Ontario’s earliest vineyards were established as far back as the 17th Century. European settlers experimented with native grapes such as Vitis labrusca and Vitis riparia as well as the European grape Vitis vinifera. But it wasn’t until 1866 that the first commercial winery was established on Pelee Island. Over the next 30 years the wine industry flourished and around 35 commercial wineries had opened by the year 1900. Around this time, the Industry shifted from Essex County to the Niagara region.
The early wine industry was primarily based native grape varieties that could grow well in Ontario’s climate. Vitis vinifera grapes introduced from Europe were prone to disease and easily damaged by humidity. Unfortunately, the native grape varieties, such as Niagara, Concord and Catawba, produced table wines with a distinctive “foxy” flavour (a musty flavour that is generally thought to be unpleasant).
Prohibition came to Ontario in 1916 and remained in place until 1927. This, however, did not signal the end of Ontario’s wine industry: wineries were exempted from closure and remained open for the export market. In fact, several new wineries were licensed during the Prohibition era.
However, after prohibition laws were repealed, the Government of Ontario issued a moratorium on the issuing of new winery licenses. This led to a substantial decline in the industry. By 1974 the number of wineries operating in the province had fallen from 61 to only 6.
1975 marked a turning point for the grape and wine industry as the government issued the first new winery license in the province since 1929 – to Inniskillin Wines. This was the beginning of a resurgence of the wine industry in Ontario. Originator Donald Ziraldo and winemaker Karl Kaiser continue to be rightly revered for their innovation and entrepreneurship which became a model for a growing legion of winemakers.
As the industry rebounded, grape growers began to develop new techniques, such as improved trellising, canopy management, and reduced yield growing, to grow European grape varieties. This allowed grape growers and wine makers to respond to changing markets and produce more complex and delicate wines. The industry continued to mature and by the 1990s was beginning to compete on the global market.
Today, there are over 180 wineries in Ontario, producing about 71% of Canadian wine. The Niagara Region is particularly conducive for growing classic cool-climate grape varieties such as Riesling, Chardonnay, Gamay Noir, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Franc, although more than 30 varieties are grown in the region.
Both varietal wines (those made from a single grape variety) and blended wines are produced from Niagara Region grapes. Ontario is also world leader in icewine, containing the only major wine region where the climate is conducive for producing icewine in every vintage. The Niagara Peninsula is home to about 60% of Ontario’s VQA wineries and the industry continues to thrive.