The earliest vineyards in Ontario date back as far as the 17th century C.E., when European settlers started experimenting with native grape varietals, like Riparia, Labrusca, and Vinifera. It wouldn’t be until 1866, however, that the region’s first commercial winery on Pelee Island would be established. Over the next three decades, wine became a flourishing industry in Ontario with approximately 35 commercial wineries being established by 1900.
It was around that year when the bulk of the region’s wine industry migrated out of Essex County and into the Niagara region. Niagara’s early wine industry was founded primarily on grape varieties that were native to the area or suitable for growing in the local climate.
When Vinifera grapes were brought to the region from Europe, problems arose quickly. They were found to be highly susceptible to disease and did not hold up well under humid conditions. Adding to the difficulty of producing good wines in the Niagara region was the fact that native varietals, such as Catawba, Concord, and Niagara, produced flavours that were somewhat unpleasant on the palate, even for less serious wine enthusiasts.
It took a good bit of effort and more than a little trial and error on the part of the region’s growers to produce vintages that had any real commercial value, but over time, they were able to produce grape varietals that could hold up to the climate as well as produce wines that were pleasing to the palate.
Prohibition and Winemaking in Ontario
In 1916, Prohibition was declared in Ontario and remained in place until 1927. While this could have signalled the end of the wine industry in the region, local wineries were allowed to continue production for the purpose of export. Not only were the existing wineries not forced to close, but the government also kept issuing licenses during prohibition, allowing several more to be established.
Ironically, it was only after the repeal of Prohibition that the Government of Ontario put a moratorium on new licenses. It was this, far more than Prohibition, that led to a decline in the wine industry there, and it would remain in place for well over four decades.
A New Beginning
By 1974, only six of the previous 61 wineries that had been operating in the province remained. The real turning point came in 1975, when the government ended the moratorium and began issuing licenses again for the first time since 1929. This change marked the start of a vibrant resurgence of Ontario’s winemaking industry.
As the industry bounced back, growers began developing new techniques to allow for better yields and higher-quality crops. They worked to improve trellising, canopy management, and yield controls that helped them grow more European grape varieties on a schedule that was more conducive for success. For the first time ever, growers and winemakers were able to respond to the demands of a changing market and produce wines that were more delicate and complex.
By the 1990s, the industry was back in full force, producing wines that were able to compete in the global arena. Today, Ontario is home to more than 180 wineries, which together produce approximately 71 percent of the wine made in Canada.
Niagara Wine Today
The Niagara Region lends itself well to growing cool-climate varieties, like Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Noir, Gamay Noir, and Cabernet Franc, along with a list of about 30 more varieties grown in smaller amounts throughout the region. Top-quality varietal wines and blends are now produced using grapes grown in the Niagara Region.
Possibly its biggest claim to fame, Ontario is the world leader in the production of Icewine. It is the only major winemaking region with a climate that is conducive to producing it in any vintage. The Niagara Peninsula boasts nearly 60 percent of the wineries in Ontario with a continuously thriving and ever-improving winemaking industry.