Canada’s Modern Grape Varieties
When the Vikings first reached the shores of eastern America, the land was covered with wild grapes that belong to vitis rotundifolia, – labrusca and – riparia family grape varieties. They resist severe colds (below – 25 C) and are relatively immune to the phylloxera vastatrix aphid.
Unfortunately, they contain methyl antrinilate and impart a chemical and unpleasant aroma to wines. The grapes are highly acidic and sugar or de-acidification. Well into1970’s, old large volume oriented wineries insisted that fine wines can be made from these grapes or their hybrids.
The Free Trade Agreement with the U S A was a wake up call and visionary winery owners (D. Ziraldo, K.Kaiser, and Paul Bosc) saw the writing on the wall, and quickly reverted to vitis vinifera grape varieties that yield superior quality, but resist cold less successfully than native varieties. Before them, late John Marynissen had planted on his vineyards between Niagara-on-the-Lake and Niagara Falls vitis vinfiera, and proved that they can, with due care, survive harsh climates.
Today, the majority of grape farmers and wineries plant vitis vinifera grapes and/or labrusca hybrids that have the “foxiness” outbred of them.
Modern Canadian viticulture has a short history (about 40 years or so) but during this period applying European research to local conditions made a lot of advances.
Today there is still some experimentation going on by winemakers, grape growers, and the Cool Climate School of Oenology at the Brock University.
British Columbia farmers use more or less the same grape varieties with a sprinkling of more German varieties. Thanks to late Dr. H. Becker, the director of Geisenheim School of Oenology, who had a soft spot for Canadian grape growers.
Here are the grape varieties used for a range of wines:
Aligote – (less than two hectares) mostly planted in Ontario. Originally from Burgundy, this grape yields fruity but acid-driven wines that require food. High yielding aligote is produced as a varietal by Chateau des Charmes in St Catharines. Other wineries use it for blending.
L’Acadie blanc (approximately 20 hectares in Nova Scotia). Was developed by the Horticultural Research Institute in Ontario for harsh winters. Produces abundantly, but highly acid grapes with low fruitiness.
Auxerrois (50 hectares in Ontario and British Columbia) Native to Alsace, auxerrois withstands cold temperatures well. The wines from low yield sites smell of apples and pears with floral undertones. Only a few wineries produce auxerrois as a varietal wine.
Bacchus (20 hectare in British Columbia only). A cross of riesling, silvaner and muller-thurgau. Produces finely scented wines if fully ripe. British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley is very suitable for bacchus, and Gehringer Brothers winery is well known for its floral off-dry bacchus wines.
Chardonnay (1000 hectares 60 per cent in Ontario and remainder in British Columbia) – is the most popular grape variety with a great future in Ontario, although it originates in Burgundy. The grape has a relatively neutral taste and lends itself well to different styles of winemaking.
It can be made without oak aging, or with, in a number of different oak barrels and toast levels. Some winemakers ferment the must in barrels for additional flavour and to prolong aging potential.
In British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley chardonnay yields softer and very approachable wines
Chardonnay musque (10 hectares) is a highly aromatic clone of chardonnay. In Burgundy it is classified as a chardonnay clone. The fruitiness fades after two years and the wine takes on more chardonnay flavours.
Chenin blanc (10 hectares) This versatile grape variety yields in the Loire Valley wines ranging from dry to off dry and sweet. The best fruit in Canada comes from British Columbia due to climate. It has a natural, pleasant acidity and lends itself well as a base for sparkling wine. Outside of Loire it is extensively planted in South Africa, California and Argentina.
Gewurztraminer (285 hectares in Ontario and British Columbia). Originated in the town of Tramin in northern Italy, but came to prominence in Alsace with a “spicy” clone discovered there. The most famous and flavourful gewürztraminers come from Alsace. In Canada, British Columbia grows more flavourful fruit, if yields are kept low. Gewurztraminer yields dry wines that are floral, and spicy, with lychee nut flavours. Sweeter versions go best with seared fattened goose liver, or pates of it.
Some Ontario wineries produce superbly balanced and delicious gewürztraminer icewines,
Riesling (540 hectares in Ontario and British Columbia). This classic German grape does well in the Ontario Peninsula and yields fine wines ranging from dry to super sweet in the form of icewine. Riesling is a versatile grape, resists cold weather, needs a long, moderately warm growing season, but must be well pruned to keep yields low. Yields up to seven tons per hectare yield flavourful wines.
