‘We don’t live in igloos and polar bears are not our best friends,’ began Michelle Bouffard, in her talk that introduced the audience to Canadian wine. ‘We have rattlesnakes.’ Canada’s wine industry struggles to get past ice wine in the perception of consumers outside the country. But there’s now a significant, diverse offering of Canadian table wines, coming from 671 wineries and 1770 grape growers.
None of Canada’s wine regions are particularly easy places to grow wine grapes. The problem isn’t the actual growing season temperatures, but rather the relatively short growing season and the extremely cold winters, both in Ontario and British Columbia (BC). Initial attempts to make wine were based on hybrid varieties with their increased winter cold tolerance and resistance to fungal disease. But people began playing with Vitis vinifera in late 1970s. The big leap forward was in 1988 with the free trade agreement with the USA that allowed US wines free access to the Canadian market. ‘There was no way to compete with US wines using hybrids,’ says Michelle. This competition was a big spur to quality Canadian wine.
Michelle moved to BC from Quebec 20 years ago (she’s very recently moved back to Montreal). ‘The wines weren’t good then,’ she recalls, ‘but it has been amazing to see the quality improvement. Initially people had the dream of a winery and didn’t know what they were doing.’
Growing Degree Days in some of Canada’s wine regions
- Annapolis Valley, Nova Scotia 1175
- Northern Okanagan, BC 1200
- Prince Edward County, Ontario 1250
- Naramata, Okanagan 1320
- Similkameen Valley, BC 1360
- Okanagan Falls, BC 1405
- Niagara, Ontario 1485
- Black Sage Osooyos, Okanagan, BC 1585
Quality has been helped by outside consultants, including famous names such as Pedro Parra and Alberto Antonini, who are all active now and who are excited by the potential of the wines. ‘What the wines all have in common is freshness and diversity,’ says Michelle. Initially in BC many people just wanted to make big reds, but this is changing.
Because of the extreme winters and hot summers, the lake effect is important in both Ontario and BC. In Nova Scotia, the proximity of the ocean has a similar climate moderating effect. In Quebec, making good wine is a struggle but Michelle thinks there’s a big future for apple cider.
Ice wine is commercially significant. It is just 5% of the production of Ontario wine, but half of it is exported, and because of its high per bottle price, it makes up 25% of wine export revenue.
Michelle mentioned the blight of International Canadian Blends (which used to be called Cellared in Canada). These are wines dressed up to look like Canadian wines (same branding and packaging), but they blend a bit of Canadian wine in with imported cheap wine. There’s been a bit of progress in dealing with these, such as putting them on separate shelves in liquor stores, but they still exist.
Sparkling wine is an important category, and the acid that Canadian grapes often have helps to make good sparkling base wines. Quality has improved because winemakers realize that you have to make better base wines, not just use regular wine as a base wine.
We then went on a tour of Canada’s wine regions, beginning with Nova Scotia. This is at 45 degrees latitude. There are just 20 wineries, farming 800 acres of vines, producing 500 000 cases. No vineyard is further than 60 km from the ocean, and the coast here experiences the biggest tidal shifts in the world. Most vineyards are in the Annapolis valley, which is in the sheltered Bay of Fundy. The Avon River Valley is promising too. So far the emphasis here has been on climate (sites chosen because there’s enough warmth to ripen grapes), but the soils can be interesting, derived from glacier activity. There some calcareous soil and some gypsum, and they are varied. In 2012 Nova Scotia created their first appellation, Tidal Bay, which is a fruity white wine that’s reflective of what the region can do best, made from four different hybrid varieties. Sparkling wine is the big hope here, though.
Quebec is not a major wine region. It’s mostly based on hybrids. It’s properly cold in the winter, but there’s enough heat to ripen grapes, and Dunham has a respectable 1150 GDDs. The autumns are getting longer so the window for ripening grapes is getting bigger, but winters can kill the vines. ‘People are beginning to work better with hybrids,’ says Michelle. ‘There are a few gems.’
Ontario is a big player. There’s the Niagara Peninsula (the main region), plus Prince Edward County and Lake Eyrie North Shore. There are cold winters and hot summers but the lakes moderate the climate. 100 000 years ago several glacial episodes formed the Niagara escarpment with its pockets of sand, clay and rocks on a bedrock of limestone. The escarpment acts to bring back down warm air that rises during the day. There are lots of sub-appellations, and the benches are where the soils are perhaps the most interesting. People started to play with Vitis vinifera in the 1970s and the Cave Spring Riesling was one of the first exciting wines. Existing bottles from the early years still taste great, says Michelle. As well as Riesling, strengths here include Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir and Gamay. Ontario produces 90% of Canada’s ice wine and the best comes from Riesling, claims Michelle.
British Columbia, out west, has grown massively as a wine region. In 1990 there were 1476 acres of vines and 17 wineries, now there are 10260 acres of vineyard and 272 wineries. ‘Every grape you can think of we have it,’ says Michelle. The Okanagan is responsible for 84% of production with the neighbouring Similkameen Valley is next at 6%. The Okanagan is 144 km long, and very different north to south. Irrigation is needed here. Riesling is strong here, and Syrah is having a lot of success, although it is not very winter hardy. Pinot Gris does well and is the most planted white variety, while Merlot is the most planted red. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are strong players in the right places.
It’s an exciting time for Canadian wine, and this talk piqued the interest of the audience. There’s a lot more to Canada than ice wine, and hopefully that message is now gaining some traction.
See also: Articles on Canadian wine on this site