Canada makes wine in 10 provinces. A tasting this month showed the quality that has emerged in recent years. For publication in week of 30 May 2016.
By early May Canada had 12,140 hectares of vines and almost 680 wineries. This is small by world standards – Germany has about the same number of hectares devoted to one grape, pinot noir – but quality levels are rising.
The Niagara region of southern Ontario and the Okanagan Valley in southern British Columbia are Canada’s giants, producing more than 90 per cent of the country’s premium wine. Wine is also made in New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Newfoundland, Quebec and Nova Scotia though production is small. The last two provinces are emerging most rapidly.
Canada is still best known for icewine, producing about 1 million litres a year on average, more than any country. But it also makes a complete range of table wines and some sensational sparkling.
Icewine is made at the extremes: It can only be harvested from grapes that freeze naturally on the vine when the air temperature is minus 8C (though typically picking happens at minus 10 to minus 12, a tough experience). This partly explains the high cost, along with the fact yields are much lower than for table wine – about 10 to 15 per cent of an average table wine harvest.
But the rewards are high. Professor Debora Inglis is director of the Cool Climate Oenology Institute at Ontario’s Brock University, which advises winemakers on how to maintain quality. “A treasure comes from the extremes of icewine production.”
Thomas Bachelder, originally from Montreal, makes wines under his name in three countries: Ontario, Oregon in the United States and Burgundy in France. In Canada he concentrates on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and these wines are beautiful – elegant, delicate and sophisticated.
Norman Hardie at Norman Hardie Winery similarly makes delicious, elegant wines, also focusing on cool climate grapes. His two Pinots and three Chardonnays are excellent wines and he manages to offer mouth-watering flavours with alcohol levels under 12 per cent. But his standout was a 2015 Riesling that was absolutely delicious, full of concentrated lemon zest and gooseberries, and less than 10 per cent alcohol.
Ontario shares the same latitude as Burgundy and has attracted favourable attention from Wine Spectator and Decanter magazines. Three major lakes act as hot water bottles in winter, and the region sits on a bed of limestone (the same as in Burgundy and also England), which perhaps explains the distinct notes in many of the wines.
Canada produces excellent sparkling wines. The best are made via traditional methods as in Champagne and spend one to four years on the lees before being disgorged. They tend to have more flavour and feel less austere than champagne.
The climate of Nova Scotia on the east coast is very similar to that of Champagne, but it has a longer growing season. Cools nights and hot summers permit perfect ripening of grapes in summer. One of the region’s major successes has been the Benjamin Bridge winery. The majority of its wines are pre-sold. Winemaker Jean-Benoit Deslauriers has featured in previous columns and continues to make marvelous sparkling and still wines.
Canada is one of the few wine-producing countries where domestic wines do not dominate the market. Local wines represent less than half of what is consumed.
The biggest growth in vineyard numbers has occurred in British Columbia on the west coast. In 1990 the province had only 17 wineries. A quarter century later the number had soared to 260. The Okanagan Valley dominates, producing four in five bottles in the province.
Some of the best wines tasted at Canada House in London came from Saxon Estate Winery, Unsworth Winery, Meyer Family Vineyards and Okanagan Crush Pad. It should be noted that this province’s costs are high. Land is more expensive than in Napa and labour costs can be five times higher than Napa, which has the advantage of attracting workers from Mexico.
Okanagan Crush Pad’s vines were planted in 2006 and the winery built in 2011. Since then it has grown and produces 30,000 cases a year. It is designed as a shared workspace for winemakers. To date a dozen winemakers have been helped to produce wines. Crush Pad is home to the Haywire and Narrative labels, both organic, who use concrete tanks and amphora instead of barrels.
Chief winemaker is Matt Dumayne, originally from New Zealand’s Central Otago. He noted many similarities between the two regions. The wide temperature gap during the growing season produces full flavours and gives fine acidity to the grapes. The Haywire 2014 The Bub sparkling is a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, with zero dosage, meaning it is dry and austere. It is sealed with a beer bottle cap to save costs but this should not put you off trying an elegant and attractive wine with loads of flavours of citrus and toast.
Most vineyards grow the traditional French international varieties, though some like Unsworth on Vancouver Island are experimenting with Sauvignette and Petit Milot as well as producing wines from classic varieties. The Unsworth Allego is a 50:50 blend of these two grapes. They are hybrids, created by crossbreeding between classic Vitis vinifera and other species, usually with the aim of creating a heartier grape. In the case of Canadian hybrids, the aim is to find varieties that can ripen in low temperatures.
Unsworth is a pioneer of hybrids, and is also converting to organic viticulture, which shows in the quality of the wines. The 2015 Charme de L’ile sparkling is made from Sauvignette along with Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris and has lively green apple and pear aromas.
A noteworthy feature of Canadian wine was the launch last year of a comprehensive national online wine directory, Wine411 (http://www.wine411.ca). It is an excellent one-stop source of information.