For the Canadian wine industry, spring 1999 was a heady time indeed.
First, in late April, the Ontario government passed legislation that would make it easier for the province’s wineries to market their products abroad. Six weeks later, Brock university in St. Catharines, Ont., opened Inniskillin Hall, home to Canada’s first degree-granting programs in winemaking and grape growing. Throughout the spring, Canadian wineries picked up prizes in international competitions.
The latest available figures, from 1997, showed that the 42 wineries tracked by Statistics Canada and Industry Canada employed 1,377 people and had annual sales totalling $480 million. When newer wineries and those making wines from other fruits were taken into account, the number of wineries in Canada in spring 1999 approached 100.
Wineries have existed in Canada for more than 130 years. Retired German soldier Johann Schiller was distilling wine in Cooksville, Ont., as early as 1811, and three “gentlemen farmers” from Kentucky opened the now long-gone Vin Villa on Pelee Island in Lake Erie in 1866. But early Canadian winemakers used a native species of grape, vitis labrusca, that produced “foxy” wines. “Foxy” is winespeak for products with a musky taste that connoisseurs disdain.
For hundreds of years, Europeans had been using another species of grape altogether, vitis vinifera, which includes well-known varieties such as Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Early North American settlers tried to plant vinifera vines here, but to their frustration the plants quickly withered and died. The culprit was, a tiny louse called phylloxera, native to North America but unknown in Europe. So farmers concentrated on labrusca vines. Eventually, researchers developed hybrids of European and North American varieties, and grafted European varieties onto North American rootstock. Both of these techniques resulted in vines that were better able to resist phylloxera. Canadian wineries began cautious experiments with these new vines in the 1950s, says Dr. Andy Reynolds, an associate professor at Brock University’s new Cool Culture oenology and Viticulture institute, CCOVI. But, he explains, efforts didn’t begin in earnest until the 1970s.
In 1973, Andrés Baby Duck was the wine that defined the Canadian industry. Sugary and bubbly, it accounted for one out of every 24 bottles of wine sold in Canada that year and spawned a host of imitators with animal names. Linda Franklin, executive director of the Wine Council of Ontario, laughingly calls it the “zoological” era of the wine industry.
Then Donald Ziraldo and Karl Kaiser happened to meet.
Ziraldo was running his family’s nursery in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. Kaiser, an enthusiastic amateur winemaker, dropped into Ziraldo’s nursery to buy some French hybrid grapevines. The two began talking about their, mutual admiration for good wine, and in 1975 they received one of the first winery licences issued by the Ontario government since Prohibition. Within a decade, other wine-makers interested in making European-style wines in Canada opened small wineries, mainly in Ontario and British Columbia.
About 80 per cent of Canada’s wines are made from grapes grown on 5,800 hectares in three regions of southwestern Ontario: the Niagara Peninsula, Pelee island and the north shore of Lake Erie. Much of the rest comes from four regions of British Columbia: the Okanagan Valley, the Similkameen Valley, the Fraser Valley and Vancouver Island. Small wine industries also exist in Quebec and Nova Scotia.
The two largest wine areas–the Okanagan Valley and the Niagara Peninsula–couldn’t seem more different at first glance. The dry Okanagan Valley is technically a desert and has to be irrigated to produce grapes; the Niagara Peninsula has a humid continental climate, with plenty of rain. However, both areas have unique traits that make them eminently suited to growing wine grapes. In the Niagara Peninsula, the prime winery region is wedged into a narrow strip of land between Lake Ontario and the heights of the Niagara Escarpment, a ridge that was once the shore of an ancient lake. Water cools more slowly than land does, so when the land is cooler than the water, a warm breeze blows off the lake. The Escarpment deflects that warm breeze over the land, creating a mild microclimate in the peninsula that makes it possible to grow grapes.
In British Columbia, a similar combination of water and high land has created good growing conditions. Lake Okanagan, which winds through the Okanagan Valley for more than 100 kilometres, moderates the hot summer temperatures and keeps the grapes from freezing too early in the fall.
Although the climatic conditions for making European-style wines clearly existed, many wineries in the early 1980s had little incentive to stop making inexpensive, labrusca-based, wines, which were protected by high markups. The industry was making some effort to promote its fine wines to wine enthusiasts. For instance, Ontario’s Wine Route, a, signed route linking the province’s three major wine areas, was launched in the mid- 1980s. However, it looked as though it would be decades before vinifera wines made significant inroads into the Canadian industry.
Then the Canada-United States Free Trade Agreement, FTA, came along.
Under the FTA and a subsequent deal under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, Canada had to gradually phase out the tariffs and markups it used to protect its wines. Governments and wineries scrambled to respond to the impending threat, which would take hold after the FTA came into effect Jan. 1, 1989.
