Entering a construction zone: winecase.ca

Earlier this year, I announced proudly that The Wine Case was going to move from its wordpress.com incarnation to its own domain and location: winecase.ca. It took a little longer than expected, but now, thanks to David Honig of Palatepress, the address is now active and the posts have moved to their new location.

We’re still fiddling around with the code a bit, and I have to redo the blogroll and realign the widgets, but the essentials are there already.

For a short while, as the transition takes place, I’ll keep notifying about new posts here. But when things are fully settled, I’ll start posting exclusively on winecase.ca, which should be joined very soon by a cousin blog, foodcase.ca. Because after all, as one of my friends put it, one cannot blog by wine alone…

Thank you for your patience and, I’m sure, your enthusiasm about this evolution of The Wine Case.

Published in: on December 10, 2009 at 2:46 am  Comments (1)  
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Tasting Note: Undercurrent Muscat-Sauvignon Blanc 2007 and other crazy wines from Creekside Estate Winery

Creekside is one interesting winery. They can make some very straightforward, accessible wines with a great quality-price ratio, as shown not only by their Estate series of wines (like that nice, pepper-strawberry driven shiraz), but also by the 60,000 some odd cases the same winemaking team makes for No. 99 Estates Winery, generally known as the Wayne Gretzky wines. Good stuff all around, star power or not on the label.

They can also make some serious, original reserve wines that are very often quite out of the ordinary. When I visited last summer with assistant winemaker Erin Harvey, I had the chance to taste a number of solid bottlings, including a delicious Close Plant riesling from the Butler’s Grant vineyard that I reviewed in a previous post. I was impressed by a 2007 Reserve Pinot Gris aged in French oak barrels, that was pretty wild and intense, with great spicy character and some wild aromas of prosciutto and cantaloup, and a long finish structured by a touch of bitterness.

I was also taken aback by the 2004 Lost Barrel, a mix of red grapes (“a bit of everything”, said Erin) made from the “tippings” (the dark, rich, sediment-laden stuff left at the bottom of barrels of red after they are racked) of top reds that are collected into a single barrel. After five years settling in oak, the wine showed up as a big, chunky, bloody, spicy, meaty, wild, wild thing with big whacks of fruit and intense flavors coming at you intensely. So much stuff that a slight whiff of volatile acidity felt refreshing, in all that unusual mass of vinous stuff.

Making a cuvée from the tippings is basically a crazy idea. But what’s beautiful about Creekside is that this crazy spirit leads to some of the most successful wines they make. (The spirit also permeates the way the cellar is organized: tanks are named after scientists, philosophers, filmmakers or… The Beatles. That last row of four tanks recently got a fifth one added, quickly named Yoko, as it was a late addition and proved to be a bit of a troublemaker. More on the workflow in this Creekside blog post.).

That’s where the Undercurrent series comes in – the place where Creekside winemakers really have the most of their winegeek fun. You want an almost-late-harvest sauvignon blanc? Why not. A once-in-a-lifetime cofermented blend of muscat and sauvignon blanc? You got it.

When I drove back to the Niagara, a couple of weeks ago, and stopped by to get a couple of bottles of the close-plant riesling, I also got myself a 500 ml bottle of this very unusual blend of varieties. We opened it this week, as a match to an oven-grilled halibut with herbs and olive oil, and a sort of corn-basil-sweet pepper salsa. Boy did that work well, as the mix between the freshness and slight grassiness of the sauvignon blanc and the highly aromatic, stonefruit-driven aromas and flavors of the muscat playfully blended with the sweetness of the corn or cut through the rich fish. One day after opening, the wine tasted even better, with a well-rounded feel and a touch of honey added to the mix.

The completely unusual aromatic profile explains why the label bears the words “Product of Canada” (showing it’s made from 100% Canadian grapes), rather than the usual VQA. The singular profile threw the VQA tasting panels for a spin, and since typicity is one of the factors that qualify a wine for the official appellation, the Muscat-Sauvignon Blanc got stock on its edge. It’s the VQA’s loss, really.

