Canada is not the first wine producing country that most people think of, and yet it's vineyards are known for quality cool climate product. Despite it's massive size, it's production is only about 2% as that of the United States. Expect powerful Cabernet blends and aromatic dry Rieslings, but more so than anything, ice wine is the unquestionable flagship of Canadian wines.
General Terroir & History
Wine was made in Canada since the early 16th century, where native people were making wine from wild grapes. The first commercial scale of wine was from the early European settlers, which were the French. The established colonies in present-day Quebec and Nova Scotia, bringing with them vines & winemaking knowledge from their homeland.
Quebec climate was found to be well-suited for winemaking, and by the 19th Century, became the centre of winemaking in Canada. However, Phylloxera & Prohibition cause the industry to stagnate, and it's only in recent years where the wine industry has been rejuvenated with many new wineries and vineyards being established across the country.
Currenly, most of the winemaking is concentrated in Ontario, with about 600 wineries across various regions in the country, mainly growing international grape varietals. This was largely driven by the Canada–United States Free Trade Agreement in 1988, which presented Canadian winemakers with a larger market, driving the import of international varieties to improve quality of wines.
Most of the country has a cool climate environment, with the exception of some smaller regions which experience hot summers. All of the major wine regions are in close proximity to the sea or large lake bodies, critical to vines' survival in freezing temperatures.
The Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA) classification system is established in the provinces of Ontario and British Columbia to designate Viticultural Areas, regional appellations and sub-appellations. The system also evaluates eligible wines, similar to France's AOC & Italy's DOC.
Major Wine Varietals & Styles
The flagship wines of Canada would without a doubt be Icewines. These luscious sweet wines made from frozen over grapes are perfect for the harsh winters of Canada, and it's no surprise that the majority of the world's ice wine comes from Canada. On top of this, Powerful cool climate Cabernet blends, as well as aromatic dry Rieslings, are other important wines in the country's portfolio. You can also expect single varietal Pinot Noir & Cabernet Franc as prevalant styles in Canada.
Due to the cool climate of Canada, sparkling wines from Canada are a growing trend due to it's tendency for higher acidity. Made in both traditional & Charmat methods across all major wine producing regions, expect loads of Chardonnay based sparkling wines from Canada.
Light Bodied White Wine
Pinot Gris (Pinot Grigio) is a refreshing crisp white wine that has found itself within New World Canada. Growing well in cooler climates, it matures early & has high sugars, and can be made in a more bodied still with slight sweetness, or fermented to dryness. Canadian expressions tend to be more bodied, featuring notes of apples, pears and stone fruits with a hint of spice or smoke.
Full Bodied White Wine
The Chardonnay vine can be found across all major Canadian winegrowing regions, with both oaked & unoaked expressions. Due to the cool climates of Canada, the oaked expressions tend to still carry higher acidity than warmer climates like California, closer to regional expressions like Washington or Loire Valley.
Vidal was brought to Canada specifically because of it's ability to survive harsh growing conditions, with floral & fruity aromas. As a terroir expressive grape, it can be very different depending on the growing season and the winemaking style. In Canada, you can find dry bodied white wines, but it's most commonly used in icewine production.
Aromatic White Wine
The cool climate of Canada lends itself wonderfully to the production of bright, fragrant Riesling, with plenty of citrus and floral characters. You can find totally dry wines and also some with residual sugar, in a more 'Germanic' style. Plenty of potential.
Light Bodied Red Wine
Pinot Noir, Gamay
Pinot Noir is still a minority in Canada, but certainly with huge potential. The cool climate ensures delicate wines of great finesse. Both the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia, about a four-hour drive east of Vancouver, and the Niagara Peninsula in Ontario are hotspots for this grape.
Gamay is on of the most common grapes grown in the Niagra Peninsula & Prince Edward County of Ontario. Typically, you can expect cleaner expressions of the wine, unlike some of the more rustic Beaujolais styles.
Medium Bodied Red Wine
The most planted red variety in the country, and most often blended with other Cabernet friends for a Bordeaux blend. The single varietal Cabernet Franc wines are great though, slightly less green than the Loire Valley, but still with tense acidity and lovely freshness.
Full Bodied Red Wine
Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah
Cabernet Sauvignon & Merlot can be found throughout British Columbian wine country, although it 's not uncommon to be found in partns of Ontario. These grapes are often blended to produce Bordeaux blends. Note that due to the cool climates, you will find relatively young & elegant expressions, similar to a Washington or Oregon blend, with different compositions including Petit Verdot, Malbec & Cabernet Franc giving different profiles.
Syrah is also on the rise amongst Canadian producers, looking to produce something with fruity yet powerful bouquets.
Dessert & Fortified Wine
Canada is the largest producer of icewine in the world, with almost all of it being produced in Ontario due to the harsh freezing winter temperatures. The lack of dilution when pressed concentrate the sugar, acid and berry extracts in the grape, resulting in highly concentrated flavours and the complex intensity for which Canadian Icewines are known. Canadian icewine is primarily produced from Vidal, Riesling and Cabernet Franc.
Fun Fact: Icewine from Cabernet Franc was not a popular style until recently, due to the significance of the color red among Chinese cultures.
Major Regions / Sub-Regions
Most of the production of wine comes from Ontario, especially the Niagara Peninsula. It's the most famous wine region in Canada, but Okanagan Valley in British Columbia has been the young rising star over the last few decades.
Niagara Peninsula is Ontario's oldest and best-known appellation or VQA. Set at the base of Lake Ontario, it’s home to glacial soils, a cooling effect from the nearby lake, and it's principal varieties include Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Gamay Noir, Riesling, and Cabernet Franc. The unique environmental conditions here result in wines with beautiful acidity and freshness.
Stacked with wineries along the Lake Niagara, it's not uncommon to run into plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as Vidal, grown almost exclusively for ice wine. Pet Nat wines are also a growing trend here. Other than the Niagara Peninsula, Lake Erie North Shore and the Prince Edward County are other noteworthy regions.
Okahagan Valley is what really put British Columbia on the wine map. A warmer climate than Ontario with more sunlight than Napa Valley, look to BC if you prefer wines with more ripe, intensely flavored fruit, across many varietals from Riesling to Syrah. Mostly inland wineries located in dry, sunny valleys, Syrah, Pinot Gris, Merlot, Malbec, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon are popular varietals here.
A harsh winter zone with freezing temperatures, most international varieties do not survive here. As such, it's common to find hybrid grapes that have been grown specifically to withstand the cold temperatures. Maréchel Foch, Frontenac Noir, Blanc and Gris, Vidal, Seyval Blanc and Marquette are the varietals grown here, and the star region of Quebec would be Brome-Missisquoi.
Similar to Quebec, Nova Scotia produces table and dessert wines primarily from hybrid grapes, with a new trend of vinifera plantings. Major varieties are L’Acadie, Muscat, Seyval Blanc, Lucy Kuhlman, Leon Millot and Marechal Foch.
This is Canada's coolest region, home to only 22 wineries, in which traditional-method sparkling wine is becoming a flagship style. An appellation blend called Tidal Bay, first released in 2012, is making waves. Its creation was intended to highlight the crisp and aromatic white wines of the region, and it is held to a rigorous set of stylistic standards to meet production guidelines.