“This is the start of something wonderful in Prince Edward County,” enthused Linda Franklin, president of the Wine Council of Ontario. “And it is a thrilling time for wine in Ontario. It’s our time. The Ontario industry will double in size in 20 years.”
That’s not an idle boast. According to the Ottawa-based Canadian Vintners Association, the country now has nearly 200 licensed wineries and thousands of hectares of vineyards. That’s a drop in the bucket globally, but domestically it’s an impressive 80-per-cent rise in only five years, and 400-per-cent since 1985. All this despite a marginal climate and the arcane patchwork of federal and provincial alcohol- production and -distribution regulations that suffocate all but the most tenacious wine romantics. It’s still illegal in Canada, for example, to ship wine directly to customers across provincial borders, which stymies new Internet marketers like Ontario-based winerytohome.com and the Toronto Star’s new wineconnection.ca.
Canadians make some excellent wines, but they aren’t especially easy to find. For one thing, there’s an ocean of mediocre wine labelled Product of Canada or Cellared in Canada that contains a majority of off-shore content blended with homegrown. Wine that is 100-per-cent grown and vinified here is best identified by the Vintners Quality Alliance emblem, but even then, a few domestic producers do not submit their wines for VQA approval and labelling.
VQA wine is cool-climate fare, defined by higher acidity, lower alcohol (thus lighter body) and often less ripe fruit flavours, very similar to the wines of central Europe, and quite different than those from California, Australia or Chile. Canada makes great, world-beating, very sweet ice wines and many very good whites — chardonnays and rieslings from Ontario, and pinot blancs, pinot gris and sauvignon blancs from B.C. Our best reds include burgundy-inspired gamays and pinot noirs, and, in the warmest years, bordeaux-inspired merlots, cabernets and blends thereof, often called meritage. Then there are some funky, controversial red hybrids like baco noir and marechal foch.
The industry’s major growth is centred in two regions — Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula and B.C.’s Okanagan Valley. But there are now vineyard clusters sprouting wherever there’s a remote chance of growing the tender, winter-sensitive vinifera vines. From west to east, the roster includes the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island, the Fraser Valley in B.C., the shores of lakes Erie and Ontario, Quebec’s Eastern Townships and Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley, Malagash Peninsula and LaHave River Valley.
In Nova Scotia’s charming Domaine de Grand Pre in Wolfville, some big and smart money is now pouring into magnificent new vineyards and wineries. Out west, the biggest development is Anthony von Mandl’s $35- million Mission Hill edifice in the Okanagan, perched on a hilltop opposite Kelowna. And in the southern Okanagan, Vincor, Canada’s largest wine company, has renovated its Jackson-Triggs winery in Oliver, which is also home to Osoyoos Larose, a joint venture with French winemakers to produce a super-premium bordeaux-style red. Vincor has also imported the latest viticulture technology to transform part of Canada’s only authentic desert into a 2,000-ha plantation. The southern Okanagan, in fact, is Canada’s hottest growth spot. Mission Hill and Sumac Ridge have large plantations there, as have smaller labels like Burrowing Owl, Tinhorn Creek, Blue Mountain, Black Hills, Wild Goose and Calona’s Sandhill. These names have developed real cachet among wine cognoscenti.
B.C. has been on a roll with good to excellent vintages. At the 2002 Wine Access magazine Canadian Wine Awards, 54 per cent of the province’s 283 entries took medals, and eight of 10 finalists for Winery of the Year were from B.C., including the winner, CedarCreek (Mission Hill won in 2001). Development in Niagara has been dramatic, too, but it’s focused less on planting new vineyards and more on building wineries and tourism infrastructure. Up to a dozen new operations open each season, often with fine restaurants, elaborate tasting rooms and conference facilities. These include showpiece Niagara-on-the-Lake facilities built by Vincor (Jackson-Triggs) and Andres Wines (Peller Estates), Canada’s second largest producer.
But it’s the product that ultimately drives the business, and some small new Ontario wineries — Malivoire, Lailey, 13th Street, Daniel Lenko and Angel’s Gate — hit high notes right off the top. Mid-sized firms with experienced growers and winemakers and with maturing vineyards — Cave Spring, Henry of Pelham, Inniskillin, Chateau des Charmes, Vineland Estates, Hillebrand and Lakeview — offer the best consistency.
In recent years nature has been hard on Ontario vintages. The cool, wet 2000 growing season was challenging, and the majority of Ontario’s 2001s were affected by a freak infestation of Asian ladybugs that imbued the wines, to varying degrees, with an unusual peanut-like flavour. Now, in 2003, there will be a reduced crop due to winter bud damage. But in both Ontario and in B.C., the 2002 vintage is showing very well indeed. Once the big reds come out of the barrels and onto the shelves in 2004, we may able to claim it is the best coast-to-coast year for Canadian wine of all time.