If you want to taste it, you’ll have to make your way to the winery. And do it soon, because that exact blend won’t be coming back. There is a 2008 blend of muscat, sauvignon blanc and gewurztraminer from 2008 on the way, but the addition of gewurz takes the whole thing in a very different direction. Another unique bottling – just like that 2007 sangiovese that my little finger tells me is also in the works…

Shipping US wine to Canada: FedEx gets in the game – and raises questions

An article on the Wine Law web site, an extremely interesting source on everything legal about how wine is sold (or not sold) within Canada, caused a bit of excitement among Canadian wine tweeps, today, as it revealed that FedEx has begun shipping wine directly from the United States to Canada – or at least, to Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia.

I’d heard a vague mention of that initiative, this week, and was glad to get the details today. I’d actually thought that it was interprovincial shipping that had been opened up, which would be even more interesting – and challenging for the monopolies.

Canadians who grumble about the hold that monopolies have on the Canadian wine trade could find reason to rejoice in this now officially approved means of getting wine where you want, when you want. Any opening in the monopoly is generally welcomed by consumers, around here. But if you’re in Canada, and already counting the bottles you’ll be ordering, don’t get too excited: it’s not that simple, and it’s not cheap.

Yes, you sill be able to order wines from your favorite US wineries, and have them sent to Canada. But you’ll pay full retail price in US dollars, to which all applicable taxes, duties and markups will apply – which means over 100% extra in Ontario and BC, though less in Alberta. And on top of paying double the retail price, you’ll have to pay shipping, which can run over 150$ for 6 bottles, judging from shipments I’ve received in Quebec over the last couple of years. So forget about getting any bargains that way. The monopolies are keeping all the revenues they would get otherwise, and they are not allowing actual competition from the US to take place.

With all these constraints, why should US wineries bother with sending cases across the 49th parallel? As the FedEx web site states: “Canada is the second largest U.S. wine export destination and is the only destination with double-digit wine growth in the last six years.” Good reason to try to increase shipments, for US wineries, especially as the Canadian economy is holding up better than the US economy. There’s more inventory to pick from, these days.

However, the process is not exactly simple or direct, as this flowchart from Fedex shows. “All it needs is tokens and dice to play”, chimed in winemaker Bradley Cooper when he checked it out after I tweeted the link. It does have something of snakes and ladders. Hearing the news, I’d originally thought that a sort of fast track process had been worked out between FedEx and the monopolies, but I now see that this direct shipping process is actually the same as the one I’ve worked my way through when getting wine sent to me to Quebec, through FedEx or other courrier services. You still have to ensure custom brokerage (which FedEx providesSo no big deal, as far as that is concerned.

Another interesting fact is that, according to tweets exchanged with Rod Phillips, this announcement came out of nowhere, even for BC wine industry people who are pushing for more open wine sales. Phillips mentioned that a lawsuit brought forth by Gallo may have something to do with it, but I haven’t found all the details on that case – hardly any, in fact. I will try to find out more.

There is, however, another legal challenge in the works regarding the prohibition of interprovincial shipping of wine, something which makes the apparent opening to international shipping seem stranger. While international trade rules forbid giving local products an undue advantage over international products, the reverse should also be true.

It’s a bit galling that you can get wine shipped directly to you from other countries (even though it’s expensive) while you absolutely can’t get it directly – legally, at least – from another Canadian province. If that uneven playing field was to be challenged successfully, it would mean big trouble for the monopolies. Many can’t wait to see that happen.


Ontario’s best rieslings: a collective tasting on Spotlight Toronto (and two extra tasting notes)

It’s nice when social media pushes the idea of social forward, encouraging collective thinking and group efforts. Like this Ontario riesling project that was proposed to a small group of wine writers and professionals by Rick Van Sickle, of the St Catharines Standard, and Suresh Doss, of Spotlight Toronto.

Six writers, including this guy who does The Wine Case blog, were included in the informal panel and submitted a series of wines. It was noticed, among the reviews submitted, that Cave Spring and Thirty Bench came up quite often in everyone’s lists. Discussions ensued about how to process and package the whole thing, various opinions were expressed, and finally selections were made and posted here. It’s quite a nice list, with a nice price range, starting at as little as 12$. (Why anyone would rather drink Cellared in Canada when good VQA wines are available at such reasonable prices is beyond me.)

