, but then, in 1999, the VQA Act was passed by the legislature of Ontario making VQA Ontario the designated wine authority. There are now legal consequences for violating the VQA Act. Wines carrying the VQA label must meet several criteria. Most importantly, VQA wines from Ontario must be made from 100% Ontario grown grapes and may only be made from vitis vinifera grapes or an approved list of hybrids (ie: Baco Noir, Vidal). All VQA wines must undergo laboratory testing and must have passed a tasting panel to enusre the wines are typical for what they claim to be. The distinctive VQA logo can be found either on the neck of the bottle or on the back label. If you can’t find the logo, but the wine simply says “Cellared in Canada”, or “Product of Canada”, then the wines is probably a blend of grapes imported from such places as Chile or California with some local grapes thrown in. So, if you’re looking for a truly Ontario wine then look for the VQA logo on the bottle.
There are four Designated Viticultural Areas (DVAs) for you to explore in Ontario. DVAs are recognized regions where wines of quality are made. They are the Niagara Peninsula, Lake Erie North Shore, Pelee Island, and the most recent area to gain DVA status, Prince Edward County.
Some Ontario wineries are huge operations, producing a million bottles or more of wine a year, and some are much smaller enterprises, producing only a few hundred cases. Most are open to the public and have tasting rooms where you can sample and buy their products with knowledgeable staff to answer your questions. Some of the larger wineries even have public tours where you are shown around the winery and told about how wine is made.
Ontario wines can be purchased directly from the winery. Many wineries have wine clubs, and if you are a member, you can receive a selection of wines every month or two. There is also the Winery to Home program where a variety of wines from different wineries are sent to your home. This can be a great way to sample many of the great wines Ontario has to offer. Of course, you can also purchase many Ontario wines at LCBO stores throughout the province.
You’ll discover a huge range of styles to suit every taste. Ontario produces world class wines from Riesling, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Noir, Gamay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot, just to name a few. The styles range from dry table wines all the way to the sweet nectar of the Gods, Icewine. So, have fun when discovering the wines of Ontario and to celebrate your discovery, why not enjoy a sparkling glass fo fine Ontario bubbly?
Leave a comment to let me know what great Ontario wines you have discovered.