The Goode Report: Commonwealth Cousins – Canadian Wine in the UK Market
Dr. Jamie Goode’s Global View on Canadian Wines
So Canadian wines, how are you doing? Ready for the big time? The UK is one of the most crowded wine markets in the world. Because we don’t have a sizeable wine industry of our own (although: look out for English sparkling wine – it’s a thing!), we are open to wines from everywhere, and we drink a lot. It’s the sixth largest global market and 60% of adults (30 million people) drink wine. This makes the UK market an ideal testing ground. Do your wines really stack up on the global stage? Try selling them in the UK: if you can make it here, you can be reasonably confident that you are doing the right thing.
Until a couple of years ago, there were virtually no Canadian wines in the UK save for a few icewines. This is changing. Several producers have found a way into this hypercompetitive market, and some of them are doing very well. I quizzed a few buyers and importers to get a progress report.
The Wine Society is one of the UK’s best retailers. This not-for-profit society has 120,000 active members who join for life for a modest fee, and the pricing and selection is really impressive. They’ve listed the wines of Norman Hardie from Prince Edward County for a number of years. “The Norman Hardie wines I ship each year sell out in a single fine wine email,” says buyer Sarah Knowles. “I think they offer great value despite reasonably high prices, and clearly members love them.”
“What I find trickier is finding the Normans, who have stock, aren’t over-pricing their wines, and want to enter the UK,” Knowles continues. “To run a multi-wine Canadian offer I would need a number of various producers from BC and Ontario to give the offer authority and members choice.” Knowles says she often finds good Canadian wines but the problem is the pricing. “The winery could sell out in Canada at a higher price with the monopoly’s support.” But she’s actively looking for the right partners and hopes to run a larger Canadian fine wine offer this autumn.
David Gleave, managing director of Liberty Wines (one of the UK’s most prominent agencies) has had good success with the wines of Clos Jordanne and Thomas Bachelder. Gleave himself is Canadian, hailing from Toronto. “We’ve had very good success with our Canadian wines,” reports Gleave. “I said for most of my time in the wine business that I would never let whatever residual affection I have for my homeland get in the way of my commercial judgement, hence the reason why there were no Canadian wines on our list. But when I tasted the wines from Clos Jordanne, where Thomas was the first winemaker, I was very impressed. They took the view that they wanted to make good wines, and not just good Canadian wines. As a result, the wines competed well on the international market.” He continues, “Thomas has carried this conviction through to his own label, and is doing a very good job. Our sales of his wines almost doubled last year. 57% go to the on trade and 43% to the independent off trade, a very good mix for such esoteric wines.”
Marks & Spencer, one of the leading wine retailers, has also begun to explore Canadian wines. They’ve just listed a BC Pinot Noir, as winemaker/buyer Belinda Kleinig explains. “Dror Nativ [another M&S buyer] and I took a trip to the Okanagan Valley last December and visited a number of wineries. We were really impressed with the quality and style of Jak Meyer’s wines and knew we wanted to pursue a project with him. We worked together to compile a specific blend, including parcels from his single vineyard sites. Highlighting the wine’s Canadian origin on shelf was important to us, so we also worked closely with the Wines of British Columbia, who provided Jak with bottle neck towers.”
How has it sold? “We are really proud to have the Meyer Pinot Noir,” says Kleinig, “and our customers also seem interested by it—it’s selling really well, particularly considering its premium price point.” Kleinig is keen to develop Canada further in future, but notes that Canadian wine is expensive by the time it’s on the shelf in the UK. “However the quality potential is hugely exciting and we are committed to supporting Canadian wines,” she says.
But it’s not all success stories. One importer who has struggled is Ben Llewelyn of Carte Blanche, who for a while was the agent for the Pearl Morissette wines from François Morissette. “Commercially I found the wines hard to sell,” he says, “a classic example of everyone talking it up but with no actual traction with the consumer. We also encountered issues with shipping (we could only ship 120 of each cuvee before François had to pay heavy export taxes) so it meant we only had a tiny amount of what sold (Cabernet Franc) and too much of what did not (Riesling and Chardonnay).”
“Perhaps Canada needs to do more on the home market to prove the wines and find its stride before entering big time onto the export markets,” says Llewelyn. “All the wines I have tried are exciting and show huge potential, but punters will only accept one poor show before they lose interest.”
So, Canada. You are doing pretty well. There’s lots to be optimistic about, and a few things to improve. The trade barriers to imported wines may seem to be protecting Canadian producers, but their removal – far from spelling disaster for the fortunes of the producers – might be just what they need to prod them to become truly internationally competitive. “I judged Canada last year at Decanter [the Decanter World Wine Awards],” says Sarah Knowles. “The majority of wines were from BC and they really had a big hit and miss rate, which is a little worrying for the region.” So, things are going well, but the Canadization of the UK is not yet complete.
The Goode Report
Dr. Jamie Goode is the first international member of the WineAlign team, and one of our core judges for The National Wine Awards. He completed a PhD in plant biology and worked as a science editor before switching careers to wine writing. He’s a book author (The Science of Wine and Authentic Wine), writes a weekly wine column for a national newspaper (The Sunday Express), freelances for international magazines and blogs daily at wineanorak.com, the site he founded in 1999 and one of the world’s most popular wine websites. A sought-after speaker and experienced wine judge, he has judged wine in the UK, South Africa, France, Australia, Bulgaria, Hungary and Serbia. He tweets as @jamiegoode and is on Instagram as @drjamiegoode.