Monday, March 1, 2010

200 Years of Wine Making in Ontario, Canada

200 Years of Wine Making in Ontario, Canada

Johann Schiller is acknowledged as the “father” of the Ontario Wine industry. Schiller opened Ontario’s first wine venture in 1811 in the area of Mississauga now known as Cooksville, where he offered to the public wines made from wild labrusca grapes. From this humble beginning, the Ontario wine industry took root.

The subsequent story is convoluted, with periods of excitement, prosperity, political pressures, and virtual abandonment. After prohibition ended in 1927, it took until 1975 for the first new winery to open in Ontario. The success of Inniskillin and other 20th-century wine pioneers – in particular with their icewine - has fostered a lively industry in Ontario, and this no doubt played a role in the evolution of fine wineries elsewhere in Canada. There are currently more than 160 wineries licensed in Ontario, including traditional wineries, fruit wineries, and meaderies.

The industry has also survived upgrades to its vineyards. Until the 1980s, Ontario vineyards were dominated by labrusca grape species, including Concord, Niagara, Delaware, and Isabella. Vine pull-out began in the 1960s and the majority of vineyards were replanted with cold-hardy hybrid grapes such as Vidal, Seyval Blanc, Baco Noir, and Marechal Foch. Another replanting drive began in 1978, when growers replaced many of the hybrids with European vinifera varieties: Chardonnay, Riesling, the Cabernets, Pinot Noir, and many others.

Two hundred years later, the Ontario vintners, led by winemaker/educator/industry activist Jim Warren, are trying to give Schiller and the generations of wine pioneers that came after him in Ontario their due. Warren, General Manager at Stoney Ridge Estate Winery in Vineland, is calling on the provincial government to officially recognize the bicentennial of the Ontario wine industry in 2011. Warren, also hopes the province's 160-plus grape and fruit wineries and meaderies join in the celebration and spread the message: Ontario Wine: 200 Years of Growing.

There are now two booming wine regions in Canada, British Columbia in the west and Ontario in the east.

Picture: Canada's Wine Regions

The Okanagan Valley is the predominant wine growing region in British Colombia. The Okanagan Valley wine boom is part of the larger North West American wine story that has been unfolding in the past 30 years, starting with Oregon in the US, and then moving up to Washington State and now to British Columbia in Canada.

The Ontario wine story is to a large extent one of ice wine, that have gained worldwide reputation, with Illiskin being the leading producer. Canada’s cool climatic conditions enable it to be the largest ice wine producer in the world. Although both Germany and Austria are large ice wine producers, their climates are not as consistently cold as is Canada’s to guarantee ice wine production every year. Canada produces over 2 million 375ml bottles of ice wine annually. An Illiskin icewine was served in December 2009 at the occasion of the Nobel Prize Banquet in Stockholm.

Ontario Wine Industry Milestones

1811: Johann Schiller, the father of Canadian winemakers, makes wine from local and imported North American grapes and offers them for sale to the public.
1857: Porter Adams begins cultivating grapes in Southern Ontario.
1864: Canadian Vinegrowers Association is formed in Ontario.
1864: The Dunkin Act of Upper Canada allows counties to be "dry".
1866: Vin Villa is built on Pelee Island.
1867: Canada becomes a nation.
1873: George Barnes Winery opens in Niagara.
1874: T.G. Brights Winery opens in Niagara.
1894: John Sotheridge plants vineyards in Stoney Creek.
1916: Prohibition begins. Ontario has 67 wineries producing medicinal and sacramental wines, and wines for export.
1927: Prohibition ends. Alcohol jurisdiction is handed over to the provinces. Ontario implements a moratorium on new winery licences.
1960s: Growers begin to rip out North American species and plant French-American Hybrids. Baby Duck is the best-selling wine in Ontario.
1933 to 1974: After much consolidation in the industry, there remain only six wineries in Ontario.
1974: Donald Ziraldo and Karl Kaiser apply for a winery license -- the first since prohibition -- and open Inniskillin winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
1978: Ontario implements a pull-out program to remove native and labrusca grapes species, to be replaced by hybrids. Wineries are allowed to import grapes/juice/wine to fill the gap until Ontario’s vineyards reach production age.
1988: Ontario vintners create the Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA).
1988: Canada signs Free Trade pact with the US. A massive grape pullout is initiated to wean wineries off hybrid grapes, replacing them with vinifera varieties.
1990: VQA is adopted as BC’s wine standard.
1997: Cool Climate Vinicultural Institute opens at Brock University in St. Catherines.
1999: 100th winery licensed in Ontario.
1999: VQA is entrenched as Ontario law.
2000: Fruit Wines of Ontario is founded, and establishes the Quality Certified (QC) program for non-grape wines.
2001: Ontario Wine Content Act becomes law.
2007: Prince Edward County is recognized as a vinicultural region.
2008: Niagara Region establishes a system of microclimates.
2009: There are 164 licensed wineries in Ontario, ranging from small family operations to factory wineries, fruit wineries, and meaderies, with facilities in virtually every segment of the province.
2010: Prince Edward County emerges as Ontario’s second largest viticultural region.
2011: Ontario celebrates the Bi-centennial of its wine industry.

Schiller Wine - Related Postings

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Eiswein in Germany and Ice Wine in Canada

Wine Event: The Wines served in honor of President Obama at the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize Banquet in Oslo


  1. Are you related to Johann Schiller?

  2. Great post! Prohibition was a disaster for the nascent wine culture in Ontario. While I agree with the move towards quality that was launched by the VQA movement, I do think that hybrid and native grapes got a bum rap out of the whole thing. To this day, some really nice, BALANCED wines are being made State-side from the labrusca-type grapes. It is possible. The main problem was in the mentality of mass-production, where quality of production was unimportant. The move towards vinifera at least brought the quality factor in. Excellent hybrid wines are certainly possible, though the market return on them is small and that's why they're not as prevalent anymore.

  3. Just gone through your blog "200 Years of Wine Making in Ontario, Canada" and found it wonderful. It was nice going through your blog.