Back, after a two year absence, was the annual Wines of Canada tasting in London which was the perfect opportunity for Justin Keay to discover first-hand how the Canadian wine scene has changed since its last generic outing – and it all seems to be going in the right direction. Nova Scotia is becoming more than a one-trick pony, Pinot Noir is getting stronger and 10 wineries, in particular, stood out for him as ones which should be on your radar.
Canadian wine is still a category that is capable of throwing a few surprises, argues Keay.
If a week is a long time in politics, then two years in the wine industry feels like an eternity. Wines of Canada tried to hold its last annual UK tasting back in 2020 but the pandemic scuppered that and then also the 2021 event, with some producers leaving already-shipped wines in the basement of Canada House.
“Something funny has happened to some of these wines staying down there so long, they’ve sort of evolved faster than they would have done,” says Charles Baker of his eponymous winery, tasting one of his excellent Rieslings with a look of studied curiosity.
The whole Canadian wine industry seems likewise to have been on fast forward. Back in 2020 it was probably still possible to find people asking “Really, do Canadians make wine?” Today, with Canadian wines available in the likes of Aldi, the Wine Society and across much of the on-trade, the sight of a Pinot Noir from Ontario or a Syrah or Bordeaux blend from British Columbia is, frankly, par for the course. For the past 20 years this industry has evolved fast, to the extent that Ontario is now home to 175 wineries and British Columbia around 280. Even Quebec now has 125 wineries although, with typical French exceptionalism, Vins du Quebec doesn’t participate in the UK tasting.
But this is still a country that can throw surprises, as I found out when I arrived at Canada House for this year’s annual tasting.
Nova Scotia growing in importance
Nova Scotia’s once fledgling wine industry is a clear beneficiary both of climate change and growing international demand for sparkling wine, which this northern province excels at. There are now 22 producers here, making wine with hybrid varieties but also increasingly, Chardonnay and yup, Pinot Noir as well. The excellent range of wines made by Benjamin Bridge has already made a big impact on the UK market (Flint Wines) with others now trying to muscle in.
Amongst them is Lightfoot & Wolfville Vineyards, one of only five biodynamic wineries in the country. I loved pretty much all four wines they were showing (they make 19 wines and 120,000 bottles in all) but my favourites here were the Brut 2016, very distinctive 100% Chardonnay which spends 46 months on its lees before bottling and release. Very fresh, you can taste some pleasant sweetness on the palate although not the 12 gms r/s that is there in reality because of the finely balanced acidity. Also good is the Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut 2014, 46 months on the lees and a year in bottle – just 4 gms r/s per litre. And the still Ancienne Chardonnay 2018 is almost textbook stuff, surprisingly rich on the palate thanks to 12 months in large oak barrels, wild ferment. A producer to watch out for.
Likewise, it’s neighbour – both in the tasting and pretty much in reality, as they face one another across a fiord – Blomidon Estate winery. Unbelievably (well to me anyway) this was first planted back in 1986 but the current owners have run it since 2008, making around 60,000 bottles annually and focused on the L’Acadie hybrid and Chardonnay. I wasn’t too keen on its Cuvee l’Acadie but the other still and sparkling wines are all first class. Look out for the Blancs de Blancs 7 gms r/s, Chardonnay grown in sandy soul that has spent 10 years on the lees before release. Likewise, the Brut Reserve a blend of all three Champagne varieties with the same sugar levels, five years of resting on the lees. Impressive, memorable wines that suggest we will be seeing more wines from Nova Scotia here in the trade.
Ontario and British Columbia
Some 16 of the 29 wineries showing were from Ontario, many trying to break into the UK market for the first time, others already here but showing really well. So which other producers really stood out for me?
Canada is now making some decent Pinot Noir and Ontario were showing several fine examples, especially from Norman Hardie Wines (imported by Bibendum), where total production now tops 130,00. Its County Pinot Noir 2019 from Prince Edward County is lovely, lots of bright red berry fruit and firm acidity: fascinating to compare with its Pinot Noir 2017 from Niagara Penisular which had darker fruit and was more rounded and fleshy. Norman Hardie has been making Cabernet Franc in small volumes since 2010 and its Cabernet Franc 2020 from Niagara is quite delicious, 13.5% abv and quite full-on with plum and dark cherry showing on the palate, though retaining a definite Loire style.
For Riesling look no further than Charles Baker Wines, lots of wonderful acidity and character but also amazingly low alcohol. Tasting through the back vintages from Picone Vineyard (in the Vinemount Ridge sub-region) is an impressive wander through very distinct seasons all of which have impacted on the final wines: for me the Charles Baker Riesling 2013 was the most impressive, surprisingly ripe with hints of petrol but supported by firm acidity and just 10.1% alcohol. Baker also takes care of the rather more diverse Stratus Vineyards (like Charles Baker Wines, also imported by Bibendum) with a Cabernet Franc 2019 from Niagara on the Lake and the Stratus White 2019 (a big, and quite sumptuous blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier and Semillon)… well worth discovering.
Scenery-wise, it probably doesn’t get much better than the Pelee Island Winery, located in the heart of Lake Erie which gets so warm in the summer that this is one of the first producers to bring in the harvest – they are usually done by end September. Although it produces some 20 different wines, this is very much a working agricultural operation and the estate stresses that it is making wines that are Old World in style. My favourite wine here is the Vinedressers Chardonnay 2017, a rounded wine with lots of peach and apricot on the palate – surprisingly big, though, with lots of character. (Imported by HN Wines).
Amongst those trying to get representation for the first time here was Diamond Estates and Spirits, a large volume producer mainly aimed at the commercial end of the market in Canada that its representative Peter Toms suggested probably wouldn’t sell well here (“who would want to buy a Canadian Pinot Grigio here when Italy produces so much of the stuff and pretty much has the market covered?”). However, it is also producing some higher quality, small volume wines to balance this out, from which I particularly enjoyed the Lakeview Werner Vineyard Viognier 2020, quite full with lots of fruit on the palate but also showing a Rhône-style intensity.
I distinctly remember Bachelder from the last UK tasting and, as ever, was impressed by its range, which includes some great Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Two of the tasting’s best Gamays were also here, the dark coloured, surprisingly intense Bachelder Wismer Foxcroft Niagara Cru Gamay Noir 2020, from the Twenty Mile Beach VQA (with grapes grown on Dolomitic limestone) and the more intricate, complex Les Villages Gamay Noir 2020: lighter alcohol (13% abv versus 14% abv) and a fresher, more approachable style. (Liberty Wines)
And so at last to British Columbia and the Painted Rock Estate Winery. This award-winning winery run by John and Trish Skinner is known for its premium Bordeaux blends especially the Merlot-dominant Red Icon, with the 2016 vintage showing very well – this is a classy wine, very elegant and the best Bordeaux blend I tried at this tasting. I also enjoyed the Painted Rock Skaha Beach Cabernet Franc 2017 even more, a skilfully balanced wine with great depth with cassis, plum and a very long spicy finish. A Loire-style Cab Franc this with a welcome Canadian twist. (Wine Treasury). Like so many wines at this tasting, and like all the ones I highlighted, this is a classy, exciting wine with freshness and great character.