Canadian Wine Insider – April 2021

Canadian Wine in 1991

By David Lawrason

A social media post this month from British Columbia’s Blue Mountain Vineyard paused me for a moment, and started a train of thought that has just kept rolling. It was an announcement of the winery’s 30th Anniversary.

In the wine world there is something significant about 30 years – a loose measurement of a generation of effort with a second generation likely underway, and in the vineyard a milestone at which vines become unofficially mature, entering that peak performance window when vigour and health and grape quality align. In Europe, another 30 years is just another 30 years. But, in Canada and other new regions, 30 years is virtually our first 30 years. Especially for estate-based wineries making wine from their own fruit.

When I started to think about 30 years ago in Canada, I realized 1991 was a pivotal moment, when give or take 1990 and 1992 as well, quality, estate-based winemaking started to really gather momentum, with Blue Mountain being a great example, but not the only one.

This is not to dismiss even earlier efforts during the late 1970s and early 80s when Canada’s true pioneers, who envisioned quality-based vinifera grapes, sowed the seeds in a country with no fine wine history – Inniskillin, Chateau des Charmes, Hillebrand, Vineland Estates, Stoney Ridge, Reif and Pelee Island in Ontario, and Sumac Ridge, Gray Monk and Hainle in B.C.  And virtually no wineries elsewhere in the country, although Jost, Grand Pre and Ste Famille were budding in Nova Scotia, and handful of estate-based wineries in Quebec did get going in the 80s as well.

But 1991 was the year when a new optimism for estate-based winemaking began to translate into larger scale possibility and reality, and regions beyond, and sub-regions within, Niagara and the Okanagan began to see the light of day.

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The National Landscape in 1991

The impetus for this awakening was the North American Free Trade Agreement between Canada and the USA, signed in 1989, and the industry’s reaction to NAFTA. I will try to make the story succinct but it is crucial to the narrative. There was huge concern that with the removal of domestic tax advantage (1% for Cdn vs 66% for imports) Free Trade would erase domestic competitive advantage, especially for an industry dominated then by large wine manufacturers without their own vineyards. The few small land-based wineries were equally concerned. But they recognized that they held the key to survival by creating a quality-focused, terroir-based industry that was regulated with the same rigour of Europe’s appellation system to foster consumer confidence. Thus, the Vintner’s Quality Alliance, or VQA, was born in 1989 in Ontario and 1990 in B.C. At the time I was wine columnist for the Globe and Mail, and I vividly remember the mix of anxiety and optimism presented by the wineries when they floated the VQA concept.

Provincial governments also played a pivotal role at this juncture, funding the industries in B.C. and Ontario for the transition. Most important was vine pull-out of native labrusca vines and some hybrids (winter hardy French-North American varieties) that were not translating into good wine at the time. As vineyards replanted to vinifera from 1989 to 1993, they were sowing the seeds for Canada’s ascendancy. At this point, B.C. also broadened its regulations to allow small ‘farmgate’ wineries to sell direct from their own estate wineries.

But of course, at this time, there was little consumer confidence in Canadian wine. In researching 1991 in Canadian wine I came across an article in Maclean’s magazine from May of that year. It was titled “A Test of Tastes: Canadian Wineries are Fighting Domestic Bias”. It outlined the reasons for that, naming the country’s previous history of “producing sweeter, less expensive wines targeted for the mass market”. And it quoted winemakers of the day who, standing on this brink, were cautiously optimistic. “The only way we will survive is to convince people that we have a quality product. So many Canadians don’t know their own products.” Donna Lailey told Maclean’s. She was an avant garde grower specializing in Bordeaux varieties in what is now known as the Niagara River appellation.

The process of educating Canadians about the possibility of Canadian wine got a boost in 1991 when Inniskillin’s 1989 Vidal Icewine scored a huge victory at a major international competition in Bordeaux, France. It won a Grand Prix d’Honneur, one of only 12 wines so awarded that year in a competition that included thousands of wines. Canada was suddenly on the world wine map, and Canadians, who adore international affirmation, also began to sit up and take notice. In Ontario in 1991 the industry also launched a $5 million advertising campaign with the slogan “We’re Ready When You Are”.

