In the 17th century, early settlers planted Ontario’s first vineyards using native labrusca grapes. A hundred years later, French settlers in southwestern Ontario’s Essex County grew both native and European varieties. The first commercial winery in Canada was established on Pelee Island in 1866, starting a trend in winery development that saw as many as 35 enterprises formed in the late 1800’s. However, the European vines planted by settlers were prone to disease and damage from the humid weather, while native varieties flourished. Table wines made from these grapes had a distinctive "foxy" flavour, and the early Canadian wine industry was based on varieties like Niagara, Concord and Catawba.
The grape industry, initially centred in Essex County, shifted to Niagara by the early 1900s.
When Prohibition was repealed in 1927, the government placed a moratorium on issuing new winery licenses. The number of wineries fell from 61 to six by 1974.
In 1956, Ontario had six million vines, with 60% being native Concords. By the 1960s, French hybrids were becoming more common in Ontario vineyards, and consumer preference was changing from sweeter table and dessert wines to dryer, lower alchohol table wines. In the 1970s, this demand continued to increase and several growers, who already had begun planting vinifera vines, were beginning to see the future. Advances in viticulture were beginning to transform the industry.
In 1975, Inniskillin Wines was granted the first new winery licence in the province since 1929. This proved to be the turning point for the Ontario grape and wine industry, and more growers began responding to the changing market, changing consumer tastes toward more premium wines and the maturation of the industry. While public opinion suggested that vinifera grapes could not be grown in Ontario, several prescient growers thought otherwise. They proved the nay-sayers wrong.
The subsequent growth of cottage wineries has reflected the boom in our grape and wine industry. Today, there are more than 180 wineries in Ontario producing about 71 per cent of total Canadian wine volume.
Today, there are 17,000 acres of vines in eastern, southern and southwestern Ontario. With a focus on growing premium vinifera and French hybrid crops, viticulture is well established in Niagara, Lake Erie North Shore and Prince Edward County. These are the province’s three designated Viticultural Areas (VAs), or appellations of origin. The success of the industry is drawing more people to grape growing and winemaking, and creating opportunities to showcase our outstanding 100% Ontario (VQA) wines around the world.
Economic Impact: The importance of grape growing to Ontario's economy
Ontario has a rich history of grape production, but the past 25 years have really seen an amazing evolution of the industry. Today, the grape growing industry contributes to Ontario's economy in diverse ways. It creates jobs and activities in manufacturing, processing, tourism and education. The grape production sector creates jobs in other sectors that provide it with goods and services, and it creates jobs in the sectors that use and merchandise its products. Grape growing and winemaking generate exports and tax revenues; together, the grape and wine industry has an enormous impact on the economy of Ontario.
For the first time in the last 30 years, grapes are the most valuable fruit in Ontario in terms of farm gate value. Grapes comprise 35% of the total farm value of Ontario commercial fruit crops. Over the last few years, grapes have been one of the few growth areas in Ontario agriculture, and represent increasing farm revenues. That increase can be directly attributed to the switch in acreage to higher-valued viniferas, which are in strong demand by Ontario wineries and consumers.
The majority of new plantings have been with vinifera varieties. Over the last several years, growers have invested more than $125 million in expanding vineyards to supply wineries’ demands for more premium grapes.