Canada’s Wine Market: A Complicated Mosaic

Canada’s Wine Market: A Complicated Mosaic

Canada is a midrange wine market, where wine is second to beer as a choice of alcoholic beverage: beer accounts for 36% of total alcohol sales, with wine at 31%. Per capita (15 years of age and older) wine consumption in Canada is about 15 liters, a figure that has changed little in the past decade; it peaked at nearly 17 liters in 2018 and has gradually declined since then. There are, however, significant differences among Canada’s provinces. In Quebec, per capita consumption is 25 liters, while in British Columbia it is 18 liters, in Ontario 15 liters, and in Alberta 13 liters. Annual expenditure on wine mirrors consumption, with residents of Quebec spending CA$369 on wine in 2021, compared with CA$291 in British Columbia, CA$232 in Ontario, and CA$168 in Alberta.

Where do Canadians buy this wine? In the international wine industry, there is a widespread belief that in Canada alcoholic beverages can be purchased only in government-owned and -operated stores—that wine is sold only by what are often called monopolies. But while it is true that most Canadian provinces and territories operate what are known in Canada as liquor stores, selling the full range of alcoholic beverages, two have no government-owned stores at all, and most of the rest also allow wine to be purchased through privately owned retail channels. Depending on the province, these include wine stores, supermarkets, convenience stores, winery retail shops and tasting rooms, and wine agencies that represent Canadian and international wines.

The Canadian alcoholic beverage market is complicated and evolving, with a steady trend of expanding channels for the retail purchase of alcohol. Most provincial governments have embraced policies to this end, but expanding the sale of alcohol is a politically charged issue in many places. Much of the debate has centered on selling wine and beer in convenience stores, an innovation that polls suggest is supported by most people. The expansion of alcohol retailing, however, is opposed by a significant minority and by many medical and health-related organizations on the grounds that it would increase alcohol consumption and allow underage drinkers easier access to alcohol. (The minimum legal drinking age in most provinces and territories is 19; the exceptions are Alberta, Manitoba, and Quebec, where it is 18.) Although there is a general trend of widening retail access to wine, there is no uniform wine market across Canada, and this article will explore what to outsiders is a complicated mosaic of rules.

A Brief Introduction

In Canada, alcohol policy is controlled not by the federal government but by individual provinces and territories. Until Alberta abolished its provincial stores in 1993, each province had a chain of government-owned liquor stores. Most were created in the 1920s and 1930s, as provinces repealed the Prohibition or temperance laws they had passed during World War I. Before that time, alcohol had been sold by private retailers, especially in general stores.

As an example of the change brought on by World War I, the 1916 Ontario Temperance Act banned the production and sale of all alcoholic beverages except wine, which could be bought only in person from a winery and in volumes of more than five gallons. This law was repealed in 1927, and, to prevent a surge in drinking, the provincial government established the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) that year to monitor and control sales of alcoholic beverages. All the provinces established their own liquor boards when they repealed their restrictive wartime alcohol laws between 1921 and 1948.

Currently, 8 of Canada’s 10 provinces and all its territories (Northwest Territories, Yukon, and Nunavut) operate retail liquor stores; the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan are the two exceptions, having replaced province-owned stores with private stores. The government of Alberta closed the stores operated by the Alberta Liquor Control Board (ALCB) in 1993–94, arguing that privately owned stores would offer greater selection, lower prices, and more convenience to consumers than province-owned stores. In Saskatchewan, liquor stores operated by the province were greatly outnumbered by private stores, and their sales were falling steadily—from CA$9.4 million in 2018–19 to CA$3.2 million in 2021–22. The government decided to close them in 2022, and the last store closed in 2023, transitioning all alcohol sales to the private sector.

In most of the other eight provinces, government-owned liquor stores continue to operate alongside privately owned stores. There is an ongoing debate about this; supporters of private stores argue that governments should not be in the business of selling alcohol, and supporters of publicly owned liquor stores argue that they maximize revenues to the provinces and are generally more conscientious about refusing to sell to underage drinkers and to people who are already intoxicated. As of 2024, provinces with their own liquor stores have not made any announcements to close them.


Alberta closed the stores run by the ALCB gradually, in 1993–94, and allowed more privately owned stores to open. At the time of the change, the ALCB did not have a monopoly: there were about 200 ALCB stores and 65 private stores selling the full range of alcoholic beverages, and more than 500 hotels licensed to sell selected alcoholic beverages retail. Although the closing of the ALCB stores is often referred to as privatization, the ALCB stores were not sold to private buyers; they were simply closed, and the ALCB issued more licenses for privately owned stores.

The Alberta system is not fully private. Wholesaling and distribution to retailers are managed by a government corporation, which outsources the work to a private company. This company sells beverages to privately owned stores at a fixed wholesale price, and the stores can set the retail price. This means that, unlike the previous system, by which ALCB stores sold a given wine at the same price throughout Alberta, prices can now vary widely among stores and locations. Initially, there were limits on the number of stores any one person or corporation could own in Alberta, but today there are extensive chains.

