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Ontario Wine: We're Out of the Bad Old Days (June 14, 2013)

This is a story told to me by one of Ontario's finest who moonlighted as a wine writer. And it must be true, because cops never lie.

In 1965 a group of twenty French officers of the International Police Association were visiting Toronto. While being shown around a local station they were much intrigued by a large cell known as the "drunk tank." Through an interpreter they asked why there were so many men inside. The station sergeant replied that they had been found inebriated in a public place.

The French police went into a huddle and asked the interpreter to inform their host that they thought it was a terrible thing to lock people up for drinking. As they left they passed a liquor cabinet where all the confiscated alcohol was kept. One of the French policemen grabbed a half bottle of a 75-cent Ontario wine and took a sip. He handed it round to his colleagues who immediately proceeded to huddle again. After an animated discussion they instructed the interpreter to pass on the message: "Anyone who drinks this stuff ought to be locked up!"

Those were in the bad old days of Ontario wine when products were made from the dreaded Labrusca grapes, such as Concord. The only problem with the Concord grape is that it makes awful wine. I would rather drink the glue they use to adhere the labels than a Labrusca-based wine. Mercifully, ever since 1988, Concord and its Labrusca kin have been banned from Ontario table wines. As grape juice it can be enjoyable – think Welch's – but when fermented it concentrates a natural chemical compound called methyl anthranilate that gives the wine the unfortunate odour of an agitated fox. Yet Concord, because it was easy to grow and delivered high yields, was to become the workhorse grape of the Ontario wine industry up until the 1940s. And, as the major component in the "Duck" range of pop wines, the Concord grape provided 90% of company profits until the late 1970s.

That wine the French police found actionable would probably have been a 20% alcohol "Sherry" or "Port," made from Concord grapes. These were the products known in the vernacular as "block and tackle" wines. Having consumed a bottle you could walk a block and tackle anyone.

I have been following and recording the advancement of the Ontario wine industry for 37 years now. When I started writing about wine in 1975 there were 10 wineries in Ontario. The only one that is still here under its original name is Inniskillin. Today there are 170 operating wineries, including fruit wineries, in the province. And more are coming. The improvement in quality and style over that time has been nothing short of heroic. If any other manufacturing industry in the country had shown this kind of development and innovation it would be hailed and celebrated by our politicians – who would then take credit for it.

Today the Canadian wine and grape industry as a whole contributes $6.8 billion in economic impact to the Canadian economy. Ontario provides nearly half of this figure, at a total economic impact of $3.3 billion. According to a report commissioned by the Canadian Vintners Association, and other provincial wine associations, for every bottle of wine produced in Canada there is a $31 benefit to the local economy.

We are entering the Golden Age of Canadian wines. Which is a good thing because according to an International Wine & Spirit Research project undertaken for Vinexpo, the biennial wine exposition in Bordeaux, Canada will become the fifth-fastest-growing wine market worldwide – behind China, the United States, Russia and Germany. Currently, growth in Canadian wine consumption is three times as fast as at the world level. Between 2007 and 2011, Canadian wine consumption increased by 14.55%. This statistic translated into the sales through liquor control boards and Alberta's private stores of over 43 million twelve-bottle cases.

The Vinexpo market study predicts this growth in Canadian wine sales will continue at the same pace between 2013 and 2016 and is forecast to reach 14.27%. This is an average annual increase of 3%, three times that of overall world wine consumption.

To give you an idea of this sudden spurt in Canadian wine consumption, sales of rosé wines, which used to be an orphan category, are booming. The consumption of rosé shot up 38.24% between 2007 and 2011, and the study forecasts even greater growth of 45.41% between 2013 and 2016. Admittedly, this is from a small base, but these growth numbers are impressive.

Things might look rosé for Canada's wineries, but what about Icewine, you say? Unfortunately, Icewine has become our calling card around the world. I say unfortunately because you can't build a wine industry on Icewine. When China's vineyards that have been planted expressly to produce Icewine come on stream they will be able to swamp the international market with inexpensive Icewine and undercut our retail price significantly.

I think if we were visited by the French gendarmerie today they would be only too happy to consume the wines of Ontario – and those of the rest of Canada to boot.




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