Now when I ask you think of a classic wine region, what would most likely come to mind would be warm, rolling green hills- warm, dry and lush. Now, think of Canada; you’re most likely thinking of cold wind and ice- do these two things gel together? Most people would think definitely not, however there is actually a thriving wine industry in Canada! Whilst still only fledgling by Old World standards, the modern Canadian wine industry has benefited from two major global factors; the understanding of and move towards cooler-climate wine regions (Tasmania and Patagonia in Chile are other examples of this), and climate change.
Interestingly enough, a retired German corporal created Canada’s first vineyard in 1811 along the Credit River just west of Toronto. He cultivated local native American grape varieties suited to the cold climate which are still in use in several vineyards today. These grapes unfortunately did not make wines prized for their flavours unfortunately. This small industry puttered along all through the 19th century until a boom period hit with the introduction of Canadian Prohibition in 1916. Yes, you read that right- prohibition of alcohol helped the Canadian wine industry! You see, many of the provinces still have strong French roots, and as a result, most of the vines were owned and operated by the church. They lobbied heavily against being lumped in with the evil that is beer and spirits, professing a more holy purpose for the noble grape during the Sacrament. They were successful, and the Canadian wine industry took off while beer and spirits were banned! It gained further traction when southern neighbour USA introduced Prohibition in 1920, with many shady shipments being sailed across the Great Lakes which make up the natural border between the two countries. Prohibition was repealed in 1927, 6 years before the USA, which allowed beer and spirits to join in on the illegal trade, however wine had the jump on both of them.
Despite Canada’s huge geographical size (it is the 2nd largest country on earth), its annual wine production is just 2 percent of that of southern neighbour United States. The Canadian wine industry exists primarily in four provinces: the major two; British Columbia, which is the western-most province, and Ontario, the province directly north of USA states New York and Michigan, are responsible for 98 percent of quality wine production. Quebec and Nova Scotia, both located to the very east of the country, are emerging wine growing regions with a small but loyal local following. Due to its extreme northerly position, grapes in Canada are mainly grown around large bodies of water in the southern sections of the provinces. Large bodies of water, just like in extremely hot growing regions, create a more moderate temperature with less extreme peaks and troughs, which is handy in this country, as the winters can get incredibly cold!
The grape vine in a hardy plant though, and can actually exist in sub-zero temperatures quite well. At around -20 degrees Celsius however, the xylem and phloem of the vine (plant equivalents of arteries and veins) freeze and expand, causing the vine to literally explode from the inside out. In all of Canada’s wine regions, spring frost is a major issue. This is where morning frost hits the vineyard in spring when the vines are in flower. These delicate reproductive organs are destroyed, and no grapes grow for that vintage. All it takes is one bad frost to destroy the whole crop of an entire vineyard, so what can vineyard managers do to prevent it? Well, in the past, they would only plant native varieties suited to these conditions, mainly the variety Vitus Labrusca, however this makes a wine with a noticeable musty, animal aroma (known in tasting terms as ‘foxy’)- not entirely desirable. More recently, later ripening European varieties such as Riesling, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc have been used to create a more modern and approachable style of Canadian wine.
Desite some world-class Rieslings and Cabernets are being produced, for now the most well-known style of Canadian wine is by far Icewine. This is a very expensive and difficult to produce style of wine which can only be produced in wine regions that receive enough daylight and warmth to produce ripe grapes, but also sub-zero temperatures for long periods (but not below minus 20 degrees!). The wine is produced by leaving the grapes on the vines for months- which also requires the region to be relatively dry and disease free! After a few weeks of sub-zero temperatures, the water in the grapes freezes solid in the centre of the berry, leaving an outer layer of sugar, acid and phenolic compounds under the berry skin. These frozen berries are hand-harvested and lightly pressed, with the frozen water removed, and the remaining high sugar mix is slowly fermented. Sugar levels must be a minimum of 35 Brix, which is the equivalent of about 320g/L of sugar, and much higher than the minimums in other ice wine producing countries such as Austria and Germany. Residual sugar at bottling must be a minimum of 125g/L, with many wines much higher than this- these wines are seriously sweet! What keeps them from being sickly sweet and actually enjoyable however is the acid; another component of the grape that doesn’t freeze out over the winter. Wineries who wish to produce ‘Icewine’ (the combination of the 2 words has been trademarked by the Canadian wine authority, known as the VQA which you will see on wine labels) must adhere to very strict regulations in order to be allowed to use the name.
Wine Sales Manager