It is estimated that there are now about 2,400 stores selling alcoholic beverages in Alberta, some selling only wine, others selling the full range. Some convenience stores also sell alcohol. The overall range of products available has increased dramatically in the 30 years since the ALCB stores were closed, but, contrary to claims, that is not necessarily because of the abolition of province-owned stores; government-owned stores in other provinces have also greatly expanded their offerings in the past three decades.


Saskatchewan, Alberta’s eastern neighbor, has also changed from a mixed province-owned and private retailing system to one that is private. At the time the policy was announced, in 2022, the Saskatchewan Liquor and Gaming Authority (SLGA) operated 34 stores, and they were greatly outnumbered by the 600 privately owned stores where alcohol was sold. This transition in 2023 was effectively privatization, because the licenses of the 34 stores operated by the SLGA were auctioned off to private interests. In Saskatchewan, as in Alberta, although retailing alcohol is now a private system, the province continues to manage the wholesale side of the alcohol business.


Ontario established the LCBO in 1927 and it is still thriving. It operates almost 700 stores and another 400 convenience outlets—small selections of beer, wines, and spirits in grocery stores and convenience stores in small communities, especially in areas that attract a lot of tourists seasonally, but where there is not enough demand for a year-round LCBO store.

The LCBO never had a complete monopoly on wine sales. Before 1927, wineries were permitted to operate off-site stores as part of their license to make wine. These stores were permitted to operate after the LCBO was created. No winery licenses were issued in Ontario between 1927 and 1975, but since then, especially in the 1990s and 2000s, many more wineries opened, and each had an on-site store. Individuals could also buy wine—but only by the 6- or 12-bottle case—from wine agencies. These are agencies that represent both foreign and Canadian wine producers and sell wine to the LCBO as well as to restaurants and bars. In 2015, the Ontario government began to allow wine sales in supermarkets, initially a modest amount, then increasing each year. Currently, wine is sold in about 450 supermarkets.

By 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic began, consumers could buy wine from the LCBO, in winery-owned wine stores on- and off-site, by the case from wine agencies, and in a few supermarkets. But the restrictions on dining in restaurants that were imposed during the pandemic transformed Ontario’s wine market. Restaurants that sold take-out meals or delivered meals were permitted to include wine in their sales and could also sell wine retail from their restaurants. This was designed to help restaurants survive, but, before long, some entrepreneurs interpreted the rules to mean that it was possible to sell wine as long as some food was purchased. Private wine stores were established to sell wine on a retail basis, but customers had to buy food—such as a small bag of potato chips or a cookie. When the pandemic passed, the government allowed these stores to stay in business. The result is that there are now many private wine stores in Ontario.

The government also abandoned the plan to allow supermarket wine sales gradually, and it now permits all grocery stores over a certain size to sell wine. The result is that Ontario consumers can still buy wine at the LCBO—and that is where 80% of wine is sold—but there are also many other retail channels. The Ontario government has announced that, beginning in 2026, it will permit the sale of wine and beer in convenience stores.


By far, the major retail sales channel for wine in Quebec is the Société des Alcools du Québec (SAQ), which is owned and operated by the Quebec government. As of 2022, there were 410 SAQ stores and 426 agency stores, the latter offering limited selections of wine and other alcohol in general stores located in small communities. Within the 410 SAQ stores, there are four categories: generic SAQ, with a varied selection, generally in communities with a single store; SAQ Express, with a smaller range of top-selling wines; SAQ Sélection, with an extended selection as well as professional advice; and SAQ Dépôt, a warehouse-style store.

Wine accounts for about three-quarters (73% in 2022, 71% in 2023) of all the alcoholic beverages the SAQ sells, and most of it is European. France accounts for 34% of all wine sold, followed by Italy (23%), Spain (10%), and Portugal (5%). If Germany and other European wine-producing countries are included, Europe composes three-quarters of the SAQ’s wine sales. This distinguishes Quebec’s wine market from the other provinces’ wine markets, where non-European wines account for a much larger share.

Apart from SAQ stores, wine can also be bought in supermarkets and convenience stores (dépanneurs), but, for the most part, the wines for sale there are imported in bulk by the SAQ and bottled in Quebec. In 2020, the SAQ imported nearly 60 million liters of bulk wine, representing about 30% of all Quebec’s wine imports, and the main sources were Australia, France, and Italy. The provenance of these wines is clearly stated on the label, but the wines are given brand names devised by the SAQ.

For many years, when other provinces largely confined wine sales to government liquor stores, Quebec was upheld as a model of liberalism for allowing supermarket and convenience stores to sell wine and beer. It was seldom acknowledged that, because these wines were imported, bottled, and labeled by the SAQ, even Quebec’s private system of wine retailing was extensively controlled by the Quebec government liquor retailing system.

Wine can also be purchased in Quebec directly from importing agencies and the province’s wineries, but because the latter represent very small production, they do not contribute measurably to wine sales. Sales of Quebec wines in SAQ stores, where they occupy dedicated shelves, represent a minuscule percentage of sales.

