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Bacchus at Brock Address (June 11, 2007)

Let me give you a "before and after" snapshot.

The year is 1975. It's Canada Day and I am living in London, England. I'm invited to a Canada Day lunch at the Canadian High Commission in Grosvenor Square. I'm seated next to a British diplomat. The time comes for the loyal toast to the Queen. The wine they serve is Chateau-Gai "Champagne." This is the first glass of Canadian wine I have ever tasted. I ask the British diplomat what he thinks of it. He takes a sip, turns to me and says: "Fine, dear boy... for launching enemy submarines."

Flash forward sixteen years to Vinexpo 1991. Inniskillin wins the Grand Prix d'Honneur for their Vidal Icewine 1989 – one of 15 such awards out of 4,100 wines entered in the competition.

In the span of one generation the Canadian wine industry has altered out of all recognition – and it was Ontario that was the engine that powered that change.

Today our wineries are winning gold medals in international, national and provincial competitions – not only for Icewines but for dry white and reds, sparkling wines and other dessert wines.

What created that amazing turn-around for an industry that had lost confidence in itself? There are four factors:

  • Global free trade
  • The switch in grapes from labrusca and hybrids to vinifera
  • The introduction of VQA as an appellation
  • And the explosion of viticultural and winemaking expertise

The watershed year was 1988. That was when free trade with the US was introduced.

Under the GATT regulations the tariffs that protected the local industry from competition from imported wines had to be phased out. Wineries in Ontario and British Columbia would now have to compete on an equal playing field. Up until this time, provincial governments had given guarantees to grape growers that their crops would be sold to wineries at negotiated prices; the grapes rejected by winemakers would be purchased by the government for distillation into industrial alcohol.

There was no incentive for growers to move from hybrids to the noble vinifera varieties. A few dedicated growers, such as John Marynissen and Bill Lenko in Ontario, however, had proved they could grow and sustain Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay in a marginal climate, so long as they used the right viticultural practices.

With the abolition of trade barriers, the industry gave a collective shudder and convinced itself the sky was falling. Vintners' response to this gloom-and-doom scenario – which turned out to be the right response – was to look at their vineyards and decide what they should get rid of. Ontario reduced its vineyards from 24,000 to 17,000 acres, and British Columbia was even more draconian, pulling out more than two-thirds of the vineyards and leaving a mere 1,000 acres of vines in the ground. Along with the preferred hybrids such as Baco Noir and Vidal, the growers began to plant the noble European varieties that would prove to be the phoenix for the re-emerging wine industry.

In 1988 the Wine Content Act in Ontario was revised, and Labrusca varieties were banned from table wines (they could still be used for "pop" wines such as Baby Duck and for faux Sherry and Port). Anyone who has ever tasted Concord grape juice will be familiar with the aroma and taste of Labrusca grapes. The marker for Labrusca-based wines is a chemical called methyl anthranilate. When fermented, varieties such as Niagara and Isabella give off a smell that the wine community calls "foxy." It's a difficult smell to define – and I have never been close enough to a fox to confirm this descriptor. Thomas Pinney gives some idea when he quotes the Russian-born American winemaker Alexander Brailow in his History of Wine in America from the Beginnings to Prohibition (1989): "People have tried to compare the smell and taste to things that they know. In Russia, for instance, they say that the grape Isabella, which is grown extensively in Crimea for red wine, smells like bedbugs. It all depends on the association and personal taste."

(Isabella, incidentally, was the variety that carried the phylloxera bug from the Eastern US to the vineyards of the Rhone in the 1860s, subsequently afflicting virtually all the vineyards of Europe.)

The pullout programs in Ontario and British Columbia meant that future vineyards would be planted to vinifera varieties – the ones the consumer wanted. The same year as free trade, the Vintners Quality Alliance was introduced in Ontario, an appellation system requiring that the wines be 100 per cent grown in designated viticultural areas. The regulations stipulated minimum sugar levels for grapes and varieties that could be used for wine. And, most important, all wines had to be blind tasted for typicity and quality by an independent panel. In 1990, the VQA system was instituted in British Columbia.

From the early years, winemaking in Canada had been the preoccupation of passionate amateurs. Farmers and basement hobbyists whose skills were sufficient to make decent wine opened commercial wineries at the urging of friends. They may have taken courses in winemaking or followed the instruction of European relatives, but they had no experience of winemaking in other regions. Growers knew little of trellising techniques used around the world to maximize ripening, and many thought that dropping fruit to concentrate the flavours was a crime against nature.

With the advent of the VQA, the more established wineries began to recruit winemakers from other parts of the world who could bring a different experience to working with Ontario and BC fruit. They also sent their own assistant winemakers to do harvests abroad. Today the tally of winemakers from Europe and other New World regions who bring their expertise to Canadian wineries is impressive.

Yesterday there were 96 wineries in Ontario committed to the VQA appellation. Today there may well be one or two more. On July 21 a new winery called Oak Hills in Northumberland County, near Roseneath, will open officially. Everybody, it seems, wants to get into the wine industry. The desire to make wine for Canadians is now as urgent and compelling as the urge to procreate.

Wine has been made commercially in Ontario for nearly two hundred years, beginning with Johann Schiller with his domesticated labrusca vineyard in Cooksville, now Missisauga. But the industry really didn't start producing the kind of wines that could compete with French, Italian and German wines until the 1990s.