Ontario’s terroir yields better quality fruit. There are several wineries that produce outstanding Riesling wines in both Ontario and British Columbia.
Sauvignon blanc (220 hectares in Ontario and British Columbia). Originally from the Loire Valley, this grape yields fine wines when the fruit is picked ripe. It yields dry wines with aromas of gooseberries, freshly moved grass, and herbal nuances. It is sensitive to cold weather.
Pinot Gris (pinot grigio, Grauburgunder) (230 hectares in Ontario and British Columbia). A relative of pinot noir, it has become popular mostly due to its light fruity versions hailing from northern Italy. Pinot gris may be fruity and floral at the same time with a spicy edge. British Columbia pinot gris has more depth than the Ontario versions.
Alsace produces very flavourful pinot gris wines with a more pronounced texture.
Pinot blanc (pinot bianco, Weissburgunder) (110 hectares in British Columbia and Ontario).
Another mutation of pinot noir, but needs warm growing season. Wines smell of apples and pears and may be full bodied if the yield is kept low and fruit picked ripe. Pinot blanc is more successful in British Columbia but losing ground to more popular pinot grigio.
Semillon (20 hectares British Columbia and Ontario). A fine aromatic grape requiring hot growing season. Does well in Bordeaux, Australia, California, and British Columbia in Canada. Mostly used in blending.
Viognier (15 hectares in British Columbia and Ontario). At home in southern Cotes du Rhone this aromatic grape is a newcomer to Canada. The best come from Condrieu and smell of apricots and peaches. Viognier grows well in British Columbia, Australia, California, and Cotes du Rhone.
Vidal (670 hectares), mostly planted in Ontario. This hybrid a.k.a Vidal 256 is a cross of ugni blanc (trebbiano) and S 4986. Vidal is prolific and thick-skinned, winter hardy, and popular in Ontario particularly for icewine. Grapes resist shattering when frozen on the vine. It can be made to a fine dry wine in the hands of capable winemakers.
Seyval blanc (cross between S 5656 and S 4986). Used to be very popular in Ontario due to its winter hardiness, but yield a relatively neutral-flavoured wine mostly used for sparkling wine blends and still wine component.
Gruner Veltliner (less than five hectares). Is a popular Austrian acid-driven grape with a few hectares in Ontario. Inniskillin used to produce a varietal wine, but stopped due to marketing difficulties. Gruner Veltliner can yield lively, fruity wines when picked ripe.
Muscat-Ottonel (30 hectares in Ontario, British Columbia and Nova Scotia). Originally from the Loire Valley. It yields floral, fruity wines, particularly when harvested late. A few Ontario wineries make and market Muscat-Ottonel.
Optima (five hectares in British Columbia) is a cross between Muller-Thurgau and Siegerrebe, and yields fine, fruity, honeyed wines when harvested ripe. It likes hot climates.
Kerner is a cross between courtillier musque and riesling – A few hectares exist in Ontario and at least one winery produces a fine fruity, off dry varietal. It is highly recommended for fruit bowls, and patio sipping.
Ehrenfelser (25 hectares in British Columbia). It is a cross between riesling and silvaner Developed in Germany, it produces floral, fruity, low-alcohol wines, which are eminently suitable for patio sipping. Gehringer Brothers winery in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley produces fine Ehrenfelser varietals.
There are a few hectares of Geisenheim 234 in Prince Edward County and probably a few more planted by curious and experiment-oriented growers.
Baco noir is one of the more successful French hybrid grapes in Ontario (400 hectares). It is a cross of folle blanche and riparia, and was developed by Francois Baco, a French hybridiser) in 1902. It ripens early, is winter hardy, and yields fine wines if not over cropped. It deserves more attention than it gets by consumers, who believe it to be inferior because of its parentage. There are two Ontario wineries that produce fine baco noirs.
De Chaunac (unknown parentage but related to S 5.163) is popular in Ontario due to its winter hardiness. It can produce respectable mid-weight wines if not over cropped. Its popularity is fast declining in Ontario, but increasing in Nova Scotia.
Chambourcin – Joannes Seyve, a French hybridiser, developed Chambourcin. Yields wines of deep colour and full body. It used to be quite popular in 1980’s in Ontario, but is now used as a blending wine.
Marechal Foch (Kuhlmann 188.2). A cross between riparia-rupestris and goldriesling. developed by Kuhlmann, an Alsatian, director of the wine school there and hybridiser. Marechal Foch is winter hardy, ripens early and yields purple, mid-weight wines. It used to be very popular in Ontario. Still a few Ontario wineries use it for blending. In Nova Scotia it is used to produce a varietal.
