When was the last time you had a Canadian wine? Chances are that if you did you were either in Canada, or were drinking a lusciously sweet icewine, for many people their only touchstone for Maple Leaf wines.
Canadian wine has been as rare as hens’ teeth on UK wine shelves in the past. This was caused partly by trade restrictions between Canada and Europe that were relaxed in 2003, and partly by the tiny size of the Canadian wine industry, where export was simply not on the radar for producers struggling to meet the demand from domestic consumers.
But the Canadian wine industry has been on a definite growth path over the past few years. There are 200 wineries in the main production centres of Ontario and British Columbia, which is 165 more than there were just a dozen years ago.
Whilst many of these are small operations, some big players have also emerged, like Mission Hill and Vincor International who own Jackson-Triggs and Inniskillin amongst other wineries. Vincor is a Canadian company that is a huge player on the global wine stage, also owning wineries in California, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. Significantly for the UK, Vincor recently took over a leading British distribution company, gaining invaluable distribution channels for its brands in the UK, including its Canadian portfolio.
A Little History
Most Canadians will cheerfully admit that theirs was not a sophisticated food and drink nation until fairly recent times. One thing is for sure: Canadians love their beer. Every Canadian town still has large Beer Stores, busy with thirsty drinkers loading cases of Labatt and Molson into their vans and trucks.
Wine consumption was historically very limited, and the domestic industry concentrated on supplying off-dry and sweet wines to the local market. These wines were made not from Vitis vinifera varieties (the European grapevine, responsible for all classic wine grapes) but from the far less refined Vitis labrusca and a variety of hybrid grapes, selected principally because they could survive the climate.
Until the late 1970s, visiting Canada would have been a depressing prospect for the wine lover in search of quality domestic wines, but then a few more adventurous producers began to plant Vitis vinifera in the late 1970s, even though many predicted a gloomy future in this marginal vine-growing region.
In fact, the vines did survive, though it was not until the end of the 1980s that wholesale quality changes took place in Canada’s vineyards. In 1988 the North American Free Trade Agreement opened the US market, and the flow of products between the countries meant that under-performing businesses in every sector had to pull up their socks. The Canadian wine industry responded with the creation of the Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA) in 1989.
The VQA regulates Canada’s wine appellations, ensuring VQA wines meet their standards and rules regarding plantings, vinification and bottling. Today only a few patches of Vitis labrusca remain, whilst VQA wines rule the roost. Non-VQA wines still sell in large quantities domestically; most made from a blend of local and imported wines, and labelled “Cellared in Canada”.
The New Grapes
Over the past 20 years or so the challenge has been to identify not only which of the quality wine grapes will suit Canada’s climate, but to understand soil types, micro-climates and the matching of vine to soil.
It is astonishing to visit the majority of Canadian estates for the first time, and discover the vast range of wines that each bottles, often in quantities of just a few hundred cases. It is not at all unusual for one small estate to produce 20 or more different wines.
In part this is down to the nature of how the wineries sell their product: the Winelands throng with tourists, and selling from the farm gate can account for 50 per cent of sales for many producers. That means they are as much small shopkeepers as they are growers, and maintaining a wine range to satisfy every taste is a key business strategy.
But Canada also remains a huge research station, with experimental plantings to discover just what will grow, or might even flourish. 20 or 30 years from now much of this will have rationalised, and certain key grape varieties will have emerged to dominate.
White wine grapes
Riesling is one absolute staple, made by almost everyone, in styles from bone-dry, through medium, late-harvest, botrytis and, of course, icewine. Vidal too is at its best in icewine, whilst Germanic varieties and crosses like Gewürztraminer, Sylvaner and Scheurebe are popular, as are aromatic varieties from France like Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Auxerrois. Chardonnay does very well in many areas, whilst Sauvignon Blanc is for me less successful, with one or two notable exceptions. Viognier is flavour of the month everywhere at the moment, and Canada’s winegrowers have been unable to resist, though I did not taste any outstanding examples.
