Canadian Wine Report, June 2018

Keeping Pace with Canadian Wine,
Plus Ten Really Notable Wines So Far in 2018
By David Lawrason

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

It was like Christmas morning. As I helped unpack 100s of boxes during the set up for the WineAlign National Wine Awards in Penticton, I was amazed by the number of new wineries, new wines, and even new regions. Then there were new vintages of so many wines that have become Canadian icons. And huge categories unfolding – pinot noir (180 entries), riesling, chardonnay, cabernet franc and sparkling wine from every corner of the nation. There were 1867 entries overall.

There is real energy and evolution around Canadian wine nowadays, and things are moving very quickly. Diehard, blind prejudice against the quality of Canadian wine is actually, finally, dying, as those whose biases are rooted in the last century become less numerous, and less relevant. The number of Canadian wineries expands (now over 700 according to the Canadian Vintners Association) as the next generation fans out and assumes command of the viticulture and winemaking.

National Wine Awards of Canada

The rest of the world is taking notice as well. The 2015 Thirty Bench Small Lots Cabernet Franc from Niagara was named top Cabernet Franc at the Decanter Wine Awards in the UK this year, winning a Platinum Medal. It is not the first major kudo Canada has received abroad, but to capture it with cabernet franc – the on-coming varietal of choice from Bordeaux to Argentina to Tuscany and many places between, is a big deal. It is Niagara’s #1 planted red grape, and very important in B.C. as well. (Thirty Bench was Small Winery of the Year at the 2015 National Wine Awards).

This year in Ontario there are other signs of confidence and maturity of the industry, with two new comprehensive events launched. In April the industry gathered at Exhibition Place in Toronto for the Ontario Craft Wine Conference, a trade event with fifty suppliers, 350 attendees and 30 speakers on topics that delved into everything from appassimento to export and brand protection to skin contact and natural winemaking.

On June 25 George Brown College in Toronto hosts a Wine Symposium with leading industry figures discussing topics like digitalization, sparkling wine from coast to coast, modern day vineyards in Canada, sales and marketing and biodynamics. The keynote speaker is George Soleas, CEO of the LCBO, who will undoubtedly touch on trends in Ontario from the arrival of legalized cannabis to the advent of wine sales in corner stores should premier-designate Doug Ford follow through on a campaign promise.

Unfortunately, I can’t attend the George Brown Symposium as the entire WineAlign team will be en route back from Penticton and the judging of the National Wine Awards. But I will be on hand for the International Cool Climate Chardonnay Conference in Niagara on July 20 to 22. There will 60 producers from around the world pouring during several tastings at venue around Niagara. It has become a must-attend event.

Burrowing Owl Meritage 2014

All of this momentum leaves me in an interesting position, late in my career. I have reviewed Canadian wines since the mid-1980s, always within the context of a global lens. And since co-founding the National Wine Awards with good friend and colleague Anthony Gismondi in 2001 I have tasted the vast majority of wines Canada has produced. I have been convinced by Canada’s quality since the early 00s, and I am increasingly excited by our unique position as the only truly, wholly cool climate country in the New World.  Only New Zealand is as almost as cool.

So I have decided to keep my input going with a project that has been on my mind for quite some time. One that will bring news, analysis, profiles and opinion to those who are already fully engaged with Canadian wine. Not in the silos of B.C. wine, Ontario wine, Nova Scotia or Quebec wine – but together as Canadian wine.

I am calling it Canadian Wine Insider. It will be a trade and engaged-consumer subscription publication without wine industry advertising or sponsorship. I have reached an agreement with my partners at WineAlign which will help develop and host CWI, but I will publish it independently with help from the best wine writers in the country. It will not rate wines, but will certainly talk about noteworthy, trendsetting wines, which may be reviewed and rated on WineAlign.

The word “Insider” bothers me somewhat as being too exclusive, but it defines who I want to serve and inform. This will not be another generalist blog promoting Canadian wine in a rosy, rah-rah universe. It will present news, opinions, profiles and trends in an informative and accurate way, to those in the trade or engaged with Canadian wine who need or want good information.

We are working toward a fall launch. If you have any feedback about what you would like to see included please let me know at [email protected].

Ten Notable Wines

Meanwhile here are links to reviews of ten Canadian wines that I have found intriguing, trendsetting or just simply exciting in tastings so far this year. In no particular order.

Leaning Post 2015 Chardonnay Wismer Vineyard Foxcroft Block, Twenty Mile Bench, Niagara ($35.00)
The combination of great fruit from Niagara’s most sought-after grower and the considerable talents of terroir focused winemaker Ilya Senchuk has created a terrific chardonnay with Burgundian depth and magnitude. This has a rich nose with ripe pear, nougat, peat, lanolin, honey and wild flower complexity. It is full bodied, creamy yet solid with lemony acidity, and serious textural elegance and panache.

