Canada and sweet wine do not always go together. Winemaking in Canada goes back to the 1800s when European settlers tried to grow Vitis vinifera grapes in Ontario province. Like their neighbors to the south, the settlers were unsuccessful in their attempts, but the region's native grapes flourished.
So, for the next hundred years, Canadian winemakers used Vitis labrusca and Vitis riparia and hybrids such as Niagara, Concord, and Catawba. By all reports, the table wines made from these grapes were unsuccessful. When they were used to make fortified wines, however, they found favor in England.
Canada has an appellation system, Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA), similar to France's AOC system. It ensures minimum quality standards through panel tastings and by regulating winemaking techniques and grape ripeness. The VQA recognizes three designated Viticultural Areas in Ontario (Niagara Peninsula, Pelee Island, and Lake Erie North Shore) and four in British Columbia (Okanagan Valley, Similkameen Valley, Fraser Valley, and Vancouver Island).
The Turn of the Century
By 1900 winemaking was introduced to the western province of British Columbia, and growers had more success with the Vitis vinifera vines. Sadly, in 1916, something else was introduced — a temperance movement that culminated in Canada's Prohibition. Unlike Prohibition in the United States, wine wasn't banned and wineries stayed in business. Once Canadian Prohibition ended in 1927, the individual provinces took over control of production, distribution, and sale of alcoholic beverages.
Dozens of wineries were in operation when Prohibition came to an end, but a period of consolidation began such that by 1974, there were only six wineries in the whole country.
A New Era
In 1974 the first winery license since Prohibition was awarded to partners Donald Ziraldo and Karl Kaiser who named their boutique winery Inniskillin. Their vision was to produce only the finest wines from traditional Vitis vinifera grapes. They were a model for other winemakers and brought Canada into a new era of winemaking.
At the 1991 VinExpo in Bordeaux, Inniskillin won the prestigious Prix d'Honneur for its 1989 Icewine. It was the first of many awards to come for Canadian producers.
Canada winters are freezing, and this has allowed the country to produce some of the world's most coveted ice wines. In fact, Canada is the world's largest producer of ice wines, far more than Germany (where ice wine originated) and Austria. Canadian ice wines are made from the tough French hybrid grape Vidal, although Riesling is often used as well.
Ice wine does not tell the whole story of Canadian wine. The Okanagan Valley in British Columbia is warm enough in the summer to produce grapes you would associate with Napa Valley. Chardonnay and Pinot Gris, are the major white varieties, while among the reds Merlot, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc have found success.