In the past 20 years the Canadian wine industry has truly blossomed with the number of wineries almost quadrupling. The quality has been on the rise too as has the number of different grape varieties. An expert in the field who has been closely following this explosion is Dr Jamie Goode who, after explaining about the regions and the geology, picks a list of 15 of the best Canadian wines available in the UK.
“Canadian wine is a story of four main regions, with two of them dominant,” writes Goode.
Canada has emerged as a significant wine country of late. Although the country’s major wine regions have been making wine for some time, there has been a real expansion over the last 20 years. I’ve been visiting regularly since 2013, and each year when I go back there’s something new to explore, a new producer who’s making great wine, or a more established producer who’s upped their game. These are wines that combine the fruit brightness of the New World with the cool climate sensibility of many of the Old World’s classic regions. They are wines for today, offering pleasure but also gastronomic compatibility. To give an idea of the scale of what’s going on, the last edition of the National Wine Awards of Canada had 2075 entries from 260 wineries.
To give a broad overview, Canadian wine is a story of four main regions, with two of them dominant. [Apologies to the smaller wine regions that don’t make this summary.] The two largest regions are some 4000 km apart, but share a cool climate sensibility. First, out west, not too far from Vancouver, we have the Okanagan Valley. This is a long wine region running north to south along two large, thin lakes.
This geography means it spans a range of climatic zones. In the north we have a distinctly cool climate suited to Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir, making more delicate wines. Then down south, near the US border, we have a warmer, drier climate where Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Syrah star. Chardonnay does well from north to south. It’s a scenic region, and tourism is a big deal here.
Then just 90 minutes drive south from Toronto, and opposite the city across Lake Ontario, we have the Niagara Peninsula. The lake is key to viticulture here, saving the vines from winter cold that would otherwise make Vitis vinifera varieties non-viable, and then moderating the warm summer temperatures. Distance from the lake is a key viticultural variable, as is position in relation to the Niagara Escarpment, which is the geological feature responsible for the famous waterfalls at the border with the USA.
Key varieties for Niagara are Chardonnay and Riesling for whites, and Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc and Gamay for the reds. This is also the major region for Icewine production in Canada: a wine style that has been a great commercial success but which in the past has somewhat overshadowed the progress made with dry and sparkling wines.
Then we have Nova Scotia, a smaller region, out east. Here, too, water plays a role in the viticultural mix: in this case the world’s largest tidal shifts in the Bay of Fundy which bring sea air into the valleys, cooling in the summer and moderating lows in the winter. Of late, there has been a lot of excitement about the potential for Nova Scotia’s traditional method sparkling wines.
These are some of the top Canadian wine available in the UK.
Benjamin Bridge Brut Hand Crafted Small Lot 2015 Gaspereau Valley, Nova Scotia, Canada
11% alcohol. This sparkling wine is really refined with a taut citrus fruit core, keen acidity, and a stony, mineral and saline finish. There’s brightness and purity here, with lemony fruit complemented by some pear and white peach, with a touch of sweetness. It’s such an interesting wine, with an expanding finish that ends up chalky and mineral, and with a mouthwatering saltiness. Really impressive. 93/100
Agent: Flint Wines
Peller Estates Ice Cuvée Classic NV Niagara Peninsula, Canada
12% alcohol. Traditional method sparkling, with Icewine used as the liqueur d’expedition. This is really expressive, and the Icewine used at dosage really contributes a lot of character. It’s aromatic, with lots of fruit: melon, apricot and baked pear. There’s some sweetness on the palate as well as lots of fruit, with an exotic, tropical character as well as bright citrus fruit. This is so distinctive, and very clever. 90/100
Mission Hill Reserve Chardonnay 2019 Okanagan Valley, Canada
13% alcohol. This comes from the south (Osoyoos and Oliver) and the middle (Naramata) of the Okanagan. It has a lively acid line with lovely pear, pineapple and lemon fruit, with some spiciness and a touch of cedary oak. But the emphasis is firmly on the fruit here: it’s detailed, nicely complex and a little grainy in texture. A really lovely, bright expression of Chardonnay. 92/100
Bachelder Les Villages Chardonnay 2019 Niagara Peninsula, Canada
