Thinking out loud about Canadian wine

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Now that I’ve visited both of Canada’s main winegrowing areas, Ontario and British Columbia – and after having tasted through lots of wines at the WineAlign National Wine Awards of Canada, I thought I’d share some of my impressions.

Niagara and the Okanagan are completely different. They are physically a very long way apart – it costs a lot of money to fly from Toronto to Vancouver, and there’s a three hour time difference – and they have very different climates. So this makes it tricky to generalize about Canadian wine.
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Let’s focus on the Okanagan, where I have been for the last week. It’s visually very pretty, arranged around two interconnecting lakes (Okanagan, the main one, and Skaha), with hills rising on each side. The vineyards aren’t wall to wall, and it doesn’t particularly seem like a wine region. Except for in the south of the appellation, the vineyards tend to be dotted around in pockets on either side of the lakes, which makes for quite a range of microclimates.
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Also, Lake Okanagan is long. The climate at the north end of the lake is totally different from that of the south. Add in the difference between the east and west banks of the lake (one gets afternoon sun, the other morning), plus the soil differences, and it soon becomes difficult to generalize even about the Okanagan as a wine region. You can grow a lot of varieties here successfully, depending on where you are.

As with Ontario’s regions, the Okanagan is a young region, in that Vitis vinifera varieties haven’t been grown here all that long. It has a cool climate, if you look at the heat summation data, but in reality it’s a cool-ish climate with a compressed growing season, hemmed in at either end by frosts. Good natural acidity is a feature of the wines here.

This is a dry region, with around 250 mm rain a year. It’s not enough to grow wine grapes, so irrigation is essential, with the exception of just a few spots where the ground water reserves can take a vine all the way through the season.
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So, back to the broad picture. What varieties does Canada have a talent for? First of all, Cabernet Franc. This can be really good across all regions. It makes lovely wines here. Second, Riesling – another star performer in both Ontario and BC. Third, Gamay. This may surprise some people, but Canada makes some superb Gamays. Niagara is the leader for Gamay, but I tried some lovely BC Gamays also. I wish more was planted, because it can be brilliant, with a bit more intensity than it gets in Beaujolais.

I had some brilliant Syrahs this week. These were mostly from BC, and when Syrah is made with a light hand, in a fresh, more elegant style, it’s just fabulous, combining ripeness and peppery freshness. I’m going to investigate further. I’ve had some good Cabernets, Merlots and Bordeaux blends, too, but I think these haven’t been quite as exciting.
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Pinot Noir isn’t the easiest grape to grow in Niagara (Ontario’s main region), and it needs cooler sites in the Okanagan to show its best. But it is showing great potential, and I experienced some impressive Pinot Noirs this week. One to watch: it could be commercially very significant in the Okanagan over the next few years. If they aren’t already, I reckon Pinot Noir and Syrah could become the lead reds in the Okanagan.

For the Okanagan, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc can make some interesting wines from the right sites. I think these are also worth watching out for. I also need to mention Chardonnay. It’s a variety that I have been a bit underwhelmed with in Canada generally. Some really good Chardonnays are being made, but overall, the Okanagan Chardonnays sometimes have a pithy, subtly bitter reductive edge, and the Ontario Chardonnays often lack presence, with a slightly hollow mid-palate. Chardonnay will always have a place, but I don’t think Canada should lead with Chardonnay in export markets.
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Canadians are great people. At least the ones I have met are. I have had such fun this week, with lots of late nights, singing on the pier at Penticton and never-ending room parties. Plus an judges’ football game, running (three times in six days), swimming and a yoga session (my first ever). Summer in the Okanagan is pretty epic, with very comfortable sunny weather, great views, and a laid back feel to it.

Fellow judge Bill Zacharkiw

Fellow judge Bill Zacharkiw

Canada is lucky in that it has some great wine writers and judges. The WineAlign judges are highly competent and well travelled, and it was painless judging with them. The organization of these wine awards, which involved opening over 4000 bottles, pouring flights for each judge, and then collating the results in real time, was superb. Which means that judges can get on with the process of judging wine. The process was thorough, and every wine was given respect and time to show its best. I’m really looking forward to seeing the results.

