Talking about wine, Canada might not be the hottest of topics – and talking about Canada, wine is most certainly not top of one’s mind, I suppose. Or, so it has been. This just might be about to change.
The image of the vast country, that Canada is, is that of an immensely beautiful country, wide and wild, scarcely populated and bitterly cold, all of which is true, if put in the right context. You would much more likely be discussing hockey! Wayne Gretzky, anyone…
Well, sports in general, because Canadians are seriously passionate about their sports such as basketball, track & fields and of course curling!
But they are very proud of their wines, too.
Just by looking at the world map, you wouldn’t consider Canada to be a wine producing country, let alone a producer of high-quality wines, right?
But, looks – and particularly that of a rectangular world map – can be deceiving and taking a closer look at Canada as a country, it really does make sense, that grapes should be able to ripen there, although in rather a very small part of the country.
After all, Pelee Island to the very south is quite southerly at 41° north – similar to Sardinia and even Istanbul. That is a fairly low latitude(!) and Prince Edward Island (Ontario) equals the latitude of Lake Balaton and parts of Austria at 47°.
Across the country, Kelowna in North Okanagan in British Columbia sits around 50° latitude – similar to the English Channel, Wallonia in Belgium and southern parts of Prague, all parts of Europe, where wine production would be considered rather challenging – and yet amazing wines are produced in BC and most notably in the Okanagan.
Across Canada more than 680 wineries produce wine from just above 13,000 hectares of vines, cultivated by 1,770 wine growers.
Breaking the Canadian wine map down, the country consists of 4 major wine regions:
- British Columbia
- Nova Scotia
I shall be excluding Quebec, as the remaining three regions were the topic of a Wines of Canada event in Copenhagen mid-March.
An extensive master class gave a brilliant introduction to Canadian wine and a great overview of the broader picture in terms of stylistic differences in for example a flight of sparkling wines from Nova Scotia or varietal flights of Chardonnay or Pinot Noir from different parts of the country.
A quick look at Growing Degree Days, a numeric summation of the average between the minimum and maximum temperature during the growing season (April-November in the northern hemisphere), shows us, that the both the South Okanagan Valley and the Lake Erie North Shore have adequate number comparable to e.g. Bordeaux, whereas Nova Scotia enjoys somewhat fewer GDDs and is thus focusing on cooler climate varieties and style.
If we look at the growing season, comparing Niagara (Ontario), Gaspereau Valley (Nova Scotia) and Osoyoos (South Okanagan) with a number of French regions, the Canadian regions match the temperature peaks of the French ones but the growing season remains slightly shorter. This is made up for, however, in British Columbia by diurnal range, allowing for preservation of acidity in the wines and for more intense aromas to develop.
The very cold winters in Canada even allow for the production of Icewine in all of the country’s wine producing regions.
Located in the Atlantic at 45° latitude sounds even cooler than it actually is, and that is due to the warm Gulf Stream, which seriously helps moderating temperatures as do the incredibly high tides. These high tides leave huge bodies of water unfrozen during winter and provides cooling breezes during warm summer days.
All the same, Nova Scotia does have a cool maritime climate and core varieties in this area are L’Acadie Blanc, which accounts for roughly one third of the acreage under vine(!), New York Muscat (a Muscat of Hamburg x Ontario crossing), Léon Millot – quite a familiar cultivar to Danish wine producers – Chardonnay and Riesling. Yes, this is definitely Winkler zone 1!
Nova Scotia is small-scale with only slightly more than 600 ha devided into 7 sub-regions.
One producer, from whom I tasted a few wines, is Blomidon from Annapolis Valley, which was purchased by Tim and Adrianna Ramey in 2007, but in fact the regions first Chardonnay vines were already planted here back in the 1990’s and even further back in 1986 the first rows of L’Acadie Blanc and Seyval were planted.
Today they have 17 hectares under vine at Woolside Road Vineyard and Blomidon Estate Vineyard planted with both Vitis vinifera and hybrids. Although not organic certified, Blomidon practise sustainable viticulture as they refrain from using herbicides and minimizes spraying and they use organic compost and harvest by hand.
