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Canada

Text and Photographs © Tom Cannavan

The Canadian wine industry has been on a definite growth path over the past few years. There are 200 wineries in the main production centres of Ontario and British Columbia, and whilst many of these are small operations, some big players have also emerged, like Mission Hill, Jackson-Triggs and Inniskillin.

geography and climate

When it comes to wine, climate is everything in this most marginal of wine countries, where winter temperatures can drop to -20c.

  

A Little History

Most Canadians will cheerfully admit that theirs was not a sophisticated food and drink nation until fairly recent times. Wine consumption was very limited, and the domestic industry concentrated on supplying off-dry and sweet wines to the local market. These wines were made not from Vitis vinifera varieties (the European grapevine, responsible for all classic wine grapes) but from the far less refined Vitis labrusca and a variety of hybrid grapes. More adventurous producers began to plant Vitis vinifera in the late 1970s, and in the 1980s wholesale quality changes took place in Canada's vineyards, including the creation of the Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA). The VQA regulates Canada's wine appellations, ensuring VQA wines meet their standards and rules regarding plantings, vinification and bottling.

grape varietiess

Today only a few patches of Vitis labrusca remain. Over the past 20 years or so the challenge has been to identify not only which of the quality wine grapes will suit Canada's climate, but to understand soil types, micro-climates and the matching of vine to soil. But Canada also remains a huge research station. Riesling is one absolute staple, made by almost everyone, in styles from bone-dry, through medium, late-harvest, botrytis and, of course, icewine. Vidal too is at its best in icewine, whilst Germanic varieties and crosses like Gewürztraminer, Sylvaner and Scheurebe are popular, as are aromatic varieties from France like Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Auxerrois. Chardonnay does very well in many areas, whilst Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier are generally less successful. Given Canada's cold winters and constrained growing season, the choice of grapes for red wines is more limited. There are at least two camps emerging behind particular grapes as Canada's potential strong suit. One backs Pinot Noir, whilst Cabernet Franc has an equal number of passionate advocates. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot also have a considerable track record here, as has Gamay. A number of people are now growing Syrah.

the regions: Ontario

Ontario is Canada's grape-growing powerhouse, responsible for 90 per cent of all grapes used in wine production.

The three main regions are the Niagara Peninsula on Lake Ontario's south shore, the Lake Erie North Shore (some 200 miles south and west), and Pelee Island, a unique island terroir in the middle of Lake Erie. There is an embryonic fourth region on Lake Ontario's north shore, called Prince Edward County.

The Niagara Peninsula is an outstandingly beautiful area, just an hour or so from Toronto and within easy reach of other large towns, as well as US cities like Cleveland and Detroit.
 

Niagara's climate is moderated by the huge heat sink that is Lake Ontario. The vines are warmed by the breezes that blow over the vineyards, helping to reduce frost and extends the growing season. Harsh winter or spring temperatures can still devastate the crop here, as they did in 2005 when temperatures of minus 26C were recorded.

Names to look our for include Cave Spring Cellars for terrific icewines and everything from Riesling to Cabernet Sauvignon, Château des Charmes founded by Algerian Paul Bosc, a graduate of the winery school at Beaune, Colio Estate where Carlo Negri's Italian shows up in Bianco Secco, Rosso and Spumante . Henry of Pelham is One of the best-loved and most visited wineries in Ontario, whilst Inniskillin has carved out a formidable reputation for its icewines. Sister winery, Jackson-Triggs has seen significant recent investment. Another remarkable winery has vineyards on Pelee Island, with truckloads of grapes travelling to the mainland. Peninsula Ridge makes one of the best Sauvignon Blancs in Canada, whilst Stratus Wines is a striking new kid on the block making flagship white and red blends. Vineland Estate has an outstanding restaurant and a fine range of VQA wines.

the regions: British Columbia

British Columbia boasts a number of wine-producing zones, including Vancouver Island and Fraser Valley, but it is the Okanagan Valley that has carved BC's reputation for real quality. The Okanagan, a 100-mile-long north-south valley around Lake Okanagan, has a uniquely mild microclimate. This puts huge pressure on the price of vineyard land, as lakeside developments spring up.

In the extreme south, close to the US border, lies Osoyoos, which with less than ten inches of rainfall per annum is officially a desert. Groves of ponderosa pine, more familiar in Arizona and New Mexico, are a startling sight. Bordeaux varieties flourish here, and the quality of the Merlot and Cabernet Franc impress.
 

Producers to note include Burrowing Owl whose gravity-fed winery has a fine self-guided tour. CedarCreek has a world-class range of wines, building on the winemaker's experience at Stag's Leap and Cape Mentelle amongst others. Gray Monk has a beautiful winery perched high above Lake Okanagan, with some lovely aromatic whites. Hillside Estate has on of the warmest micro-climates in BC, and Zinfandel and Malbec are grown here. Giant of the region is Mission Hill, and white wines are remarkably vibrant and punchy. A must-see is Nk'Mip Cellars, a joint venture involving the 370 members of the Osoyoos Indian band. Osoyoos Larose is making super-premium Bordeaux blends, and is part-owned by the owners of Château Gruaud-Larose. Quail's Gate Estate has a top restaurant under chef Judith Knight, .and Pinot Noir is a passion here. Sumac Ridge has an outstanding reputation for its wines, whilst the tiny Township 7 is a simple one-room winery with counter at front, tanks and barrels behind.

icewine, the ace in the pack

There are some who have described icewine as "a freak show," and who question the absolute quality of the wines. This is grape growing on the edge, with more elements of risk, and therefore opportunities for things to go wrong, than any other.

But to taste a truly great icewine is a thrilling experience: the combination of crystal clear fruit, luscious, honeyed sweetness and unctuous texture is set against pristine acidity in knife-edge balance. Whilst several northern European countries make icewines in those years when conditions are right, there is one New World country that has made icewine its own over the past couple of decades, and that country is Canada.

The utterly reliable freezing conditions of the Canadian winter have made icewine a real USP for both British Columbia and, in particular, Ontario. Almost every winery boasts an icewine, and some a whole range of them. Vidal, a hardy French cross, is the staple of the industry, creating luscious, curranty, sweet wines, thick with fruit and with good levels of acidity. But Riesling icewines are the real stars, with their scintillating balance and extra complexity. Even Cabernet Franc is being made as a copper-coloured icewine.