I had two more choices in my list which weren’t included in the already long list provided on Spotlight Toronto. Wouldn’t want them to go to waste, so here they are, exclusive to The Wine Case.

Creekside Wines Close-Plant Reserve Riesling VQA Twenty Mile Bench
The folks at Creekside are at their most interesting when they get experimental – as they do with their whole Undercurrents series. This could be an undercurrent, but its steady quality, over the years, has made it a regular part of the Reserve series. Drawn from a closely-planted section of a particular vineyard (Butler’s Grant) dating back to the 80s – an experiment gone absolutely right – the wine has remarkable personality and originality. Part of the wine is aged in oak, but you don’t sense it much, as you concentrate on the clover, pear, quince and ginger ale – yes, ginger ale – that just jumps from the glass.

Hidden Bench Felseck Riesling
Owner Harold Thiele and winemaker Jean-Martin Bouchard may be focusing on Burgundy varieties, but that doesn’t mean they take other grapes for granted. Their rieslings tend to have a steely, clean feel to them, with a good mineral backbone, to which the Felseck vineyard, located just east of the winery buildings, seems to add an extra depth, along with hints of flint stone and, in the 2007 vintage, lovely flavors of pear and caramelized apples. Nice to hear they’re planting more.

Now, I’m going back to Niagara on Tuesday, and should be tasting more rieslings from Fielding and Flat Rock. And hopefully dropping by Creekside to pick up a bottle of that Close Plant. Work, work, work…

WBW 63: Finding my muse in a bottle of 1990 Mas La Plana

It seemed like an easy theme, what Rob Bralow proposed for Wine Blogging Wednesday. Find your Muse. That’s easy, here it is:

There, done. And there’s plenty of other songs from that band available on the Internet.

Oh, wait. That’s not what he meant?

All right. Enough with the silly musical asides. But it is a wicked, inspiring song, isn’t it?

But then again, I’m not sure I’m going to rush to listen to that song again in 15, 20 years.

Whereas I can easily see myself inspired, 15 years from now, to go down to the cellar and grab a bottle of Mas La Plana, the 100% cabernet sauvignon, single vineyard cuvée from an old Torres family vineyard in Penedes. Because every time I’ve had that wine, I’ve found something bright, expressive, significant about it, whether I was tasting it young or old.

Last year, I posted about tasting a 1988 I’d pulled out of the cellar for my father’s birthday (and reminisced about the 1981 I’d had a few years before, a wine that was still remarkably fresh at 20 years of age).

A couple of weeks ago, I tasted a 1999 Mas La Plana with a tasting group, in a horizontal tasting of the 99 vintage. It was one of the stars of the evening, with its intense, focused, open aromas and flavors: cherry danish, spice, a touch of coffee and a beautiful finish that went on and on and on. It fared a lot better than the 1999 Le Pigeonnier, a “super” Cahors designed by Michel Rolland for Domaine Lagrézette’s Alain-Dominique Perrin, a superlative cuvée that was actually a very stupid wine: all wood, rough tannins sticking to your teeth, barely any fruit, overextracted, overdone in every way. No muse came over that wine, no divine inspiration, for sure.

But that didn’t stop Robert Parker from being suckered into calling this overblown thing ” the finest wine I have tasted from Cahors. (…) Made from extraordinarily small yields of 18-20 hectoliters per hectare, it is aged for 24-30 months in 100% new French oak, and bottled without filtration. The wine is produced under the guidance of famed oenologist Michel Rolland. A fine wine, an inky/purple-colored offering with tremendous intensity as well as an extraordinary nose of blackberries, cassis, licorice, and smoke. Extremely full-bodied, with low acidity and sweet tannin…” The type of wine that looks good early on, but is all steroid, looking worse and worse as it deflates over time.

No such problem with the more restrained, but always elegant Mas La Plana. The 1990 we opened today didn’t quite have the intensity of the 1999, but it had enough stuffing left to make a good pairing with skirt steak and caramelized onions deglazed with Pedro Ximenez sherry – a tasty, intense dish, to say the least. After showing mostly cedar, right after opening, the nose opened up to freshly cooked jam (not unlike the cherry danish of the 1999, come to think of it), with a bit of spice and a fair bit of mushroom, forest floor character. Not very big on the mouthfeel, but still long and, again, solid enough to be a great match with steak. A firm hand in a silk glove.

