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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.