Heritage Village, Vineland, Ontario

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On the Wine Route


Rural Neighbours


Local Farms


grapeswineGrapes on the Vine

Do grape names make your head spin as much as the wine ?  Here's a brief guide for the diversity in 15,000 acres of vineyards that blanket much of our countryside. 

  Vitis labrusca (Fox Grape)

Concord and Niagara are considered "native" to Ontario although they are cultivars of the wild "Fox" grapes called Vitis labrusca, that the pioneers encountered.  Purple Concord grapes were developed by Ephraim Wales Bull of Concord, Massachusetts in 1849, bred from wild grapes to thrive in cold New England climate.  "Concord" was also the name of the ship that brought the first Mennonites from Krefeld, Germany to Philadelphia in 1683 - whose offspring settled Vineland, Ontario and cultivated the Concord.

 Then in 1869, Thomas Bramwell Welch, a dentist in Vineland, New Jersey invented Concord grape juice, by pasteurization to prevent fermentation. His goal was a "non-alcoholic wine" for church communion.  Niagara is a green grape variety, developed in 1868 by crossing Concord with Cassady grapes, which became Welch's White grape juice.  These labrusca  were grown widely in Niagara for juices, jams and cheap wine, until curtailed by the government sponsored transition in 1989 to vinifera.  The closure of the last juice plant in St. Catharines in 2007 condemned many remaining fields to rot.  Other table varieties that have been grown here are:

Common hardy varieties: Himrod, Sovereign Coronation, Vanessa

Cold sensitive: Canadice, Fredonia, New York Muscat, Patricia, Suffolk Red, Van Buren

A test grape still under development:  Skookum

Warning: Poisonous wild "Grapes"

Edible Fox grapes look very similar in the wild  to Canadian Moonseed (Menispermum canadense). The berries of this climbing vine contain the alkaloid toxin  dauricine, a poison that can kill you.  Moonseeds have a single crescent-shaped seed while edible wild grapes have round seeds.  Moonseeds taste rank. 

 Fox grape seeds (left)  versus crescent poisonous Moonseed (not same scale).


Vitis vinifera

These are the traditional European cultivars that replaced the traditional Vitas labrusca,  beginning in the 1970's made possible by government support and new techniques of trellising and canopy management.   The following are the more common wine grapes in our area, being the more cold resistant varieties (reds are in red):

Auxerrois, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Gamay noir, Pinot noir, Riesling

The following require better mini-climate locations because they are sensitive to extreme winters and spring frosts:

Cabernet Sauvignon, Gewürztraminer, Merlot, Pinot blanc, Pinot gris, Sauvignon blanc,

 Some cultivars are not yet established in Ontario as commercially viable. Here's where the industry shows skill in pushing frontiers:

Malbec, Petit Syrah, Petit Verdot, Sémillon, Viognier


French Hybrids

These grapes predated the shift to vinifera in Niagara when attempts were made in the 1950's to graft vinifera on Canadian labrusca. The following wine grapes are still widely grown:

Baco noir, Chambourcin, De Chaunac, Geisenheim hybrids, Maréchal Foch, Seyval blanc, Vidal

More sensitive to cold is Villard Noir.

Hybrids on trial include: Chardonnel, Traminette


Grape Regions

 Dr. Helen Fisher (University of Guelph) and Ken Slingerland, (OMAFRA) have published a micro-climate map of the region, dividing it into "Niagara Grape Climatic Zones". The map is for sale in local wineries. The following is a simplification: 

The Parkway Zone is the  west bank of the Niagara River; the Lakeshore Zone is a 1 km band of land south of the Lake Ontario; Heritage Village is located in the Central Zone south Lakeshore zone towards the base of the Escarpment; the Bench Zone starts at the south side of the Central zone up the slope of the Escarpment.  The Vinemount zone is at higher elevation south of the Bench Zone. 

The risks in cultivation and the price of land affect wine prices: Land costs are very high for Bench and Lakeshore; cheap on top of the Escarpment. The local fields change in appearance with each stage of growth of the grapes:

Dormant: Closed bud.

Bud Break: mid-May. Leaf tissue shows.

Pre-Bloom: early  June  

Bloom:  Late June

Berry Set: early to mid July 

Cluster Tightening:  early July  to mid September 


   Mid-August for French Hybrids

   Mid-September to end October for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay,  Riesling, Cabernet Franc

   Mid-November for "Late Harvest" style. 

   December-January for icewine.


Fields of  Vitis Vinifera, about June-July.



Fields Vitis Vinifera, fashionably  dressed with netting, for the birds.


Further Reading:


"He Sowed; Others Reaped": Ephraim Wales Bull and the Origins of the 'Concord'



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