Wine has been made in Canada for some time – longer than most people think. Winemaking practices were brought to this country with the arrival of the first European immigrants. In 1866, the first commercial winery, called Vin Villa, was established on Pelee Island, but for a long time it was believed that vitis vinifera, the European grape varieties that we are most familiar with today, would not be able to survive the harsh Canadian winters, so grape growers and winemakers relied on indigenous grape varieties, such as Concord and Niagara, and a few hardy hybrids. Most of the wine was quite mediocre and much was fortified.
Fast forward to 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, mostly vinifera. Their winery, Inniskillin, was founded and tha ball started rolling. Soon after, many other wineries with similar goals began to appear: Chateau des Charmes, Newark (now Hillebrand), Reif Estates, St Urbanshof (now Vineland Estates), Cave Spring Cellars, Collio Estates, Pelee Island Winery, Henry of Pelham, Konzelmann Estates, and others. The list continues to grow today. As of this year there are 123 wineries making VQA wine in Ontario.
In 1988, the Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA) was established in Ontario to help promote the province’s wine. At first it was a voluntary organization, but 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 Act. VQA (Vintners Quality Alliance) Ontario is the province’s wine authority making sure the consumer gets authentic wine made in the regions indicated on the bottle.
Sense of Place
Wines bearing the VQA logo come from specific appellations, or wine regions, called Designated Viticultural Areas (DVAs). The appellations indicate a sense of ‘place’ or, what the French call, “terroir”. Although there is no direct English translation for this French term, “terroir” can be thought of, very simply, as the whole natural environment of a vineyard site. It refers to the soil, topography, climate, and even grape varieties and viticultural practices. The various types and combinations of each of these factors is unique to each site and is believed to contribute to the flavours, aromas, and style of the wine. The terroir of a particular place cannot be replicated elsewhere.
The so-called “Old World” wine producing nations in Europe have been talking about terroir for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Canada has really only been making quality wine for the last three or four decades and it takes time to discover what different pieces of land can contribute to a wine. The recent addition of the sub-appellations in the Niagara Peninsula is an indication that differences in terroir are being recognized. VQA Ontario describes sub-appellations as being “identified after a lengthy technical study identifying common and unique traits related to geology, soils, topography, climate and growing conditions” (vqaontario.ca). Canadian winemakers and viticulturalists are also beginning to identify the unique characteristics of even smaller parcels of land (ie: single vineyard sites), and we’re seeing more and more single vineyard names printed on wine labels.
In Ontario, there are four Designated Viticultural Areas (DVAs) that may be named on the label of VQA wine: Niagara Peninsula, Lake Erie North Shore, Pelee Island, and Prince Edward County. Within the Niagara Peninsula there are two Regional Appellations: Niagara-on-the-Lake and Niagara Escarpment. The 10 sub-appellations of the Niagara Peninsula are:
- Beamsville Bench
- Creek Shores
- Four Mile Creek
- Lincoln Lakeshore
- Niagara Lakeshore
- Niagara River
- Short Hills Bench
- St. David’s Bench
- Twenty Mile Bench
- Vinemount Ridge
There are standards and regulations that a wine must meet in order for it to be designated as VQA. The wine must be made entirely from grapes grown in the specific appellation named on the label, and they must be produced to a set of production standards. The wine must also pass a taste test by a panel of trained tasters. The grapes used must be vitis vinifera varieties or from an approved list of hybrids, such as Baco Noir and Vidal. The ripeness level of the grapes at harvest, winemaking techniques, labelling, and sensory and chemical criteria of the finished wine are also strictly regulated.
From April 1, 2010 to March 31, 2011, 2,295,362 nine litre cases of VQA wine were produced in Ontario. Over 93% was still table wine, 3% was Icewine, and just 2.5% was sparkling, but it’s interesting to note that the production of sparkling wine increased 197% in the last year (there are some excellent Ontario sparkling wines out there). Chardonnay is the top producing VQA varietal wine at 20% of total production with Riesling a close second at 17%. Cabernet Franc is the top producing red variety at 11% of total production, followed by Merlot at 10%. Vidal, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Noir are all tied for 5th place at 6% of total production. (All stats are from the VQA Annual Report 2011 which can be found at the VQA Ontario Resources Library).
Cellared in Canada
While wines bearing the VQA symbol are a guarantee that the grapes are 100% from the DVA named on the label, wines that are simply labelled as ‘Cellared in Canada’ are made mostly of bulk wine imported from such places as Chile or California. In Ontario, wineries producing this type of wine are required to use at least 30% domestic wine in the blend. The term ‘Cellared in Canada’ can be very misleading for consumers as many believe they are purchasing 100% Canadian wine, when in fact, they are not.
In order to be sure that you are purchasing wine produced from 100% Ontario grown grapes, look for the distinctive VQA logo (see above) either on the neck of the bottle or the back label. Only then will you be guaranteed that the wine is truly made from Ontario grapes.