VQA – wines with a sense of place
Both in Ontario and British Columbia Vintners Quality Alliances (VQA) have been created, and to put VQA on the label, the wines have to be made 100% from grapes grown within British Columbia and Ontario respectively. Also, the wines have to be made in the region.
When BCVQA (British Columbia Vintners Quality Alliance) was created back in 1990, only 19 wineries existed and today there are more than 330… And in Ontario approx. 200 wineries produce VQA Ontario wine with 1,571 wines VQA certified in 2021. Imagine that!
Ontario is the largest wine region in Canada with more than 7,000 hectares under vine.
Despite being located rather southerly, Ontario is a region of extremes – and one can hardly talk of one climate here – with rather different climates facing producers in Prince Edward County, Niagara Peninsula and Lake Erie North Shore.
What common feature, though, is the continental climate with very warm summers and the extremely cold winters and had it not been for the moderating effect of the big lakes, the production of high-quality wines would have been much more difficult – if at all possible.
Prince Edward County is almost completely separated from mainland Canada by Bay of Quinte and has a total of more than 500 km shoreline. ‘The County’ is a true cool climate area with a mean temperature of 19℃ in July with cool breezes from Lake Ontario keeping temperatures down during day time and keeping the cool night at bay. The topography is quite varied and creates a lot of different meso climates, but generally vineyards are based on a limestone plateau with a stony topsoil, conducting heat which is radiated again at night and thus aids the ripening of both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay – but Cabernet Franc and maybe more surprising, Pinot Gris, is also produced here. All of the varieties are characterised by very high acidity.
Latitude being latitude, Lake Erie North Shore is the warmest of Ontario’s vineyard areas. This is despite Lake Erie being quite shallow and thus warming up fast in spring, as it cools down fast in the autumn, too, actually making the area more prone to winter freeze than Niagara, where the deeper body of water also allows for a longer ripening period during autumn.
When tasting through a flight of Pinot Noir, the lower latitude and the surrounding bodies of water showed in Pelee Island Winery Vinedresser Pinot Noir Reserve with its ripe, sweet cherry and chocolate character and its somewhat lower acidity and higher residual sugar (approx. 5 g/l).
Comparing the petrol scented, apply, lemony Cave Spring Cellars CSV Riesling from VQA Beamsville Bench to the sweeter, more mineral Flatrock Cellars Nadja’s Vineyard Riesling from VQA Twenty Mile Bench – both from within Niagara Peninsula – was interesting.
This is one great interpreter of Pinot Noir!
Thomas Bachelder being schooled in Burgundy doesn’t at all count against him! And apart from being a seemingly bottomless well of wine knowledge, he is just a super cool and likeable guy.
Bachelder, at the Niagara Peninsula, produces wines from 27 single vineyards and Bachelder wines are indeed ‘wines with a sense of place’: From local terroirs, if they can find it, grapes from older vineyard parcels and wild yeast fermentation. Low-impact viticulture – especially organics – is encouraged wherever possible. Carefully selected barrels are chosen for extended ageing and development due to their ability to help express terroir. Bachelder intends to make wines that express their vineyard origins. Finely perfumed wines with as little makeup as possible, showing refined fruit and textured minerality of Niagara’s lakebed terroirs.
The steeply sloped, east-facing Spencer-Morgan block sits high and far from the lake. Despite this, it ripens well and early, Bachelder explains. The 2020 is densely packed with Chambolle-ish cherries and freshly picked strawberries. Bone dry, but it almost seems sweet.
From St. David’s Bench, Bachelder Lowrey Vineyard Vielles Vignes Eastern Block Pinot Noir 2022 is made from vines planted in 1984 and 1988. Raspberry, strawberry and black cherry, a touch of cloves and a long, silky, flinty mineral finish. Very elegant Pinot. Only 12,5% abv and you would never have guessed it. Drink or cellar it for a decade – but it is really delicious now!
And you don’t want to miss his Cru Bai Xu Lieu-Dit Gamay 2020 either!
I spend some time visiting Westcott too, focusing on their Chardonnays, having tasted their Butlers Grant Old Vines Chardonnay 2020 from the historic Butlers Grant vineyard, whose history dates all the way back to 1804(!), in the VQA Twenty Mile Bench at the master class. A classy wine, bottled unfiltered, with a fine balance between some 3 g/l residual sugar and 5 g/l of total acid and between ripe fruit and oaky character from 18 months in 500 litres French oak barrels.
