Canadian Wine Insider – November 2020

Value, Emerging Regions, Grapes and Climate Challenges of the North

By David Lawrason

The results of our 2020 interim National Wine Awards – our Guide to Canada’s Best Wines – are now published in 17 different style and varietal categories on WineAlign, with great commentary by our judges Sara d’Amato, Janet Dorozynski, Michael Godel and John Szabo. It is an intriguing body of work that must be considered by anyone engaged with Canadian wine.

This year you can personally taste the results in three separate WineAlign Exchange mixed cases of Canada’s Best Premium Wines, Canada’s Best Value Wines (orders close on these two at midnight Nov 30) and an upcoming 6 or 12 bottle pack mixed case of Canada’s Best Sparkling Wines. Order here.

And this year we were pleased to team up with a new magazine called Canada’s 100 Best, being distributed through the Globe and Mail, that has published the results from Canada’s four core varieties/styles – Sparkling, Riesling, Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc. These are the categories that we think best define quality Canadian wine nationally.

In this year of turmoil we couldn’t assemble our cherished pan-Canadian family of over 20 judges, from seven provinces (plus Jamie Goode from the UK), to taste through the 1800+ samples we normally receive.  So we asked wineries to submit what they thought were their best wines – max two per category. Four Toronto judges tasted 860 wines for two days a week over six weeks this fall, joined by NWAC judge Janet Dorozynski of Ottawa for two of those weekly sessions.

Janet, John, Michael, Sara & David

It was a different process this year, partially imposed by COVID distancing. The tasting was slower, but it gave us more time with each wine. We each tasted, reviewed and discussed results on every wine, wading wider and digging deeper somehow. We argued about any larger ratings discrepancies. Our discussions sometimes went into stylistic controversies, fault controversies and value controversies. I came out of it feeling I had a better understanding of where Canada stands in 2020.

In this overview I want to talk through issues reflecting well, and not so well, on Canadian wine. Our 15 category summaries drill down on individual styles, grapes and regions, which I won’t repeat here. And as we have been telling the story of Canadian wine annually for almost 20 years many of the givens on which regions are doing what well, are indeed by now, given.

In this report I want to present three themes:  value, emerging regions and grapes, and climate/viticulture in Canada. And how they interact.

Sorted by category and waiting to be tasted.

The Value of Canadian Wine is Average

Value is a quality/price determination. We tasted many excellent wines. Many were also more expensive than many consumers might want or expect to pay – over $30, $40, $50 and $60. But we asked for Canada’s best and quality doesn’t come cheap here. So, from the start this was not designed as an exercise in finding the best values, although some emerged.

About a year ago WineAlign introduced a five-star value rating accompanying each critic’s review. We leave it to each critic to apply the value rating, as they do a score. I have a universal grid that I use, others may differ. But I can tell you that across international and Canadian wines, we are almost always within one-star of each other on value, and very often in exact alignment.

The majority of Canadian wines are three-star values, out of five stars. On the price side, Canadian VQA wines of place do tend to be higher in price than the international average within the various price/quality tiers. This is due to the cost of land, labour and production in Canada, and the hefty taxation our provinces impose on this industry. I am not going to parse the details but it is two-faced that our governments promote local while pillaging the industry with a battery of taxes and other restrictions. Not to mention Ontario and Quebec, in particular, stonewalling interprovincial direct to consumer sales. Get the liquor boards outta’ here and watch this industry transform.

Moving on, it was very interesting to observe the value equation by style. White wines in general are scoring higher on quality and costing less, except perhaps for premium chardonnays, but then again some of Canada’s top chardonnays are very worthy of premium pricing. Riesling, single white varieties and blends are by far the best values in Canada, with sparkling wines close by. The reds, led by always expensive and pernicious pinot noir, the showpiece red Bordeaux blends and some new emerging alternative varieties (malbec, petit verdot, etc.) are by and large not better than average value. Syrah, gamay, some single variety cab francs and rose are somewhat better value.

Numbered and ready for a flight.

Emergence of New Regions and Grape Varieties

Canada is rapidly expanding into regions beyond Niagara and the Okanagan. Global warming and cheaper land costs are among the reasons. If you remove the Okanagan and Niagara from Canada’s 700+ winery count, there are still over 300 wineries in the country. Most of them are in more marginal climates exposed to Canada’s harsher realities, and more difficult viticulture. My goodness, one of our entries was from a Quebec vineyard on an island in Lake Temiskaming, offshore New Liskeard in northern Quebec.

