Here’s some news for you. Quiet and unassuming Canada is not quiet and unassuming anymore. Particularly if you consider the actions of its not quite so cuddly Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, one of the few world leaders to really get under the skin of President Trump. Now Canadian winemakers have some way to go before they can claim to be catching the attention of world’s leading wine buyers, never mind the White House, but they now have the wines to do so, they just need to find more ways, like this, to tell the world about them.
Canadians in the main don’t like to shout too much about what they get up to – unless they’re playing ice hockey. But as Richard Siddle discovered on a recent trip to British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, one of the country’s most important and influential wine growing regions, they have a lot to talk about, and be proud of, when it comes to how far their winemaking has come in the last five to 10 years.
For a country so large Canada has an uncanny knack of operating very much under the radar. Unlike its noisy neighbours just across the border. But then that’s just the way it likes it. The locals even join in when you play the “Name a famous Canadian game” which soon loses its appeal once you throw in major rock and Hollywood stars as Neil Young, Celine Dion, Bryan Adams, Justin Bieber and the two Ryans Gosling and Reynolds.
Basking in your status as the world’s – literally – biggest secret plays nicely as a catchline for your tourism industry. It’s not quite so clever when it comes to business and your main export sectors.
Like the Canadian wine industry. How knowledgeable are you about Canadian wine? What are its major wine styles? Most important wine regions? Biggest wine players, or most well known producers?
For a country the size of Canada and with a climate that is near on perfect for making quality, premium, world benchmark wines, you quickly start to wander how it has kept itself so under the eye-line of the world’s major wine markets for so long. At least that is my biggest takeaway having spent near on a week experiencing and very much enjoying my first ever visit to the country. For wine or anything else.
From first impressions Canada has got everything going for it. At least from a viticulture point of view. It’s four major wine regions – British Columbia, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and Ontario – all sit neatly within the 30° to 50° North Latitude growing region that includes all the classic Old World wine growing countries. But with a key difference. Canada has a vast array of soils types and climatic conditions thanks to the creation of centuries old glacial valleys complete with their own large, deep temperate lakes that, in themselves, create a unique environment for growing a wide range of vines and grape varieties.
That’s if you can find any land that has not been taken to produce some of the best quality and most in demand fruit anywhere in the world.
And there’s the rub. It has really only been in the last 25 years that Canada has had a serious wine industry to speak of. Prior to that the land was seen to be too precious to use for high margin fruit production to risk on making wine. Canada also had a bigger and longer fall out from prohibition than the US, with a strong temperance movement preventing the opening of any new wineries for some 50 years until 1974.
All of which means you can be forgiven for failing to answer many or any of the questions in our Canadian wine quiz. After all Canada’s wine exports only make up 0.02% of all global wine export volumes and 0.1% by value. It represents only 0.3% of the world’s total wine production.
Even the wine that is made has a hard job getting around its own country never mind overseas thanks to strict and restrictive monopoly laws that does not allow a producer say in Quebec to sell its wines in Vancouver. Go figure.
Icewine – who mentioned that?
Then there is the icewine factor and probably Canada’s most famous wine export, yet it’s a style of wine that Canadians wish they could keep under the radar and are almost embarrassed to talk about. In fact the only way we were able to taste an icewine during our trip was when our group asked to do so. Given the choice quality Canadian winemakers want to keep icewine out of sight and mind, even though it makes up a large proportion of all its exports.
Icewine is clearly a dilemma for Canadian producers. Some of the producers we met admitted it was thanks to icewine, and the sales and cash flow it brought into their businesses, that has allowed them to invest in producing better quality still and sparkling wine, yet it has become the style of wine that most buyers, both trade and consumers, now associate with Canada and its not a pigeon hole they want to be in.
Young and exciting
Icewine aside the fact the Canadian wine industry is so young is also a major plus factor in what has become an increasingly homogenised international wine market.
This is a wine country that offers the best of the New World in that so many of the winemakers and producers you meet are first generation, straight out of the box, with no preconceived ideas and rules about what they should be doing. Yet they have the winemaking potential, the soils, the climate to make serious quality wines to match, and in some cases better, their Old World equivalents.
They also have money and the investment to get things right. From day one.
My trip into the Okanagan wine region, that makes up over 80% of the vineyards in British Columbia, a short hop up from Vancouver, really was an eye opener in so many ways. Not only is this one of the fastest growing, it’s also arguably the most eye catching of Canada’s wine regions as its now close to 180 wineries are dotted alongside the valley’s 60 mile lake that stretches right up the 130 mile valley. Caught in the middle of a glacial valley with sweeping hillsides either side it really makes for a stunning backdrop to make wine.
