Drink Canada - A Brief History of Ontario Wines

Sep 7, 2009

Growing up in St.Catharines, I hardly paid any attention to the surrounding wine country of the Niagara Region (I was a kid, c’mon). My main brushes with wine came through the Grape and Wine Festival Parade and family drives through Virgil, Vineland and Niagara-on-the-Lake. On our way to our cousins’ in the countryside, we passed the vineyards of Chateau des Charmes countless times. Watching the vines whip pass, I’d get hypnotized by the speed at which they flew across my vision. The visual effect intoxicated me long before I drank any of their wines.

While living in Victoria, British Columbia, I started work in a local liquor store at a mall near UVIC. (Unlike Ontario, B.C. has allowed a large portion of private liquor stores to open). The owners were half-Swiss Italian and were passionate about their cuisine and their Chianti. Besides learning about their favourites, I found myself drinking some of the local whites from up-island wineries such as Echo Valley, Zanata and Blue Grouse. Not only did I find these wines from Duncan and Chemainus surprisingly good but I suddenly realized I had fallen in love with wine and wondered how I came to discover it thousands of miles from my home, the Niagara heartland of vines.

After living in both Victoria and North Vancouver, I studied at the Art Institute, worked in both the hospitality and retail industry, and taught wine seminars. After a family visit back East, I decided to come back to St.Catharines and appreciate the land and region I had taken for granted all these years. I dedicate this entry to the many wine producers, past and present, who have developed the industry here and maintain such high standards of quality.

There is an obvious difference between grape growing and wine making though the two are immeasurably linked. Native grapes (vitis labrusca) have long grown wild in our prestigious province well before borders were established, settlers set their homesteads and cities built. However, there is little evidence to suggest that native peoples used these grapes to make wine. It was only with the arrival of European pioneers do we see the faint beginnings of a wine industry. These souls, simply looking for a new way of life, first brought wine, beer and spirits to North America before attempting to make them in their new backyards.

Shipping wine across the Atlantic proved too costly for many families. The rich could afford this luxury but some attempted to use the indigenous labrusca grapes to make wine either for daily consumption or for religious purposes.

By the 1700s, grapes were being agriculturally grown and used throughout the North Eastern United States to make wine. Early Ontarians were not only of British descent but many came from France, Germany, Holland and neighboring New England. The vines were principally native and wine made from Concord and Catawba were most likely the norm. Many wine makers, including Thomas Jefferson in Virginia became frustrated with the poor results of growing vinifera varieties (i.e. Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay).

In Ontario, we don’t have an iconic figure like California’s Agoston Haraszthy, often considered the Father of the state’s wine industry. Perhaps the closest figure we have is Johann Schiller, a German immigrant who made wine in what is today Mississauga. We know very little about him, other than he came from a military background, that he gathered wild grapes from the banks of the Credit River, that he planted a vineyard with local varieties and cultivated hybrids. As Rod Phillips suggests in the Wines of Ontario, there is “no evidence he was a model or inspiration to others”.

It is only until the 1860s do we take a significant and historical step forward and see some true progress towards our idea of an Ontarian wine industry. Count Justin de Courtenay purchased Schiller’s land and in 1864 set up a Vine Growers’ Association. De Courtenay was a writer of agricultural pamphlets and a founder of Chateau Clair winery, well known for its large annual production of some 20,000 gallons of wine (the equivalent of 10,000 cases, far exceeding the amount of most modest wineries in the province).

In 1866, just a year before Confederation, in southwestern Ontario, Thaddeus Smith and two other associates from Kentucky planted 10 hectares (25 acres) of labrusca vines on Pelee Island, later establishing Vin Villa. The grapes were sold to wineries in Ohio and in the province by 1871.

The last few decades saw an interesting growth of entrepreneurs in the wine industry with wineries popping up around St.Catharines, Niagara Falls, and Branford.

By 1900, 4,500 hectares (11,250 acres) of vine land were planted in Ontario. There were approximately three dozen wineries in Niagara and five dozen in North Shore Lake Erie.

As I mentioned, many of the grapes used to make wine here were vitis labrusca. Pick up some store-bought grape juice, add an ounce of vodka and you might have some idea how these wines tasted (or simply buy Manishevitz Kosher wine for $6.99 at the LCBO). Niagara (a cross between Concord and Cassady – another labrusca variety) was used to make white wines (and still is today) and Concord for many red wines (over two-thirds of New York State are planted with labrusca varieties to make Welch’s Grape Juice and jelly).

The reason many native varieties were used instead of the superior wine grapes of vinifera is simply because they could survive. Whereas Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and other vinifera varieties succumbed to pests, to the pesky phylloxera, (a root-eating aphid), diseases and Ontario winters, the native varieties, Concord, Catawba and Niagara managed just fine.

After Prohibition (1916 to 1927 - a time during which wine was thankfully legal as opposed to beer and spirits, unlike in the United States where the California wine industry experienced a major setback), there was a switch from labrusca to Hybrid varieties. A Hybrid is a cross between two different grapes of two different species, i.e. between vitis labrusca and vitis vinefera (whereas a Crossing is a cross between two grapes within the same species i.e. Pinotage, a South African grape whose parents are vitis vinifera Cincault and Pinot Noir). By the 1950s and ‘60s, the Niagara Peninsula wine producers began to make the switch over to Baco Noir, Seyval Blanc, Vidal and Marechal Foch. Labrusca varieties still remained in the market (and to this day although they make up a tiny portion of the wine market).