B.C. granted VQA appellation status to Vancouver Island, the Gulf Islands and the Fraser Valley in the early to mid-90s, and added four interior regions – Lillooet, Thompson Valley, Shuswap and Kootenays in 2018. Prince Edward County was the first ‘emerging’ region in Ontario to achieve VQA status in 2007. Now central southern Ontario has a band of almost 30 wineries, from Lake Huron to the Ottawa Valley, that are not yet VQA-ed because they don’t meet a rather arbitrary vineyard acreage requirement set years ago by those who have larger acreage.

Quebec re-structured in 2018 into several regions with new production standards. (I was very impressed by the few Quebec entries). And Nova Scotia is launched as a successful region too. But neither Quebec or Nova Scotia are VQA because of interprovincial differences of opinion on standards, like authorized grape varieties. So, they have gone their own way with very similar standards that I have no reason to doubt are less stringent. Upper Canada needs to lighten up on some of these issues.

But here is the problem with the emergence of new regions, and it circles back to the value discussion. These are all small family wineries making wines on the fringe, and lacking economy of scale. Most, at least in eastern Canada, and in the more northerly B.C interior and Vancouver Island, need to rely on winter hardy but not consumer hardy hybrid varieties, and charge a fairly hefty price for them. There are certain producers doing good work, often in blends, but others are not doing good work due to lack of experience. And marketing them beyond a local fan base remains a challenge.

Many of these regions are also growing easier-sell but more viticulturally difficult vinifera like riesling, pinot gris, chardonnay, gamay and pinot noir. The wines are inevitably lighter in body and heftier in price. Personally, I am gravitating to the lighter, leaner, precision-built wines that these regions offer. But are Canadian consumers, who still drink way more big wines from the rest of the world ready to cross over and pay the price? And what can be done to sway their hearts and minds?

Then there are the emerging “experimental” plantings of well-known varieties that play more to the international palate. The hotter, drier south Okanagan is the magnet for red grapes like later ripening malbec, carmenere and petit verdot from Bordeaux, tempranillo from Spain, sangiovese from Italy and touriga nacional from Portugal.  Among whites, which I personally find more successful, there is Austria’s gruner veltliner, the Rhone Valley’s roussanne and marsanne, arneis from Italy, even more mainstream chenin blanc from France’s Loire Valley.

There are some fine examples but lofty price tags raise flags. Why are Canadian wineries charging so much for these novelty wines? Because they appeal to the sommelier and media markets looking for something new? And will prices come down when or if they catch on?

The Climate Challenges

In the global picture Canada is a fringe winemaking county, simply by latitude. In Ontario, Niagara and Lake Erie North Shore are moderated by two Great Lakes. The much more northerly Okanagan is moderated by its rain shadow dryness, summer heat and an impressive lake system that moderate winter temps. Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands are at sea level but have some rain shadow protection as well. Quebec has the least climate protection from large bodies of water; Nova Scotia is moderated by maritime influences too but can suffer wicked spring and fall conditions, including hurricanes.

In fact, nowhere in Canada is viticulture without significant challenges. Even the variances of vintage conditions, which can be very marked year to year, region to region – make it much more difficult here than in most established wine growing regions. We tasted many Okanagan 2018s affected by wildfire smoke taint, and some 2019s that often seemed a bit dilute thanks to a cooler, uneven year. The Ontario wines fared a bit better this round, with 2017 proving to be a classic year – not too hot or cool –producing balanced wines. The 2018s were a bit lighter and leaner but within the realm.

To me, one of Canada’s greatest winemaking challenges is volatility or acetic acid, which at its worst translates as vinegar, acetone/nail polish on the nose and sourness on the palate – a fault that appears in different amplitude to different palates. It is not specific to Canada but too common here in my mind. It is most often associated with grapes that are over-ripened, or have begun to rot on the vine. The tendency in Canada is to let grapes hang on the vine as long as possible to achieve ripeness. But later harvesting exposes the fruit to the breakdown, especially in marginal autumn conditions where humidity magnifies the problem, especially in eastern Canada. In the drier B.C. interior it is more a case of grapes left too long on the vine just to push ripeness and alcohol content, but cold conditions can descend abruptly and force hands.

The answer to this problem is to always try to pick at the right point of ripeness, and not push fruit too far to try to achieve some international standard of richness and fullness. Let consumers gradually come around to our lighter, balanced, fresh style at which we can excel.

Canadian wine does not need to be everything to everyone.  Each corner of Canada just needs to do what it does well, at a fair price, and win Canadian consumers over, one bottle at a time. Sounds easy, but there is a lot of discipline, restraint and risk required. And governments need to lighten the financial burden and get out of the way.

I think there are now enough Canadian converts to Canadian wine that the future is assured, and hopefully the results of this exercise will add to the converts.

We hope you get to enjoy some of the wines that have risen to the top. And we wish all producers and consumers of Canadian wine happy holiday nonetheless, and a much brighter future in 2021.

After a day of tasting.