It’s also the ideal climate for growing vines. For a start it has such long hours of sunlight, that can be up to 18 hours a day, 2,000 hours a year, giving more time for the grapes to mature, ripen and take advantage of the hot days and extremely cold nights that are all balanced out by the valley’s cooling winds and impact of the lake that helps absorb so much of the extreme temperatures.
It can also lay claim to having some of the driest and challenging wine conditions in the world with the south of the valley, right on the US border, classified as a desert with cactus and sagebrush growing between the vines. Rainfall ranges from just 250mm in the south to 400mm in the north.
Its unique growing conditions has attracted some serious well-heeled entrepreneurs who have made their fortunes in other sectors and are now fully committed to putting Okanagan and Canadian wine on the world wine map.
These are best illustrated by the seven like-minded and ambitious producers that make up the new Okanagan Wine Initiative including the following producers: 50th Parallel Estate Winery, Culmina Family Vineyards, Haywire Wines, Liquidity Wines, Painted Rock Estate Winery, Poplar Grove Winery, and Summerhill Pyramid Winery. Each very different in their approach, but all sharing an ambition to leave, literally, no stone unturned to make the best wine possible. And seemingly at whatever cost it takes.
They are also all at the top of their game and hope by working together they can share their knowledge and experiences to present a united voice which can carry further around the word. Their mandate is to collaborate so that they can collectively improve all areas of their viticulture, winemaking and winery operations and then use their combined strength to better market the image of Canada and Okanagan to their key export markets. Creating a benchmark of quality for the region and the other producers to potentially follow. They could all probably enter their respective in-house catering and restaurant teams for the quality of their produce and food they produce too.
It takes more than just money and a dream to turn all that into quality winemaking. What really stood out talking to each of these producers was the huge amount of time they had each spent carrying out GPS soil and satellite analysis of their lands in order to best choose the right vines, and right varieties to plant.
For some, like Painted Rock, it took five years of planning and research just to find the right land, with the right soils, and growing conditions to make the wine that owner, John Skinner, wanted to make. That’s before bringing in a top Bordeaux consultant, Alain Sutre, to help make them. Again the best of the New and Old Worlds working together.
The wines in the Okanagan may be made very differently, some prefer Old School barrels, others are cement and egg only (most noticeably the Okanagan Crush Pad), but they all share the fresh, bright, clean characteristics that give Canadian wines all the potential they want.
These are wines that taste like they have been years in the preparation, never mind the ageing. They all share a linear precision that evoke the astonishing attention to detail that has gone into making them.
These are the Kraftwerk of wine. Which probably explains why there is so little Okanagan never mind Canadian wine in the world market. Like a Kraftwerk album its wines are carefully constructed, and loved by the few not the many.
Main export markets
The wine that Canada is exporting is currently going to three main markets. China, the US and Taiwan. With an increasing switch to the US where producers can both have a better understanding and control over where their wines are being sold, and can work the market more easily.
That said China still dominates with 44.5% of exports by value and 66% by volume, making up C$15.4m sales in 2016 (down from C$16.2m in 2012), and volumes of 1.2m litres up from 864,000 in 2012. But with C$8.3m and 24% of sales in the US in 2016 coming from just 287,538 in volume litres (15% share) it’s clear where the margins lie. Taiwan has also become a strong market making up 7.8% of exports in 2016 and 6.7% of volumes.
South Korea and the UK make up the top five export countries with sales of C$2.3m (6.9% share) and C$1.1m (3.4%) respectively on the back of volumes of 35k litres to South Korea (1.8% share) and 33k to the UK (Canadian Vintners Association).
It might still be very early days for Canada on the global stage, but it is waking up, both domestically and internationally.
Three to four years ago it was attending shows like ProWein on a suck it and see basis. Now it has buyers actively seeking its producers out. Yes, the old perceptions still exist, particularly the obsession with icewine, but if you are looking for wines from new markets with a strong, sustainable and an increasingly premium future then Canada has to be on your shopping list. And if you’re looking for an excuse to dig out your old Kraftwerk albums then look no further.
- In Part Two of our report from the Okanagan valley we will look at the steps each of the producers in the Okanagan Wine Initiative are taking to produce the wines best suited to their estates.
- Thanks to all the producers who made our group so welcome and to fellow travellers Emma Wellings, David Kermode, Jamie Goode, Margaret Rand, Joanna Simon and David Williams for a memorable and enjoyable trip.