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Canadian Wines – History and Trivia

If we were living in the late 50s, this period would be considered the Dark Ages for Canadian wines. While Canadian wines may have been thought by some to be natural and healthy at that time, their taste was nothing to write home about.

But guess what? Canadian wines have come a long way. They can no longer be accused of having a “foxy” taste. The term “foxy” apparently came about because of the grape variety that Canada was known for – vitis labrusca – a grape variety that can survive Canada’s winters but according to some, don’t taste very good. This grape variety is said to have a musky or earthy taste – like grape jelly – which Europeans aren’t particularly fond of (CBC, as broadcast by James Bannerman).

Because of the predominance of wine producing regions such as France, Italy, Germany, Spain and lately Australia and the US, people usually don’t think of Canada as wine country. Or else people are under the impression that the wine industry here is relatively young .

In fact we’ve had a long history of grape growing that dates back to the 1800s which began in Upper Canada – Ontario specifically – where grapes were being cultivated. Historical records aren’t clear however on whether the grapes were being used to make wine then.

It was in the early 1900s that Canada started to grow the labrusca/vinifera grape hybrids (vinifera being the European variety that tastes better but can’t survive Canada’s harsh winters). So to spruce up the taste of Canadian wine, growers started experimenting by mixing the native Canadian variety – labrusca – with that of Europe’s vinifera.

Canadian Wines: Major Types

Four provinces to-date are known to be wine-growing regions: British Columbia, Nova Scotia, Ontario and Quebec.

Note that Canadian wines are either from a single grape variety or from a blend of two or more grape varieties. The wine industry in this country is sufficiently versatile to produce a wide variety of tastes: from the very dry to the very sweet.

Given Canada’s cold climate, its ice wine is very popular and considered one of the world’s best. It is made from grapes that have frozen on the vines and are either of the Riesling or Vidal variety. Icewine cannot be harvested until late December to January when the temperature reaches minus 8 Celsius. When the grapes are pressed, they are solid frozen and hence very little juice comes out of each grape. Icewine is very sweet and is served more as a dessert wine. Predominant flavors are pineapple, passion fruit, guava and mango.

Rieslings are also popular and are made in both Ontario and British Columbia. They can be very dry or off-dry and have citrus tastes of grapefruit and lime with a hint of honey.

Chardonnays have a large following too. Their taste suggests a natural acid flavor with ripened fruit and are aged in either French or American oak. They come crisp, sparkling or un-oaked.

The Pinot Blanc wines are primarily from British Columbia and they are known for their excellent flavor and rich texture. Some successful BC wines are Ehrenfelser, Auxerrois, Semillon, Chenin Blanc and Bacchus.

While Bordeaux wines are best in their country of birth – France – interesting varieties have sprung up in Ontario and BC, some with a spicy taste and others with a hint of tropical or citrus.

Gamay Noir is another Canadian wine from Ontario and is aged in French oak. It is known for its ripe berry taste and while some of the common ones are made with the carbonic maceration process, the more exciting ones have a fuller body and can compare to the classic Beaujolais crus.

The Niagara region in Ontario boasts of its Pinot Noir. It has excellent potential and this alone has motivated the largest producer in Burgundy to form a partnership with Vincor – Canada’s major wine producer – to build a winery in Niagara focusing on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines.

If you like the taste of raspbery, chocolate and cassis, you ought to try Canada’s Cabernet Franc, a source of pride for Canadian wine makers. In BC’s Okanagan Valley, you’re likely to hear plenty of talk about the famous Bordeaux threesome: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. Merlot is the rising star n BC and people love it for its velvety texture hinting of plum and cassis.

Emerging Canadian Wines

The Canadian Vintners Association from whom we obtained the information for this article says that there are two wines that are becoming more popular: Shiraz (very famous in Australia as well) or Syrah. It is usually associated with warmer climates but it has surprised some wine makers in this country. In Ontario, it has more of a peppery taste but in BC where it is also grown, Syrah resembles more of the Australian variety, Shiraz.

Two other rising stars are Gewürztraminers from Niagara (rose and lychee flavors) and Sauvignon Blancs from both Ontario and BC (hint of citrus, melon and figs).

And if you’re feeling “peachy” Canada’s Viognier vines are produced with that bold peach flavor with a rich body texture.

The Canadian Vintners Association has a table that you can consult showing the major wine styles in Canada today. We’ll extract some of that information for you just to give you an idea; otherwise, you can visit their web site at canadianvintners.com

Table wines:

  • White variety: Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Auxerrois, Semillion, Viognier
  • Red variety: Gamay Noir, Maréchal, Foch, Merlot, Shiraz

Sparkling Wines:

  • White variety: Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir
  • Red variety: Gamay Noir

Dessert Wines:

  • White variety: Vidal, Riesling
  • Red variety: Cabarnet Franc

Canadian Wines: Look for the “Seal”

Countries like France, Italy and Germany have regulatory systems for their wine. In France, it’s the AOC, in Italy it’s the DOC and in Germany it’s called the QmP. We have a similar regulatory body called the VQA which stands for Vintners Quality Alliance and is endorsed by the government. It oversees the production of premium wines that bear the VQA logo. If you see it on a bottle of Canadian wine, you are assured of its production, content, varietal percentage, appellation and vintage.

At present, only BC and Ontario are the regions that produce wines that are regulated by the VQA standard.

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