A Taste of Wine’s History (and Future?)

I was writing about the older style of wine in Canada and the U.S. made from native variety grapes, non-Vinifera. In the main wine areas of Canada including Ontario, grape types for wine are now mostly Vinifera such as Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, and Sauvignon Blanc. This resulted from a conscious effort starting 40 years ago to improve viticulture and wine flavour. Vinifera types originate in Europe.

The VQA system or Vintners Quality Alliance supports the Vinifera wines as well as a few authorized hybrid varieties, and in general our LCBO, the provincial wine and liquor sales monopoly, buys wines made from such grapes only vs. wines made from Concord, say, or other of the old-fashioned native varieties. Therefore, generally one doesn’t find such wines at LCBO and even to sell them, say, at the winery gate is not common as there are tax incentives to sell the varieties promoted by VQA. That is my understanding gleaned from an examination some months ago.

(In the United States depending on the area, wines made from the older varieties can still be found including in New York).

Bright’s markets a couple of fortified wines in Canada that are blended with some foreign wine under the “Cellared” system authorized by Ontario law. These blends of wine are not VQA labelled and usually are a blending of Canadian Vinifera with foreign wine to balance out the flavour. It’s a certain segment of the market, often these wines are fairly inexpensive and not usually regarded as connoisseur items.

Bright’s is probably the oldest wine name in Canada with an estate in Niagara. Through a long process of corporate change, the brand is now owned by a group of Canadian wineries, both commercial and estate, purchased some years ago from Constellation Brands in New York by the Ontario Teachers Pension Plan.

I bought the Bright’s Tawny brand shown, not because I expected the native variety wine taste, but because I wanted an inexpensive wine to mix with porter and stout. A minor variation of drinking the dark brown or black beer types that originated in London was to add a dollop of port. Sometimes the wine was consumed side by side with the beer.

I wanted to test out the combination and looking for something inexpensive, lighted on Bright’s. I also bought another, similar fortified wine called Imperial. I ended by blending them as the sweetness balance seemed better that way. I put an ounce and half or so in a porter or stout and it adds a fruity tang and some extra body.

When I tasted these wines I realized most of the grape base is surely non-Vinifera, it had a brambly, tangy taste reminiscent of grape juice or jam made from Concord grapes. I must say the taste took me aback as I haven’t experienced it, except in the high-quality, non-foxy Norton Virginia form recently, for many years. There is definitely a musky or wild-type flavour, it reminded me of berries you might gather in a forest, but was certainly palatable and interesting.

As I argued earlier, as local flavour in hops is now prized, why not in wine?  Yet the trends that come and go in the wine business never seem to go there.

The taste reminded me too of not dissimilar sweet wines we used to buy years ago in western New York State, made from Delaware and Catawba grapes as I recall.

The market for these old-style fortified wines, sweet versions of a taste once also in dry red and white form, is today unfortunately said to be for those looking for maximum alcohol at the lowest cost, indeed the bereft in our society including street persons. An article appeared some time ago in our press suggesting a certain irresponsibility perhaps on the part of the producers that market these cheap, higher alcohol products.

I won’t defend them on being a taste of history, as no one I’m sure buys them for that reason except perhaps a few aged persons who remember the pre-VQA environment. On the other hand, alcohol in a free society is for everyone, not just those who can pick and choose what they buy and discriminate.

It’s a market to be served and I don’t blame any company for filling the need, one evidently facilitated too by the current retail system as the LCBO sells the wines, not just the Wine Rack retail stores operated by the brand owner (under certain conditions wines can be sold in dedicated wine stores operated by the wineries).

Still, accidentally that old taste hit me as soon as I tried the drink. I can see it going well with ice-cream, say, or even on its own, why not?  I take a little now and then in that form, after dinner. It’s not worse really than real sherry or port, it’s different, it’s local. (The foreign wine content must be fairly minimal based on the taste).

Sooner or later I believe this long-lost element of locality will return to wine marketing and we will see dry and sweet wines based on native grapes similar to what existed before Prohibition and into the 1960s, but bruited as special. Major structural changes to the industry and its regulating bodies, as well as a sea change in how wine flavour is viewed, would be needed first. It will be a slow process, but I think this will be the next revolution in North American wine over the next 60 years.

You can see the LCBO listing here. The description gets at only part of the taste, the distinctive fruity note is not really brought out.

N.B. The 74 in the brand name surely recalls 1874…