The Grape Canadian North
By Natalie MacLean
1. Canadian wine making is not a recent phenomenon. Viking explorer Leif Ericson first named Canada Vinland in 1001 BCE after he found so many vines growing where he landed at L’Anse Aux Meadows, Newfoundland. In 1535, Jacques Cartier also found many grapes growing on the island he named Ile de Bacchus (later known as Ile d’Orleans).
2. Jesuit priests found that wine made from the native rough-hewn grapes, which were not classic vitis vinifera grapes, was barely palatable for sacramental purposes. Vitis vinifera grapes were first planted in the 1900s.
3. Johann Schiller, a retired German soldier, is known as the father of the Canadian wine industry. In 1811, he applied his expertise from Rhine winemaking to 400 acres of grapes planted in the Niagara region of Ontario.
4. The first commercial winery was Vin Villa on Pelee Island in 1866. Today there are 250 wineries with in six provinces: British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.
5. By 1919 all provinces went dry under Prohibition except Quebec which banned the sale of all alcohol but beer and wine. In a strange twist, Canadian law made it illegal to sell but not to manufacture liquor. Alcohol was also permitted for medicinal, scientific, industrial, sacramental and mechanical purposes. The inevitable result was the proliferation of basement, kitchen and cow shed distilleries as well as a booming smuggling trade to the US.
6. As Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock noted at the time “To get a drink during Prohibition it is necessary to go to the drugstore and lean up against the counter making a gurgling sigh like apoplexy. One often sees there apoplexy cases lined up four deep.” The use of alcohol for “medicinal reasons” became so loosely defined that the government eventually required tonic wine makers to add an ingredient that would cause the “patient” to vomit above the stated dosage. These “therapeutic wines” soon lost their market following.
7. At the end of Prohibition, each provincial government decided to regulate the sale alcohol similar to the system in Scandinavia. The government monopoly in Canada’s largest province, Ontario, is the world’s largest single purchaser of wine in the world buying 8.5 million cases annually (that’s twelve 750 ml bottles per case or 76.2 million litres in total). Approximately 69 percent of the current price of wine is comprised of government taxes.
8. In 1955, Bright’s winery produced the first 100 percent Canadian chardonnay. Up to this point, the most illustrious brand in the company’s repertoire was a Catawba grape-based sherry that was dubbed “Bright’s Disease” by less than enthusiastic tipplers.
9. In the early 1970s, Canadians preferred sweet “pop wines”; one of every 24 bottles consumed in Canada was Andre’s Baby Duck sparkling wine. The menagerie of other pop wines on the market at that time included Gimli Goose, Pink Flamingo, Baby Deer, Baby Bear, Little White Duck, Fuddle Duck and Luv-a-Duck and Pussycat.
10. In addition to the classical varieties, Canada grows several unique hybrids such as Baco Noir, Seyval Blanc, Marechal Foch, a cross between Pinot Noir and Gamay grapes, and Vidal, often used as the basis for its world renowned ice wine.
11. Canada’s cool climatic conditions enable it to be the largest ice wine producer in the world. The grapes for ice wine must be gathered and pressed at a temperature not higher than –8oC. Although both Germany and Austria are large ice wine producers, their climates are not as consistently cold as is Canada’s to guarantee ice wine production every year. Canada produces over 2 million 375ml bottles of ice wine annually. The average price of C$45/bottle in Canada will go as high as C$220 in Japan.
12. Ontario’s premier wine regions include Niagara Peninsula, Lake Erie North Shore and Pelee Island. British Columbia hosts the second largest grape growing regions including the Okanagan Valley, Similkameen Valley, Fraser Valley and Vancouver Island. The lakes and geography within these regions moderate temperatures and provide an excellent microclimate for grape growing. Eventually, subregions within these appellations will be created based on distinct microclimatic conditions. Canada’s wine regions are on the same latitude as Burgundy, France; Chianti Classico, Italy and Rioja, Spain.
13. Cool climates such as Canada’s produce grapes that are naturally higher in a chemical compound resveratrol. Resveratrol is the anti-oxidant in grape skins that protects the fruit against fungus attacks, and when consumed in wine, appears to reduce fat and cholesterol in human blood which contribute to heart disease.
14. Canadian wines have consistently won medals at international competitions over the past decade. For example, the Niagara winery Inniskillin won France's highest award, the Grand Prix d'Honneur, at the 1991 Vinexpo against 4,100 wines for its 1989 Ice Wine. Other awards have included Grand Golds at VinItaly for icewine and chardonnay, the Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande Trophy for the best blended red, the Civart Tophy for the best of the gold medal winning dessert wines and six gold medals at Vinexpo '97, of which three were for red wines. In March 1999, the British Columbia winery Calona Vineyards won the gold at Chardonnay du Monde competition (World Chardonnay) in France for its 1997 Artist Series Chardonnay.
15. In 1988, the Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA) was created to ensure minimum quality standards in designated Ontario appellations somewhat similar to the designations in France (Appellation Origine de Controlle or AOC) or the US (American Viticultural Area or AVA). Since then British Columbia has also adopted the system. VQA wines are tested by an independent tasting panel for typicity, quality and the absence of faults. Winemaking techniques and grape ripeness are also audited. Efforts are underway to nationalize the system which would help Canadian wineries to export to European markets where often country-wide standards must first be in place.
16. California winemaker Ernest & Julio Gallo make two and half times the amount of wine that Canadians drink annually. Canada’s largest winery, Vincor, produces 7 million cases annually making it the fifth largest winery in North America.
17. In the year ended March 31, 1997, Canadians spent $11.4 billion on beer, wine and spirits, a 3.6 percent increase over the previous year. They consume an average of 10.6 litres of wine per capita annually, of which 40% is red wine, 42% white and 18% sparkling, fortified and other wines combined. The highest consumption is in the north: those from the Yukon drink an average of 19 litres per capita. Over the past five years, wine consumption has increased 3.2 percent while beer and spirits decreased by 4.7 percent and 7.5 percent respectively.
18. The United States is Canada’s largest wine export market, and in 1997, Canada exported 180,000 bottles to America.
19. To find out more about the Canadian wine industry, visit the following web site: http://winesofontario.org
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