Jane Masters MW is Opimian’s Master of Wine
It has been thirty years since Inniskillin was awarded the Grand Prix d’Honneur at Vinexpo in Bordeaux for its 1989 Vidal Icewine from Niagara. Over three decades since that award, Canadian wine production has grown and its international reputation expanded beyond Icewine.
It is difficult to quantify how much the Canadian wine industry has grown, as no consistent data is published and statistics are complicated by the fact that less than half the wine commonly referred to as Canadian wine is made from grapes grown in Canada. These are the international domestic blends (IDBs) produced from bulk wines imported from countries such as Australia, Chile and South Africa blended with Canadian wine (at times as little as 10%).
True Canadian wine is made from 100% grapes grown in Canada with the Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA), a guarantee of provenance. It is an exciting time for these wines and I am fortunate to have been able to follow progress over the years, taking advantage during Opimian trips to Canada for winery visits in Ontario and British Columbia. Together these two provinces represent over 95% of certified Canadian wine production and both have seen increases in vineyard acreage and the number of licensed wineries. Similar trends are seen in Quebec and Nova Scotia.
Ontario has three principal regional Appellations and was the first to establish the Vintners Quality Alliance. A wide range of grape varieties are planted on diverse soils, often boasting a high concentration of limestone. Winter is hard and long in Ontario. Were it not for the tempering effect of Lakes Ontario, Erie and Huron, the cultivation of Vitis vinifera would be near impossible. As it is, after harvest, each vine must be protected from the cold as temperatures below -20˚C kill this European vine (Native American Labrusca and hybrid varieties are more resistant but generally lower in potential quality). This is done by “hilling” up, whereby soil mounds, which act as insulation, are built up around the base of the vines. The long winter means that the growing season is shorter than most other viticultural areas. Warm summer temperatures and sunshine allow vines to make up for a late start, but late spring or early autumn frosts can lead to quite a bit of variation between the years reflected in wines produced.
The largest region, the Niagara Peninsula, represents approximately 90% of Ontario’s production, followed by Lake Erie North Shore and the most recently recognized VQA Prince Edward County. Niagara Peninsula is a strip of land between Lake Ontario and the ridge that is the Niagara Escarpment, which rises up to 100 metres. Westerly breezes from the lake warm the air in winter and create convection currents as they hit the escarpment, preventing freezing. As one would suppose, terroir, which includes site location, plays a huge role and Niagara Peninsula is made up of two regional Appellations: Niagara Escarpment and Niagara-on-the Lake, with a further ten sub Appellations each with its own unique geographical conditions. Pearl Morissette winery, located in the Creek Shores Appellation, also has vineyards in the Twenty Mile Bench VQA. French Canadian François Morissette makes wines from organically grown grapes with minimal intervention, no fining or filtration, little use of sulphur and matures them in old oak, giving many of his wines a savoury edge. The impact of vintage conditions on style can be marked with the 2018 Dix-Neuvième Chardonnay, a whole 1.5% lower in alcohol at 12% than previous vintages at 13.5%.
The Prince Edward County Appellation on the north shore of Lake Ontario is Ontario’s most northern Appellation with vineyards on stony soils over limestone bedrock. In 2000, the region had no commercial wineries; today it is home to 29. One such winery is Karlo Estate at Hillier, set up by Sherry Karlo and her late husband Richard. Wines are made by Derek Barnett, previously at Lailey in Niagara and whom I met there back in 2014. Karlo Estate produces a broad range of 25 wines including some fortified wines. My particular favourites of those recently tasted are the 2018 Pinot Noir, Quintus 2018, a blend of five Bordeaux varietals, the white Three Witches 2018 made up of Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Gewurztraminer, and Bubble – a sparkling wine made from Sauvignon and Semillon. Sherry Karlo is a diehard vegan, and all the wines are suitable for vegans, down to the vegetable inks used on wine labels and the glue used to stick them onto the bottles. But you certainly don’t have to be vegan to enjoy Karlo Estate’s offerings!
British Columbia is more diverse than Ontario and has its own set of difficulties to overcome. In particular the Okanagan Valley couldn’t be more different than conditions in Ontario. The south of the valley is arid desert due to the Coastal Mountain range to the west that acts as a rain shield. I was horrified to learn on a visit that there are rattlesnake nests in the vineyards. Lakes once again play a role with the glacial Okanagan Lake acting as a warming influence in winter to vineyards planted close by. Climate change, drought, water restrictions and wildfires are a reality as witnessed by particularly high temperatures recorded Western Canada this year. Yet British Columbia has seen a fivefold increase in its wineries from about 60 in 2000 to around 300 now, and there are some impressive wines.
Canadian winemakers, like winemakers all around the world, have to contend with the issues that Mother Nature throws at them, but here, these issues are more extreme than in many other regions. There are also man-made issues. Legislation, taxes and restrictions on selling of wines across provinces are barriers to getting wines to end consumers and a report published by VQA Ontario and Deloitte in 2020 found that 36% of small wineries in Ontario were not profitable. Canadian winemakers are on a learning curve, requiring not only resilience but ingenuity, determination and pioneering spirit.