Canada’s story of winemaking begins in 1535, when Jacques Cartier discovered wild grapes growing in abundance along the St. Lawrence River. Those grapes were put to good use once the sacramental wine brought into Canada by the Jesuits began to run out. It was not a commercial operation – more of a subsistence industry serving the devout and meeting their sacramental needs.
Winemaking in Ontario
Fast forward nearly three centuries, and we find Johann Schiller. A veteran of the 29th Regiment of Foot in Quebec, by 1811 he had relocated to the Niagara region of Ontario – a part of Canada that remains, to this day, one of two major regions for Canadian winemaking (the other being British Columbia).
Schiller is regarded by many as the father of Canada’s wine industry. He owned 400 acres of land in the Niagara region and planted wine grapes there. His experience as a winemaker in the Rhine helped speed the process along. Before long, he was producing his own vintages both from his own vineyards and from hybrid grapes imported from Pennsylvania.
Schiller’s winemaking days were cut tragically short just a few years later when he died in 1816. His surviving heirs did not share his winemaking vision so they sold the property at a profit and moved on.
In 1864, the same land was purchased by Justin de Courtenay, a French aristocrat who began vinting Gamay that was such good quality that it actually won a major award at the Paris Exposition in 1867. Mr. de Courtenay soon formed his own company named the Vine Growers Association and introduced his Clair House label. His winemaking operation eventually grew into the largest one in Ontario.
In 1875, George Burns established a winery in St. Catherines, Ontario, under the lengthy moniker of The Ontario Grape Growing and Wine Manufacturing Company Limited. The name was later truncated down to Barnes Wines. The company operated under that name until 1988.
In 1876, F.A. Shirriff and Thomas Bright established a winery in the city of Toronto called the Niagara Falls Wine Company. They soon moved the operation to Niagara Falls and changed the name to T.G Bright in 1911. Today, they still operate under the brand name Vincor Canada.
From the 1860s through the prohibition years, Ontario was the focal point of Canada’s wine industry. The winemakers there were innovators in the development of grapes and growing techniques to counter the harsh local weather. A significant result of that effort was the Niagara Grape: a hybrid crossing of Concord with Cassady. The first vines were harvested in 1882.
By 1890, Canada was home to 41 commercial wineries. The majority of them – 35 total – were in Ontario.
Winemaking in British Columbia
It was the Church that first encouraged planting vineyards in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley. Their enthusiasm was almost singularly responsible for fostering the art of winemaking in that region.
The earliest vineyards in British Columbia were established in the 1860s. Father Charles Pandosy of the Oblate Mission began producing fine-quality wines near Kelowna in the Okanagan Valley in the 1920s, but the first actual winery would not be established there until nearly a decade later. Pandosy was the first planter of apples and grapes in the Okanagan.
Modern Winemaking in Canada
Today, Canada is the global leader in the production of icewine. While other varieties are still produced in regions like British Columbia, Ontario, and Quebec, icewine leads Canadian wine production today by a wide margin.
History of Icewine
Icewine is a rich, exceptionally sweet dessert wine made from frozen grapes. Even though this method is well suited to Canada, it did not originate there. The tradition of crafting icewine has its roots in Germany and Austria, where it goes by the name “eiswein.” Today, most of the world’s icewine is vinted in British Columbia and Ontario.
Icewine is made from grapes that have been literally allowed to freeze on the vine. While legend has it that the discovery was accidental, the process actually concentrates the sugars in the grapes, intensifying the flavour of the juice. The grapes are pressed and the rich juice is allowed to ferment.
Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Vidal, and Cabernet Franc are all grapes that have been used to make icewine. Their high acidity levels produce a refreshing wine that is not too heavy or sticky. Today, winemakers throughout Canada are constantly experimenting with other varietals to test the quality of new vintages.