2016: A Watershed (Dam Busting?) Year for Canadian Wine

The Canadian Wine Report – May 2016
by David Lawrason

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

The 2016 growing season is underway across Canada, with vines galloping ahead in B.C. where temperatures have been higher than normal. In Ontario and Nova Scotia however, after a mild winter but a slow, cool spring, the buds are barely bursting as I write on May 10th. May is always a ginger moment here in the upper reaches of northern hemisphere, second only to the September harvest window as a time of anxiety and anticipation. Will the flowering be on schedule? Will late spring frosts descend? Whatever Mother Nature determines for this vintage, much in the Canadian wine retail and regulatory landscape has changed or is changing since the harvest of 2015.

Supermarket Wine Sales

Conversation and action around the introduction of supermarket wine sales has moved onto the front burner in both B.C. and Ontario.

In 2015, B.C. announced sales of BC VQA wines in supermarkets, but on a gradual basis, with a few locations established in grocery stores which have purchased licenses of existing VQA stores. This move is viewed to be expanding distribution of VQA wines beyond international trade agreements and Canadian commitments to the World Trade Organization, so it has ushered in official diplomatic protests from California, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Argentina and Chile. B.C. argues that the although the grocery locations are new the licenses are not; they have just been transferred. I’ll let the lawyers figure that out. On the one hand I am disappointed to see the erosion of VQA speciality stores with deep selections of BC VQA wines by staff who care. It is entirely possible that the grocery stores can mount an equal in-store experience, but will they? On the other hand, how many more consumers who have never been to a BC VQA wine store will now discover BC VQA wine in their supermarket. This is the reason for putting wine in supermarkets in the first place, and the reason to risk the international challenge.

BC Wines in Grocery Stores

In February, Ontario also announced that supermarket wine sales will be implemented this year, but the modus operandi is different. As one plank in a government initiative to liberalize wine sales, expand distribution and selection, Ontario will allow wine sales in 300 grocery stores in the years ahead (a pittance), with about 70 going on stream in 2016. In a political move to give Ontario wines a leg up while attempting to keep the international community at bay, half the new locations will sell only Ontario VQA wines, with the remainder selling a 50/50 split of both international and domestic wines. This formula is also temporary; I have read reports that this framework will dissolve by about 2022, and the supermarket channel will be wide open. Meanwhile, the LCBO seems set to re-focus on a “premium wines and on-line ordering and delivery” model that will include Ontario and imported wines currently beyond its retail offerings. Stay tuned – it’s early days as full of supposition and conjecture as the introduction of legalized marijuana. On that note, imagine the outrage from the wine community if marijuana ends up being less regulated and in freer distribution than wine.

Interprovincial Law: Order, Ship and Sip

On October 6, 2012, Gerard Comeau, a retired steelworker from Tracadie, New Brunswick, was charged for driving fifteen cases of beer and three bottles of liquor across the J.C. Van Horner Bridge over Restigouche River from Pointe-à-la-Croix and the Listiguj First Nation Indian Reserve in Quebec into Campbellton, Brunswick. His alcohol was confiscated. He decided to fight this in court, and caught the attention of a team of lawyers focused on interprovincial trade issues: Arnold Schwisberg, Mikael Bernard and Karen Selick. Comeau’s defence was funded by the Canadian Constitution Foundation which took up his cause and prepared a case that finally came to judgment in late April.

The New Brunswick judge ruled that the law forbidding interprovincial transportation of alcohol was unconstitutional. The contravened phrase in the Constitution states “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”.  We all wait to see if an appeal is forthcoming, and if it is it will very likely become a case before the Supreme Court of Canada. But even so, Canada’s provincial liquor boards, in my opinion, have certainly lost any moral authority on this issue, and consumers and wineries should just go ahead and order, ship and sip.

Mr. Comeau, meanwhile, was asked by a reporter if his confiscated beer was ever returned to him.  He replied “no, and I am thirsty”. Only in Canada, eh?

Sub-Appellations in British Columbia

Since the 2015 harvest, B.C. has thoroughly embraced the study of sub-appellations and new appellations. The BC Wine Appellation Task Force was assembled, and has recommended a significant parsing of Okanagan wine regions, which makes sense given the incredibly diverse climatic, topographical and geological make up of the Okanagan. A report was tabled, and taken to a series of ‘town-hall’ meetings for discussion through the winter. We still await official reports from that process.

BC Wine Appellation Task Group Report

However, on May 7 Anthony Gismondi reported in the Vancouver Sun that “Some committee members I spoke with suggested it could be five to ten years before any smaller sub-GIs come to fruition in the Okanagan or on Vancouver Island, due mainly to opposition from the large and medium sized wineries who are decidedly content with broad appellations that suit their winemaking. If they all vote “No,” they have enough veto power to defeat any of the recommendations and the word is they prefer things as they are”.