The Chardonnays from Westcott, pretty much just across the border from the US, are grown on limestone clay soils, which suits Chardonnay perfect, and the wines all come with natural, high levels of malic acid and go through full malolactic fermentation. Wild yeast fermentation takes places in French oak, but the aging in oak is always done in such a way, that it does not overpower the fruit. For this reason, no battonage, lees stirring, is applied to the wines.
The 2020 Block 76 Chardonnay is a beautiful Chardonnay made from a Chablis-clone planted in 2010 and 2016 on a 0.39 ha vineyard block of their Home Farm Vineyard. Fermented and aged in neutral oak. This is a quite rich, yet beautifully fresh and intense wine with lovely acidity (pH around 3,2). Flinty, saline notes pair so well with ripe pear and lemon and just a slightly creamy sensation and very fine oaky spice.
If Canada – and Ontario, for that matter – was ever known for wine, it would be for Icewine, wines made from grapes frozen on the vine. Although Icewine is produced in all wine producing regions of the country, 95% of the Icewine is produced in Ontario.
Icewine is predominantly made from Vidal, Riesling and Cabernet Franc. These are by far the most famous Canadian wines on the world scene. Intensely sweet, highly concentrated and complex wines that have been the pride of Canadian wine producers since the early 1990s.
A number of producers of Icewine were present, but I tasted just an Inniskillin made from Vidal and one from Henry of Pelham made from Cabernet Franc.
The freezing of the grapes on the vines followed by pressing greatly concentrates the most and these wines are intensely sweet indeed (272 and 215 g/l residual sugar respectively), yet remain beautifully balanced with very high (especially the 10,5 g/l in the Vidal) levels of acid. The fruit characteristics are intense and typically overripe. The Vidal showed quince, apple and apple cider, pineapple, mango, dried apricot and honey and from the time in new French oak it picked up a toasty and nutty sensation.
The Cabernet Franc was a potpourri of red fruit. Rhubarb, strawberry and cherry, but I also noticed apricot and even a whiff of prune as well of oaky vanilla.
For fans of sweet wines, these wines are must tries and a good number are available on the Danish market.
Mountains, oceans and lakes – and the only classified Canadian desert. These factors combine to create very diverse climates in British Columbia, which – although far north for wine production at 48-51° latitude – ripens grapes to the production of quite diverse of styles from amongst others Pinot Gris, Riesling, Viognier, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Syrah.
Today, British Columbia includes 9 GI’s from where the wines can be labelled under the GI, e.g. Similkameen Valley, if the fruit is 100% from the GI. If not, the wine will be labelled as British Columbia.
The Okanagan Valley (86,8% of the British Columbia area under vine) is synonym with British Columbia and the region’s hot spot. Literally! It is both warmer and more arid than the already warm and dry Napa Valley (CA) and the Okanagan Valley sees close to two hours more sunlight a day than the Napa Valley during July and August due to its more northerly location.
And one should notice, that a vineyard on the east side of the valley is much warmer than one just across the valley, as it receives the much hotter afternoon sun rather than the morning sun.
The reason for the bright acidity of many a British Columbia wine is the huge diurnal range, which can be as high as 30 degrees – very rarely seen elsewhere. This difference in day and night temperatures allow for the preservation of acids in the wine and for much more intense aromas to develop – key factors in BC wines.
As mentioned previously, we are as far north as Champagne and this suggests a cool climate, but the Okanagan and the Similkameen Valley enjoy a unique desert-like climate leaving the appellations with a short, hot growing season. Osoyoos on the US border only gets about 315 mm of precipitation a year and Kelowna a 100 km further north gets 415 mm.
The sheer size of the Okanagan Valley and its many different terroirs has caused the creation of 11 sub-GIs (plus the unofficial Black Sage Bench) from cool Lake Country in the north to the potentially extremely warm Golden Mile Slopes in the south and these sub-GIs allow for a wide diversity.
Arterra Wines Canada displayed a highly varied range from Osoyoos in the south to Naramata Bench farther north.
