by Myrna Stark Leader
Compared to the world, Canada’s commercial wine industry is a child at about 200 years of history. Wine makers range from small family estate wineries producing a few thousand cases to large national corporations which may still be family owned but may also have more than one winery. Ninety-eight per cent of Canadian wine is produced in Ontario and British Columbia.
Wine sold commercially (at wineries, liquor outlets or grocers) must meet food and beverage safety standards. However, in 1988, a group of Ontario wineries came together to create formal quality standards for Ontario wine. They called it the Vintners Quality Alliance program (VQA). Participation was voluntary and still is.
VQA established specific standards to measure wine quality, partly to help make it easier for Canadians to gain confidence in selecting domestic wine versus international imported wine from countries with thousands of years of wine making tradition.
The program moved to a more regulated, government-run program in 2000. BC followed a very similar path creating its VQA standards in 1990. Today, VQA is maintained by the B.C. Wine Authority and the Ontario Wine Appellation Authority. While the two systems are similar, some standards are unique to each province. There is no affiliation.
“VQA standards in Ontario and BC are meant to somewhat mirror what we see in some European nations like Italy and France, and also Australia and New Zealand,” says, Randy Bertsch, General Manager of the British Columbia Wine Authority since January 2023.
If the wine is VQA, the VQA initials will be found somewhere on the bottle, maybe on the top of the cap or on the front or back labeling. In short, the VQA designation means the wine has passed the VQA quality check. If bottle says “cellared in Canada” or “International Canadian Blend”, grape juice to make the wine has been imported from another region or country.
BC produces over 80 varieties of grapes, and Ontario more than 50. Grapes grow in specific regions (called appellations). In Ontario, these are Lake Erie North Shore, Niagara Peninsula and Prince Edward County, while in BC, Vancouver Island, the Gulf Islands, Fraser Valley, Okanagan Valley, and Similkameen Valley count for most of the growing.
The VQA quality check process differs somewhat in BC and Ontario but in both cases, wine is examined by an independent panel and lab tested for certain chemical properties. Testing ensures the grapes come from one Canadian region and that the wine inside a bottle matches how it is labelled. There are also vineyard audits and an expert tasting panel which looks for certain characteristics.
In 2022, of the 315 wineries in Ontario, close to 200 made VQA wines, according to the Ontario Wine Appellation Authority, 1,571 unique wines received VQA certification in 2021, with around 100 not making the VQA grade. In BC, there are 335 licensed grape wineries. Over 200 participate in the VQA program. A record 2,200 wines were submitted for the tasting panel in 2022. Less than one per cent of wines submitted were rejected and the rate is improving.
When testing for VQA quality, panelists look for up to 16 faults identified through smell and taste. One example is oxidation. If air has penetrated the wine, it can have an undesirable gassy flavour.
“Some people say, ‘well if the rejection rate is so low, do we even need to go through the VQA process?’ says Bertsch. “I still think you need a check and balance because that’s how you achieve these results. Our winemakers have all come along way. Our vines have come a long way. We should be very proud of that.”
Does it mean the wine is better?
“I don’t think you can comfortably go to a store, see VQA and know it’s going to be really good wine,” says David Paterson, GM and Winemaker at Tantalus Vineyards in Kelowna, BC where majority of their wines carry the VQA label. “That was the intent when it was introduced, and it would be great if it ensured that, but it just hasn’t played out that way.”
One reason is the difficulty of standardizing taste testing. Another is that Canadian winemakers, more so than some of their old-world counterparts, are experimental and make deliberately different stylistic choices to create new flavour profiles.
“There is no independent third-party lab doing the chemistry testing,” Paterson adds. “At the moment, we submit our own chemistry numbers so there is a level of trust required. I do, though, appreciate that an auditor comes in and audits at least one of our wines from start to finish every two to three years.”
Paterson says consumers haven’t caught on to VQA in a huge way, at least not enough to majorly sway their wine purchases. Estimates are that about 20% of wine sold in BC is VQA. 45% of sales still belong to imported wine.
“One of the things identified,” adds Bertsch, “is that the authority needs to play a bigger role in educating the consumer.”
As even wine sommeliers will share, wine preference always remains on the palate of the person drinking it. But one thing is clear however: in selecting a VQA bottle, the choice supports Canadian grape growers and wineries, which is a wise economic decision for Canadians who want to see the Canadian industry continue to thrive.