In 1988, the Ontario government limited the use of labrusca grapes in Ontario wines. The federal, Ontario and British Columbia governments also funded a massive “pullout” of labrusca vines, giving wineries funding to replace them with vinifera ones. At the same time, a number of Canadian wineries voluntarily adopted the Vintners Quality Alliance, VQA, appellation system. Most wine industries in other countries have a similar system for fine wines, as opposed to table wines. The systems specify which region a particular wine comes from and which variety of grape was used to make it, among other factors. Tasters test the resulting wines to ensure they have the taste and aroma normally associated with that region and variety. These appellation systems are basically a guarantee to consumers, ensuring them that what they see on the label is what they get.
However, the VQA system didn’t get much respect internationally. Wine industries in other countries–particularly members of the European Union–contended that the voluntary, industry-run system didn’t have the credibility of an independent, government-run system. This frustrated Canadian winemakers, who had intentionally set their standards higher than those in other parts of the world. VQA taste testers rejected up to 100,000 cases a year, far more than tasters do in other countries, points out Peter Gamble, executive director of VQA Canada, the national umbrella organization.
International wine lovers weren’t the only ones who were skeptical. Many Canadians in the early 1990s still thought of domestic wines as sweet, bubbly confections–not nearly as sophisticated as the Chardonnays and Cabernets from France and California that they had learned to appreciate.
When the Wine Council of Ontario decided to launch a promotional campaign in the early 1990s, it commissioned a poll to find out what Canadians thought of the product. “The polling pretty much told us what we expected it would: That people thought we made wine that was relatively inexpensive… but not of particularly high quality and not the kind of wine they would ever take to a friend’s house,” says Franklin.
Deborah Pratt, public relations director at Inniskillin Wines of Niagara-on-the-Lake, says it was very important at first for Canadian wineries to enter international competitions in order to earn Canadian consumers’ respect. “It’s the same as actors and everybody else–you have to go somewhere else to get endorsements.”
The Canadian wine industry got the mother of all endorsements at the biennial Vinexpo wine fair in Bordeaux, France. The festival is the wine world’s version of the Olympics. In 1991, Inniskillin’s Vidal icewine 1989 walked away with the fair’s Grand Prix d’Honneur.
Icewine is produced from grapes that are allowed to freeze on the vine before they are harvested. This process concentrates the sugars in the grapes, resulting in a uniquely rich dessert wine. While Icewine is made in several other coolclimate wine countries, Canada is one of the few places where producers are virtually guaranteed winters cold enough to produce the wine.
It is an expensive, high-risk product to make. It takes one kilogram of frozen grapes to make just one bottle of Icewine, and everything from storms to hungry birds can threaten the fragile crop before it freezes enough to be harvested. The harvest itself is no picnic; the grapes have to be hand-picked and pressed in freezing conditions. No wonder the stuff costs as much as $50 a half-bottle.
Walter Hainle of Hainle Vineyards in Peachland, B.C., made Canada’s first icewine as a special gift for family and friends in 1973. Today, Canada is the world’s largest producer of icewine, with more than 20 wineries at least dabbling in the game. Gamble says production has soared in the last decade from 5,000 cases a year to 150,000, with the product enjoying particular success in Asia where it sold for $200 a half-bottle before the current Asian economic crisis.
Oh, the irony. Our cold weather, which many had feared would make a viable fine wine industry impossible in this country, has been the lynchpin of our international success. Our wines win awards abroad, but Canadian wineries export just 1.7 per cent of their product, largely due to trade restrictions. In particular, the European Union restricts wine imports from any country that doesn’t have a government-run appellation of origin system. Currently, the EU severely limits imports of Canadian wines, even though EU members sell $300 million worth of wine in Canada every year.
While Canadian consumers buy virtually all of our domestic wines, it is worth noting that domestic wines account for less than half of all Canadian wine purchases. In Australia, Italy, Portugal and Spain, domestic wines have captured more than 95 per cent of the market. In France, the U.S. and New Zealand, the figures hover around 85 per cent. Clearly, there is room to expand Canadian wines’ market share at home.
Our wine industry is also much smaller than those in most other wine-producing countries. In 1996, the value of all the wine produced commercially in Canada totalled just five per cent of the value of the American industry’s production. “With the quantities of wine we’re producing in Canada, we really don’t need to look for large U.S. markets,” says Reynolds. “The domestic market is, for the most part, sufficient.”
Prices for domestic wine vary, but winemakers are quick to point out that Canadian VQA wines are less expensive than European wines of comparable quality. For example, a 750-ml. bottle of Canadian Riesling sells for between $10 and $11, while a 750-ml. bottle of German Riesling costs more than $15.