I was rather surprised to read this. The mid and large size wineries have the luxury and flexibility to make wines of all designations, and it would seem wise to make different tiers from different appellations for different consumers and price points.

CheckMate Queen Taken Chardonnay

But Anthony’s comment triggered a recollection of comments by Ingo Grady of Mission Hill Family Estate when he was introducing the new Von Mandl Estates Checkmate chardonnays in Toronto in April. He chided the creation of sub-appellations in Niagara (established in 2005) and referred to creating sub-apps has the “ghetto-ization” of wine. I have long known and respected Ingo, and thought at the time that this was mostly about being playfully antagonistic. But in light of Anthony Gismondi’s comments, perhaps it does reveal an anti sub-app position by larger companies. I find this thinking ironic given that the five new $100 Checkmate chardonnays, which will only be sold to upscale restaurants on allocation, are very specifically single vineyard and by extension, sub-appellation wines.

Anthony Gismondi also reported that” it was very likely” that four “emerging” regions of B.C. would be given VQA approval. As he put it: “A handful of far flung regions benefitting from climate change hope to capitalize on the thirst for local wine with the establishment of four new geographic indications (GIs). The Thompson Valley, Shuswap, Lillooet-Lytton and Kootenays will likely be added to the mix with final boundaries subject to a review in consultation with regional stakeholders”. I have tasted an admittedly small sample size from each of these regions this year in the Canadian Wine Scholar course, but I have been impressed by Harpers Trail 2013 Riesling and Baillie-Grohman 2013 Pinot Noir

Harper's Trail Silver Mane Block Riesling 2013Baillie Grohman Pinot Noir 2013 Lightfoot And Wolfville Ancienne Chardonnay 2013 Southbrook Poetica Chardonnay 2013

The Terroir Conference in Toronto

In other national news, the annual Terroir Conference held at the Art Gallery of Ontario in late April presented a seminar and tasting on the Culture of Canadian Wine in Canada. Terroir has evolved over the years to be the leading culinary and wine forum for the hospitality industry in Toronto. Our seminar was sponsored this year by Wine Country Ontario. The panel consisted of winemakers and sommeliers from Atlantic Canada, Ontario and B.C., and included two flights of wines from three provinces. As panel leader I tried in vain to steer conversation to an esoteric view of national perceptions of Canadian wine, but rightfully so attention in the 90-minute program drilled into the eleven glasses on the table – sparkling and chardonnay from five appellations in three provinces. Heidi Noble of Joie Farm in Naramata, B.C., made what I thought was the single most important observation. “All these wines are just so elegant”. From Nova Scotia check out Lightfoot and Wolfville 2013 Ancienne Chardonnay and from Ontario Southbrook Poetica 2013 Chardonnay

The WineAlign National Wine Awards of Canada

National Wine Awards of CanadaLast but not least, we are looking forward to the 15th running of Canada’s leading national wine awards competition in Penticton June 22 to 26. Registration is open and deadlines are looming for entries.

The goal of The Nationals is to expose Canadian wine drinkers to the best in Canadian wines, and to provide winemakers a true benchmarking platform. There are no price categories in the competition, leaving each winery the opportunity to compete with the best wines in the country on a level playing field. More importantly, as barriers to ship wines across the country come down, the combination of winning recognition at The Nationals, and WineAlign’s ability to display the results, makes it the only competition with enduring post-competition sales opportunities. This year I plan to fully use the results of The Nationals as a springboard for commentary and discussion in this space. We are assembling the largest and finest group of judges to date, with the inclusion again of Dr. Jamie Goode of the UK and Elaine Chukan-Brown of Sonoma, California, our first American judge.

Hidden Bench Tête De Cuvée Chardonnay 2012Rosehall Run J C R Rosehall Vineyard Chardonnay 2013 Vineland Estates Elevation St. Urban Vineyard Riesling 2014 Spierhead Pinot Gris 2014 Laughing Stock Portfolio 2013

There is much more I could have covered in this report, but I will save some content for next time. Meanwhile, the click on the bottle images above to link to five more Canadian wines I think you might like to know about. All were encountered in a recent Canadian Wine Scholar course held in Toronto in April. Check www.FineVintageLtd.com for details on upcoming courses in Calgary and Edmonton June 18-19, Vancouver June 25-26, and Kelowna July 9-10.

If you have a minute, Wine Country Ontario would like you to answer a few questions concerning your views on travel and leisure in Ontario’s wine country. When you complete their short survey, you will be entered into a draw for your chance to win a weekend getaway in Ontario’s wine country. (See below to start the survey)


David Lawrason
VP of Wine

The Canadian Wine Report brings you News and commentary on Canadian wine from a national perspective. Which means that the subject matter, events and tastings have elements or implications beyond provincial and appellation boundaries.

Past issue: Speaking up for Canadian Wines