British Columbia, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick

The provinces of British Columbia, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick have government-operated liquor stores as well as more or less extensive systems of privately owned stores that operate under varying regulations. In British Columbia, the British Columbia Liquor Distribution Branch (BCLDB) operates about 200 stores under the BCLiquor brand, but wine is also sold in private wine stores and in grocery stores that meet certain requirements. In Nova Scotia, however, only a few wine stores have been permitted to open, and almost all wine is sold by stores operated by the Nova Scotia Liquor Corporation (NSLC). In New Brunswick, wine is sold in several grocery stores, but most is sold through stores run by Alcool NB Liquor (ANBL).

Newfoundland and Labrador and Prince Edward Island

In the two Atlantic provinces of Newfoundland and Labrador and Prince Edward Island, the sale of wine is restricted to stores operated by a government-owned corporation. The Newfoundland Labrador Liquor Corporation (NLC) operates 25 stores and 144 Liquor Express outlets in grocery and general stores to serve the province’s many small communities. The Prince Edward Island Liquor Control Commission operates 18 stores and has agencies in another 12 communities.

Interprovincial Wine Purchases

An important issue in the Canadian wine market is that of interprovincial wine purchases. Many sectors of the Canadian economy are regulated by the provinces, not the federal government, and protectionist policies and trade barriers restrict trade and the movement of labor in some parts of the economy. In 2019, the federal government removed all federal restrictions on the shipping of alcohol between provinces. It remained for individual provinces to follow suit, but only four have done so: British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Nova Scotia.

Residents of these four provinces can purchase wines (and beer and spirits) directly from producers in other provinces, but residents of the other provinces cannot purchase wine from wineries elsewhere in Canada. For example, residents of British Columbia are permitted to order wine from Ontario wineries, but Ontario residents are not permitted to buy wine directly from British Columbia wineries.

These rules are widely flouted by consumers and wineries, and there have been examples of individuals being charged with taking alcohol across a provincial border. More recently (2024), the government-owned corporation that controls the wholesaling and distribution of wine in Alberta threatened not to carry any British Columbia wines if British Columbia wineries did not stop shipping wine directly to Alberta residents. That would effectively end the sale of British Columbia wine in Alberta liquor stores, which are an important retail channel for the wine. The argument of the Alberta authorities is that direct sales to Albertans deprive the Alberta government of the tax revenue it gains from sales in Alberta itself.

The Future of the Canadian Wine Market

In Canada’s most populous provinces, retail channels for wine are quite extensive and, if anything, are widening. In all but the smallest provinces and the territories, private wine stores operate alongside province-owned liquor stores; and in two provinces (Alberta and Saskatchewan), there are only privately owned stores. The most liberal province is now Ontario, which has 40% of Canada’s population, and where people can buy wine in person and online at the LCBO, supermarkets, wine stores, wineries, wine agencies, and (from 2026) convenience stores. Among the large provinces, Quebec, with 23% of the national population, is the outlier. There, the province-owned liquor store (SAQ) has a near monopoly on wine selection, because it imports and bottles the wines sold in supermarkets and convenience stores. But, because these non-SAQ channels are allowed to sell wine, it is widely available to Quebec consumers.

Apart from the matter of alcohol consumption itself, the debate on wine sales in Canada centers on two issues in particular: the future of province-owned liquor stores and interprovincial direct wine sales.

Overall, province-owned stores have provided a good range of wines at reasonable prices, and they have been especially beneficial to consumers in small communities, where they offer a greater range of wines than a private retailer is likely to. They operate differently from private stores, because they bear no financial risk, and because less profitable stores can be carried by their more profitable counterparts.

There are frequent complaints about the range of wines in province-owned stores, but the range is comparable to that of private systems. The LCBO, for example, carries more than 28,000 liquor products from 80 countries each year, while Alberta’s private system has about 31,000 products.

Province-owned liquor stores have been responsive to criticism, and most are consumer friendly, with attractive layouts, professional staff—often with good product knowledge—and online and delivery services. When Quebec’s SAQ was losing customers to Ontario’s LCBO, whose prices were consistently lower (Quebec consumers would drive to LCBO stores near the Ontario-Quebec border), the SAQ lowered its prices to be competitive with those of the LCBO. Presently, although there is substantial support for privatizing alcohol sales in Ontario, Quebec, and British Columbia, there are no indications that it will happen in the near future. Provincial government revenues benefit from the taxes and profits of these stores.

Interprovincial direct sales of wine continue to be limited by protectionist policies. In the two major wine-producing provinces, Ontario and British Columbia, every case of wine from one province bought by a resident of the other deprives the receiving province of tax revenue. The losses and gains would cancel each other out if there were an equal volume of trade each way, but because British Columbia wine is far more popular in Ontario than Ontario wine is in British Columbia, the imbalance would favor British Columbia’s revenues. Thus, British Columbia permits its residents to buy wine directly from Ontario wineries, but Ontario does not reciprocate. It is unlikely that there will be any change to these policies, either.

After several years of Canadian provinces liberalizing wine retailing, it appears that there will be little progress in the foreseeable future.

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