What I find most interesting about this period is the number of new regions and sub-regions that began to take shape. But before describing them I am asking for some latitude and grace on dates. No winery begins in a single year. How do we measure their age – by first planting, by first vintage, by the year their license was obtained, or the year they opened to the public? It doesn’t much matter in retrospect, but all the wineries mentioned here were in some state of progress in 1991.

British Columbia in 1991

In British Columbia, two wineries opened within a year of each other on Vancouver Island. Vigneti Zanatta had been planted earlier with a test plot of dozens of varieties in what was called the Duncan Project that ran from 1983 to 1990, and Zanatta opened in 1991 with that vineyard as its base. Nearby in the Cowichan Valley, another site was also being vineyard tested during the late 80s, being licensed as Blue Grouse Vineyard in 1992. Today, according to the online directory of Canadian wineries called wine411.ca, published by Wine Growers Canada, there are about 44 wineries on Vancouver Island and the neighbouring Gulf Islands.

Over on B.C.’s lower mainland, the Fraser Valley saw its first winery open in this period as well. Domaine de Chaberton had also begun vineyard trials in the 1980s, opening its doors in south Langley, very near the U.S. border in 1991. Today there are 27 wineries in the “Greater Vancouver” area, although several specialize in fruit wines, in Canada’s coolest region based on Growing Degree Days.

In the Okanagan Valley the industry was starting to fan out from its Kelowna base in the north, the historic centre of B.C. wine production. By 1991 Mission Hill and Quails’ Gate were just underway in West Kelowna, Gray Monk was open in Lake Country, and CedarCreek and St. Hubertus were up and running in East Kelowna. They were joined in 1991 by the Summerhill Pyramid winery, with a new focus on sparkling wine. There are now at least 40 wineries in Kelowna and Lake Country.

Farther south down the lake, Hainle had been open in Peachland since 1972, making Canada’s first Icewine in 1973, and becoming Canada’s first organic winery in 1988. In Summerland, Sumac Ridge had been opened by Harry McWatters in 1979. On the other side of the lake, Hillside Vineyard had begun planting in 1984 on the Naramata Bench, opening the winery in 1989, and releasing B.C.s first cabernet sauvignon in 1991. The Naramata boom really began in this period with Lang opening in 1990, Kettle Valley opening in 1991 and Nichol Vineyard beginning to plant a vineyard at the north end of the Bench, a vineyard that included B.C’s first syrah. Today, Summerland has 21 wineries and Naramata has one of Canada’s highest concentration of wineries per square kilometre with 44.

South of Penticton, the Okanagan Falls area awoke in this period as well, with Wild Goose opening in 1990 and Blue Mountain in 1991. The Mavety family at Blue Mountain had actually planted their undulating, much-photographed site in 1971 and sold their fruit to wineries until opening the winery in 1991. Low yield production was focused on Burgundy varieties like pinot noir, pinot gris, chardonnay and gamay, which are now the signature varieties of the new appellation (as of 2019). Okanagan Falls now has 13 wineries.

Southward, from Oliver to Osoyoos, runs an arid swath of the Okanagan Valley without much lake influence, but with impressive bench sites on both sides of the valley. The cooler west side dubbed the Golden Mile was home to only two wineries pre-1991. One was called Divino which opened in the early 80s, based on plantings from the early 60s. Notably it made its first Icewine in 1991, and changed its name to Hester Creek in 1994. The other was Gehringer Brothers which had opened in 1985. The Tinhorn Creek vineyard was being planted on the Golden Mile from 1989 through 1991, but would not open as Tinhorn Creek until 1993, which was the same year the Wyse family began planting Burrowing Owl. Today the South Okanagan is home to over 50 wineries.

In 1991, other regions like the Similkameen Valley, Thompson River Valley, Shuswap, Lilloet and The Kootenays – that are now BC VQA regions – were yet to be considered as wine growing areas.

Ontario in 1991

The evolution in Ontario was not quite as dramatic or far flung at this precise moment in time, with some major estate winery developments having happened in the eighties with the opening of sub-regionally based Konzelmann, Cave Spring, Henry of Pelham, Thirty Bench and Vineland Estates on the Niagara Escarpment, adding to the aforementioned group that started up late 70s and early 80s. Other small “bench” wineries to appear at this juncture included Stoney Ridge which outgrew its garage on Fifty Road and moved down the hill to take up residence at Puddicombe in Winona. Hernder Estates opened in the now Short Hills Bench region in 1991. Bench producer Eddy Gurinskas had also begun to turn heads with his big reds at Lakeview Cellars.

As did intrepid Dutch grower John Marynissen who had planted Bordeaux reds like cabernet sauvignon in what is now a vineyard right on the boundary of Niagara River and Four Mile Creek – today recognized as an Ontario sweet spot for these varieties. Just ask winemaker J.L. Groux who made the first vintage of Trius in 1991 from Four Mile Creek fruit, a Bordeaux blend that continues to define the genre in Niagara. Loire-raised and Bordeaux schooled he remains hard at work in Niagara-on-the-Lake today at Stratus. And although the significance wouldn’t become apparent until later, Southbrook Farms also opened in 1991. The winery was located at the Redelmeier family’s market garden north of Toronto but the fruit for impressive Bordeaux reds was coming from Donna Lailey in the Niagara River appellation, and the wines were made by Derek Barnett, still active with his own brand called Meldville. Today, Southbrook is an important organic producer with a showpiece winery in Four Mile Creek.

Lake Erie North Shore was underway as a wine region in 1991 with Pelee Island Winery’s impressive 200 acres planted off shore on Pelee Island, and Colio, being a bottler of purchased fruit until they planted their own vineyards in Kingsville in 1992. But the real story at the time was beginnings of the estate winery movement with the opening of D’Angelo in 1990 (planted in the early 80s) and the beginning of planting at Sprucewood Grove in 1991. Today there are just over 20 wineries Lake Erie North Shore, with another dozen in the environs of southwestern Ontario.

Elsewhere, Prince Edward County, Georgian Bay and the inland regions of south-central Ontario were not being considered for viticultural, whereas today are about 70 wineries outside of Niagara and Lake Erie North Shore.

Ten Wines from Vineyards 30 years +

Before linking you to currently available wines from vineyards that are 30 or more years of age – so you can taste the difference that vine age and terroir make – I want to acknowledge the work of two colleagues who have written extensively on Canadian wine history, and provided much of the information above. Good friend Tony Aspler, now living in Niagara, was author of two editions of Vintage Canada, the second published in 1993 being a great window onto the era under discussion above. He too was capturing the beginning of a new era. Prolific wine writing colleague John Schreiner of Vancouver has authored an incredible 17 books on Canadian wine since 1984, most being focused on British Columbia, including his most recent (2017) entitled “Icon: Flagship Wines of British Columbia’s Best Wineries”.  In 1991 who would ever have imagined such a book might be written about Canadian wine.

British Columbia

Blue Mountain Pinot Blanc 2019, Okanagan Valley, B.C.
$25  Retail in BC, AB, Winery

Gray Monk Pinot Auxerrois 2019, Okanagan Valley
$19.64 Retail in BV, Winery

Quails’ Gate Stewart Family Reserve Chardonnay 2018, Okanagan Valley,
$46  Retail in BC, Winery

CedarCreek Platinum Clone 777 Pinot Noir 2018, Okanagan Valley,
$45  Winery (one of three clonal bottlings)

Tinhorn Creek Oldfield Reserve Merlot 2017, Okanagan Valley,
$35, Retail in BC, Winery

Ontario

Cave Spring CSV Riesling 2018, Beamsville Bench, Niagara Peninsula
$29.95 VINTAGES and Winery

Thirty Bench Winemaker’s Blend Riesling 2019, Beamsville Bench, Niagara Peninsula
$22.95, VINTAGES and Winery

Hidden Bench Fume Blanc Rosomel Vineyard 2019, Beamsville Bench, Niagara Peninsula
$29.95 VINTAGES & Winery

Henry Of Pelham Speck Family Reserve Chardonnay 2019, Short Hills Bench, Niagara Peninsula
$29.95 VINTAGES May 1, Winery

Trius Red The Icon 2018, Niagara Peninsula
$24.95 VINTAGES & Winery

 

Go to the complete Guide to Canada’s Best Wines.


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