Canadian wine wines and whiskies regions gas 101


Some viticultural areas in Canada experience hot, sometimes humid summers and extremely cold winters. All the major Canadian wine regions are in close proximity to climate-moderating water sources that are critical to vines’ survival in freezing temperatures. The Niagara Peninsula, on the southern shores of Lake Ontario, is arguably the most famous wine region in Canada, although the dry, almost desert-like Okanagan Valley in British Columbia has made a play for glory in the last few decades.

Flanked by the Pacific, Arctic and Atlantic oceans, and with more coastline than any other country in the world, Canada’s climate and landscape are heavily influenced by water. This is not just true of coastal areas, however, as inland Canada is home to numerous lakes of various sizes.

The Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA) is a regulatory body that represents an appellation-based approach to Canadian wine. Membership allows winemakers to use the VQA logo on their wine, and this provides a degree of quality assurance to prospective consumers. The VQA’s focus is on vinifera varieties, of which Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and the Bordeaux varieties are popular. Selected hybrids such as Vidal and Marechal Foch are also permitted to bear the VQA designation. Canada produces an enormous range of grape varieties, wine styles and blends, with more regional specialties developing every year.

This system of quality control is not without controversy. Wines labeled as ‘Cellared in Canada’ are regarded by many as the most dubious exploitation of antiquated wine law. The classification allows foreign pre-fermented grape must to be imported and vinified in Canada . In British Columbia, 100 percent of the grape must can be imported, while in Ontario, a minimum of 30 percent must be locally produced.

Canada’s winemaking history may date back more than one thousand years. Around 1000 AD, the Viking explorers, led by Leif Eriksson (son of Eric the Red), encountered native grape-producing vines in great numbers during their journeys of discovery in Canada’s north-east. It is widely believed that this species, Vitis riparia, influenced the Norsemen to name the new land Vinland. It is unclear if Scandinavian settlers ever made wine from the native grapes they encountered in modern-day Newfoundland, but if they did, it would almost certainly make them the first winemakers in North America.

European settlers tried their hand at viticulture in Canada in the early 1800s but met little success with the Vitis vinifera they had imported from Europe. Canada’s extreme continental climate was unforgiving and the pioneering winemakers soon turned to the native species riparia and labrusca. The resulting wines were typically described as foxy or musky to taste, though ports and sherries carried the flavors more agreeably and helped to establish the winemaking industry in Ontario and the north-east. The tradition of sweet wine made from labrusca grapes persisted well into the 1970s.

Canadian Prohibition (1916–1927) had a mixed effect on the Canadian wine trade. Small areas like Pelee Island – where Vin Villa Estates had established the country’s first commercial winery in 1866 – were adversely affected by the loss of their export market, but the overall wine community in Ontario actually grew during this time, thanks to a Government exception made for wine. Despite sustained growth in the industry, no commercial wine permits were granted from pre-prohibition until 1974, when Inniskillin opened its Riesling, Chardonnay and Gamay vineyard.

Perhaps the most significant year in the development of the Canadian wine industry was 1988. The Canada–United States Free Trade Agreement offered opportunities to Canadian winegrowers and marked an ideological shift in the industry. Following the deregulation of trade between the two countries, the Canadian government recognized the need to adapt in order to compete, and offered an incentivized scheme to remove native vines and replant with Vinifera varieties. Finally, the VQA was established in Ontario in 1988, paving the way for Canada’s appellation system. British Columbia followed suit and launched its own VQA in 1990.

Canadian whiskies tend to be lighter and smoother than other whiskies, although there are various styles available. The majority of Canadian whiskies are multi-grain blends, including barley, corn and rye on the mashbill and it must be mashed, distilled and aged for a minimum of three years in Canada. Despite many still being labelled as "rye", there is no legal minimum requirement of that grain in the actual mashbill. Rye is still used, as it imparts a distinctive flavor, but it is usually a small proportion of the blend.

John Molson is usually acknowledged as the first distiller, opening his stills in 1799. There was a distillery operating in Quebec in 30 years earlier, but it is unclear whether it produced whisky. By the middle of the 19th Century, there were more than 200 distilleries operating in Canada.