Beyond these prosaic tasting notes, is there some poetry to be waxed out of this wine I particularly love? Well, let’s see…

Mas La Plana, who made thee?

Dost thou know who made thee?

Gave thee drinkability,

that serves meals so pleasantly;

Gave thee layers of delight;

Softest cherry, flavors bright;

Gave thee such a tender voice,

Making the tastebuds rejoice?

Mas La Plana, who made thee?

Dost thou know who made thee?

Mas La Plana, I’ll tell thee,

Mas La Plana, I’ll tell thee:

He is called Miguel Torres,

And he can make a mean wine

That is intense,  and also mild;

He became a rich man.

In la tierra catalan,

And the world knows his name.

Mas La Plana, I’ll drink thee!

Miguel Torres, I thank thee!

(With a toast to William Blake, and a nod to Randall Grahm, master of the wine-poetic parody)

Tasting Note: 2005 Catena Alta Cabernet Sauvignon, Bodega Catena Zapata

This wine review – and all the new content from The Wine Case – has moved to winecase.ca. Click here to read the review.

Tasting Note: Robert Mondavi 1995 Napa Valley Zinfandel

Zinfandel is like white wines: it doesn’t age well, right?

Wrong. Oh, so wrong.

IMG_4209On Saturday night, I opened a bottle of 14-year-old zin I’d pulled from the cellar a couple of weeks ago, to set it up right and make it ready for drinking on the right occasion. Which, in the end, meant pizza night on a lazy Saturday evening.

The 95 Napa Valley zinfandel from Robert Mondavi – back when it was really a Mondavi winery – opened up on an intense and well-defined aroma of sweet pipe tobacco, with some prune and spice showing up afterwards. All that carried through on the mouthfeel, where a very decent level of acidity kept the wine lively and easy-drinking, despite a solid 15% alcohol level. I wouldn’t go as far as saying it was refreshing, but it certainly found its balance, and did not feel heavy at all.

Better yet, as the wine opened up, more fruit came through, as black cherry notes came to the forefront. Eventually, the wine actually smelled like the tanks of fermenting pinot noir I punched down at Closson Chase vineyards, ten days ago. As if that zinfandel still had a touch of fresh picked grapes at its core.

This isn’t the first time I’ve had solid, mature zinfandel that felt like it could keep going and going. About four years ago, I drank a bottle of 1979 Glen Ellen Zinfandel I’d picked up at the tasting room at Ridge, one of my favorite California wineries. Although it felt a bit more like an old port, in some ways, it still had balance and life to it, at a good 25 years of age. Lots of pleasure to be had yet – and it was far from being over the hill.

How’s that for a wine that doesn’t age?

While I’m at it, I could tell you about the 1998 Doisy-Daëne white Bordeaux we had with Thanksgiving dinner,  as another example of graceful aging. But that’s another story.

I’d love to see how the Anderson Ranch zinfandel from Quivira, a biodynamic winery I visited last year, during the Wine Bloggers Conference, or a Preston Old Vines Zinfandel would taste like in 10, 15 or even 20 years. From what I’ve tasted so far, I think there could be much rejoicing.

Oh, by the way, the old zin went really well with the chicken-mushroom-onion pizza. Just wrapped around it smoothly, and matched nicely with the tomato sauce. Simple food that gave the wine all the room it needed to shine.

Notes from Harvest at Closson Chase: decisions, decisions…

The last chardonnay grapes at Closson Chase vineyard, in Prince Edward County, just before they were picked on October 17

The last chardonnay grapes at Closson Chase vineyard, in Prince Edward County, just before they were picked on October 17

I know I was supposed to write more about the harvest I took part in at Closson Chase, last week, but you know what? That stuff was tiring.

For a guy my height (6’4″), picking low-lying grapes for several hours is rather tough on the knees and back. And when you follow all that picking with a couple of hours of punchdowns, where you push the cap of grape skins, pips and pressed pulp back down into the juice, along with pressing grapes, cleaning and stacking picking baskets, hydrating barrels to make sure they don’t leak and get them ready to receive the pressed and racked juice… It makes for quite a full  day.

