Home > History of Wine > “our Vat was a Bark-Pail”: An Account of 17th Century Wine Making in Canada

“our Vat was a Bark-Pail”: An Account of 17th Century Wine Making in Canada


Descriptions of the history of Canadian wine typically mention the individual 17th century efforts of the Jesuits before settling in on the early 19th century commercial efforts of Johann Schiller.  I have found that the history prior to Johann Schiller is actually quite fascinating.  There are not many descriptions of 17th century winemaking in general but one particularly vivid account is found in Louis Hennepin’s A New Discovery of a Vast Country in America (1698).[1]  Father Louis Hennepin was a Recollect priest and missionary who arrived in Quebec City in 1675.  He was ordered to accompany Rene Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle on a four year expedition through Canada, New France to discover the source of the Mississippi River.  In 1679 the expedition party set out on what would become a four year journey.  Louis Hennepin is famous for publishing the first written description of Niagara Falls but it is his accounts of vines and wine that I am interested in.

Image from “A New Discovery of a Large Country in AMERICA”. Hennepin, Louis. [1]

The expedition party brought Spanish wine for Mass and drank water on a daily basis.  When the stock of wine became exhausted there was a need to make more. They came across wild grapes with some frequency.  Louis Hennepin has several descriptions of these wild vines and grapes.  He noted the “wild Vines, which produce Grapes a Foot and a half long, which growing to a perfect maturity, may make very good Wine.”  In another passage he comments on the trees “cover’d with Vines, whose Grapes are very big and sweet.”

They made wine from these grapes several times.  In one case shortly after the party departed to explore the “Lake of the Illinois by Canoe”.  After four days of stormy weather, they were cold, sick, fatigued from rowing, and hungry for their “Provisions fail’d” again.  They eventually found ample game to eat but this alone was not satisfying.  The expedition party could not resist the wild grapes for they “fell’d several Trees to gather them” the grapes being as “big as Damask-Plums”.  From this “relishing” bounty they both ate the grapes and made “pretty good wine”.  They stored this wine in gourds which they buried in “Sand to prevent it growing sour.”

A Map of a Large Country Newly Discovered in the Northern America Situated between New Mexico and the Frozen Sea. Hennepin, Louis. 1699.  Research Laboratories of Archaeology. University of North Carolina.

A Map of a Large Country Newly Discovered in the Northern America Situated between New Mexico and the Frozen Sea. Hennepin, Louis. 1699. Research Laboratories of Archaeology. University of North Carolina.

Unfortunately, there were issues with both transportation and storage.    Their canoe could not bear much weight so they were unable to carry sizeable barrels for the wine.  As a result it appears they stored their wine in gourds.  This was not ideal for Louis Hennepin remarked that the wine they stored in gourds often failed.  As a result there were long stretches of time where they had no wine for Mass.  In once instance nine months elapsed.  It is perhaps the importance of Sacramental wine that caused Louis Hennepin to record how they made it.  I find the description fascinating.

 [W]e made another Sort with Wild-Grapes which prov’d very good; We put it into a little Barrel, that had before contain’d the Wine which we brought, and into some Bottes: A Wooden Mortar and one of our Altar-Cloaths serv’d instead of a Press, and our Vat was a Bark-Pail, which was not capable of holding all of our Wine.  Therefore that none might be lost, we made a Confection of Grapes, which was of no less value than that of Europe, and we made good cheer with it on Festival Days.


[1] Hennepin, Louis. A New Discovery of a Vast Country in America. 1698. URL: http://books.google.com/books?id=F6ZJAAAAcAAJ&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: