Canadian wine continues to impress, with new styles and ideas from innovative people. For publication in week of 22 May 2017.
Canada has been known around the world for making Icewine since the early 1990s. But Canada produces more than this sweet, delicious drop, and is focusing on still wines from international grapes like Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir, and also making some sensational fizz.
As of May this year Canada had about 12,150 hectares of vines – a slight rise on the figure from a year earlier. The total remains small by world standards – Germany has about the same number of hectares devoted to one grape, Pinot Noir – but quality continues to rise.
The Niagara region of southern Ontario and the Okanagan Valley in southern British Columbia are the heavyweights, producing about 90 per cent of the country’s premium wine. New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Newfoundland, Quebec and Nova Scotia also make wine, though production is small. The last two provinces are emerging most rapidly.
Icewine could best be described as an extreme: 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, which must be a tough job). 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.
Land is more expensive than in much of California and labour costs can be five times higher than in Napa, which explains the relatively high cost of Canadian wines.
Sue-Ann Staff, winemaker at Sue-Ann Staff Estate Winery in Jordan, Ontario, is known as the “Ice Queen” because of her reputation for crafting excellent Icewine. She was named the province’s winemaker of the year in 2002, soon after graduating from the University of Adelaide in Australia. Her magical 2012 Icewine is made from the Vidal grape and has 240 grams of residual sugar. This high level of sugar produces a luscious mouthfeel, balanced by keen acidity. The result is a wine that is simply delicious, and would pair with a range of foods from foie gras as a starter through to strong blue cheeses to conclude a meal.
She joked that the last drops in the bottle could be mixed with vodka and ice to make an excellent martini. Canadians are innovative people.
Diamond Estates, also in Ontario, similarly makes a fine Icewine from Vidal grapes grown in the Niagara Peninsula. Sales director Peter Toms said his estate exports to China, Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Icewine would pair with a range of Chinese foods, and could be sensational with Peking duck, depending on the sauce.
Norman Hardie at Norman Hardie Winery in Ontario received glowing attention in this column a year ago, and he continues to make delicious wines, focusing on cool climate grapes. His three Pinots and two Chardonnays tasted this week were excellent wines. The whites are full of character and flavours of zesty citrus and nuts, while the pinots are delicate and elegant, echoing raspberry notes and a light oak touch.
Hardie said he chooses quality oak with the aim of letting the terroir sing. “We spend a lot of money on good oak to make sure our wines don’t taste of oak,” he said. “We focus on fruit.” He uses the best oak barrels made by Burgundy coopers, with a light toast, to impart his signature delicacy of touch.
Hardie manages to entice mouth-watering flavours from his wines with alcohol levels under 12 per cent. This comes from using indigenous yeasts – those found on grape skins and in the cellar – rather than introducing commercial yeasts. “Indigenous yeasts are lazy buggers and eat less sugar [during fermentation], which reduces alcohol levels [because sugars are not converted to alcohol].” Hardie has been making a few wines with zero sulphur because he believes a market exists for these kinds of wines. All his bottles since he started in 2004 have been sealed with screwcaps.
Ontario shares the same latitude as France’s Burgundy region and has attracted favourable attention from Wine Spectator and Decanter magazines. Indeed, the Ontario wine marketing board’s brochure features a comment from leading Decanter columnist, Steven Spurrier, on its first page: “I was amazed”. The Wines of British Columbia brochure also features a Spurrier quote: “Your wines are sensational.”
Three major lakes in Ontario act as hot water bottles in winter, and the region sits on a bed of limestone (the same as in Champagne and also England), which perhaps explains the distinct chalky notes in many of the red wines, and a sense of “minerality” in the whites.
Canada’s best sparkling wines are made via the traditional methods employed in Champagne and spend many 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 the region has a longer growing season. Cools nights and hot summer days permit perfect ripening of grapes. 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 marvellous sparkling and still wines. His 2008 classic method sparkling from fruit grown in the Gaspereau Valley, where Benjamin Bridge is located, spends six years on the lees and is delicious. It could easily be confused for a high-end champagne, and includes the classic Champagne varieties of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier.
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 when the VQA or Vintner’s Quality Alliance standard was created, the province only had 17 wineries. A quarter century later the number had soared to more than 260.
The Okanagan Valley dominates, producing four in five bottles in the province. VQA guarantees that wines are only made with grapes from British Columbia. Some of the best BC wines tasted at Canada House in London came from Culmina Family Estate Winery and Seven Stones Winery.
A national online wine directory, Wine411 (http://www.wine411.ca), offers information about 700 Canadian wineries and about 5,000 wines.