Even cooler Cali pinot
Terrific deluxe meritage from Two Sisters
A cool California chardonnay
Pinot grigio beats chardonnay!
Frame-up: The Beer Store, beer tax and beer prices


The Grape White North

Published in Foodservice and Hospitality, June 2008. View PDF.


Jamie Drummond of Toronto’s Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar, always has a few Canadians on his list. JKWB customers can tolerate higher prices, but it’s an eye-opener to learn Drummond had Vintner’s Private Reserve 2002 from Niagara’s Peninsula Ridge at a jaw-dropping $36 per glass. “I got three cases of it and sold through it all, by the glass. We never have trouble selling Ontario wine, even at higher prices.” Drummond acknowledged Ontario wines still have a “stigma,” and says it’s very important to look at quality: “Don’t put a wine on your list just because it’s Canadian. Make sure it’s good too.”
In Vancouver, there are no concerns about B.C. wine quality and the near-total acceptance causes pangs of jealousy among winemakers from Ontario and neighbouring U.S. upstart, Washington. Brent Hayman of Raincity Grill, has been sommelier there 12 years: “In the early days, it was very tough because there was strong prejudice against B.C. wines – everybody remembered Calona Red – so we’d challenge diners to compare B.C. wines to European ones.” Some would just refuse, but, says Hayman, “Nobody in the last year has said ‘I won’t have B.C. wine’.”
On Raincity Grill’s west-coast-only list, B.C. is far and away the biggest seller, mopping the floor with California, Oregon and Washington. When Hayman started, “California took 85% of the sales, but now B.C. accounts for about 90% of the value even though it’s only 20% of the list [of 550 wines].” Hayman says there’s definitely regional pride at work. “Washington wines have not been able to garner the support in Seattle that B.C. wines have in Vancouver.”
Calgary is a great example of a place where Canadian wines are doing well without a local industry. Rob Smith, of River Café, has a “Canadian” section at the front of his 700-strong wine list. 85% of the Canadian wines are from B.C. Smith admits he was “a bit of a skeptic” when he first joined the team five years ago, about the time the Okanagan quality levels spiked. “I was a little nervous about the rising prices,” he said, “but the quality has been there. I think we’re competing well with Napa Valley.” River Café’s priciest Canadian? Mission Hill Occulus 2004 at $135 a bottle. Smith also credits Alberta’s liquor privatization with the development of quality wine boutiques with adventurous and enthusiastic staff: “We’re starting to see their influence rubbing off. People here are becoming more educated.”
Small Batches
One difficulty with both Niagara and Okanagan is that production levels are small. “Cult” producers like Daniel Lenko routinely sell out of wines and even larger producers can have trouble keeping up with demand for certain varietals. For Sarah D’Amato at Toronto’s Four Seasons Hotel, this needn’t be a problem. “Continuity is important with the wine list, but look at it another way – buying a small batch that can’t be re-ordered when it runs out keeps the list moving, keeps it interesting,” she says.
What’s also keeping things interesting is a growing celebrity interest in winemaking. In just the last couple of years, Dan Aykroyd, Mike Weir and Wayne Gretzky have formed partnerships to produce wine in Niagara. In each case, they’ve partnered with established wineries and the quality levels are good. Most of their wines are well below $20 – can it be long before sports buffs are quaffing cabernet or chardonnay?
It’s expensive to produce wine here: high labour costs, lower crop yields, “winter kill” of a certain percentage of vines and high taxes mean we just can’t compete at the bottom end. Canadian wine producers for years foisted godawful plonk on the market to keep costs competitive with California “jug” wines and Europe’s “wine lake”. Most wineries have dropped the nastier hybrids and are focused on quality improvements, but there’s still a temptation to reach the market that won’t spend more than $7 or $8 a bottle (retail). D’Amato thinks we should concentrate on boosting quality, and ignore the bottom end: “We don’t do it well. California and Chile do it well. But our cheap wines are not interesting, and they’re not even that cheap.”
Mr. Big Stuff
With annual sales in excess of $650 million, Vincor is the heavyweight in Canadian wine production. Now owned by U.S.-based Constellation Wines, Vincor produces lots of chardonnays, cabernets and merlots. But for licencees whose customers are demanding trendy “new” wines, Vincor can still supply. Lisa Fenn, a marketing manager at Vincor in Mississauga, Ont., says “Pinot grigio is the fastest growing varietal and we’ve been successful with our Inniskillin Niagara Pinot Grigio. It’s a bit of a double-edged sword – pinot grigio is incredibly difficult to grow in Niagara, so there are some supply challenges.” Sauvignon blanc is another wine there wasn’t much of a few years ago, but now both B.C. and Ontario produce respectable versions at good prices. In B.C., there’s excitement about pinot blanc, which does well in the Okanagan.
Through its main brands of Jackson-Triggs and Inniskillin, Vincor offers probably the widest range of Canadian wines, with prices starting at $7.50 per bottle and a decent selection into the low teens as well as high end products like Osoyoos Larose and Le Clos Jordanne. “First, taste them,” says Lisa, “and second, pay attention to your vintages. It’s easy because you know if it was a hot summer that year!”
Moving The Product
One key theme that all sommeliers stressed is the importance of staff training and the even greater importance of getting the staff “pumped” about Canadian wines. “If even one member of staff gets enthused by the wine and thinks it’s great, he will be a selling machine. I say this from observation: staff knowledge is key,” says Jamie Drummond.
County Living
If Niagara and the Okanagan are at the northern fringes of the winegrowing belt, Prince Edward County is dangling over the edge. Located 200 km east of Toronto, “The County” now has a dozen wineries. The vines must undergo “hilling”: after harvest in late October, the vines are buried because temperatures fall below vine-killing -20° most winters.
Wineries of note include Huff Estates, Closson Chase, and Grange of Prince Edward Estate with its Trumpour’s Mill series. And then there’s Norman Hardie.
After a restaurant career – a Michelin-starred place in Dijon and sommelier at Toronto’s Four Seasons – Hardie spent six years learning wine in Oregon, New Zealand, South Africa and France. In 2002, he started his own. When someone suggested Prince Edward County, Hardy loved it: “I’ve never seen soil like that outside of Burgundy!”
Hardie says the cool climate and minerality of the soil make it ideal for varietals like chardonnay and pinot noir, and he’s also producing a fun melon de Bourgogne, used to make Muscadet. Hardie and other County winemakers, buy grapes from Niagara to top up their supplies “I’m about 65% County, 35% Niagara,” Hardie says. His wines range from $19 to $39 and sell online, at a restaurants in Toronto and Ottawa, and they sell out every year.  
Best County Bets: cooler climate varietals chardonnay, riesling, pinot noir and gamay.





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