Canadian Wine Report – November 2017

Red Icons Unfiltered

by David Lawrason

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

We critics at WineAlign recently sat down to a tasting of Canadian red “icon” wines. I will get to what icon means, and why we did it, but more importantly we were impressed by the 30 bottles arrayed in front of us. And all from Canada, eh?

It caused me to re-consider the genre otherwise known has “big, expensive reds” in a northerly country where white wines seem a more natural fit.

The term icon wine is probably the most over-used word in wine-dom. It usually just refers to the most expensive red wine in a winery’s repertoire, and whether it is deserving of the icon status quality-wise is debatable.

But the word icon still does sell wine and when you are trying to sell expensive wines – particularly those that are from less iconic regions in countries like Canada – every advantage is worth leveraging.

The purpose of the tasting at WineAlign World HQ in Etobicoke was to select three “Canadian icon reds” to offer for sale in the new WineAlign Exchange program commemorating Canada’s 150th.  (You may be intrigued to know that the first winery in Canada – Vin Villa – opened in 1868 on Pelee Island, one year after Confederation. It was built by Thaddeus Smith. The winery burned down in 1963 but remnants are still standing, and a detailed miniature replica stands at a crossroads on Pelee Island today)

We tasted and put forward our recommendations for which three should be included. We aligned very well by the way. We have ended up with an intriguing, excellent and perhaps unexpected selection. Those of you who purchase the three-pack will get to ultimately decide on our efforts. You can click here to go to the Red Icons offering.

I am more interested in this idea of whether Canada can and should produce big, expensive reds based on the Bordeaux model. Bordeaux remains the model for icon wines around the world. It still has gravitas and commands some of the highest prices on the planet, so winemakers around the world still feel compelled to chase that ideal.

The problem is that cabernet-merlot based blends require warm climates, and there are only two small (if mighty) regions in Canada that get close. One, of course, is the south Okanagan, where the required heat units giddily accumulate during the summer in the vineyards south of Oliver. It is unquestionably Canada’s best climatic zone for big reds.  There are other issues around tannin, alcohol and balance that the south Okanagan winemakers need to deal with, but it is our best shot.

Niagara’s warmest, longest season red wine sub-appellations in Niagara-on-the-Lake also make big reds possible as well – especially in vineyards near the lake that benefit from extended warm water autumn temperatures and longer hang time. But the number of vintages where the heat units actually make “big, ripe” wines possible are perhaps two in five. And is that enough, and sustainable over the long term to establish the consumer confidence in the genre based on the Bordeaux model?

It can be argued that Bordeaux doesn’t produce great wine every year either. But in today’s hyper-sensitive, competitive wine market- where Bordeaux is no longer the only yardstick – and failing in broad consumer appeal – and where regions like California, Australia, Chile and South Africa routinely turn out great “icon” examples, I just have to ask whether this where Canada should put its marbles.

I also question whether Canada needs to emulate Bordeaux. The one universally lauded icon red selected by WineAlign was a syrah. And not even from the Okanagan where this grape is doing great things. Creekside 2015 Broken Press Syrah is from the warmest sub-appellation in St. Davids Bench in Niagara. One of BC’s great syrahs – Le Vieux Pin Equinoxe – also finished in the top five.

Pinot Noirs were in the tasting too, but not in enough force to have much of a chance for selection. As detailed in an earlier report it is the red grape most widely grown in Canada – from Nova Scotia to Vancouver Island – but it is in a state of evolution where it is difficult to claim it is iconic.

As I said at the outset, we were generally very impressed by the wines we tasted. They were made by some of Canada’s best winemakers, and tended to be from better (warmer) vintages. Most were easily deserving of 90-point ratings or better. And although expensive by a historical Canadian lens none had crossed into the $100 zone that top Bordeaux and Napa wines now routinely achieve.

Red Icons

I have assembled a list of some of my favourites, with links to WineAlign reviews. Prices quoted are the winery price in the province of origin. Those with an *** are in the WineAlign Exchange three-pack.

Quails’ Gate 2015 Connemara, Okanagan Valley, $62.72
A deeply coloured, brooding yet refined red leading with 40% cab franc (a good idea) plus 30% cab sauvignon and 30% merlot. It is full bodied, dense, firm and youthful but portends all kinds of elegance. Great extension and structure.