13.5% alcohol. This is from older vineyards on limestone-based soils in Niagara, fermented and aged in mostly neutral oak with a long elevage. It’s a layered, concentrated wine with some richness to the pear and white peach fruit on the mid palate, but also a mineral, spicy flourish on the edge, with some nice acidity on the finish. There’s a touch of honeyed richness too: a lovely expression of Niagara Chardonnay. 93/100
Agent: Liberty Wines
Quails’ Gate Pinot Noir 2019 Okanagan Valley, Canada
13% alcohol. Elegant, sweetly fruited sappy cherry and redcurrant fruit on the nose. The palate is juicy with some fine green hints under the silky red cherry fruit, with a lovely supple personality and some spicy, dried herb savoury hints on the finish. A really delicious expression of Pinot Noir. 92/100
Westcott Vineyards Estate Pinot Noir 2017 Vinemount Ridge, Niagara, Canada
12.5% alcohol. This is really supple and delicate, with some fresh red cherry and plum fruit, silky texture, and then a spicy, slightly savoury twist on the finish. There’s a bit of depth here, but the main focus is bright, restrained red fruits. Great balance and drinkability, and with four and a bit years bottle age it’s drinking very well now. 91/100
Agent: Daniel Lambert
Le Clos Jordanne Le Grand Clos Pinot Noir 2018 Twenty Mile Bench, Niagara, Canada
13.5% alcohol. From a 10.45 ha vineyard planted in 2000 and 2001 with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Some post ferment maceration, and aged in 25% new oak. This is a supple, well balanced Pinot with a core of sweet red cherry fruit, some wild strawberry and also some savoury, spicy oak notes adding some structure and framing to the vivid fruit. This is sophisticated and gastronomic, and I’d give it a couple of years to let the fruit and oak marry into a seamless whole. There’s a delicacy here that’s quite compelling. 93/100
Agent: Liberty Wines
Checkmate Opening Gambit Merlot 2014 Okanagan Valley, Canada
14.5% alcohol. Interesting to try this ambitious Merlot with a bit of bottle age. It’s sweetly aromatic with hints of ash, gravel and mint as well as sweet cherries, plums and blackcurrant. The palate is smooth and resolved with sweet blackberry and blackcurrant fruit, as well as touches of tar and spice. There’s still some grippy structure here. Sleek, warm and polished and beginning to drink very well, in a lush, forward style. 91/100
Stratus Cabernet Franc 2017 Niagara-on-the-Lake, Canada
14.3% alcohol. Ripe blackcurrant fruit on the nose with some fine spicy hints. It’s enticing, and also quite rich, with some balsamic notes. In the mouth this has good concentration, a bit of spicy development, and sweet blackcurrant fruit with some tarry, savoury framing. Developing in a nice way, it’s drinking beautifully. Real depth here. 92/100
Le Vieux Pin Syrah Cuvée Violette 2017 Okanagan Valley, Canada
13.5% alcohol. This is 99.5% Syrah and 0.5% Viognier, aiming at the more perfumed style of Syrah. It’s aromatic with a stony edge to the black cherry and peach skin notes. The palate is supple and has a lovely peppery edge to the floral cherry and plum fruit. It’s well balanced with a nicely spicy edge to the sweet fruit. Lots of drinkability here, with a hint of seriousness. 92/100
Agent: Flint Wines
Burrowing Owl Syrah 2018 Okanagan Valley, Canada
14% alcohol. Sweetly aromatic and quite plummy with a green edge to the black cherry and blackberry fruit. The palate is lush, fruit-driven and accessible with a subtle tarry, peppery edge to the smooth black fruits, with an appealing grainy finish. Lovely purity and balance here. 91/100
Agent: Stephen Neumann, email@example.com
Painted Rock Cabernet Franc 2018 Skaha Bench, Okanagan Valley, Canada
13.8% alcohol. Fresh, floral blackcurrant fruit aromatics are complemented by some green hints and a nice chalky gravel character. In the mouth this is bright and focused with pure fruit, hints of richness and a nice brightness on the finish. Very classy: a grape variety well adapted to this site. 93/100
Agent: The Wine Treasury
Henry of Pelham Baco Noir Old Vines 2020 Ontario, Canada
13.5% alcohol. From vines planted by the Speck brothers in the 1980s and 1990s, this is a deeply coloured, aromatic red with lush blackberry and blackcurrant fruit, some floral cherry notes, and firm acidity hemming all the rich ripe fruit in. There’s a slight whiff of smoked meat that adds some savoury interest, too. This is a really lovely, distinctive red wine, full of life and energy. 92/100
Agent: Wine Rascals
Inniskillin Icewine Gold Vidal 2018 Niagara Peninsula, Canada
9.5% alcohol. Beautifully aromatic with notes of jelly, apricot and table grapes. The palate has a wall of sweet fruit, and is incredibly sweet, but there’s also lovely fresh acidity providing a counter. Lots of melon, lychee and even a touch of pineapple here, with a juicy finish. So concentrated and intense. 94/100
Agent: Liberty Wines
Peller Estates Cabernet Franc Icewine 2018 Niagara Peninsula, Canada
12% alcohol. Slightly faded red/pink in colour, this has an appealing nose of sweet cherry, stewed damson and pear fruit. The palate has a lovely jellied red fruit character with a supple fruitiness, a hint of green leafiness and then a warm, grapey, spicy finish. A complex, balanced sweet wine of real intensity. 94/100