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.