Leaning Post Chardonnay Wismer Vineyard Foxcroft Block 2015Le Vieux Pin Syrah Cuvée Violette 2016

Le Vieux Pin 2016 Syrah Cuvée Violette, Okanagan Valley ($29.95)
I can’t think of another Canadian red that has offered so much quality, integrity and energy, for such a fair price over recent years. If you have any familiarity or bond with northern Rhone syrah you will recognize the character and quality here.  It is a tumult of dark fruit, licorice, florals, salt and pepper of a fine terroir driven syrah, with a compelling wildness and energy.

Stratus 2015 Cabernet Franc “Decant”, Niagara-on-the-Lake ($125.00)
I have given this my highest score to date for an Ontario red. I tasted it twice before release in the first half of 2018, most recently when it was served blind at the Brock University Experts Tasting, where it completely wowed the gathering. It showed uncommon elegance, poise and power. The price tag makes it the most expensive Ontario red to date in my recollection, but get ready Canada, there are more triple digit wines on the horizon.

Stratus Cabernet Franc Decant 2015Two Sisters Chardonnay Lenko Vineyard 2016

Two Sisters 2016 Chardonnay Lenko Vineyard, Beamsville Bench ($54.00)
Ontario born, B.C. trained winemaker Adam Pearce is fashioning some very fine wines at the relatively new showpiece winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Indeed his efforts are somewhat overshadowed by “the place itself” and the heady pricing of the wines. Sourced from the oldest chardonnay vines in Niagara this is superb chardonnay from a ripe vintage.

LaStella 2014 Arioso Sangiovese, Okanagan Valley ($59.95)
There is some sticker shock here until you start comparing it to Brunello di Montalcino after which it is patterned. And it works – one of the best sangiovese I have tasted outside of Tuscany. I was in Montalcino ten days before tasting this wine, so with fresh memory it rang very true. All kinds of savoury, herbal and sour cherry/berry flavours with some girth and depth. Could the South Okanagan be one of those rare regions where sangiovese is actually a fit?

LaStella Arioso Sangiovese 2014Hidden Bench Rosomel Vineyard Pinot Noir 2015

Hidden Bench 2015 Rosomel Vineyard Pinot Noir, Beamsville Bench ($54.00)
One of the great estate wineries in Canada has hit a real nerve with me in this fine pinot that echoes some of my favourites from Burgundy’s Cote de Nuits. Chambolle Musigny came to mind. Very pretty on the nose with lovely raspberry, florals, a bit of oak, tar and toast – a very elegant, refined, suave pinot with that little extra magic.

Quails’ Gate 2016 Rosemary’s Block Chardonnay, Okanagan Valley ($56.45)
Harvested from the two best blocks on the slopes of Mount Boucherie above the winery this grand yet elegant chardonnay was 100% barrel fermented and lees aged. It is very refined, silky mid-palate texture and deep. The nose is very complex with classic peach, cedar, butter, hazelnut and very gentle wood smoke. Winemaker Nikki Callaway hit her peak here but has gone over to Laughing Stock this season.

Quails' Gate Rosemary's Block Chardonnay 2016Malivoire Small Lot Gamay 2017

Malivoire 2017 Small Lot Gamay, Niagara Peninsula ($19.95)
Malivoire is showing the way with gamay – a variety that needs to be seriously embraced as tastes “lighten up”. This sports a lovely, lifted, classic nose of red rose, strawberry-cherry jam, pepper and vague herbs. It is light to medium-bodied, tart-edged, dry and juicy with tart raspberry, peppery finish. Loads of flavour here.

Cloudsley Cellars 2015 Glen Elgin Vineyard Pinot Noir, Twenty Mile Bench ($50.00)
Cloudsley is a new, very small winery project by former importer Adam Lowy who has decided to focus only on Niagara pinot noir. Glen Elgin is a block planted in 1996 within the larger and increasingly famous Wismer Vineyard in Twenty Mile Bench. It is a very pretty, refined pinot with classic sour cherry nicely meshed with dried herbs, judicious oak and spice.

Cloudsley Cellars Glen Elgin Vineyard Pinot Noir 2015Harper's Trail Cabernet Franc Thadd Springs Vineyard 2016

Harper’s Trail 2016 Cabernet Franc Thadd Springs Vineyard, Thompson River Valley ($26.00)
Tasted at the Gold Medal Plates Canadian Culinary Championship in Kelowna in Febrruary, this estate-grown cabernet franc on the bench above the Thompson River east of Kamloops is oh-so pretty!  Vibrant, elegant aromas of raspberry, floral peony and subtle herbs/tobacco are effortlessly integrated. It is light to medium bodied, firm, solid yet just juicy enough to be charming. This is northern cab franc as Canada should be making it.

And that is a wrap for this edition of the Canadian Wine Report. Off to the NWACs in B.C. for the most exciting and gratifying week of the year.

David Lawrason
VP of Wine

National Wine Awards of Canada