The Rebirth of the Canadian Wine Industry

While visiting my great aunt in St. Catharines many years ago, my cousin’s husband, who was a grape grower, was mourning the loss of the Canadian wine industry.  The cause of death was the Federal Government announcing the removal of tariff protection on wine imports.  It meant the end of the world for grape growers who were now being “forced” to destroy the vast majority of their vines, which for the most part consisted of lesser-quality grapes such as, Labrusca, Seyval Blanc, or Vidal.

At the time there were a just few local wineries and the majority of the grapes were harvested for the big 3 wine makers of the day – Bright’s, London and Andrès (remember Baby Duck?; it’s still being produced).

In order to compete in the world market, the Labrusca vines needed to be replaced with good quality European vines.  To help ensure the success of this process, the Canadian and Ontario governments brought in wine experts from around the world to determine which vines were best suited for Ontario’s climate.  It was concluded that Ontario was a close match for the Burgundy region of France and as a result, Ontario began cultivating Pinot Noir, Baco Noir, and Riesling grapes. 

As confidence and understanding grew, so did the number of grape varietals being grown.  In addition to the original 3, today you will find Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot in abundant supply with lesser percentages of other varieties, such as Petit Verdot and Syrah.

Along with the variety of grapes the number of wineries has also expanded.  The new “estate wineries”, which follow the European model, are appearing at an increasing rate.  There is a new enthusiasm for grape and wine production whereby growers are now developing their own wine and creating unique variations, rather than selling it to the large corporations as they did in the past.

The original group of small wineries including Cave Springs, Henry of Pelham, Peninsula Ridge and Iniskillin have been joined by many more, whose numbers totaled 99 at last count.  These wineries now produce many great wines with a number of them having reached international acclaim.

It is true, the elimination of tariffs on imported wine was the end of the Canadian wine industry as we knew it along with the demise of mass produced cheap low quality wine.  However, it has been replaced with a wonderful selection of international class wines. The industry has never looked back and I for one am glad for it.

Sláinte mhaith

Wine Production in Austria

Before jumping into this week’s post, I just want to explain why I haven’t published anything in the past few weeks. On September 1st I sufferred a hemorrhagic stroke. My recovery is expected to take some time though I plan to continue to write as much as possible during this challenging time. Now on to the business at hand.

During a trip to Austria this past summer I was excited by the prospect of visiting the acclaimed wine capital, Winzer Krems.  Winzer Krems prides itself in its claim that the grapes grown by the 960 grape growers on 990 hectares (2,450 acres) of land are hand-picked.

The grape varietals in Winzer Krems include,

  • Grüner Veltliner, which is the most important indigenous grape variety in Austria.
  • Riesling, the most important white wine variety in the Wachau and Kremstal regions after Grüner Veltliner.
  • Blauer Zweigelt, the most widespread red wine variety in Austria.

The grapes are transported from the vineyards to the Winzer Krems winery where they are separated according to the varietal, quality, and the particular locations of origin, to enable a wide range of individual wine qualities and specialities to be bottled.

The grapes are gently pressed to extract the juice in the whole cluster pressing. This process is to ensure the quality produced in the vineyard is maintained in the wine. The juice is then fed into stainless steel tanks and fermented in a temperature-controlled process. Only perfect bottles with the necessary quality features are marketed.

The kicker is that the wine production process is operated as a co-op.  All of the producers ship their grapes to a single wine making facility where each varietal of grape is combined with other grapes of the same varietal using a single type of process.  Because of this, any subtleties in flavour that would result from the soil characteristics and the fermentation process are lost.  All wine of the same varietal will taste the same.  There is no opportunity for a vintner’s expertise or unique growing conditions to shine.

The advantages are that you have a consistent product with no surprises or variation.  On the other hand, I for one like to taste the uniqueness of wines produced in different soils, using different fermentation processes.  I like to see the vintner’s skills to be able to stand out.

Since the wines are produced in the same manner by a single producer, the consumer of Austrian wines has very limited choice of product.

I was told that these Austrian wines are good quality “table wine”, which means that all of the wines produced are intended for immediate consumption.  None of the wines are produced with the intention of laying them down, unlike neighbouring Germany where wines are developed by independent wine producers, each with its own characteristics.  Personally speaking, I have purchased and laid down some wonderful German Rieslings that I have been rewarded with some well-aged flavourful wines.

The advantage of the co-op manufacturing approach is that the individual grape growers don’t have to concern themselves with marketing, as the co-op takes on that responsibility.  However, from the way I see it, there are no opportunities or incentive for producers to develop their own personality, quality and uniqueness that can then be rewarded on an individual financial level.  It is a very socialistic approach and I feel that individual entrepreneurial uniqueness is lost, as well as the opportunity to create superior quality wine.

Sláinte mhaith