John Szabo’s VINTAGES Preview – March 4th, 2017

Canada Unites at the Vancouver Wine Festival, Recommended BC and Nova Scotia Wineries & 7 Great International Buys
by John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Last week the 39th annual Vancouver Wine Festival rolled out under typically cloudy (and one gloriously sunny) skies. It’s the longest running and largest wine festival in North America, and this year Canada was the host nation, a nod to our 150th. The wines presented were generally excellent, but the cloud in the silver lining was how obvious it was that when it comes to wine, Canada is not a country. Read on for the background as well as a list of recommended wineries from B.C. and Nova Scotia; Ontario will get its due next report.

The March 4th VINTAGES release covers the nebulous theme “Living On The Edge”, which I’ve taken to refer to wines at the edge of where quality and price equal pleasure. My highlights literally span the world, with seven great buys from seven countries, $16-$60. Skip straight to the Buyers’ Guide.

Canada Unites at the 39th Annual Vancouver Wine Festival

Is Canada a country? Or a loose federation, really comprised of a bunch of nation-states under the same flag? From a wine producer’s point of view, Canada really amounts to thirteen separate countries, each governed by different alcohol importation and distribution regulations, and variable taxation. This is true whether you make wine inside or outside Canada’s borders. As ludicrous as it seems, it’s as challenging and expensive to “import” wine from B.C. into Ontario as it is from France or Chile. This curious state of affairs came under the spotlight at the latest edition of Canada’s largest wine gathering, the Vancouver Wine Festival.

Canadian Vintners Association

In case you haven’t been following the story, until recently, the shipment of all wine between provinces was prohibited. This changed, sort of, with the passing of Bill C311 in June 2012. An amendment to the prohibition-era Importation of Intoxicating Liquors Act made inter-provincial wine shipping legal on a federal level. But it was left up to the provinces to set their own policies. In legal parlance:

The passage of Bill C-311 provides a personal exemption to the Importation of Intoxicating Liquors Act (ILLA) for the transportation of wine across provincial borders for personal use, the importation of wine from a province by an individual, if the individual brings the wine or causes it to be brought into another province, in quantities and as permitted by the laws of the latter province, for his or her personal consumption, and not for resale or other commercial use. (Source: freemygrapes.ca)

Never mind that ILLA was in direct opposition to the Canadian Constitution that protected inter-provincial trade of Canadian goods. For the record, section 121 of the Constitution Act, 1867, states that:

“All Articles of the Growth, Produce, or Manufacture of any one of the Provinces shall, from and after the Union, be admitted free into each of the other Provinces.”

Thus interprovincial shipping of Canadian wine should never have been illegal in the first place. (And never mind that according to Canada’s various free trade agreements, goods from other countries have to be treated in the same way as Canadian products. I’m not a legal expert by any means, but it sounds an awful lot like foreign wines should be accorded the same freedom of interprovincial movement as Canadian wine).

Yet the shipping of even Canadian wine between provinces remains a grey and variable zone. Only British Columbia, Manitoba and Nova Scotia have officially permitted wine “imports”, but then only 100% Canadian wine direct from a winery, and with quantity restrictions hazily described as “personal amounts”. It’s a legal dog’s breakfast in the rest of the provinces with conflicts between provincial laws and liquor board policies. In Ontario, for example, according to legal liquor expert Mark Hicken,

Ontario’s laws are silent on the issue of interprovincial importation of alcohol. Generally, in law, “that which is not prohibited is permitted” so it should be ok to import wine for personal consumption as allowed by the federal law. However, the LCBO has issued a “policy statement” that disagrees with this and says that only “in person transport” is allowed. It is my view that this “policy statement” has no basis in law in Ontario.” 

So that means that a B.C. resident can import wine from an Ontario winery for their own consumption, for example, even if few people are aware they can, but an Ontario resident cannot have wine shipped from a BC winery (that is if you follow LCBO policy). Ironically, the BC government has much more to lose than Ontario, since taxes are far higher on alcohol in BC, and the BC industry is much smaller than Ontario’s (4100ha vs. 6900ha), even if interprovincial wine trade would never hardly even dent total trade. (Note: Bill 98, a private member’s bill proposed in Ontario in 2012 that would similarly permit the importation of Canadian wine from other provinces, is still in front of a Standing Committee 5 years later.)

And no restaurant or retail store anywhere in the country can buy wine from another province to resell. This puts the wines of Ontario, BC, Nova Scotia and Québec on the same footing as imported wine. Ontario importers must treat BC or Nova Scotia wineries just as they do Italian or Spanish companies. Really, when it comes to wine, Canada is not a country. It’s more like a medieval collection of city-states with virtual tax collection points at every border.

The general ignorance of Canadian wine within Canada was evident at The Vancouver Wine Festival. As the host nation, 78 Canadian wineries participated (62 from B.C and 6 from Nova Scotia, and just 10 from Ontario out of over 180 – a clear indication of how challenging local wineries find the BC market). One of the points that came up several times during the many excellent Canadian wine master classes was how un-Canadian the Canadian wine industry is. As veteran wine writer Anthony Gismondi asked rhetorically, “Wines of California are on their 37th annual cross Canada tour. Why hasn’t Canada ever done that?” I could also ask the same of the PR associations of BC, Ontario and Nova Scotia.

Caroline Henderson, Canadian Vintners Association

It’s true. Aside from a small handful of large wineries, B.C. wines remain as foreign to Ontarians as Ontario wines are for BC-ers. It was fascinating to see the largely BC-based crowds tasting Ontario and Nova Scotia wines for the first time, unaware in many cases that wines are even made in those provinces – quite surreal indeed. I spent most of my time in he BC section of the tasting room, tasting wines that I’d never have access to in Ontario.

In the end, Canada put on a great show, breaking down provincial boundaries in a meaningful and significant way, with genuine excitement for the superb quality wines now made from coast to coast. Let’s hope it’s the beginning of a real pan-Canadian wine industry, one in which Canadian wines from everywhere are poured alongside one-another, both at home and abroad.

Considering that the entire country has barely more than 12,000 hectares under vine, equivalent to just 1/10 of the Bordeaux region alone, there’s not a lot to go around. So to gain critical mass and traction in any market, Toronto or London, Vancouver or New York, a collective Canadian effort would go a long way in creating a Canadian wine identity. Now, if we could only convince the provincial liquor boards to see it the same way.

Ship Away: Recommended Wineries from Nova Scotia and B.C.

In practical terms, there is little provincial liquor boards can do stop inter-provincial wine shipments. There are no real borders, and besides, which legislator wants to take on the Canadian constitution? I’ve shipped wine from BC and Nova Scotia to my home in Toronto. So, if you want to discover great wines from BC and Nova Scotia, order away. Below is a starter’s list of recommended wineries with reliable wines across the portfolio. Or, if you’re planning a visit to Canadian wine country, be sure to include a few of these names on your itinerary.

Canadian Wine

For more on Canadian wine from an outsider’s perspective, see WineAlign foreign correspondent Jamie Goode’s recaps of several of the festival’s master classes at wineanorak.

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John Szabo’s March 4th Buyers’ Guide:


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That’s all for this report. If you are looking for a fun, interesting and wine-filled way to spend a Sunday afternoon, please join me on Sunday, March 5th at George Brown College in Toronto. That’s where I’ll be the head judge at the Best Ontario Sommelier Competition. The final round of competition takes place in front of a live audience made up of trade and wine enthusiasts – like you. Find out more and purchase your tickets here

See you over the next bottle.

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John Szabo, MS


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