Leon-Millot (Kuhlmann 194.2) possesses the same parentage as Marechal Foch. This vigorous and early ripening grape used to be quite popular 30 years ago, but has been losing ground for some time.
Chancellor (S 5163X S800) a fruitful and winter hardy hybrid that yields light, fruity wines. It is losing popularity to vitis vinifera grapes.
Chelois (Seibel 10.878) a moderately productive, winter hardy vine that yields mid-weight wines. Now used mostly in blends.
Cabernet franc (600 hectares in Ontario and British Columbia). Originally from Bordeaux this cool climate vitis vinifera grows well in Ontario. Yields fine, fruity, “spicy” wines if not over cropped. In cool seasons the wines can taste herbaceous. Mostly used in Bordeaux style blends (cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc) as the “spicy” component. A few Ontario wineries produce cabernet franc varietals that are “juicy”, succulent, and very appealing. There are few wineries that produce a cabernet franc icewine with appealing texture and flavour.
Cabernet sauvignon (650 hectares in Ontario and British Columbia). Originally from Bordeaux it requires a long, warm growing season. When fully ripe it yields fruity wines (mostly berry aromas), mid-weight to full bodied that that age well. It is tannic and requires careful wine making and blending techniques. In British Columbia a few wineries produce outstanding cabernet sauvignon varietals and Bordeaux blends.
Gamay noir (220 hectares in Ontario and British Columbia). A native of Beaujolais in southern Burgundy. Yields fruity light wines if properly pruned. It requires warm growing seasons. Some wineries have been making gamay wines for a number of years but in general this delightful grape failed to capture the imagination of consumers.
Nebbiolo (less than five hectares in Ontario). Believe it or not one Ontario winery has been successful in growing this capricious thin-skinned grape originally from Piedmont in northern Italy.
Merlot (400 hectares in Ontario and 375 in British Columbia). A native of Bordeaux, this soft and fruity wine-yielding grape has been planted for a number of years, and is mostly used in meritage (cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc) blends. Now some wineries use the term meritage, copied from California, instead of the term Bordeaux blend.
In British Columbia it ripens fully and smells reminiscent of plums yielding luscious wines. In southern Okanagan Valley merlot yields fine, dark-coloured and intense wines.
When over cropped, it yields neutral-tasting wine and needs a warm, long growing season. When unripe, the taste of merlot is disappointing.
Sangiovese, the most popular red wine grape of Italy, has been planted in Ontairo for experimental purposes. It is too early to say how it will evolve.
Syrah/Shiraz (50 hectares in British Columbia and 20 in Ontario). Syrah is the main grape of northern Rhone Valley where yields spectacular wines. In Australia where it is called Shiraz, it yields fruit-forward, dark, highly alcoholic wines that are blended with viognier (a white grape) to tone it down.
In British Columbia syrah grows well and yields intense wines. In Ontario it has been quite successful as it ripens early, providing vines were pruned for low yield.
Pinot noir is a native of Burgundy. This capricious grape needs a cool and long growing season and must be pruned for low yield. It is prone to mutation and susceptible to rot on humid days.
Pinot noir can yield fine wines in Ontario and British Columbia if planted on the right terroir and with the right clone.
Prince Edward County seems to have suitable terroir for pinto noir if yields are kept low. There have been some successful pinot noir wines in Ontario and British Columbia i.e Clos Jordanne, Closson Chase, Flat Rock, and Vineland Estates.
Zinfandel (under five hectares in Ontario). Originally from southern Italy, there called primitivo, it was transplanted in California and the name changed to zinfandel. It was the workhorse of the wine industry in California for a long time. Even today, a large area of land is devoted to zinfandel. Zinfandel can yield fine, spicy, dark-coloured, full-bodied, very flavourful wines but also very pale and off dry products pending on winemaking technique applied. Regardless, in Ontario, only a few growers have planted a few hectares for experimental purposes.
Zweigelt (under 10 hectares in Ontario). This Austrian crossing (Blaufrankisch x St Laurent) was developed by professor Zweigelt at the Klosterneuburg Wine Station and School of Oenology south of Vienna. It ripens early, yields generously and can be made to dark, fruity, age-worthy wines.
Pelee Island winery has been quite successful with this grape mainly due to the location of the vineyards.