Laughing Stock Chardonnay from 2021 was also sourced from South Okanagan (Oliver and Okanangan Falls). The vintage was marked by intense heat and developed small, intense berries high in concentration. The wine was very elegant for carrying 14,6% abv and showed ripe pear, lemon meringue and pineapple. A touche of brioche come through as well, probably from time spend on the lees. Oaky spices from 78% being aged in French oak carry on to the finish.
Laughing Stock Portfolio 2019 consists of the five classic varietals: 49% Merlot, 31% Cabernet Sauvignon, 13% Cabernet Franc, 5% Malbec, and 2% Petit Verdot resembling a classic Bordeaux blend. Bone dry (0,6 g/l residual sugar) and with aromas of black cherry, black plum, blackberry and blackcurrant with 20 months in French oak, 41% of which new, adding notes of liquorice, tobacco, coffee and chocolate. All is nicely balanced by a fine level of acidity.
The Nk’Mip Chardonnay from vineyards in Osoyoos showed peach, mango and pineapple with a pastry and yoghurt (100% MLF here!) note as well as butterscotch and spice from the time spend in French oak, 38% of which new.
Nk’Mip Cellars possess a unique story as the name translates to ‘Bottomland’ as it is the southern part of the former Osoyoos Indian Reservate.
Burrowing Owl is based in OIiver in the southern part of the Okanagan and ripens grapes such as the Bordelaise varieties including Malbec and Petit Verdot and even Syrah is made here.
I tasted their varietal Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon and found them surprisingly fresh in their expression and really easy to drink. The fruit characteristics were predominantly on the red side with the Merlot showed bright, red plum, cherry and cranberry, the Franc displayed red cherry and plum as well as blackberry and the Sauvignon expressed blackcurrant, cherry and plum packed in a red-fruited frame. This trio of wines came with an appealing freshness to them.
For Burrowing Owl, 14-18 months in oak, 20-30% of which is new, is normal.
The 2018 Meritage (37% Cabernet Sauvignon, 28% Merlot, 22% Cabernet Franc, 10% Petit Verdot and 3% Malbec) was a much bigger, bolder wine. Greater concentration here with aromas of ripe blackcurrant, blackberry, black plum, coffee, chocolate, cloves, cinnamon, fresh leather. Ripe fruit but nothing jammy.
The 2019 Syrah was nicely balanced with obvious oak of US, French, Hungarian and Caucasian origin matching the dark cherry and pepper note and the ripe fruit characteristics being balanced by refreshing acidity.
The hot and dry conditions of the Okanagan Valley allow for organic grape growing as disease pressure is much less in these conditions and hence less spraying is necessary. One producer practicing organic viticulture is Okanagan Crush Pad in Summerland, who does more than just practise organic grape growing.
In 2020, OCP had 9 concrete tanks built, using sand and gravels from different OCP-vineyards in Oliver and Summerland respectively and today, more than 40 concrete fermentation tanks are used, as concrete vessels seem to contribute similar textural and aging benefits to oak barrels – only without the risk of the final wine being overtly oaky. Due to their natural insolating ability and their ability to adapt both cold and heat, concrete vessels allow for a gradual fermentation without temperature peaks and this particularly suits fermenting with native yeast, such as the OCP 41, which was derived during a research program with UCB Wine Research Center. Currently, trials are made to establish the strains effect in imparting different characteristics on different varietals.
The organic certified Okanagan Crush Pad was built in 2011 and founders Christine Coletta and Steve Lornie take advantage of the organic friendly conditions (all of their vineyards are organic certified, too) to produce – amongst other brands – their Free Form line from which I really loved their Free Form White 2017 produced from Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay and Viognier with Pinot Blanc aged in concrete and Chardonnay and Viognier in large format oak barrels. This a full-on orange wine with 8 months of aging on the skins! Lovely aromas of apricot, orange peel, liquorice and black tea leaf. The maceration has provided the wine with a lovely tannin grip. Also, their red- and black fruit driven, somewhat gamey and mocha scented, bone dry Free Form Cabernet Franc from Osoyoos really appealed to me with its very moderate alcohol and a lovely salinity.
Some Canadian wines are available on the Danish market and from a sheer quality point of view, we should expect (or hope) to see more in the years to come. Danish consumers are increasingly curious and open-minded something that, in my opinon, should make importers consider opting in on this already.