After answering the day’s e-mails and phone calls, and following up on that day job thing, there wasn’t much fuel left for blogging.

But boy did I enjoy it. There was a great, satisfying fatigue that came with doing something that concrete and clear. To use an overused phrase, it feels real.

Anyhow, being too tired to write as I went has given me a bit more time to think about the whole process I’ve been learning about and working my way through.

On a general basis, making wine appears to me more and more as a series of minute and major decisions that all influence the final result. A lot of things you don’t control: I’m sure any winemaker working in the Northeast corner of North America would have turned the heat up a bit, over this last summer, and taken several days of rain off in October.

What you get to choose

Within that framework, however, you can take a lot of decisions that will influence the end result. How you manage the vines, yields, treatments (organic or not, agressive or not-so agressive, etc.), mowing between and under the rows, etc., all that will influence ripeness, character, health of the grapes. And thus, the taste and quality of the wine.

Once you get those grapes, you have to decide how you will press them – how quickly or slowly, with how much pressure, to get how much juice (amount of liquid to the weight of grapes), etc. – then rack them (to get gross lees out of the juice), and where you ferment them (in tank or in barrel). Knowing when to stop the press – before greener, less desirable flavors get into the juice, especially – is an important part of the process.

If you choose to age the wine in oak, that particular process isn’t a one-dimensional process, or a simple question of old vs new, American vs French (there’s also Slovenian, Hungarian, Canadian). Choosing your oak barrels is, in itself, a much more complicated question than one would think at first. Every single barrel smells diffferent, feels different, and brings its own contribution to the wine it will bring to maturity. If you narrow it down to, say, French oak, you still have quite a range to choose from.

Barrels for the 2009 harvest in the cellar at Closson Chase

Barrels for the 2009 harvest in the cellar at Closson Chase

That’s what I found out a couple of weeks before the chardonnay was to be harvested (pinot noir was already being picked for sparkling wine). That’s when I came down to start the experiment that will allow me to make a barrel of Prince Edward County chardonnay from the grapes at Closson Chase Vineyards. Since this was to be a barrel-fermented wine, the first step before picking grapes was choosing a barrel, which meant going down to the cellar with Deborah Paskus, the winegrower and winemaker at CCV, and smelling a lot of barrels, to narrow the whole thing down to one. Or two.

So I smelled all sorts of barrels: Dargaud and Jaegle, Barthomieu, François Frères, Ermitage, Damy… Some I thought were too intense, some just didn’t say much to me, and one had it juuuuust right. A touch spicy, but also very fresh and tempting. Something that, I hope, will impart character to the wine without overwhelming it. This particular Dargaud barrel was the one that seemed most likely to do so for me: I checked out two other Dargauds that each had their own character, but didn’t have quite the same aroma and feeling.

The older Dargaud and Jaegle barrel I picked for the Closson Chase chardonnay from the Western end of the South Clos, which I'll be following from grape to finished wine, over the coming months..

The older Dargaud and Jaegle barrel I picked for the Closson Chase chardonnay from the Western end of the South Clos, which I'll be following from grape to finished wine, over the coming months..

To get a sense of how different grapes from a different place would behave, Deborah Paskus also enjoined me to pick a second barrel to be used with chardonnay from older vines located in the Niagara region. A barrel from François Frères and an old Barthomieu are the two I narrowed it down to, at this point. As I’m writing this, the Barthomieu seems to be gaining an edge, in my mind.

That second barrel is likely to go back in the Beamsville Bench chardonnay Deborah Paksus also makes, but it will be interesting to follow it too.

As far as grapes were concerned, I had my choice too. From day to day, you get grapes from different sections of the vineyard, with vines of different ages showing different maturity levels, and juice that doesn’t exactly taste the same. Ater picking grapes from the East end of the vineyard, I walked down the rows, towards the West, and tasted berries, here and there, before finally deciding that I preferred what I tasted at the far West end of the vineyard.

When we pressed the grapes from that end of the vineyard, on October 18, the acidity, flavors and concentration (red delicious apple, spice) felt just right. Not necessarily better than what was picked at the eastern end of the vineyard, but just something that seeemed more in tune with what I was aiming for. And the brix was even a little higher than we expected.

