Heritage Village, Vineland, Ontario

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On the Wine Route


Rural Neighbours


Local Farms


History of Niagara Wine

Commercial wine making in Niagara began about 1852 with arrival of the Concord grape from Massachusetts. Such native labrusca grapes produced a wine with a "foxy" taste which could not compete with European table wines.  Yet the fertile soils of Niagara were at the same latitude (41°-50°) as Northern California and the famous wine regions of Champagne in France, Chianti Classico in Italy or Rioja in Spain.  

The Niagara Falls Wine Company, founded in 1874 by Thomas G. Bright and Francis A. Shirriff, was forerunner to Brights Wines. Brights experimented in the 1950's with European Vinifera, such as Chardonnay and Riesling, but didn't take the commercial plung. Instead, Niagara vintners offered products to a largely beer-drinking public that was masked with sugar, purified with sulphur and coloured with vegetable dyes.  

When my immigrant father tasted his first Niagara wines in 1957, Parkdale Wines Ltd. was selling "Canadian Haut Sauterne" from Niagara for $1.00.  Danforth Wines Ltd.of St. Catharines was selling "Canadian Tokay" for $0.75. The  Sauternais of France and Tokaji wines from Hungary both refered to sweet dessert wines, famous since the 18th Century, made from raisined grapes affected by "noble rot" (Botrytis cinerea).  The Niagara wineries had fungus-infected grapes, but their wines were not noble.  Parkdale Wines Ltd. became a division of Labatts Brewery in 1965. 


 The top selling domestic product in1973 was Bright's Baby Duck,  made from carbonated water, sugar and Niagara juice grape varieties, mainly Concord. Baby Boomers, coming of age, thought they were drinking wine. Sales in Canada reached 8 million bottles in 1971, with the only serious competitor being Mateus Rose' from Portugal. Almost nobody in Portugal drank Mateus Rosé - it was strictly for export (99%).  Baby Duck tried to enter the export market via London in 1978: Europeans laughed. In 1980, Andre' re-labeled Baby Duck a "refreshment drink". BabyDuck

Local family farms were more adventurous in viniculture.  The Lenko family of Beamsville grew Chardonnay grapes since 1959. French hybrids were planted by William Lailey back in the 50's in Niagara-on-the-Lake.  The Puddicombe family farm in Winona grew Gamay Noir and Chardonnay since 1962.

 In 1974, some 45 years after Prohibition, Ontario's LCBO finally issued a new wine producing license. Donald Ziraldo,a University of Guelph graduate, and vintner Karl Kaiser received the first new license to produce and sell wine, for Inniskillin Wines in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Other entrepreurs soon followed such as Paul Bosc (Chateau des Charmes), and Len Pennachetti (Cave Spring Cellars), but planting the tender European  Vinifera grapes was still considered a big risk. For his trail blazing effort of planting the first  commercial vineyard, fully dedicated to European "vitis vinifera", Paul Bosc Sr. was awarded the Order of Canada in 2005.

By the 1980's the Europeans took notice and joined the industry transformation.  Reif Estate Winery opened in 1982. In 1984, the Konzelmann family relocated their Stuttgart wine making operations dating from 1893, to land on the Lakeshore, outside Niagara-on-the-Lake.

The new industry rampled up in 1988 when NAFTA changed the rules of trade with the USA,   throwing Concord grape growers in Niagara into crisis. Ontario and British Columbia declared war on native labrusca VQA signrapes and paid incentives to clear vines from some 10,000 acres  to make room for more "noble" grapes.   This grape vine pull-out and replacement in 1989 converted the Niagara region into a world-class wine producer but left a lanscape riddled with fields of dead and rotting vines.    

That same year, standards were established by the industry via the VQA label ("Vintners Quality Alliance".  By 1999, the VQA waa upgraded to a Provincial statute. The Wine Content Act was passed in 2001 by Ontario: to regulate all  wine making, blending, and labels, as protection for consumers as well as grape growers and vintners.  

During 1997, Brock University established their  Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute (CCOVI).  Niagara College soon followed, with  technologist training in teaching vineyards.  A Wine Visitor and Education Centre was opened on their campus by HRH Prince Charle,s on November 5, 2009.

As the vineyards aged and the quality of wines improved, the Niagara wineries began taking home an impressive array of international awards.  The industry is no longer an ugly baby duckling. 


wine bottles



Further Reading


For information on grape varieties, go to:  Grapes and Vineyards 

The story of Icewine, and Canada's world dominance, we'll save for another webpage.


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