Canadian Wine and the Rise of Vinifera



In the grand scheme of things, the Canadian wine industry is merely an infant. I mean, yes, early settlers were making wines as far back as the 1600s, but it was not until the 1970s that the very fabric of Canadian wines that we identify with today was formed.


Early vinification saw winemakers using Vitis Labrusca or Riparia, and other grape vines that were not the European Vitis species of choice, Vitis Vinifera. I should mention now that there was an effort in the 1800s to plant Vitis Vinifera here in Canada, but the vines could not withstand pests and low temperatures in the winter. With the aggravation Vinifera caused, early wine enthusiasts thought it best to work with the native vines that seemed to flourish in the Canadian environment.


The Canadian wine industry seemed to have battled through and through. With prohibition's adjournment in the 1920s came much state governance on all aspects of consumer liquors. In fact, it was the end of the ban on alcohol that sparked the formation of the LDB (BC Liquor Distribution Board ~ 1921) and the LCBO (Liquor Control Board of Ontario ~ 1927). The creation of these two boards was the beginning of heavy-handed government control over the wine, beer, and spirits industries and the start of a lucrative government coffer. In 2019, the LCBOs net income was 2.28 billion dollars. In truth, there were several factors (government, limited wine consumption, use of lesser vines than those on the world stage) that led to Canada's slow transformation. In 1970 there were only seven wineries in British Columbia, and the number of wineries in Ontario dropped from 61 to six in 1974. With that said, 1974 was a pinnacle moment for Canadian wines. It was here that a federal government funded Vinifera planting trial proved that this species of vine could indeed thrive, and now we're off to the races. This was also the year that Ontario raised its moratorium on new wineries and granted Donald Ziraldo and Karl Kaiser a winery license, and they then formed Inniskillin Winery.


More and more vineyards started to spring up in Ontario, and some of this new breed of vineyard owners were willing to go against the grain and plant Vitis Vinifera. The drive to move from native Canadian Vitis species reached a highlight with free trade. You see, in 1987, Parliament moved to stop the ban on imported wine and beer, and this made everyone concerned that the Canadian market would be flooded with cheaper, and dare I say, more ameliorated wines. So, in 1989, the Canadian government used monetary incentives to get vineyard owners to pull up their Labrusca vines and replant with Vitis Vinifera. They were determined to elevate Canadian wine so it could compete, and that it did.


While there are still a few using Concord grapes (a Labrusca vine) to make wine in Ontario and Nova Scotia is known for their generous use of hybrid vines, it is Vitis Vinifera that dominates vines today in Canada. Vinifera has shown its blissful side, and the Canadian wine industry boasts of incredible wines from the noble varieties (Chardonnay, Riesling, and Pinot Noir in my books) and is a force to be reckoned with in sparkling wine.


Yes, there is more to Canada than Ice Wine.