In addition, the Canadian wine industry will eventually be limited by geography. Wine grapes grow best between 30 degrees and 50 degrees latitude in both the northern and southern hemispheres. When you consider that Canada’s southernmost point, Pelee Island, lies at 41 degrees north latitude, and that all of western Canada lies above the 49th parallel, it’s evident that most of our land isn’t even in contention. Add requirements for soils, days of sunshine and other factors, and the number of regions that meet the criteria for making wine becomes even smaller.
However, despite the current and potential size of the industry, Canadian wineries still need to diversify their markets–no business likes to put all its eggs in just a few baskets. And in April 1999, the Ontario government gave the wineries a helping hand. It passed the Vintners Quality Alliance Act, taking the responsibility for regulating the VQA systerm in Ontario. Gamble sees this as a very, positive step toward a national appellation of origin system, which would open the EU and other countries to Canadian wines.
Awards and appellation systems are two routes to international respect in the wine industry; educational institutions are another. Many of the great “New World” winemaking areas have a nearby university offering degrees in oenology–the study of wines–and viticulture–the science of cultivating grapes. But until recently, there wasn’t a single university in the northern hemisphere that offered degrees in cool-climate viticulture.
In 1995, winemakers and grape growers began working with Brock University to develop the CCOVI. Two years later, the institute’s first 22 students enrolled in the four-year degree program.
Franklin, whose organization helps fund the institute, says the CCOVI is a definite plus for the Canadian wine industry. “I think it’s the next step in our growth as a serious wine region,” she says. As well as providing a focus for research, the institute means that small, family-run wineries “don’t have to send their sons and daughters to Australia to learn how to make wine. They can do it at home, in our growing conditions.”
The institute also builds credibility for Canada’s wine industry, adds Pratt. “It very clearly sends out a message to people. If there’s a four-year degree course in your own backyard, for this so-called new industry, it must mean that this industry has got a major future ahead of it.”
The institute’s permanent home, Inniskillin Hall, opened June 11, 1999. “It is the most modern facility in the world devoted to grape and wine education and research,” says Bill Cade, dean of mathematics and science at Brock University, who helped get the project off the ground. Along with classrooms and labs, the building houses a wine library that will preserve bottles of Canadian wine for use by researchers.
As well as granting four-year degrees, the institute offers certificate programs for people already working in the wine industry, and continuing education courses in things like wine tasting for the general public. The fact that wine-tasting courses even exist would have been unthinkable in Canada 30 years ago.
The Liquor Control Board of Ontario has six Vintages boutiques specializing in rare wines and other hard-to-find spirits. It has also opened a series of luxurious liquor stores, such as a new 7,100-square-foot outlet in Burlington, Ont., that offers shoppers wine appreciation classes and cooking demonstrations, along with a huge selection of wines. “I think people are generally more sophisticated in their wine consumption habits than they were even a decade ago,” says Franklin.
All this interest in wine has led to a whole new sideline for Canadian wineries: Tourism.
“Things have just really grown,” says Tom Boyd, a public relations consultant with Ontario Tourism. He explains that, 15 years ago, a visitor might be able to tour a winery, but that would be the extent of the experience.
Now, when people come to wine country, they come to see more than a winery, adds Boyd. “The winery is the central focus, but all the food and accommodation and the antique shops…are an indication of the increased interests of tourists.”
Today, visitors to wine country can enjoy everything from summer concerts to winter skating parties. Several wineries have even made the gruelling harvest of icewine grapes into a festive event for the hardy visitor.
The combination of fine wines, fine food, pretty country inns and cultural activities has been drawing increasing numbers of tourists. For instance, some 350,000 visitors troop through Ontario’s wine country annually. “We see about 150,000 people a year,” says Inniskillin’s Pratt, whose winery has set up a selfguided tour so that people don’t have to travel around the site in large packs. “Nobody believes me when I tell them there are 15 to 25 buses a day….”
If you’d like to tour a winery yourself, there are a number of sources of information. The third edition of Tony Aspler’s classic guide to Canadian wine hits bookstores this month. Published by McGraw-Hill Ryerson, the book is titled Vintage Canada. It includes the addresses, phone numbers and hours of scores of wineries across Canada, including companies making wine from fruits other than grapes.
For a map of the Ontario Wine Route and other information on the province’s wineries, you can contact the Wine Council of Ontario at 1-888-5-WINERY or–if you have access to the Internet–check out http://www.wineroute.com. For information on British Columbia’s wineries, contact the British Columbia Wine Institute at 1-800-661-2294. You can reach the Okanagan Wine Festivals at 1-250-861-6654 or online at http://www.owfs.com. There’s also a good listing of B.C. winery events online at http://bcadventure.com/bcwines/bc wineries.h