Now I have a plane to catch. Goodbye Canada: once again, it has been fun.

12 comments to Thinking out loud about Canadian wine

  • Good comments Jamie, I’m glad you had a good time in the Okanagan. When I worked there I also thought Cabernet Franc was excellent, shame it’s such an underrated grape. Syrah good, Pinot probably (as you say the growing season is not really cool, it’s hot and short so only seems cool on annual heat summation). Not many Cabernet Sauvignons convinced.

    As for whites, Riesling definitely, Chardonnay will grow anywhere so could be good. For me I would add Gewürztraminer to your list and perhaps Viognier.

    The way the wine market seems to work is each new world region “needs” grapes to hang its hat on (Argie Malbec, NZ Sauv Blanc and Pinot Noir etc etc). I thought the Okanagan had the potential to “own” Cab Franc, Gewürz and perhaps Viognier in the new world, a long shot maybe, but no other region seems to have claimed them yet and some of the wines were great.

  • Bob Parsons Alberta

    Very good insight Jamie. Spot on regards Pinot Gris. I find quite a few of the white blends can be of real interest too. My verdict on BC reds is not in yet but appreciate your CF thoughts.

    Best Bob

  • Jamie

    Great to have you in BC. I agree P. Gris should be our lead export grape too. We make great whites in BC but this is the only one that is planted as yet in enough commercial quantity to support sustained exports drives. I was at a blind tasting organised by BCWI recently that featured BC vs ROW. All the BC delivered exceptional quality and, rarely for our wines in the global market, great value. While we’re not going to make much of a dent is the vast lake of inexpensive P. Grigios, BC Gris is an exceptionally good wine that can work on both patio and dining table. It is also made in a wide variety of styles here too. Versatility and Value – what’s not to love?

  • Dan Fishman

    I agree completely about lighter Syrah in the OK; unfortunately it seems like some of the bigger names have decided to go for riper Syrah. Did you try any chard from Prince Edward County (Ontario)? I find those much more impressive than Niagara or OK.

  • keith prothero

    Love that part of the world but in the wrong hemisphere for me :) Will have to suffer in the Cape during the English winter !!!

  • Jamie, we’re so proud to have you visit this area of the world and offer your global perspective.

    I personally feel pleased that I got to go for one of those runs with you, and taste and chat with you outside of the judging arena. Lovely to have met you.

    We hope you will come back and see us soon, and look forward to reading more of your great work.

  • Bob Parsons Alberta

    Jamie has quite a following in the UK of course so feel that his admiration for anything Canadian will be of benefit in the future. We have some terrific wines!

  • Heather

    Namaste!!

  • Weston

    Agree with Bordeaux blends in okangan I know its made and sold but yeah I don’t buy them myself really too not well quality, Bordeaux blend Washington state does it better

    Pinot is interesting in okangan, its bigger profile then Oregon sometimes its almost like a Sonoma so rich which is well a style you’d expect from a “warmer area”

    Must say I love, Ontario chards more Burgundian where OK is mor rich and feels more sun kissed

    Weston

  • Thanks for your growing attention to Canadian wines Jamie. My wife and I have an all-Canadian wine business here in Tokyo, including a store devoted to only Canadian wines and we share many of your observations about our strengths and the inevitable diversity of our production. I would say that particularly Ontario chardonnay does deserve to be at the forefront of our international efforts. I would echo that BC viognier and gewurztraminer are great too and we have many excellent sparkling producers.

    I look forward to your future posts!

    Jamie

  • Anonymous

    It is nice that you had an opportunity to visit as you are a very thoughtful, considered writer. However, it’s unfortunate that a large number of wineries, including significant players, and members of the industry were not told that you would be in British Columbia. This has happened before and is a symptom of certain exclusionary practices taking place in the valley. Really unfortunate. It would be nice if you published who sponsored and paid for your various visits as a matter of journalism. It colours everything. Thank you.

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