Our Spirited Affair fundraising event is rapidly approaching – it’s just over two weeks away! The Spirited Affair promises to be spirited indeed. This night won’t be just about beer (though of course, we do like our beer) – we’re also hosting wineries and distilleries, which means that wine and whisky will be flowing as well!
The Victorians weren’t exclusionary when it came to their tastes in alcohol. Rye whisky was quite common, particularly in the early days of the colony. However, down in the brewery, we tend to get questions about nineteenth century wine.
In nineteenth century Ontario, wine tended to be a bit more expensive and thus drunk less than beer and spirits. Although Ontario now has a thriving wine industry, this wasn’t always the case. This wasn’t entirely an issue of climate: southern Ontario sits at the same latitude as southern France (specifically the regions of Provence and Languedoc). However, the native grapes that flourish in Ontario tend to produce a “foxy” (musty) wine, less fine than the wine produced by European grapes.
So, naturally, aspiring winemakers imported European vines. While grapes native to Ontario thrived, the European vines struggled with humid summers that left them vulnerable to disease and harsh winters that damaged young vines. As such, most wine drunk in Ontario continued to be imported. Initially, this wine came from Europe, until the aphid Phylloxera vastatrix (an invasive species from North America) devastated vineyards across the continent. Wine production in the United States, particularly in California, then increased in response to the shortage of European grapes.
One of the first documented vineyards in Ontario was established in 1811 by a retired German corporal named Johann Schiller. Settling in Cooksville (Mississauga), he fermented wild grapes and sold the finished product to his neighbours. The first commercial winery (Schiller was selling, but not at a commercial scale) was founded in 1866 on Pelee Island. By the end of the century, there were as many as thirty-five wineries in Ontario. However, after Prohibition ended in 1927, a moratorium on new wineries saw this number decrease to six by 1974.
Victorians could usually find a reason to drink beer: as a medicine, a social beverage, a thirst-quencher, or a fortifier. Wine tended to be reserved for meals – and rather more elaborate ones at that. In meals with multiple courses, wine was served at the end of each course. After the fish course, the man seated to the right of the hostess could ask if she would take wine with him, thus beginning the libations. Otherwise, servants poured wine suitable for each course.
In upper-class homes, the wine cellar fell under the responsibility of the butler. He kept the keys, advised his master on the quality and price of his wines, and handled the inventory personally, noting every bottle in his “cellar book.”
Wine could be drunk directly, or it could be mixed with other drinks. Fortified wines, in which wine was augmented with brandy or other liquors, were common. Sherry and Madeira was drunk as an aperitifs and/or dessert wines, while port was solely drunk after dinner, and predominantly by men. Mulled wine, or negus, was also common, particularly during cold Canadian winters! The Cook Not Mad, a Canadian cookbook published in 1831, gives the following recipe for mulled wine:
Boil spice in a little water till the flavour is gained,
then add an equal quantity of port, Madeira, or sherry, some sugar and nutmeg;
boil together, and serve with toast.
(The Cook Not Mad)
If you’d like to taste the vibrancy of today’s Ontario wines, there’s still time to purchase a ticket for our Spirited Affair! Come have a drink with us, and then dance the night away!