Here's a Trivial Pursuit-style question to stump the experts when talk turns to grapes at your next dinner party: How old is the Canadian wine industry? Twenty-five? Forty?
Try 200 - minus a couple of months. Earlier this month, Ernie Hardeman, the MPP for Oxford and the Conservative opposition critic for agriculture and food, introduced a private member's bill to recognize 2011 as the bicentennial of the Ontario wine industry (the bill passed first reading unanimously last week). In 1811, a retired German corporal named Johann Schiller, acknowledged as the father of Canadian wine, founded a small vineyard in what was then Cooksville, now part of Mississauga. Using cuttings from wild vines, he fermented the grapes and sold the result to neighbours.
Even on the Western frontier of British Columbia, things got rolling as early as 1859, when a missionary, Father Charles Pandosy, planted the first vineyard near Kelowna at the north end of the Okanagan Valley.
That early juice in both provinces probably would make today's domestic boxed wine taste like Petrus. It was crushed from native North American grapes, which pale in comparison with the European varieties responsible for virtually all the world's fine wine today.
But even the modern fine-wine industry is older than most Canadians realize. It didn't start with free trade in the late 1980s, which prompted producers to replace native labrusca vines with European vinifera varieties - though that was the major quality catalyst. It began in 1975 with such Niagara visionaries as Donald Ziraldo and Karl Kaiser at Inniskillin and a little later with their B.C. counterparts Harry McWatters, founder of Sumac Ridge, and Howard Soon, senior winemaker with Andrew Peller Ltd.
I got to thinking about that timeline while sampling a range of offerings from three provinces. One of the standouts, Laughing Stock Portfolio Red 2008 from British Columbia, was among the gold-medalists at last month's Okanagan Fall Wine Festival - which remarkably just celebrated its 30th year. Another, a Champagne-style sparkling wine from Nova Scotia, took gold at the Canadian Wine Awards.
It's become cliché to say we've come a long way from the ersatz German Rieslings and sweet soda-pop bubblies of the 1970s (though, perish the thought, some Canadians are still enjoying them). If Hardeman's bill passes, we'll at least know that long road started in ... Mississauga.
Laughing Stock Portfolio Red 2008 (British Columbia)
Price: $40 through www.laughingstock.ca.
This wine won gold at last month's 30th annual Okanagan Fall Wine Festival. Blended from Bordeaux's classic five grapes (merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, malbec and petit verdot), it's rich, velvety and complex. I love the flavour arc, starting vaguely sweet, with intense dark fruit, then dry and spicy, finishing with lingering coffee and toasty notes. Full of solid, mouth-coating tannins, it's great for medium-rare steak.
Township 7 Merlot Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 (B.C.)
Price: $19.99 through www.township7.com.
This blend is full-bodied, slightly dusty in texture and deliciously earthy, with hints of tobacco and cedar rising up through blackcurrant, cherry and toffee. It could almost be European. Try with roast beef.
Burrowing Owl Merlot 2008 (B.C.)
A full-bodied red with good tension between juicy acidity and astringent tannins, offering up ripe cherry, vanilla and a lingering earthy-tobacco finish. Serve with medium-rare beef, lamb or duck breast.
Mission Hill Perpetua Chardonnay 2008 (B.C.)
A "cellar exclusive" available only at the winery in Kelowna, and worth a detour if you're in the Okanagan any time soon. One of Canada's best chardonnays, it's medium full-bodied, with a subtle core of pineapple and deft, Burgundian balance. Plenty of flavour without the awkward weight of many top-end New World chardonnays.
Sumac Ridge Steller's Jay Brut 2006 (B.C.)
Price: $26.99 in B.C.; $24.95 in Ontario after Dec. 11.
There's an intriguing coppery-pink tinge to this "white" sparkling wine due to some bleeding from the pinot noir skins (which are normally removed quickly before sparkling wine fermentation). It's bone-dry, with a pear and bitter lemon essence, rich texture and crusty, well-baked-bread finish.
Quails' Gate Optima Late Harvest 2008 (B.C.)
Price: $29.99 through www.quailsgate.com.
Another gold winner at the Okanagan fest, this sweet dessert elixir was made with grapes naturally dehydrated on the vine by botrytis, a fungus responsible for the noble French dessert wines of sauternes. Syrupy, very sweet and intense with orange marmalade and fig, it shows the distinct honey and beeswax flavour typical of botrytis-affected wines. Serve with very sweet desserts or even blue cheeses.
Road 13 Jackpot Riesling 2009 (B.C.)
Price: $29.99 through www.road13vineyards.com.
Light, dry and round, this wine shows flavours of peach, apple and baking spices. It's terrific as an aperitif and would also be good with delicate seafood.
Alvento Sondra 2007 (Niagara)
Price: $26.95 through www.alvento.ca.
A blend of 90-per-cent merlot with 10-per-cent cabernet franc, this is a very dry, impressive red from a relatively new winery in Vineland run by Elyane and Bruno Moos. Full-bodied, delivers plum and dark berries on a carpet of earthy underbrush. Try with beef or roast chicken.
Château des Charmes Equuleus 2007 (Niagara)
Price: $40 through www.chateaudescharmes.com.
A flagship red from a large family-owned estate in Niagara-on-the-Lake, blended from cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc. It's made only in good years. The 2007 shows considerable oak, with rich cassis, cedar and chocolate giving way to a mouthful of chewy tannins.
L'Acadie Vineyards Prestige Brut 2007 (Nova Scotia)
Price: $40.40 through www.lacadievineyards.ca.
A gold-medal winner at the recent Canadian Wine Awards, this white bubbly, based on the local-hero l'Acadie grape, is made in the traditional, bottle-fermented method of Champagne. Crisp apple and lemonade-like citrus are carried on a vigorous froth, with vice-clamp acidity and a bready finish. Great for oysters -- preferably from the East Coast.