Juice being collected from the Vaslin bladder press. If it seems brown, that's because it is: the winemaking process will bring it to that clear, pale gold color we so love.

Juice being collected from the Vaslin bladder press. If it seems brown, that's because it is: the winemaking process will bring it to that clear, pale gold color we so love.

I’m judging all that on instinct, of course, and have the great luck of being able to vet those choices with an experienced professional who will follow up on what I’m doing. Makes me feel a lot more secure than if I had to make all these choices completely by myself.

At this point, the juice has now been poured into “my” barrel, a 225-liter oak barrique. Fermentation should start kicking in soon. I’ll check up on it this week. Can’t wait to see where it’s at.

Harvesting in Prince Edward County, just in time for new rules on Ontario wines

I’d call that an auspicious sign. Just as I was heading to the vineyards of Prince Edward County to harvest chardonnay at Closson Chase, on Tuesday evening, the Ontario government came out with new rules governing VQA and Cellared in Canada wines.

These new rules give a push forward to VQA wines by introducing financial support – with revenue generated from a new tax on Cellared in Canada wines. They also increase the amount of Canadian wine that will have to go in the CiC bottlings, from 30% to 40%, before cancelling the content requirements by 2014. In the meantime, the grape pricing and marketing mechanisms will be reviewed, all in the hopes that by then, growers will be turning more and more towards producing grapes for VQA wines, with different varieties and better quality.

Although it will have to be seen how all this plays out over the next five years, it is a move in the right direction, and a clear signal to everyone that the future of the industry is in VQA, 100% Ontario wine, rather than in the vague and deceptive Cellared in Canada category.

I’m very happy to hear that, especially since that will allow me to concentrate on actual Ontario (and Quebec) wines for the rest of Regional Wine Week.


As I’ve now started harvesting chardonnay with the whole team at Closson Chase. The grapes went through a tough late season, with very frequent rain causing an onset of botrytis that has rotten a number of bunches. The fruit that is healthy (and there is still plenty of that) tastes grate and is ripe, with yellow skins, brown pips and brown (or browning) stems. Sugars won’t be as high as, say, in the gorgeous 2007 vintage, but the phenological ripeness, which determines a lot in the flavor profile of the grapes and wines, is clearly there.

I’m very glad to get the chance to work alongside Deborah Paskus, one of Ontario’s most solid and experienced winemakers. I interviewed Deborah in January for an En Route magazine article on Canadian winemakers, tasted some of her wines, and got into a very stimulating e-mail conversation about winemaking that eventually led me to visit Prince Edward County in July. The conversation led to a business association, as the wine import agency I’m associated with in Quebec, Insolite Importation, will bring Closson Chase wines to the Quebec market. And in that context, here I am to learn more about growing grapes and making wines with someone who really knows her stuff.

Just read what Jancis Robinson recently had to say about Closson Chase chardonnays:

There’s a highly successful unoaked Chablis style called Sans Chêne as well as regrettably small volumes of an oak-aged bottling. We have served them blind to wine professionals with top white burgundies and, quite literally, amazed and astounded our friends.

You can also check out Beppi Crosariol’s September Globe and Mail article on Prince Edward County, where he reviews two of Deborah Paskus’ chardonnays, and writes about the fact that the County, as a winemaking region, is now coming of age, as vineyards are starting to mature and winemakers are getting a better sense of their terroir.

I certainly agree. While my preference and affinities go with Deborah Paskus’ work at Closson Chase, I have liked a lot of what I tasted in July (and again in September) in various other wineries. One of the very best wines I tasted was Long Dog’s 2007 Otto Riserva pinot noir, a gorgeous, young and elegant red with lots of bright red fruit, good balance and a mineral backbone brought forth by the beautiful limestone that makes Prince Edward County soils so great for wine growing.

There were a lot more. Like By Chadsey’s Cairns’ 2007 Chenin Blanc, which had the lanolin and stone fruit profile typical of that great Loire grape, on a bracing acidity that will surely temper itself well over the years. Norman Hardie’s mineral riesling and refreshing Melon de Bourgogne, Rosehall Run’s lovely Sullyzwicker rosé and very good pinot noir, Sandbank’s fresh and aromatic vidal or Huff Estate’s pleasant whites also easily come to mind.

