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A brief introduction to Canadian wine

A brief history

Canada's wine history got off to an uncertain start in 1000 AD, when Viking Leif Eirikson stumbled upon present day Newfoundland. He christened the place 'Vinland' after noticing an abundance of wild grapes in the vicinity.

Vinland wouldn't fully live up to its name until the early 1800s, when an enterprising German, Johann Schiller, established a vineyard in Ontario's Niagara region. Using skills obtained while working as a winemaker in the Rhine, Schiller began privately experimenting with Vitis vinifera grapes from Europe, with limited success.

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By the mid 1860s, the Clair House estate in Ontario's Niagara region—built on the site of Schiller's original winery—became the first commercial winery in Canada. Wines from the estate went on to win prizes at the 1867 Paris Exposition and the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial. These early successes would anchor the Niagara region as a major centre for Canadian winemaking.

The first grape vines in British Columbia were planted in 1859, for the purpose of making sacramental wine at the Oblate mission, located near the present-day site of the Summerhill Pyramid winery. Commercial wineries followed soon after, cementing the Okanagan's status as a centre for fruit growing and agriculture.

During the first half of the twentieth century, the temperance movement and later consumer demand for fortified and sweet wines hampered the development of a quality table wine industry in Canada.

It wasn't until after the repeal of alcohol prohibition in Canada in 1927, after provinces stopped strictly limiting the number of licences to produce wine, that the Canadian wine scene truly began to grow. Between 1989 and 2016, the number of wineries in British Columbia skyrocketed from 13 to 273 — more than double the current number of BC breweries (approx. 100). By 2004, vineyard acreage in BC grew to 6,000, and today it stands at more than 10,000.

Today, Canadians consume more than 220 million bottles of Canadian-made wine every year. To satisfy that demand, more than 700 Canadian wineries grow and harvest more than 27,000 acres of vineyard a year.

Popular regions

The Canadian wine scene is dominated by wineries from British Columbia's Okanagan Valley, the Niagara Peninsula of Ontario, and in Essex County Ontario. 

Given the region's cool climate, the majority of all wines produced in Ontario are dry table wines. The most common varietals grown are Chardonnay, Riesling, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc. Other popular white grape varieties are Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer and Vidal Blanc, and reds include Cabernet Sauvignon, Gamay Noir, Syrah and Baco Noir. Ontario's Icewines are also enjoyed around the world, and its sparkling wines have risen to prominence in the last decade, benefiting from cool climate conditions and traditional techniques.

British Columbia's Okanagan Valley produces wines across the spectrum of sweetness levels, including still, sparkling, fortified and dessert wine styles—most notably ice wines. More than 60 grape varieties grown in the Okanagan, including Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot noir, Pinot gris, Chardonnay, Auxerrois blanc, Marechal Foch and Cabernet Franc. In the 21st century, growers have been planting more warm climate varieties typically not associated with the Canadian wine industry. ♦

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