Red wine grapes
Given Canada’s cold winters and constrained growing season, the choice of grapes for red wines is more limited. There are at least two camps emerging behind particular grapes as Canada’s potential strong suit. One backs Pinot Noir, whilst Cabernet Franc has an equal number of passionate advocates. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot also have a considerable track record here, as has Gamay. Like Viognier, a number of people are now planting and growing Syrah/Shiraz. This is a slightly optimistic move perhaps, in a country where red wines often exhibit a certain under-ripeness that can be quite charming and complex, but which may not chime with global consumers.
Ontario is Canada’s grape-growing powerhouse, responsible for 90 per cent of all grapes used in wine production.
The three main regions are the Niagara Peninsula on Lake Ontario’s south shore, the Lake Erie North Shore (some 200 miles south and west), and Pelee Island, a unique island terroir in the middle of Lake Erie. There is an embryonic fourth region on Lake Ontario’s north shore, called Prince Edward County.
The Niagara Peninsula is an outstandingly beautiful area, just an hour or so from Toronto and within easy reach of other large towns, as well as US cities like Cleveland and Detroit. The wine tourism scene here revolves around the impossibly pretty town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, with its fine hotels, restaurants and shopping, and numerous vineyards within five minutes’ drive.
Niagara’s climate is moderated by two factors: the huge heat sink that is Lake Ontario, and a spine of hills called the Niagara Escarpment. The vines lie between the two, the lake warming the breezes that blow over the vineyards, hit the escarpment, and are buffeted back through the vines. This helps reduce frost and extends the growing season to give comparable growing conditions to Burgundy.
Harsh winter or spring temperatures can still devastate the crop here, as they did in 2005 when temperatures of minus 26C were recorded. The subsequent grape shortfall led to a decision to ‘protect’ the VQA standard by relaxing the rules for non-VQA wines. This has been highly controversial: for 2005, non-VQA wines need only contain one per cent of Ontario grapes. Whilst more of the precious Ontario crop can be saved for VQA wines, this means a non-VQA wine might be 99 per cent Chilean, yet still retain its place on the Ontario shelf of a liquor store.
Whether they like it or not (and some do not), icewine has become Ontario’s ace in the pack. Icewine can be made only after the correct freeze-thaw cycles, with harvesting at minus 10C temperatures. This means picking in the dead of night, when the freezing conditions and overripe, rotted berries turn the necessary hand-harvest into a grueling endurance event.
Cave Spring Cellars
A winery with a top reputation, where the intense and passionate Angelo Pavan (pictured right) crafts terrific icewines and everything from Riesling to Gamay to Cabernet Sauvignon from prime vineyard sites on the Beamsville Bench. Planted in 1978 at twice the density of many neighbouring vineyards, Cave Spring is a pioneer of modern Canadian wine. A superb restaurant and the stylish Inn on the Twenty hotel form part of the winery complex in the quaint and charming Jordan Village.
3836 Main Street
Tel: +1 905-562-3581
Château des Charmes
Founded in 1978 by Paul Bosc (right), another pioneer of modern Canadian wine. A graduate of the winery school at Beaune, Bosc came to Canada from French Algeria and is still very much involved, along with his wife Andrée and sons Pierre and, on left of picture, Paul. Frost danger is combated using wind machines that suck the warm air layer down into the vineyards on the coldest nights, potentially increasing ground-level temperatures from -26C to -10C.
1025 York Road
Tel: +1 905-262-4219
The picture shows Carlo Negri discussing the 2005 crop with me. Having come from an Italian wine family, Carlo has been winemaker at this estate on the Lake Eerie North Shore since 1980. 200,000 cases annualy makes Colio a major player, though Carlo’s shyness hides a very shrewd and passionate winemaking heart, justifiably proud of his current Ontario Winemaker of the Year status. Bianco Secco, Rosso and Spumante sell in large quantities, but the super-premium Estate wines are up with the best in Ontario.
