February was a HUGE Month for the Canadian Wine Conversation
Canadian Wine Report – February 2017
by David Lawrason
In February three events showcased Canadian wines inter-provincially. They amplified the Canadian wine conversation and proved that consumers are curious, open-minded and open-armed about wines from beyond their provincial borders. But at the same time, by default, the events laid bare the core problem that so few Canadian wines are available in other provinces. The blame rests squarely on the shoulders of Canada’s liquor boards and regulators who consider wines of other provinces to be imports, perhaps even interlopers. See John Szabo’s excellent debrief published just days ago.
Two of the events were held in British Columbia, giving many left coasters there their first solid look at Ontario and Nova Scotia wines. The third showcased B.C. wine in Ontario. By the way, there is much less eastern wine in B.C than there is B.C wine in the east. In any event, I tasted almost 200 hundred Canadian wines in February, and I have presented some “finds” below.
The Vancouver International Wine Festival
The big event was the Vancouver International Wine Festival, where – for the first time in 39 years – Canada as a whole was the theme country. About time, eh!
There were 78 Canadian wineries in attendance: 62 from B.C., ten from Ontario and six from Nova Scotia. There was much discussion and conjecture about why the Ontario delegation was not stronger. I suspect that the costs of travel for winery principals, entry fees and product shipping and pouring expenses were deemed too much given perceived potential return on investment. Wine is still a business, and B.C. is seen historically by the Ontario industry as a tough market.
But on the other hand, what better way to begin to infiltrate the B.C. and western Canada market than to show up with your best wines blazing, as some Ontario producers did. We are pouring top Ontario wines in Vancouver, Kelowna, Edmonton and Calgary during the Canadian Wine Scholar course and students are loving them. Furthermore, B.C. residents can legally order Ontario wine and have it direct delivered! So in my view, Ontario wineries that did not show up simply missed a good business development opportunity.
Yet mea culpa aussi. I was very sorry to have to miss this edition of VanWineFest due to an immovable contractual obligation, but the WineAlign crew was there to lead panel discussions, write reports and light up social media. If you are a fan of Canadian wine you were certainly aware of the barrage of glowing Twitter, Facebook and Instagram posts emanating from the Vancouver Convention Centre. The best article I have read to date was penned by Anthony Gismondi in the Vancouver Sun.
To quote: “Canadian wine is clearly at a tipping point, with interest at all levels: in the vineyards, in the wineries, in the wines and in the media, and the momentum is almost palpable. It’s been inspiring to hear the progression of tasting conversations over the decades go from “I’ll try the white, or the red” to questions about soil, site orientation, viticultural methods, winemaking, grape varieties, clones, aging, and more. It takes a decade to acquire and feel comfortable about your wine knowledge, and it would seem many Canadians have put in the time to get there. Where we go from here is another question, and there is much to be done.” Read more about what needs to be done at Anthony Gismondi: Canadian wine is at a tipping point
Other reports include a blog by WineAlign international correspondent Dr. Jamie Goode who focused on Canadian bubbly. He also picked out some memorable B.C wines in a post subtitled Purity and Diversity.
The Canadian Culinary Championship in Kelowna
Two weeks before Vancouver, on Feb 2-4 Gold Medal Plates presented its 11-city, 11-chef showdown at the Delta Grand Hotel in Kelowna. Over three days of events there were more than 40 wineries represented, the lion’s share from the Okanagan and specifically the Kelowna area. But there were also wines from Vancouver Island, Nova Scotia, Quebec and Ontario. And for some guests this was the first time they had encountered them.
Each of the chefs brought with them a Canadian wine that had helped propel them to victory in their respective cities. The chef crowned Canadian Culinary Champion was Jinhee Lee of Foreign Concept in Calgary, who poured the racy Bartier Brothers 2014 Gewurztraminer from the Okanagan with her impeccable Asian creations. Silver medal chef Joe Thottungal of Ottawa went to his backyard in Prince Edward County, and poured a bright, crisp Huff Estates 2015 Riesling (see below). Bronze medal chef Eric Hanson of Edmonton’s Prairie Noodle Shop went with the exotic Culmina 2015 Unicus Gruner Veltliner from the Okanagan.
A different set of ten wines competed for the title of Gold Medal Plates Winery of the Year. These were Best of Show winners from each city – as voted by panels of media and sommeliers that I had assembled. The top honour in Kelowna was captured this year by the demure, pure, refined Sea Star 2015 Blanc de Noir Rosé from Pender Island, one several Gulf Islands producing wine in B.C. The first-runner up was Benjamin Bridge 2009 Brut from Nova Scotia, followed by Orofino 2014 Riesling Scout Vineyard from BC’s Similkameen Valley.
Elsewhere during the four days of tasting and festivities, the chefs and 400 guests were beguiled by this year’s Mystery Wine – the refined, classic Unsworth 2014 Pinot Noir Reserve from the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island. More than one attendee remarked they didn’t even know wine was made on the Island.
Thirty other wines were also presented by Kelowna area wineries – a group from East Kelowna poured at the Judges and Chefs Reception. The Scenic Sip Winery Association of north Kelowna and Lake Country poured at the Mystery Wine Competition. The West Side Wine Trail poured at the Grand Finale. My full report and a list of all participating wineries can be found on the Gold Medal Plates website.
B.C. Wines Poured for the Trade in Toronto
The national conversation was not all held on B.C. turf. On February 8th the British Columbia Wine Institute made its annual foray into Ontario with a trade tasting walkabout and two seminars at the Arcadian Court in Toronto. I was hired to present at the seminars, as well as to LCBO product consultants the day before. Ten B.C. wineries signed on for this event, featuring over 30 wines, many of which have achieved listing through the LCBO’s VINTAGES stores. Just as I was disappointed that more Ontario wineries did not venture to Vancouver, I had hoped more B.C. wineries would submit wineries to this event. Especially as the cost of having a winery representative present was not involved.