So, we are, in international terms, a fledgling wine industry.

It took the French 200 years of experience to figure out that Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grew well in Burgundy; that Cabernet and Merlot belong in Bordeaux and Syrah in the Northern Rhone. We are still trying to figure out what we should be planting where but the indicators are there already.

We don't have the climate range that British Columbia has. Theirs is a vertical geography that runs from Salmon Arm in the north to Oliver and Osoyoos in the south, right to the Washington State border – a distance of some 280 kilometres. Within that distance there are 17 different microclimates. They can grow cool climate wines in the northern sector, the classic European whites along the upper Okanagan and, most importantly, they can ripen the Bordeaux varieties and Shiraz in the southern sector with is desert-like conditions.

Ontario, by contrast, is a horizontal region. We have a pretty even temperature range across the three major viticultural areas. So we don't have the luxury of a wide spectrum of grapes that will ripen in our soil.

In all the literature you read about Ontario, the region is compared to Burgundy and Bordeaux in terms of climate. So we should learn from the experiences of these two regions. How they have limited the grape varieties to those that best express the terroir in which they are grown.

We have to play to our strengths if we want Ontario wines to flourish and to be taken seriously beyond our provincial borders. What do we do well?

We make terrific Riesling in all of its styles – from bone dry, off-dry, late harvest and Icewine.

We make great Chardonnay in unoaked Chablis style or rich, spicy Puligny-Montrachet style.

The reds are more problematic. Le Clos Jordanne, Flat Rock, Coyote's Run, Inniskillin's Montague Vineyard and Norman Hardie have shown that we can make Burgundian style Pinot Noir. There are other fine producers of Pinot Noir but my point is, if you can't ripen Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon, why try. We can't emulate Australia or California with Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon. Nor can we compete with Chile and Argentina in terms of price.

I say to the winemakers, focus on your strengths and drop wines from your portfolios that are marginal. Ontario wineries make too many wines. It's no good saying consumers would miss this Aligote or this dry Vidal if we dropped it.

I am not going to get into off-shore blends here. I will only say that no self-respecting wine region imports vast amounts of other people's wine to blend into theirs – at least not legally. If you have a poor vintage in Bordeaux or Burgundy you live with it. And it is nothing short of a disgrace that the LCBO puts these so-called "Cellared In Canada" wines on the same shelves as VQA wines.

At Cuvée in March this year John Maxwell, the proprietor of Allen's restaurant on the Danforth – which, incidentally only serves Ontario VQA wines – talked about the need for Ontario winemakers to consider blending their wines. I wholeheartedly agree. Bordeaux can't ripen Cabernet Sauvignon every year either, but by judicious blending with Merlot and Cabernet Franc – and sometimes Petit Verdot and Malbec – they come up with good to great wines nine years out of ten. Blending is a skill and an art that should be front and centre in any winemaking course at COOVI or Niagara College.

The failure of the industry as I see it is the lone gun approach. Rather than riding as a posse many winemakers tend to keep their knowledge to themselves. Winemakers and winery executives are so concerned about getting a leg up on the competition that they are not developing a collegial approach. They should be sharing information and cellar and marketing techniques in order to improve the quality of all Ontario wines.

Take note that Prince Edward County is making a Chardonnay blend from a dozen of its wineries as auction items. The County reminds me what the Niagara Peninsula was like in the early 1980s when winemakers loaned each other equipment and helped each other with the harvest.

In this age of globalization, Ontario is competing with the wines of the world. But you have to capture the hearts and palates of the local market before you can tackle the export market in earnest. British Columbia has amazing consumer support for its wines. Go into any restaurant in Vancouver and you will see a full list of BC wines. In Ontario you'd hard put to see an Ontario wine in a Chinese, Thai, Greek, or Italian restaurant.

In terms of exports the Ontario wine industry should follow the Robert Mondavi sales strategy rather than the Gallo model. Mondavi entered the market with his finest wines and, once established, he created his Woodbridge wines, a low-cost label. Ernest and Julio Gallo started by making jug wines and when they tried to get into the fine wine market, consumers did not take them seriously for many years.

Ontario has entered the export market with Icewine and has created a global icon wine. Ontario Icewine is now, in fact, a brand. Now we have to follow up this interest with our best products in the table wine category. We will always be a niche product. We don't have the economies of scale that they have in the US, Australia, Chile, etc. The cost of producing wines in Ontario is such that we have to convince the top restaurants in Paris, London, Rome, Hong Kong, Mumbai and Bejing that our Rieslings and Chardonnay, Pinot Noirs and Meritage blends deserve a place on their wine lists.

Last year Canada imported 305 million litres of wine; over one third of that came to Ontario. Last year Ontario exported 717,000 litres of wine. 46% went to the US. Much of that was non-VQA wines. 32% of Ontario wine exports were shipped to Korea, Japan, Taiwan, China and Singapore – and virtually all of that would have been Icewine.

In conclusion, let me sum up. The biggest challenges to the Ontario industry are

  1. meeting foreign competition at home
  2. winning the hearts and palates of Ontario consumers
  3. coming together as an industry to promote at home and abroad
  4. cutting down the number of labels each winery makes and concentrating on what we do best. We cannot, nor should we, be all wines to all people.

Ontario is poised to become a source of great food wines for the domestic and the international market. I'm proud of what this industry has achieved in a mere 25 years. So should you be. The future is yours.




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