The time for Canadian vines to shine

The Okanagan Valley is home to British Columbia’s first sub appellation, the Golden Mile Bench, which was created in 2015. Photo courtesy of Wines of British Columbia.

A look at the Canadian wine history from coast to coast

By Rebecca Dahl

On Canada’s 150th birthday, the country would like the world to know: we’re way more than just ice wine.

Canada’s vast land wasn’t born with rolling vineyards and its vintages aren’t as historic as the ones in, say, Bordeaux. And for years, sure, Canada was really only recognized for ice wine, the dessert wine derived from frozen grapes. But its world of wine has expanded greatly in recent years, and the evolution is cause for recognition.

The beginning

It’s been over 400 years since Canadians first started harvesting grapes for wine. In fact, our nation’s wine industry dates back to the 1600s in Nova Scotia, which was one of the first areas to cultivate grapes in North America. But any real success in the wine industry here has happened mostly in the past three decades. The Canadian Vintners Association says that delay is because it took European settlers a substantial amount of time to figure out how to foster healthy grape growing in land that was influenced by such hot, humid summers, and cold, harsh winters.

Initially, the grapes that could withstand the ups and downs of Canadian weather and the ones that could be used for wine were native species of grapes such as Labrusca, and crosses such as Niagara, Duchess, and Catawba.

In 1988, the signing of the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (FTA) changed everything for Canada’s wine industry and made room for growth. The FTA meant Canada had to adjust to new trade rules and offer more competitive wines. This meant investing in higher-quality grapes. The FTA inspired a major pullout of the native grape species, which were then replaced with quality standard vinifera grapes. The pullout and replacement program led to the creation of the Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA) standard of grapes in Ontario in 1988, and in British Columbia two years later. The VQA standard is still used to this day.

Harvest in Oliver, B.C. The South Okanagan provides ideal conditions for Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Syrah. Photo courtesy of Wines of British Columbia.

With new wine comes new wine culture

Harry McWatters is considered a legend in the British Columbia wine industry. He started as a sales manager at Casabello Wines in Penticton in 1968, and by 1980, he was the founding chair of the Okanagan Wine Festival Society and had founded Sumac Ridge Estate Winery. McWatters was a strong presence in the industry throughout all its growth.

“Canadians didn’t grow up generally on a wine culture,” said McWatters. “It took people travelling abroad and people having a wine background in their families, bringing their culture to Canada. And that’s what we really saw through the ‘60s and then the ‘70s—people starting to drink light, sparkling wines.”

McWatters got his first taste of wine as a young boy. He grew up in a predominantly Italian neighbourhood in North Vancouver, where his Italian family friends would share wine in exchange for his mother’s baked goods. McWatters drank a few ounces with dinner most nights, and by the time he was 16, he was making his own wines.

McWatters said the existing soda pop culture in Canada through to the 1960s was a good gateway to wine culture. It was a transition from Coca-Cola with dinner to light, sparkling wines like Baby Duck, he said. It was an easy transition that made way for drier wines to earn their place in Canadian homes later in the ‘80s.

“The consumer has changed more than anything else, and the wine industry just responded very effectively to consumer demands,” said McWatters. “People just evolved, and so many wine regions have matured, Canadians have expanded their tastes to much broader ranges of wines—especially with red wines.”

McWatters was the first to bring Meritage to Canada, making it a truly international term. A Meritage is a blend of two or more of the red or white “noble” Bordeaux grape varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot for the reds, and Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon and Sauvignon Vert for the whites). Today, most of Canada’s favourite and most notorious red wines are Meritages.

Harvest in Oliver, B.C. The South Okanagan provides ideal conditions for Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Syrah. Photo courtesy of Wines of British Columbia.

(V)industry at a “tipping point”

Today, wines from Ontario, British Columbia, and Nova Scotia are making their way onto the world stage of wine. In Ontario, white wines like Rieslings, Chardonnay and Cabernet Blanc have become well-known internationally. Nova Scotia makes sparkling wines that have become a Canadian staple. Out of British Columbia, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Gris have been competing against wines from even California.

“We don’t have the warm sunny California days that vintners have in there or in Australia or South Africa,” said Asha Hingorani, director of government & public affairs at the Canadian Vintners Association. “But I would say that it lends to our brand. We’re rooted in these soils and our climate really lends to the quality of wines that we’re showcasing. We’re rooted in cool.”

In Düsseldorf, Germany this year, Canada had 25 wineries participate in the ProWein International Trade Fair for Wines and Spirits. The idea of Canadian participation in the largest wine show in Europe was to educate an important export market on Canadian wines, said Hingorani. Canada is still considered a new-world wine region, but the wine industry already contributes $9 billion annually to the Canadian economy. Creating brand awareness in key export markets like Europe and China is key to further growing that potential, said Hingorani.

“I think one of the key things is our industry is evolving. We’re growing,” she said. “So, I think we need to celebrate that in Canada and keep introducing new people with new palates to what our soil has to offer.”