Canadians' long-term gripes about wine and Concord grapes

The Concord grape has been grown in Canada for a long time and wine drinkers have complained about its use in their drinks for a long time.

The dependable grape had been grown here for a century, but fell out of favour

Concord grapes, shown here in a file photo, have been grown in Canada since the 1800s. (Christopher Millette/Erie Times-News/The Associated Press)
We've long been able to make wine with the Concord grapes grown in Canada, but we've also been griping about them showing up in our bottles of vino for decades.

That was the case 60 years ago, when James Bannerman explored the history of winemaking in Canada for CBC Radio's Assignment.

A look at the history of wine and the grape in Canada. 6:16

He asked Philip Torno — a prominent wine maker who would later head the Canadian Wine Institute — about the Concord grape, which the vintner said had been grown in Canada for more than a century after the variety was imported from the United States.

'It's fast losing favour'

"It's the blue grape that's very popular for juice, for jellies, for jams and actually, to date, has been the backbone of the Canadian wine industry," said Torno, in an interview that was broadcast on Oct. 7, 1958.
Concord grapes are seen being harvested in Halifax in 1991. (Newsmagazine/CBC Archives)

"But it's fast losing favour because we're finding much improved varieties for winemaking."

And yet despite the apparent discord with the Concord, it was still the main variety used in many Canadian vineyards three decades later — when it was then cited as a problem for Canadian wines in staying competitive in the pending free-trade market.

"For more than 130 years, Niagara grapes have been made into commercial wines," the CBC's Fred Langan reported for The Journal in the fall of 1987, when looking at the impact of free trade on Canada's grape growers and wine makers.

'Concord grapes don't make great wine'

The CBC's Fred Langan explains why Concord grapes fell out of favour. 0:44

As Langan explained to viewers, this wine had been made with dependable Concord grapes, which "stood up to the cold and could fight local plant diseases."

The problem?

"Concord grapes don't make great wine, especially when compared to the foreign competition," Langan reported.

Dorothy Williams was tearing out vines by the root at a Beamsville, Ont., vineyard, when she spoke to The National in the spring of 1989. (The National/CBC Archives)

"About 20 years ago, Canadians started to abandon homegrown wines and Canadian winemakers realized local grapes were no longer good enough."

The move to free trade meant many wineries would have to abandon labrusca grape varieties — like Concord — to stay in business, as they would be competing with California winemakers who could grow better-quality grapes.

Some of the Canadians clipping back their vineyards felt free trade had done the same to their own livelihoods.

"This should never have happened," said Dorothy Williams, a grape grower, who spoke to CBC News as she was ripping out vines from their roots in Beamsville, Ont.