A Perspective on Canadian Wine

Most people probably know Canadian wine only through the prism of its famous ice wine, but actually Canada has around 12,000 ha of vineyards (mostly in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley and Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula) roughly equivalent in total to Burgundy’s Côte d’Or. Most production is dry wine, with sparkling wine and ice wine a small proportion. A tasting at Canada House in London offered a rare opportunity to get a bead on whether this is a successful endeavor.

The wines were almost all VQA (Canada’s appellation system), so this is a look at the high end. I do think they’ve made a mistake in defining the VQAs in great detail at this stage, with ten sub-appellations in Niagara, for example, confusing rather than enlightening.

Living on the East coast of the United States, I am inclined to regard Canada as the frozen North, or anyway, distinctly cool climate, so I am frankly confused by the somewhat optimistic descriptions of climate by the Wine Council of Ontario. An amusing chart of annual temperatures in various wine growing regions appears to show that Bordeaux is warmer than the Languedoc and that Niagara is warmer than Bordeaux, which leaves me feeling somewhat sceptical.

Looking at weather station data, I place Niagara between Alsace and the Mosel. It is a little bit warmer in British Columbia, and there is certainly significant variation between the ends of Okanagan Valley as it extends for more than a hundred miles from north to south, but I am surprised to see the southern part described as warmer than Napa on the basis of degree days, as weather station data in the midpoint of the southern part suggest to me that temperatures are quite close to Alsace. Perhaps I am not paying sufficient attention to variations between microclimates.

Tasting the wines, the climate that most often comes to mind for comparison would be the Loire. With Riesling and Chardonnay as the main focus, but also a fair proportion of Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, and Viognier, the impression is distinctly cool climate.

Most Chardonnays at the tasting had too much oak for my taste, even though the stated usage of new oak was usually quite moderate. Even allowing for youthful character, I’m not certain there’s enough fruit to carry the oak. My impression of the Chardonnays from Niagara is that the citrus palate can be a bit too much driven by lemon. It’s fair to say that the style is European rather than New World, but given the cool climate character of the wines, I would suggest that Chablis would be a better model than the Côte d’Or, and the question should be how much (old) oak to use together with stainless steel, rather than what proportion of the oak (with many wines barrel fermented) should be new. With prices often around or above $35, competitiveness seems an issue.

Curiously given the cool climate impression, I was not generally impressed with the Rieslings. My main complaint is the style: Riesling character is often obscured by a significant level of residual sugar. I did not find a single dry Riesling. I’m inclined to wonder whether, if you can’t successfully make a dry wine, you should plant a different variety, but I suppose you might say that the best Canadian Rieslings do show a nice aperitif style.

Given the cool climate impression made by the whites, the successful production of reds is quite surprising, especially the focus on Bordeaux varieties rather than those more usually associated with cooler climates. Among them, Cabernet Franc appears to be the variety of choice for single varietal wines, and although there are certainly some creditable wines showing good varietal typicity, I find many to be on the edge for ripeness. Certainly the style is much more European than New World­—the Loire would be the obvious comparison. The best Merlots or Bordeaux blends seem more like the Médoc than the Right Bank of Bordeaux in style.

To my surprise, Syrah outshines Cabernet Franc in Okanagan Valley. The Syrahs are evidently cool climate in character, definitely Syrah not Shiraz, in a fresh style with some elegance, which should mature in a savory direction; nothing with the full force impression of the New World. They remind me of the Northern Rhone in a cool year.

There are some successful Pinot Noirs in both British Columbia and Ontario, presenting somewhat along the lines of Sancerre or Germany. The difficulty is to bring out classic typicity in these cool climates, but the best are Pinot-ish in a light style.

Some producers are now making single vineyard wines. Is it worth it? It’s an interesting question whether at this stage of development the best terroirs have been well enough defined to produce reliably better wine every year or whether a better model would be to make cuvées from the best lots. There’s also the question of whether they are competitive at price points pushing beyond those of the estate bottlings.

Favorites at the tasting

Sparkling wine, Gaspereau Valley, Nova Scotia: Benjamin Bridge, 2008

This is called the Methode Classique Brut Reserve to emphasize the connection with Champagne: it comes from 61% Chardonnay and 39% Pinot Noir. It follows the tradition of Champagne with a faintly toasty nose showing some hints of citrus. Nice balance on palate with an appley impression. Flavors are relatively forceful.   11.5% 89

Syrah, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia: Painted Rocks Winery, 2013

Lovely fruits in a restrained style, fresh and elegant with beautiful balance, a touch of pepper at the end. A textbook Syrah in a slightly tight style.   14.9% 89

Syrah, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia: Burrowing Owl Vineyards, 2013

Black fruit impression on nose with hints of blueberries. Light style is quite Rhone-like on palate, nice clean fruits with faint buttery hints at end, more successful than the Bordeaux varieties. 14.5% 89

Pinot Noir, Beamsville Bench, Niagara Peninsula: Hidden Bench, Felseck Vineyard, 2013

Nicely rounded red fruits with faintly minty overtones bringing a slight herbal impression to the nose. Quite a sweet ripe impression on palate with touch of spice at the end. Slight viscosity on palate brings to mind the style of Pinot Noir in Germany.   12.7% 88

Cabernet Franc, Creek Shores, Niagara Peninsula: Tawse Family Winery, Van Bers Vineyard, 2012

Nose shows some faint tobacco and chocolate, with palate following with typically herbal notes of Cabernet Franc. Dry tobacco-ish finish. Does it have enough fruit to stand up when the tannins resolve?   13.0% 88

Chardonnay, Niagara: Norman Hardie Winery, Cuvee L, 2012

More restrained nose than Hardie’s other Chardonnay cuvees but some oak does show through. Nice balance on palate between oak and slightly lemony fruits. Follows Chablis in style.   12.4% 88

Viognier, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia: Blasted Church Vineyards, 2014

Barrel fermented with some new oak. Faintly perfumed nose with the perfume somewhat clearer on palate. Fry impression to finish short of phenolic. Nice long finish on which you can just see the oak.   13.0% 89

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2 thoughts on “A Perspective on Canadian Wine

  1. Regarding the climatology: I think that average low winter temperatures would be at least as important as average temperatures, which are apparently what the weather station maps showed. Vines in some parts of Ontario must be subject to regular freezing. In that sense, maybe the Loire is a good basis for comparison with many Canadian wines.

    • Partly true, but when you assess climate for grape growing, you usually look only at the temperatures only between April and October, i.e. during the growing season. Using that as a basis for comparing Canadian regions with Europe places British Columbia between Sancerre and Alsace, and Niagara between Alsace and the Mosel. It is a little misleading because the average over the seven months is more evenly distributed in Europe, that is the beginning and end of the season is colder in Canada, so growing is compressed into a shorter period. Winter temperatures don’t really contribute directly to what happens during the growing season, but of course have a major effect if they go below the point at which the grapevine dies.

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