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Canadian wine: natural and healthful

Think of the great wine-producing regions of the world... France, Italy, California... but what about Canada? Challenged by climate and perception, Canadian wines suffered from a bad reputation. But winemakers have worked hard to improve the quality of their product. International awards, improved standards and government intervention have transformed the industry. The result? Canadian wines are gaining acceptance throughout the world.

It's 1958 and wine is not a regular part of daily life for most Canadians. Suffering a hangover from the days of Prohibition, the reputation of wine in Canada is due for an overhaul. James Bannerman of CBC Radio's Assignment talks with Canadian wine producer Philip Torno. They discuss the role of wine in Canadian life and attempt to demystify wine for those who are "hesitant to expose themselves to it." Such hesitation is no surprise considering the quality of Canadian wine after Prohibition. Natural and healthful, sure. But what about tasty?

Thanks to aggressive lobbying on the part of grape growers, wine remained legal in many provinces during Prohibition; often the only permitted alcoholic beverage. Standards all but disappeared and wine quality took a nosedive. It was frequently "purified" with sulphur and coloured with vegetable dyes or coal tar. Anything alcoholic would do. As a result, Canadians came to prefer fortified wines such as port and sherry, hard liquor or beer. 
• When Lief Ericsson landed at L'Anse aux Meadows, Nfld. in 1001 AD, he named it "Vinland," Land of Wine, after the wild grapes he found growing there. Some believe what Ericsson saw must have been wild blueberries.

Vitis labrusca grapes are native to Canada. They are able to survive cold winters, but the wines they produce are described as tasting "foxy."

• The term "foxy" is used to describe the musky, earthy and "grape jelly" characteristics found in North American vine species. Foxy wines are not generally well thought of by wine connoisseurs.

• European wines are made with Vitis vinifera. These grapes produce superior tasting wines, but often have difficulty surviving the harsh Canadian climate.

• Canadian grape growers have been developing labrusca-vinifera hybrids since 1905.

• Pioneering vintner Johann Schiller domesticated the native labrusca grapes, planting a small vineyard in 1811 near present-day Mississauga, Ont.

• This land was later sold to French aristocrat Count Justin M. de Courtenay. An early believer in the potential of Canadian wine, De Courtenay incessantly lobbied the government to support the budding wine industry. His Clair House Vineyards produced a red wine that won a prize at the 1867 Paris Exposition.

• Canada's first commercial vineyard, Vin Villa, was established on Pelee Island in 1866. Pelee was replanted in 1980 and now features the largest planting of European vinifera grapes in Canada. The island has developed a profitable tourist trade around the ruins of the original vineyard.

• Located in Lake Erie, Pelee Island is the southern-most point in Canada. It is one of three designated viticultural areas in Ontario.

• Viticulture is the science, cultivation and study of grape growing.

• Medicinal or "therapeutic" tonics became a convenient way to cover up the taste of bad wine. Available by prescription during Prohibition, they were laced with herbs to induce vomiting when over-consumed. Ontario doctors issued 739,855 prescriptions for such wines in 1924 alone.

• In an attempt to keep up with demand for wine, 57 new wineries were licensed in Ontario during Prohibition. From 1929 to 1974, no new licenses were issued in Ontario.

• A provincial regulation system was put in place after Prohibition, giving each province control over which wines and liquors it would sell and how much tax it would charge.

• At the time of this interview, Philip Torno was vice-president of the Jordan Wines Company. In 1953, as a joint venture with the village of Jordan, he founded the Jordan Historical Museum of the Twenty to preserve the cultural history of the region. The museum is located on the banks of the Twenty Mile Creek.

• Canadian red wines may actually be naturally healthful. According to wine writer Natalie MacLean, cool-climate wines contain slightly higher levels of resveratrol, an antioxidant believed to help prevent cancer and cardiovascular disease.
Medium: Radio
Program: Assignment
Broadcast Date: Oct. 6, 1958
Guest(s): Philip Torno
Host: Maria Barrett, Bill McNeil
Reporter: James Bannerman
Duration: 8:40
Photo: National Archives of Canada PA-048033

Last updated: May 14, 2013

Page consulted on December 6, 2013

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