It has been two years since Justin Keay attended an annual Canadian wine tasting, but in that time he has found some impressive new producers and giant strides forwards in terms of quality and range. Here he picks out which producers and which Canadian wines he feels have made the most improvements.
Canadian wines from both British Columbia and the East Coast are worth looking at, but what about the wines that haven’t yet been signed up for UK distribution?
The last time I attended the Wines of Canada tasting two years ago I took something of a scatter-gun approach, veering towards producers with a marked Burgundy-varietal bias, perhaps because I viewed Canadian wines as essentially cooler climate wines and I would find the most impressive examples amongst the Rieslings and Pinot Noirs.
My main take-away then was genuine surprise at the quality and range of what was on offer – not least because my only previous exposure to Canadian wine had been more than 20 years before that, when a girlfriend in Vancouver had castigated me for buying some, because she was 100% certain it would be undrinkable.
Last year The Buyer was particularly impressed by the Syrah, Riesling, the Cabernet Franc (one of the most planted red varietals) and, of course, the ice wine.
Canada is a young but growing wine producing nation and I was keen at this year’s annual tasting to see what some of the newest producers – or new at least to this tasting – were up to, what sort of varieties they were focusing on and what the resultant wines tasted like.
On top of this, my plan was to try and find some favourite wines and producers to recommend from the 30 producers who were showing over 150 wines.
First off, two new producers from the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia.
The first, the CheckMate Artisanal Winery, focuses on just two varieties, Chardonnay and Merlot, and makes small quantities of each, but what wines – especially the Chardonnays.
The focus here is on making “new world wines with old world elegance” and they have succeeded: their range of small plot Chardonnays with such names as Little Pawn, Knight’s Challenge, Attack and Queen Taken Chardonnay reveal a fascination not just with chess but precision too, with each of the wines subtly different.
Even more impressive for me though were the wines shown by Martin’s Lane Winery. Again, the focus is on just two varietals – here, Pinot Noir and Riesling.
The reds were impressive and showed good depth and maturity but the two Rieslings – Fritzl’s Vineyard (with 7 grams per litre residual sugar) and the richer Naramata Ranch Vineyard (14 g/ per litre) – were outstanding, showing fantastic mineral complexity and generous fruit.
Though the vines here date back to the 1970s this winery has only just commenced operation, which suggests it has a fantastic future ahead of it. (Both producers have found UK agents but asked for details to be withheld).
And over on the East side….
On the opposite side of the tasting room – and indeed, on the other side of Canada, in Ontario’s Niagara Peninsular – another young producer, Sue-Ann Staff, has been working for the past seven years to make high quality Riesling and like St Martin’s Lane, has succeeded admirably.
Her sparkling Iridescence Riesling 2013 shows great vibrancy and appeal but it was her two still wines – the fruit-driven, highly accessible Riesling Loved by Lu 2015 (named after Sue-Ann’s grandma) and the more serious, terroir-focused Robert’s Block 2014 (named in memory of her great, great, great, grandfather who was the founder of this property) that really impressed, confirming that Riesling, particularly when made on such rich limestone soils as these, really is the white go-to grape in Canada.
Charles Baker of Stratus Vineyards certainly wasn’t going to argue with that.
“In Ontario in particular we have the right soil types and the right weather for this grape, and I think going forward you will see more plantings.”
His eponymous Charles Baker Riesling reflected how much weather can impact on this variety; the 2012 (a hot year) was full and forward, whilst the 2013, made in a rainy difficult year where sun barely broke through cloud, is also attractive but shows the difficulties he must have faced in bringing it to bottle.
Likewise his low yield Stratus Cabernet Franc 2013: Baker says the grapes for this were picked in November, something made possible by the benign climate in this sub-region, but necessary because of the minimal light and heat over the summer.
Also in Ontario, Norm Hardie‘s wines are tasting really well – his Chardonnays but especially his excellent Pinot Noirs, now amongst the most highly regarded in Canada – demonstrating the impact a different region and soil can have on the resulting wine.
Hardie’s 2015 Pinot Noir from Niagara Peninsular and his 2014s from the cooler Prince Edward County and his Cuvée L (essentially a blend of these two regions ) should really be tried together but individually they are pretty damn good too, and well priced at around £23 (for the Chardonnay). UK importers for these wines are The Wine Society and Bibendum.
Learnings from this tasting?
Although prices can be pretty high reflecting the essentially boutique nature of many of its producers, Canada is gradually becoming a mainstream wine producing nation.
Many of the wines are becoming more serious and ambitious as its producers become more confident and established. And Ontario, which I felt two years ago somehow lagged British Columbia, is emerging as an ambitious and forward-looking region, although BC seems to be consolidating its own position, especially in the Okanagan Valley.
Although Canada is now on quite a few lists, some of the wines that could be sold successfully in the UK, haven’t had a look in. And this isn’t just because of price.
The excellent sparkling wines made by Nova Scotia producer Benjamin Bridge, for example, have rightly found a strong niche with Friarwood Wines importing them since last year. But how come no one has thought to import their other wines, their moreish 9% cool-climate Riesling or especially the delicious off-dry, lightly sparkling aromatic Nova 7, which checks in at just 6.5%?
Made from a selection of locally grown Muscat varieties, winemaker Jean-Benoit Delausiers assures me this is his best selling wine in Canada, selling for around half the price of his sparkling wines. The fact it comes from Nova Scotia, is delicious and ‘different’ should make it a shoe-in for adventurous consumers here. Yet you can’t find it anywhere.
I get the sense that as Canada continues to expand its offering, and Brits get more accustomed to seeing Canadian wine as a quality product rather than purely a novel curiosity, some importers may be missing a trick.