Drinking to success: Ontario wines aging well
By Brad Lister
Candlelight flickers across the faces of a couple as they stare into each other's eyes. They take a sip from their wine glasses.
For decades the wine of choice for the romatic dinner and wine connoisseurs alike has been European. However, these days the wine most Canadians are drinking is domestic. Chances are even better it is from Ontario. "Ontario wines have made considerable gains in public recognition in the last five or six years," says Chris Layton, press officer for the Liquor Control Board of Ontario.
"There has been definite sales growth as well with Ontario wines," he adds.
With the growth in sales and greater public recognition of domestic wines comes an expansion of the industry. Layton says within the last five or six years the number of wineries in Ontario has almost doubled. These days Ontario wines are able to compete with the best from around the world, he adds.
But not long ago, the picture for the Ontario wine industry wasn't so rosy. "About a decade ago we encountered a huge bump in the road," Linda Franklin, executive director of the Wine Council of Ontario, recalls. Franklin refers to the time when the North American Free Trade Agreement came into effect. "Until then we had a huge price advantage over foreign wines, but with free trade, the markups were equalized and we had two choices go out of business overnight, or learn to compete on a different level," he recalls. The industry chose to compete and now, a decade later, Ontario wines have begun to compete internationally. The Council set up a major marketing plan to educate the public about Ontario wines.
The image they had to displace was the idea of Baby Duck. "It was a decent wine but not something you serve guests." Franklin says they also had to show people this was a climate wine grapes could be grown in. "We had to get out the map and show people that we are on the same latitude as Burgundy, France.
"In the late '80s Ontario ice wines really put Ontario on the map at international competitions," Franklin says. Ice wine is made from frozen grapes that are picked when the temperature hovers around minus eight degrees for a week. The resulting wine is an intensely sweet wine.
The Council also set up something which is proving to be very popular with wine consumers, says Layton. The VQA (Vinters Quality Alliance) standard is a seal of quality given to Ontario wines. To those educated about wines it's an appellation system. To the general public it's a quality seal of approval.
There are stringent criteria in order for an Ontario wine to meet VQA standards which come in two levels according to information published by the Wine Council. A wine can either have a provincial designation, which means that only grapes grown in the province can be used in making the wine. To be designated with the more stringent provincial designation means all of the grapes must be from Ontario and 85 per cent must be from one of the three Ontario grape growing regions Niagara Peninsula, Pele Island and Lake Erie North Shore.
Franklin says the public must still be continually educated on Ontario wines. Some of the old perceptions will still remain, but she does, however, point to some good signs. "Over the last few years sales have increased by 12 per cent, all the while the rest of the wine and spirit industry was stagnant. We are taking it away from our competition."
Franklin also points to statistics showing that in 1997, Ontario wines exceeded France for the first time in market share.
Franklin is almost beaming when she says, "In a recent consumer survey people are drinking Ontario wines because they have pride in the industry." This is very exciting because people don't often offer a response that they have pride in a particular industry, she says.
The industry now includes some major wineries like Vincor and Hillebrand Estates. "There is no question that behaviour and attitudes have changed, people are starting to discover Ontario wines," says Bruce Walker executive vice president of government affairs of Vincor.
Vincor, one of the major Ontario Wineries, operates the Wine Rack shops seen in local malls and shopping plazas. Their stores are stocked with Inniskillin, Sawmill Creek and Jackson Triggs brand of wines.
The awareness of Ontario wines has increased tremendously, says Walker. He encourages those who are trying to get into the Ontario wine industry to seek out the expertise of staff at the LCBO. They have really educated their staff on the Ontario market, Walker admits. He also encourages consumers check out stores like 'The Wine Rack, or the one owned by Andre's Wines, 'The Wine Shoppe,' as he says the staff there are also very familiar with their Ontario wines.
However, although it may seem the rest of the world is enjoying Ontario wines, there an imbalance, says Franklin. Most European countries block Ontario wines from being imported. "We receive approximately $300 million in wine from Europe in a year and if we're lucky we can maybe export about a million dollars." Franklin says before the trade imbalance can be addressed, Ontario still needs to add to its vines. Every single bottle of wine produced in Ontario can actually be produced here, says Franklin.
With an industry that could have gone under over night, Ontario wines have made an incredible improvement. Walker heartily agrees and adds, "Ontario wines are up to the challenge."
Graphic by Janice Olynich