Still, the 50 plus sommeliers, media and enthused consumers who attended the seminars were fascinated to hear about developments in B.C., particularly the pending creation of sub-appellations in the Okanagan Valley and the designation of new appellations in the so-called “emerging regions” of the B.C. interior. Many were not even aware there were existing VQA appellations like Vancouver Island, Gulf Islands and Fraser Valley. British Columbia is such an exciting story at the moment – and the rest of Canada needs to tune in and support.
Here are a few Canadian wines that tweaked my interest in the month of February, either because they were new, unusual or showed great quality and/or great value.
Arrowleaf Gewürztraminer 2015, Lake Country
In my books B.C. is already among the best gewurz regions outside of Alsace, along with New Zealand. This was the only gold medal gewurz at the 2016 National Wine Awards, but my first chance to taste it came in February on my first visit to the lovely winery perched above Lake Okanagan north of Kelowna. Very impressed!
Burrowing Owl Malbec 2014, Black Sage/Okanagan
Malbec has a future in the south Okanagan. The desert climate and intense light in the rain shadow of the Coastal Ranges bears remarkable similarity to Mendoza in Argentina. When tasted at the B.C. seminars in Toronto this showed classic malbec aromatics, with good weight and energy.
Little Farm 2015 Pied de Cuvee Riesling, Similkameen Valley
Master of Wine Rhys Pender (a WineAlign contributor) and his wife Alishan Driediger are doing some serious, minimalist whites from their Mulberry Tree Vineyard near Cawston. This is a new almost ‘natural’ approach to riesling, that features indigenous yeast ferment, long lees ageing and minimal sulphur addition just prior to bottling. Powerful and structured!
Quails’ Gate Shannon Pacific Vigonier 2015 Black Sage/Osoyoos
I stumbled on this gorgeous viognier in the retail store at Quails’ Gate – indeed perhaps the only place you will find it. The production from an Osoyoos site is very small but it may be the best Canadian viognier I have ever tasted. It displays a classic orange, floral and creamy scent that is very rare in viognier-land. And it is rich and intensely flavoured without being soupy or too sweet or too oaky. Great work by winemaker Nikki Callaway!
Mt. Boucherie Family Reserve Syrah 2014,
While in Kelowna I spent an hour or so in the tasting room at Mt. Boucherie, a winery in transition under new ownership. But winemaker Jim Faulkner remains the lynchpin, and he has done a great job with this massive yet refined syrah from winery-owned vineyard in the Similkameen Valley. So complex – a syrah on steroids that is true to northern Rhone flavour profile.
Off The Grid Organic Winery 2015 Pinot Gris, West Kelowna
Off the Grid is a small, organic start-up with lots of room to grow given their fruit source from 16 acres of long-standing Paynter family vineyards both on and below a significant bench near Westbank. I was impressed by all the 2015 whites (the first vintage made on premise). None hit 90 points– but close, and priced well.
Keint He 2014 Greer Road Chardonnay, Prince Edward County
During a one-day swing through the County to purchase wines for the Canadian Wine Scholar program, I caught up with recent releases at Keint-he in Wellington. Hailing from maturing vines planted on Greer Road by Geoff Heinricks, this is a riveting, stony yet elegant chardonnay. Only one barrel was produced.
Huff Estates Winery 2015 Off Dry Riesling, Ontario
This fine, shiny, off-dry riesling flew the flag for Prince Edward County at the Canadian Culinary Championship in Kelowna, and took home a silver medal when matched with the Indian cuisine of chef Joe Thottungal. It blends County and Niagara fruit.
Peller Estates 2015 Private Reserve Gamay Noir, Four Mile Creek
Gamay continues its rise to prominence in Niagara, with good examples surfacing beyond the realm of noted producers like Malivoire, 13th Street and Chateau des Charmes that show up at the LCBO. This fine effort from Peller Estates, only available from Peller stores and through WinerytoHome.com, reminds me of classic Beaujolais.
Stratus Merlot 2012, Four Mile Creek
I encountered this beauty during a tasting for WineryToHome.com. The fine 2012 vintage and the great winemaking of J.L. Groux has rendered a perfectly ripened, finely tuned merlot that would not be out of place in a tasting of modern Pomerols.
Trius Cabernet Franc 2015, Niagara Peninsula
Cabernet Franc may be the most planted red in Ontario but it is not equally popular as single variety red. (Much is blended). This great value could start to change that situation. It’s nicely ripened and very well balanced, and the price is more than right. Great value.
Blomidon Late Pick Chardonnay 2011, Nova Scotia
It is well established through the efforts of Benjamin Bridge and L’Acadie Vineyards that sparkling wine is a bona fide star in Nova Scotia. And now its time to see other labels arrive. This fine bubbly was poured at the Canadian Wine Scholar course in Kelowna.
Domaine St Jacques Pinot Gris 2015, Montegerie, Quebec. This winery in the Eastern Townships south of Montreal is making some very fine, focused vinifera and hybrid-based whites and reds, none better than this terrific pinot gris. It’s not as rich as Alsatian or BC gris, but the aromatics are pinpoint.
And that’s it for this edition. Watch at the end of March for a report on Canadian wine’s performance at Prowein in Germany March 18-20. I will be there co-presenting at two Canadian wine seminars with National Wine Awards judge Janet Dorosynski. Meanwhile, if you want experience the breadth and depth of Canadian wine in one intense weekend, there is still space in the Fine Vintage Ltd Canadian Wine Scholar course being held in Toronto March 11/12.
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.