We Are Drinking Canada’s Best Wines Too Soon

WineAlign’s Rhys Pender explains why our wines can age well and picks examples of successfully aged wines.The answer” he argues, “could be to follow the Bordeaux model and essentially sell futures to maintain cash flow, but it will take the market a while to have enough confidence in the wines for this to become a reality”

Rhys Pender, MW

Rhys Pender, MW

Are we drinking our best Canadian wines too early? I’m sure the majority of the best British Columbian and Ontario wines get quaffed down barely a year or two after they are bottled and I’m also sure that this is not when they show their greatest qualities. Being a young industry without centuries of tradition as to how the wines age and develop, consumers and winemakers have taken the cautious approach and underestimated the potential for the best wines to mature into something special.

It is easy enough to understand that winemakers wouldn’t want to come straight out and, at risk of appearing arrogant, say these wines will not peak for a decade when so many of the wineries are not even that old themselves. But too often producers are not giving the wines the credit they deserve. For wines to be good candidates for long ageing a few things are required, and Canadian wines have these in spades.

Why should French and Italian wines be able to age and Canadian wines not? Acidity, the great preservative, is retained naturally in Canadian wines to the point where many other world regions are openly jealous. When combined with concentrated fruit flavour and, in the case of many BC red wines, firm tannins, all the components are there for great potential in the cellar.

So knowing that the wines have the structure and the fruit to age, why aren’t consumers buying by the case and patiently waiting for the wines to evolve and mature? All that is lacking is the confidence, both from producers and consumers. There is simply not enough track record.

But as the number of wineries with 10 or more years of experience increases and the old guard is being pushed to greater and greater quality by a new ambitious band of young wine producers, confidence is starting to grow. There are more and more wines made to a high level through quality vineyard management giving intensely flavoured and structured grapes. In short, the grapes are getting better and so, therefore, are the wines. Many wineries now have enough vintages to run internal vertical tastings of their wines and the results are very positive and increasing their confidence.

Winemaking has also evolved and advanced having an impact on how Canadian wines age. In some cases, modern winemaking that fiddles and interferes with the natural composition of the must makes wines that taste approachable when young but their longevity is questionable. In other cases, respect for the fruit from vineyard through to bottle has resulted in wines more naturally balanced and concentrated and that age gracefully and interestingly.

Vintage variation, something that has been quite extreme in Canada in recent years could have an impact on the ability of wines to age but even the coolest vintages seem to develop nicely. I have had many good experiences with wines that were a little linear, light and not very generous in their youth that, after about 8-10 years, turned into something interesting, soft, balanced and very enjoyable. Riper, richer vintages also seem to age well. A Burrowing Owl Cabernet Sauvignon from the hot 1998 vintage tasted a mere baby at 10 years of age. Yet an Estate Syrah from Mission Hill from 1999 (BC’s coolest vintage on record) was still elegant and beautiful after 13 years.

How do we make the swing and get consumers to start cellaring more Canadian wine? It is going to take a lot of education and for producers to be confident and stand behind the ageability of their wines. It is too much to expect the producers to hold back the wine themselves for release at a later date (although a few places are doing this) as cash flow is always an issue and storage space at a premium. To have four, five or six vintages at different stages of their life in the cellar would cost a fortune.

The answer could be to follow the Bordeaux model and essentially sell futures to maintain cash flow, but it will take the market a while to have enough confidence in the wines for this to become a reality.

The best white grape varieties for ageing seem to be riesling and chardonnay, although chardonnay’s lifespan is shorter. Chardonnay becomes nutty, rich and soft while riesling can stay fresh for decades adding baking spice and petrol notes to all the citrus and tree fruit intensity.

Burrowing Owl Cabernet Sauvignon 2010Nichol Vineyards Syrah 2010For reds we have pinot noir, syrah and the Bordeaux varieties and blends. Merlot, known in most of the world as a soft, mellow wine is much more structured and capable of ageing as a stand-alone variety from the Okanagan and Similkameen Valleys. Bordeaux blends, after a few years, start to soften in texture and complex secondary flavours start to emerge while the often overzealous tannins melt away. Pinot Noir can become amazingly gamy, earthy and full of spice while the meaty and peppery notes in syrah develop layers and layers of complexity.

When you look at the price of Canadian wines they also look like a pretty good bargain compared with other international wines that are capable of improving for a decade or more. A $35 Canadian red blend will often outperform $35 Bordeaux or other similarly priced wines from around the world.

Successful Examples of Aged Canadian Wines

Some of the successfully aged Canadian wines I’ve been lucky enough to have in the cellar or taste include a 1994 Syrah from Nichol Vineyards tasted at 16 years old. It still had life and was amazingly complex. The current vintage, 2010, should age quite well too.

Blue Mountain Pinot Noir 2011Blue Mountain Pinot Noir Reserve 2010Tasting the aforementioned Burrowing Owl 1998 Cabernet Sauvignon at 10 years of age was quite a bizarre experience as there were no signs yet of any age. The 2010 might not be quite as concentrated but should open up nicely in 6-8 years.

Even many of the less expensive Cabernet-Merlot or Merlot wines have aged favourably. Recent positive experiences with a 1996 Mission Hill Merlot at 17 years of age showed a nice, complex meaty, vegemity, spicy wine still with lots of flavour.

Pinot Noir, not surprisingly due to its crisp acidity and flavour concentration, ages very well from Canada. Old examples of Blue Mountain Pinot Noir in both the regular and reserve tier have been delicious at 10 years of age. The 2011 Pinot Noir and 2010 Reserve Pinot Noir are both very good candidates for the cellar.

A 1991 Henry of Pelham Riesling tasted just this year was very developed but still had honeyed fruit, richness and spice and was drinking beautifully.

Summerhill Cipes Ariel 1998Sumac Ridge Steller's Jay Brut Sparkling Wine 2008Sparkling wine seems a natural candidate for ageing as grapes are picked early and with high acidity. Recent tasting of older vintages (1997/1998) of Sumac Ridge Steller’s Jay Brut has shown they get more interesting over time. The 2007 and current 2008 may well do the same. Summerhill only recently released a 1998 Cipes Ariel. This enigma of a wine always receives mixed reviews but when a fresher bottle is uncorked it has endless complexity and plenty of the goût anglais for those who appreciate that style.

Quails’ Gate Stewart Family Reserve Chardonnay 2011There has been the odd anomaly too. A Quails’ Gate Family Reserve 1994 Chardonnay tasted at 14 years old was still holding on nicely. This wine had been rated highly in its youth and outlived the expectations of most chardonnays in the world. The current 2011 Stewart Family Reserve is excellent and has the intensity and acidity to age.

I could go on and on with all the positive experiences drinking older Canadian wines. There really is something unique about the structure that comes from the unique growing conditions, matched nowhere else in the world. I think it is time for people to embrace that these wines age well, producers should now be confident in recommending cellaring and consumers should start putting bottles away to experience the best of what Canadian wines have to offer.


Rhys Pender, MW

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