Quails' Gate The Connemara 2015

***Creekside 2015 Broken Press Reserve Syrah, St. David’s Bench, Niagara, $55.00
One of the greatest reds ever produced in Niagara, brandishing a huge, lifted, classic northern Rhone-style nose of iodine, black pepper, caper, wood smoke and blackcurrant. It is intense too – sinewy, salty, rich with outstanding intensity and length.

Creekside Broken Press Reserve Syrah Queenston Road Vineyard 2015

Le Vieux Pin 2014 Equinoxe Syrah, Okanagan Valley, $80.00
From the leading syrah producer of the Okanagan, with southern France-trained Severine Pinte at the helm, this is a gorgeous, structured, youthful and elegant syrah that needs to be aged. Very complex. Very firm, dense and sophisticated, but not nearly ready for prime time.

Le Vieux Pin Équinoxe Syrah 2014

***Checkmate 2013 Silent Bishop Merlot, Okanagan Valley, $85.00
Checkmate is a new Von Mandl Estates project located on the Golden Mile Bench crafting single site chardonnays and merlots from the south Okanagan. Silent Bishop is one of four Checkmate merlots, hailing from the western benches of Oliver and Osoyoos that catch morning sun at a cooler time of day and maintain good acidity. And acidity is key here. It is very fine with good lift and energy – and a touch of minerality.  It begins to explain why merlot is BC’s number one red grape.

Checkmate Silent Bishop Merlot 2013

Mission Hill 2012 Quatrain, Okanagan Valley, $60.27
Syrah creeps back into the conversation here, softening and enriching the Bordeaux varieties. There is lovely fruit bloom and richness here with a vaguely meaty element thanks to the syrah component. It is full bodied, rounded, warm and juicy with easy tannin.

Mission Hill Quatrain 2012

Southbrook 2013 Poetica, Four Mile Creek, Niagara Peninsula, $69.95
This has a quite lifted, slightly green but intense and very complex Bordeaux oriented nose with red and blackcurrant fruit, graphite and oak aromas. It is medium-full bodied, fairly dense, firm, well integrated energetic and powerful.

Southbrook Poetica Red 2013

Stratus 2012 Red, Niagara on the Lake, $44.20
From one of the best vintages of the decade, this five grape Bordeaux blend that includes petit verdot and tannat, is still not showy but very nicely contained, complex and balanced, with a ripeness rare in Niagara.

Stratus Red 2012

***Painted Rock 2015 Red Icon, Okanagan Valley, $54.00
Blended from the five Bordeaux varieties this is a very fragrant, dense, juicy red with a lifted nose of green shrubby “garrigue” similar to Chilean and Mendoza. So it has a certain BC signature that I really like. There is a brightness and generosity here missing in many Canadian reds.

Painted Rock Red Icon 2015

Chateau des Charmes 2012 Equuleus Paul Bosc Estate Vineyard, St. David’s Bench, $43.00
Perhaps the best Chateau des Charmes red to date, this house as always had a very French, traditional leaning in its reds, and this warmer vintage has rewarded the style. It is youthful and firm and well structured and showing fine integration.

Paul Bosc Estate Equuleus 2012

Laughing Stock 2015 Portfolio, Okanagan Valley,   $53.50
Quietly and confidently from their Naramata site Cynthia and David Enns are fashioning gentle, nuanced reds that are not all about power. It is full bodied, fairly rich, supple, even handed and delicious. Almost Californian but with BC freshness.

Laughing Stock Portfolio 2015

If you are interested in ordering the Canada 150 Icon Pack click here.

To check availability of others click on the reviews and order direct from the winery.

You can find out more about the WineAlign Exchange here.


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.

Red Icons

Past issues:

Pinot’s Progress

Bubbles Rising Across Canada

Speaking Up for The Rest of Canada

Prowein 2017: The Maple Leaf Takes Root Overseas

February was a HUGE Month for the Canadian Wine Conversation

New Wineries That Turned My Head in 2016

Trends and Winners from Gold Medal Plates 2016

Speaking up for Canadian Wines

Judgments on Canadian Wine

Canadian Wine: One Grape at a Time