COVER

Grape White North

Canada is now a producer of exquisite, prizewinning wines

JOE CHIDLEY August 24 1998
COVER

Grape White North

Canada is now a producer of exquisite, prizewinning wines

JOE CHIDLEY August 24 1998

Grape White North

COVER

Canada is now a producer of exquisite, prizewinning wines

JOE CHIDLEY

The motto at Fusion Grill is “global tastes, local touches.” And the dishes offered by the trendy Winnipeg eatery reflect the vibrant mix of cultures and cuisines that have helped define the city’s history. Sure, there’s the Manitoba leg of lamb in a Saskatoon-berry demi-glacé—but it’s spiked with ginger. Then there’s the scallops with bok choy, peanuts and coconut milk, or the Atlantic salmon with cucumber, dill and cumin salsa. But if the menu at Fusion is untraditional, so is the wine list—perhaps even more so. Among the 40-plus wines that owner Scot McTaggart has assembled in his cellar over the past two years, there are no high-brow Bordeaux, no robust Aussies. All are Canadian, from B.C. pinot noirs to Ontario rieslings. And the patrons, declares McTaggart, love it. “Three years ago, you couldn’t have gotten away with a fine-dining establishment that offered only Canadian wines. But people are beginning to understand that our wines are some of the best in the world.”

For decades, “fine” and “Canadian” were two adjectives wine connoisseurs rarely, if ever, used in the same breath. But Canadian wines have come into their own—and doubters be damned. Since dedicating themselves to producing quality wines over the past decade, wineries in Ontario and British Columbia, the only two provinces with important viticultural industries, have

grown exponentially in revenue and in number. And although drinkers can still get the cheap stuff, the real boom is in quality wines produced according to the Vintners Quality Alliance appellation, or VQA, a system akin to the French AOC or German QmP. “It’s been really dramatic growth,” says Peter Gamble, executive director of VQA Canada. “Canadians are moving in the direction of not only drinking Canadian wines, but finer Canadian wines.”

The proof is in the numbers. Except for 1994-1995, after a harsh winter damaged crops, sales of Ontario VQA wines have risen by 40 per cent a year since 1989, hitting nearly $65 million in 1996-1997—or 20 per cent of wine sales in the province. In British Columbia, VQA wine revenues rose 23 per cent between 1996-1997 and 19971998, to nearly $40 million, and now account for 40 per cent of all sales. Niagara, Ontario’s prime viticultural region, had just 15 wineries in 1989; now there are 50. Between 1990 and 1997, the number of B.C. wineries nearly doubled, with 21 new businesses starting up.

It was not always such a rosy picture, of course. The commercial wine industry in Canada dates back to the 1860s, when a winery called Vin Villa started operation on Pelee Island in Lake Erie (still one of Ontario’s three viticultural regions). For the next 120 years, Canadian wines were the objects of scorn among oenophiles. Ontario vineyards, which still produce about 80 per cent of all viticulture grapes grown in Canada, relied on hardy domestic varieties that could withstand harsh winters but

resulted in cloyingly sweet and soda-pop-like wines—the Baby Ducks and Moody Blues so beloved of teenage partyers in the 70s. And although a small group of Niagara region wine makers—among them Paul Bose of Château des Charmes and Karl Kaiser and Don Ziraldo of Inniskillin—attempted to popularize better product, they encountered widespread skepticism. “Our biggest problem was credibility,” says Ziraldo, 49, who planted Inniskillin’s first vines back in 1974. “The industry response was, basically, You can’t have an industry.’ There had to be a whole cultural shift.”

In Ontario, that shift did not come until the 1980s, when a host of factors conspired to give quality wine-making a kick in the pants. One was the impending Free Trade Agreement, which put growers of cheap Canadian grapes at a distinct disadvantage to their American counterparts who—thanks to a warmer climate— could produce far more fruit far more cheaply. Another was the growing recognition that the southern Ontario climate was in important respects similar to the Loire, Burgundy and Champagne in France, Italy’s Tuscany and the Rhine in Germany—areas that produce the world’s greatest wines.