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, many countries throughout the world began to move towards a higher standard of wine production. Before that, for many decades, wine makers in California, Spain, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada attempted to make cheap imitations of French wines. Chablis is made from Chardonnay but a California ‘Chablis’ was often a sweet blend of cheaper white grapes. Producers attempted to woo their customers with ‘European sounding’ names – Alpenweiss, Toscana, Red Burgundy and Wunderbar.

(For many of our parent’s generation, the baby boomers found themselves drinking the infamous Baby Duck, a sparkling wine made from Concord!)

This period of mediocre mainstream wine had to go. The worldwide leaders of quality sprouted up individually, synchronistically to some degree and included Robert Mondavi Jr. in Calfornia, Miguel Torres in Spain and Wolfgang Blass in Australia.

Here in Ontario, it was more of a duo.

Donald Ziraldo met Karl Kaiser, a native of Austria in the mid 1970s. The two knew each other through Ziraldo’s nursery. Ziraldo had just received his degree in agriculture from the University of Guelph while Kaiser had a degree in chemistry from Brock University and played around with home winemaking. One ‘fateful day’ as Ziraldo puts in his book, Anatomy of a Winery, Kaiser came to the nursery with some French hybrid grapevines and later a bottle of wine. Perhaps lost in the wake of the wine, they dreamt of their own winery and decided to apply for a wine license.

With the help of General George Kitching, Chairman of the LCBO who also shared the two men’s vision, they were issued a license (the first since 1929) and Inniskillin was born.

Inniskillin led the new wave, shortly followed by Newark (now Hillebrand), Colio Estates, Pelee Island Winery, Reif Estates (just down the road from Inniskillin), Konzelmann Estate and Henry of Pelham.

It was also about this time that Icewine put Canada on the world-wide wine map. Pelee Island and Hillebrand had produced icewine in 1983 but it was Inniskillin who helped win our first wine awards in France. (Kaiser’s 1983 crop was a feast for the birds apparently… it was a lesson learned as Karl believed they didn’t need netting to protect the vines. As Debi Pratt, Public Relations Manager at Inniskillin recalled: “Early in the morning, Karl came in and asked us when we had picked the ice wine grapes. He thought we had finished the harvest. We told him we didn’t touch the grapes. He then realized we should have used netting.”)

The advances in the sciences and study of wine making were also an immediate boon to our local industry as wine producers learned what varieties to plant, how to maintain them and what to look out for. It was around this time that vitis vinifera varieties started to take root.

When the Canadian government entered into the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with the United States in 1989, local wineries were deeply affected. “Together with other trade rules, it cut away at the preferential treatment and pricing of Canadian wines in provincial liquor stores,” writes Rod Phillips. “Ontario wines would have to compete on a level playing field with wines from California and elsewhere.”

The Ontario government, however did compensate and provided $50 million to growers to uproot inferior varieties. Ontario is said to have lost 20% of vines but there was an increase in vinifera plantings.

Around the same time, the Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA) was founded, setting a new standard for the emerging industry. The VQA assured customers that wine came not only from a specific appellation (i.e. Niagara-on-the-Lake, Jordan, Beamsville) but assured variety (85% of the wine made from that specified on the label), vintage and overall quality. If a wine producer indicated a particular sub-appellation or vineyard site, the wine must be exclusively made with the grape grown there.

During the 1990s and 2000s, the number of wineries increased substantially and newcomers like Daniel Lenko Estate, Palatine Hills, Tawse, Stratus, Fielding Estate, and 13th Street have all contributed to making Ontario wines world renowned. In 1996, Brock University opened the Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute (CCOVI) in partnership with the Wine Council of Ontario (WCO) and the Ontario Grape Growers Marketing Board, now the Grape Growers of Ontario (GGO).

I have to stress this: if you’ve been in the LCBO recently and you see a section called ‘Cellared in Canada’, this means the wines are not completely made with Ontario fruit. Most likely there is nothing of Ontario in these wines. If you’re buying a white label Jackson Triggs without a vintage date, you are buying a wine made with imported juice. For many local wineries, especially boutique-size, this is a strong issue as it undermines the direction and achievements of many Ontarian grape growers and wine makers. As devoted wine buyers, we are better off supporting the true local wines. In a time when many Ontario grape growers are struggling, these ‘Cellared in Canada’ wines do not truly represent Canada.

If we want to see future wineries develop and our present wine producers flourish, we need to focus on the craftsmanship of their products. For this history to continue, let’s support the legacy and enjoy Ontarian wines that are so easy to love.

Phillips, Rod, Ontario Wine Country. North Vancouver, WhiteCap Books, 2006.
Phillips, Rod, A Short History of Wine.
Ziraldo, Donald J.P. Anatomy of a Winery: The Art of Wine at Inniskillin. Toronto, Key Porter Books, 1995.


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My focus is mainly on wine culture, history and education. I love the stories behind wine - the people, places and the regional personalities of the wine-countries around the world.

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