Canadian Wine: Building Presence at the Chef’s Table
The Canadian Wine Report – June 2016
by David Lawrason
The wines of Canada are ideal dinner companions – polite and interesting. Thanks to our generally cool climate they have essential natural acidity to cut and refresh the palate. They have lower to moderate alcohol levels that do not dominate food, and certainly the better quality wines have the fruit expression, depth and complexity to work with any flavours and textures a chef can create from our oceans, lakes, rivers, fields, orchards, tundras and forests. Our wines are so Canadian.
However, we don’t see them in every restaurant in the country because many of our chefs and sommeliers do not have the confidence to serve them, which of course reflects on their perceived ability to sell them. So we are still essentially a nation of imported wine drinkers.
With small production from only 30,000 acres coast to coast (Napa Valley alone has 43,000) and a population of 35 million, Canada is not yet producing enough wine to serve its own populace. Overlay the fact that certain (not all) liquor boards still to this day actively work to block our wines moving freely across the country. The challenges are enormous, but we are working on it.
For the past seven years I have been deeply involved in putting Canadian wines, chefs and consumers on at the same table through Gold Medal Plates. This is a national chef competition with regional events in ten cities that culminates with the Canadian Culinary Championships held every February in Kelowna, B.C. Each of the competitions is attended by 500 to 700 people depending on the city and venue size. The proceeds go to Canada’s Olympic athletes and the Own the Podium program, for which Gold Medal Plates has raised over $11 million in ten years. It is all about promoting excellence in Canadian food, sport, entertainment and wine.
The chefs “must” use VQA or wine 100% grown and made in Canada. No imports or “Cellared in Canada” (the BC terminology) or “International Canadian Blends” (Ontario terminology) are permitted. Furthermore, they must work with wineries to come up with donated wine that actually works well with the dishes they are creating. The success of their pairing accounts for 10% of the culinary judges’ scoring, and in close competitions, that can be a deal breaker.
Since 2008, over 700 Canadian wine pairings have been created by Canadian chefs. As such, Gold Medal Plates Chief Culinary Judge James Chatto has had a detailed look at the evolution of Canadian wines in this competition.
“In GMP’s early years (pre-2010) we heard chefs and their sommeliers grumbling about having to use Canadian wine”, says Mr. Chatto. “They weren’t used to it at all. For them, I suspect, it has been a useful journey of discovery. Certainly, the grumbling has stopped. I would also maintain that the quality of wines the chefs are choosing has risen dramatically, partly because wineries increasingly understand that this is a great showcase for their products.”
I am not a culinary judge because I lack the training, but every year I travel to each of the ten cities and taste most of the chefs’ pairings. I am on the floor with the paying guests listening to their reactions, with most being very positive indeed. Not every match is great, and sometimes the chefs will use “a big name” wine to impress, without paying much heed to the match, which to me expresses some lack of confidence in their wine pairing abilities. Overall, the Canadian wines do show the acidity that keeps the palate nicely refreshed through a long evening and often lend a sense of elegance.
James Chatto agrees. “We see a lot of competition dishes that are very refined, intricate and subtle, very few that are hearty or heavy. There are so many Canadian wines that pair beautifully with this kind of detailed cuisine – delicate but sharp bubblies, crisp, aromatic whites, nimble reds. Their acidity and minerality are assets that a smart chef can exploit.
“Last year, for example, Martín Ruiz Salvador (Fleur de Sel, Lunenberg) made a sensational match of a Nova Scotian Chardonnay with his whelk-and-rabbit creation. Then again, if a chef decides to do something richer with moose or caribou or foie gras we have enough big reds from warm years and late harvest gems to choose from.”
The Mystery Wine Competition
One element of the Canadian Culinary Championship has become a great barometer of a chef’s interaction with Canadian wine. The Mystery Wine Competition is the first of three contests, wherein I select one wine from somewhere in Canada around which each chef must create a matching dish. They do not know that identity of the wine until after the competition, which means they must focus in on the wine’s structure and flavours for guidance – not some textbook or pre-conceived classic match. Likewise all 400 guests are drinking the same wine blind, which focuses them in the same way.
This year I chose Tawse 2014 Gamay Noir from Niagara, an oh-so typical cool climate Canadian red that forced the chefs to keep things subtle, but allowed them, possibly, a range of base options from fish to poultry, vegetarian or red meat. Only two went the fish route and one did poultry, and one did both, with the remainder trying red meat only, less successfully in my view.
“We still see the odd chef who shows up with pre-determined ideas about what he or she wants to cook, and then has to twist those plans around to fit the wine,” says James Chatto. “But the smart ones start with an open mind. This year, the Tawse Gamay conjured up similar responses in a number of competitors – lots of beets, lots of earthy and smoky components, a surprising amount of goat’s cheese!”
The winning chef for this leg of the competition, and the overall championship, was Marc Lepine from L’Atelier in Ottawa. He created a very fine, intricate dish that he tongue-in-cheek called “Surf and Turf” with ling cod and oxtail bridged by a number of ingredients like fried potato, beets, broth and fennel. “Yes, there was a lot going on in this dish” explained Mr. Chatto,” but the internal harmonies were finely judged and the wine match was subtle but most effective”.
The full results of the Canadian Culinary Championships, including James Chatto’s blow-by-blow descriptions of all the competing dishes and wine matches can be found on the Gold Medal Plates website.
Meanwhile here are links to the top wines in each city event, as judged by yours truly with teams of local wine writers, retailers and sommeliers. Each wine was assembled at the Canadian Culinary Championships and judged all over again to determine the Best Wine of Gold Medal Plates 2015. We lead off with the top three:
Gold Medal Plates Wine of the Year
Le Vieux Pin 2014 Ava
Osoyoos-Black Sage, Okanagan Valley
Presented in Saskatoon
Gold Medal Plates First Runner-up
Bachelder Wismer Vineyard 2012 Chardonnay
Twenty Mile Bench, Niagara Peninsula
Presented in Ottawa
Foxtrot Estate 2012 Henricsson Vineyard Pinot Noir
Naramata Bench, Okanagan Valley
Presented in Victoria
Other Top Wines
L’Acadie Blanc Prestige Brut Zero Dosage
Gaspereau Valley, Nova Scotia
Presented in Halifax
Blue Mountain Gold Label Brut
Okanagan Falls, Okanagan Valley
Presented in Winnipeg
Road 13 Sparkling Chenin Blanc 2011
Golden Mile, Okanagan Valley
Presented in Calgary
Norman Hardie 2012 Unfiltered Niagara Pinot Noir
Presented in Regina
Bartier Bros. 2011 Cerqueira Vineyard Syrah
Black Sage Bench, Okanagan Valley
Presented in Edmonton
Mcwatters Collection 2012 Meritage
Black Sage Bench, Okanagan Valley
Presented in St. John’s
Osoyoos Larose Le Grand Vin 2010
Osoyoos, Okanagan Valley
Presented in Toronto
Editors Note: You can find David’s complete critic reviews by clicking on any of the highlighted wine names, bottle images or links. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid members wait 60 days to see new reviews. You can also explore the wineries of Canada on WineAlign here: Canada’s Winery Regions
David top right: Bonne Belle Photography, Gold Medal Plates 2016
Food images: Deon Nel Photography, Gold Medal Plates 2016