1 Colio Drive
Tel: +1 519-738-9318
Henry of Pelham
One of the best-loved and most visited wineries in Ontario, Henry of Pelham has been producing wine since 1988, though the Speck family has lived there since 1794. The current generation of Paul, Daniel and Matthew Speck (left) owe much to their father, who ripped out the Concorde and Niagara in 1984, replanting with vinifera. Excellent icewines feature alongside red, white and sparkling wines, and a fine Baco Noir, a hangover hybrid that, along with Marechal Foch, surprises many tasters.
1469 Pelham Road
Tel: +1 905-684-8423
One of the largest operations in Ontario, Inniskillin was founded in 1975 and has carved out a formidable reputation for its icewines, and has a strong UK presence. I met up with Donald Ziraldo (right) to taste the range. Donald is co-founder along with Karl Kaiser, who still makes Inniskillin’s icewines. As well as icewine, Pinot Noir is another love, and Ziraldo enthuses about Clos Jordan, a joint venture between Inniskillin’s parent company Vincor and Boisset of Burgundy, that has yet to come on-stream.
Tel: +1 905-468-2187
Like Inniskillin, Jackson-Triggs also operates in British Columbia, but here in Ontario their architecturally stunning building is constructed from natural materials that reflect the Canadian landscape. Significant recent investment in a new vine clone programme has seen the world’s top viticulturists advising on soils and site-specific planting regimes. As a leading arts supporter in the area, their open-air amphitheatre is a very popular concert venue.
2145 Regional Road 55
Tel: +1 905-468-4637
Pelee Island Winery
The winery is on the mainland, but the vineyards are on Pelee Island, a boat ride, or in my case, white-knuckle Cessna ride away. The grapes take the ferry too – massive loads travelling to the mainland in the early morning each vintage. On the same latitude as Madrid, this is Canada’s most southerly wine region. 500 acres of meticulous vineyard includes rarities like the Austrian Zweigelt (pictured). Pelee Island is undeniably commercial, but ebullient winemaker Walter Schmoranz is a dynamo, and many Canadians love this special place.
455 Seacliff Drive
Tel: +1 519-733-6551
Here I experienced the only truly excellent Sauvignon Blanc of my Canadian adventure, made by Jean-Pierre Colas (left), who came to Peninsula Ridge in 2000 after a decade as head winemaker at Domaine Laroche in Chablis. Whether that heritage is responsible or not, Colas’ Sauvignon is a model of precision and balance. Fruit from contract growers supplements 40 acres on the prime Beamsville Bench, the estate’s own vines being imported direct from France to be planted in these mineral-rich soils. This is a very classy operation.
5600 King Street West
Tel: +1 905-563-0900
Right next door to Jackson Triggs, Stratus is a striking new kid on the block where legendary Ontario winemaker J-L Groux has designed an aesthetically delightful, but totally functional gravity-flow winery (right). Though several varietal wines are produced, it is the two flagship blends – ‘Stratus White’ and ‘Stratus Red’ – that drive this operation, exemplifying Groux’s belief in the power of terroir and the art of blending (no grapes are listed on the labels).
2059 Niagara Stone Road
Tel: +1 905-468-1806
Vineland has an outstanding restaurant with a broad, shady terrace looking over the vineyards to Lake Ontario and, on a clear day, the Toronto skyline. Planted in 1979 by the Weiss family of St Urbanshof in the Mosel, today Riesling is still a very strong suit under the brothers Schmidt, President Allan and Winemaker Brian (left). There is a fine range of VQA wines here, red and white, with a 50,000 case annual production. The restaurant list also boasts some aged Rieslings at very keen prices.
3620 Moyer Road
Tel: +4 905-562-7088
Go to part II: British Columbia, plus tasting notes on dozens of wines.