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  • Niagara vs Okanagan

    The history of wine in Canada boasts hundreds of years of history. That may sound like a lot, until you compare it to the old-world countries of Italy, France, and Spain, who have been producing wine for millennia.

    The first Canadian wines were planted in Ontario in the early 1800s, by Italian and German immigrants who had brought vine clippings with them from the old country.

    It took a few decades of trial and error to find European grape varietals that would flourish in the Niagara region of Ontario, but we eventually got it right by finding the hardiest European varietals most suited to our short summers.

    The Canadian wine industry expanded from the Niagara region to the Okanagan Valley of BC in 1859, when a French missionary planted grapevines in Kelowna for sacramental purposes.

    The first grape varietals planted in BC were hardy and cold-resistant, but tasted similar to boiled strawberries, so they never saw much success outside of the church. Fortunately, new varietals were planted over the following decades, and a commercial wine industry was well established by the 1920s.

    Ontario is still the largest wine producing area in Canada, with 17 thousand acres under vine, most of which is planted between 41-44° north, the same latitude as the famed Burgundy region of France.

    Production in BC is noticeably smaller, with only 10 thousand acres under vine, although BC wineries tend to have higher yields per acre and win more awards than their Ontario counterparts.

    The climate in Ontario is a bit cooler, which allows cool-climate grapes like Pinot Noir and Riesling to dominate. The Okanagan Valley of BC is more desert like, with hot summers that allow the bigger reds like Cab Sauv and Syrah to flourish.

    As a long-time fan of the Bordeaux varietals, my favourite Canadian wines tend to be from BC, as those noble grapes (Merlot, Cab Sauv, Cab Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot) are better suited to the terroir in the Okanagan Valley.

    While the wines of BC win the hearts and minds of those who prefer big and lush reds, the wines of Ontario excel in elegance and complexity, particularly for Pinot Noir. This is unsurprising, as Ontario wine country shares the same latitude as Burgundy, ancestral home of the Pinot Noir grape, where it has grown for thousands of years.

    Proximity has made it easier for me to visit BC wine country at least once a year, and the passage of Bill C-311 back in 2013 means that I am no longer considered a clandestine smuggler when I return home with a few cases of fine BC wine for personal consumption.

    I have also toured the wineries of the Niagara Peninsula several times, with my favourite grape being the Baco Noir varietal, a cold-tolerant hybrid of the noble Folle Blanc grape from France, and an indigenous North American grape.

    If there was ever a signature grape of Ontario, Baco Noir would be it, and is produced in a great many Ontario wineries. My favourite is the Henry of Pelham Baco Noir, available right at the winery door, or at well-stocked booze merchants right here in Alberta for around $18.

    With cedar notes on the nose, followed by blackberry and plum flavours on the palate, Baco Noir usually has a long and smoky finish, pairing well with smoked meats and pasta dishes.

    For BC wines, my favourites are typically blends made with the traditional grapes of Bordeaux, which are often labeled as Meritage in North America.

    One of my first samples of BC wine was the Sumac Ridge Merlot, which has been grown for decades on Black Sage Road, widely considered one of the premier locations in the valley for Merlot production.

    While I brought home several assorted cases from my last pilgrimage to the Okanagan Valley, my top pick was the Church and State Meritage, a Bordeaux-styled blend of Cab Sauv, Merlot, and Cab Franc.

    Extended oak ageing gives the wine notes of vanilla and cocoa, while the grapes from the vineyards along Black Sage Road provide lush flavours of cherry and black currant. At only $25, it drinks more like a $50 bottle, so I made sure to bring home an entire case.

    Whatever your preference, there is a BC or Ontario wine to whet your whistle. Pick up a bottle of each from your friendly neighbourhood booze merchant and decide for yourself!