Though one might not necessarily expect it from a land associated with mounties and maple syrup, Canada has been making wine for over 200 years and has a flourishing industry. The heartlands of the Canadian wine industry are found across four regions:
- British Columbia
- Nova Scotia
Something these regions have in common is their proximity to large bodies of water (lakes, seas, and sometimes both), which shield the vines from the devastating effects of the severe winters.
The first Canadian wine-makers tried to cultivate the European vitis vinifera. After only limited success they turned their attention instead to native American vines such as vitis labrusca (to be carefully distinguished from menispermum canadense, a poisonous local plant also called Canadian Moonseed) and vitis riparia. Wine-makers concentrated on these vines until the 1970s when French hybrids – Vidal Blanc, Seybal Blanc, Baco Noir and Maréchal Foch (aka ‘Foch’) – were introduced.
Initially, the majority of Canada’s production was fortified wines, styled after Port and Sherry, but when the hybrid vines were introduced, consumer demand gradually shifted towards table wines with a much lower alcoholic content.
Since the late 1980s, the growing success of vinifera wines such as , both for the home and international Canadian market has shifted emphasis on these varieties (esp. Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Merlot and even Pinot Noir in warm pockets of the country).
Though each region has its own specialities, Canada is particularly renowned for high quality sweet wines such as Icewine (of which it is the world’s largest producer) and late harvest wines from Riesling, Vidal, Ehrenfelser or Optima.
Canadian wines are governed by an appellation system known as the VQA (Vintners Quality Alliance) which guarantees the quality of the wines made under its auspices. Wines bearing an appellation designation must be made exclusively from vinifera grapes. The only exception to this is Icewine, which can be made from Vidal.
Considered as the most famous quality ambassador for Canada’s wine industry, Icewine is produced in British Columbia, Québec and Ontario. Though it is speculated that the Romans may have produced something similar to Icewine and that it was first accidentally made in Germany in 1794, the first intentional production of Icewine occurred in the Rheingau region in 1830.
Canada’s appellation system, the VQA, strictly regulates the wine-making process. Icewine must be made exclusively from either vitis vinifera grapes or from the hybrid Vidal; the addition of sweet reserve is forbidden. The harvest takes place by hand, after temperatures have dropped below 13˚C (usually around December) and the grapes have frozen naturally on the vines - no artificial grape freezing is permitted.
The process of freezing and thawing during this wintry exposure shrivels the grapes and concentrates its sugars, acids and extracts. This means that by the time grapes are harvested an “icewine vine” will produce, on average, only one-fifth the amount of the juice of a typical vine.
The production of Icewine is a laborious, elaborate and expensive process. If left too long, grapes run the risk of being eaten by animals or becoming too frozen to yield any juice. As grapes must be pressed while still frozen, pickers and cellar-workers must work in bitter cold and at unsociable hours to ensure the finest quality is achieved. Due to their high sugar content, Icewines can take several months to ferment – considerably longer than other wines.
Icewine is lusciously sweet, seductive and intensely flavoured, however the fruit sweetness is perfectly balanced by vivid, refreshing acidity. Signature flavours include mango, peach, lychee, passion fruit and pineapple. Classic grapes for Icewine production are: Riesling, Seyval Blanc, Vidal Blanc and, notably, the red grape Cabernet Franc. Cabernet Franc Icewine displays a light pink colour, similar to a Rosé wine.