Those regions lie on roughly the same northern latitude as Niagara and southern British Columbia. “We realized we couldn’t compete on the bottom end of the market,” says Gamble, 45, formerly plant manager of Hillebrand Estates Winery. “But for quality wines, our climate is beautifully suited.” In the late 1980s, a new

breed of Niagara wine makers pulled up domestic vines and started planting vinifera—the species of grape from which all classic wines are made—on a large scale. In 1989, the Ontario industry (followed by B.C. wine makers in 1990) adopted the VQA standard, under which wines must meet strict quality-control standards and pass muster before a tasting panel of independent experts. The result? Goodbye Lonesome Charlie, hello chardonnay, riesling, cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir.

With the move to higher quality, Canadian wines have won respect on the international stage—and have a host of prestigious awards to prove it. In a nod to Canada’s distinctively cold winters, the bulk of the accolades have been for ice wines—sweet and complex wines made from grapes allowed to freeze before harvesting. But other Canadian grapes—white and red—are currying international favor. In April, Ontario wines won 10 gold medals at the 1998 Intervin competition, the largest in North America; at the 1998 Vinitaly Competition in Verona, Italy, Peller Estates’ 1995 cabernet sauvignon won a grand gold, and a silver went to Konzelmann Estate Winery’s 1994 Chardonnay Reserve.

And at the Sélections Mondiales held in Montreal, Canadian wineries—in a field of more than 1,700 entrants from 35 countries—came away with 15 medals, including a gold for B.C. winery Sumac Ridge’s 1995 cabernet sauvignon, the first Canadian red to win gold at that event.

What’s remarkable about the Canadian industry is how far it has come in such a short time. In the early days, Paul Speck and his family learned about wine-making the hard way. “We made a ton of mistakes, but it’s the only way to go,” says Speck, 31, now president of the Henry of Pelham Family Estate winery, which he founded along with brothers Matthew and Daniel in 1987. With its headquarters in a 19th-century inn built by their ancestor, Henry Smith, the Specks’ winery now has 110 acres under vine. It produces a range of wines typical of the Niagara region: mellow, oaky chardonnay, acidic and complex riesling, plummy gamay noir, ice wine and a hybrid baco noir that international wine writers rank among the best in the world. “I just assumed when we started,” says Speck, “that we could make good wine here.”

While Niagara’s microclimate is moderated by Lake Ontario and the Niagara Escarpment, the Okanagan Valley—the largest B.C. wine region, with 95 per cent of the province’s wineries—has a climate of extremes: harsh winters and blazing summers, especially at its south end. But that heat favors the cultivation of classic grape varieties like cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon and merlot. And, if anything, the transition to quality wines has occurred more rapidly in British Columbia than in Ontario.

In 1989, under a provincewide vine-pull scheme, about two-thirds of non-vinifera grapes were pulled up in the Okanagan. But John Simes, a New Zealander who immigrated in 1992 to become wine maker at Mission Hill Winery near Kelowna, remembers when huge swaths of the valley’s vineyard area was covered over with alfalfa. “Now, they’ve gone back to planting classic vinifera, and some of the wineries are producing superb quality wines,” says Simes, 47. “And that change has been in the last three or four years.” At the same time, a handful of other international wine makers have followed the New Zealander to British Columbia to ply their trade, raising the quality bar for the province’s wines.

The Canadian industry still has a long way to go. For one thing, Canadians still do not drink very much wine by international standards—about 10 litres a year, compared with 83 litres of beer. That wine consumption is about a sixth of what the French and Italians drink, and only about half as much as Australians. ‘We need to take wine appreciation off the crystal shelf,” says Allan Schmidt, general manager and wine maker at Vineland Estates Winery in Niagara, “and put it on consumers’ tables.

By most standards, that message is getting across—and Canadian wines are even beginning to attract academic recognition. Last winter, Brock University in St. Catharines, situated in the heart of the Niagara wine region, set up the Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute, one of only four such research facilities in the world. With 20 students annually, the institute offers four-year honors degrees in wine-making and vine-growing—for which wineries have traditionally relied on foreign-trained talent. “Right now, if you want to hire a wine maker, you often have to recruit abroad,” says Brock president David Atkinson. ‘That’s just unacceptable, for all the right Canadian reasons.” Already, the institute has attracted a dozen wine and grape researchers from all over the world. And for Atkinson, who arrived at Brock last year from the University of Saskatchewan, there’s a fringe benefit. “I jokingly say that I’ve traded granola and beer for grapes and wine,” he says. “And actually, it hasn’t been a bad trade.” Another satisfied customer.

With JAKE MacDONALD in Winnipeg

JAKE MacDONALD