I’d go into more detail, but I gotta run, now. The press awaits at Closson Chase, as we will start pressing the grapes picked yesterday. I’ll have more to report on that tonight. And more on Prince Edward County wines in general.

Cellared in Canada: changes in the stores and labels, but no help for Ontario growers

Note: I was originally hoping to post this article on Friday, but an overly busy schedule and a forgotten note pad with essential quotes are causing its publication to coincide with the beginning of the second Regional Wine Week, championed by Drinklocalwine.com. At first, I was disappointed about this coincidence, as I was planning to start with reviews of Quebec wines. But in the end, it seems more and more appropriate to me, as the whole issue of Cellared in Canada is central to what it means to drink local wine. Posts about Quebec and Ontario wines will follow this week.

Sheep mowing rows of 100% Ontario grapes for VQA wines at Tawse Winery, in Vineland, in the Niagara Peninsula

Sheep mowing rows of biodynamic, 100% Ontario grapes for VQA wines at Tawse Winery, in Vineland, in the Niagara Peninsula

Things are moving quickly to change the labelling and the shelving of Cellared in Canada wines, which had been generating growing controversy over the last few weeks in Ontario and British Columbia. Though this may be good news or fans of VQA wines, there seems to be very little chance that this will help resolve the grape glut that will mostly result in some 8,000 (maybe even 10,000) tons of Ontario wine grapes to be dropped to the ground by their growers.

Last week, Vincor and Peller moved to stem the growing turmoil surrounding Cellared in Canada wines, these mostly-foreign blends that have been insistently sold by their bottlers as Canadian products. Since then, things have kept on moving quickly. According to a Canadian Press article, British Columbia’s Agriculture minister, Steve Thompson, stated that CiC wines were to be moved out of the BC wine section of BC Liquor Distribution Branch store (where they had no business in the first place). The particulars of the repositioning are being left to the BCLDB, however.

The Ontario Wine Council launched a consultation process to discuss relabelling and rebranding of the Cellared in Canada wines, a review that should be completed by the end of the year. The Wine Council sent out a letter to “elite opinion leaders”, to get their feelings on how the blended wines should be sold and labelled. The letter states:

The Wine Council has formed the Industry Working Group on Label Clarity to develop industry-led improvements to the labeling of blended wines.

Our Board gave this committee a strict timeline for response – it has been mandated to report back by December 31, 2009 in order to ensure attention to this important review and to demonstrate that  we are serious about implementing improvements on a timely basis.  Neverthelessthe process will be comprehensive with a thorough examination of potential changes. Among the elements to be reviewed will be:

  • Wording on labels including use of CIC
  • In store signage and shelving – both at LCBO and WRS
  • Look alike labels/Look alike logos
  • Logo for CIC brands
  • Font size/typeface issues and location on labels
  • Measuring consumer reaction to demonstrate that clarity is present/has improved

Jancis Robinson, who did so much to put the issue to the fore, is among the elite opinion makers that the Wine Council has asked to take part in this consultation.

The National Vintners’ Association is also involved in the process, indicated Bruce Walker, Vincor’s Executive Vice President for Government Relations, in an interview with The Wine Case. “It is our intention to resolve this at a national level”, he stated, confirming that the process exceeds the boundaries of BC, where Vincor and Peller made their first announcements last week.

This national perspective has a lot to do with labelling, as bottlers need to comply with Federal labelling standards, Mr Walker continued, stating that the question at hand for the makers of Cellared in Canada wines is: “What can we include beyonde the bare minimum of mandatory labelling?”. VQA products, he pointed out, correspond to the standards for “Product of Canada”, a category that requires virtually 100% of the contents of a particular product to be from Canada: 100% Canadian grapes will do the trick. As for “Cellared in Canada, made from a blend of foreign and domestic grapes”, Walker states that the wines are compliant with federal decisions regarding labelling that go back to 1996.

Indeed, despite frequent complaints regarding the small print and the minimal, back-label-only information about the origin of the contents, it is true that CiC wines are compliant with the “bare minimum” requirements of labelling. But in the same way that complying with the bare minimum of nutritional requirements in the food industry hardly creates health food, can we say that current wine labelling and shelving standards are enough to make things truly clear for and beneficial to consumers? Vincor and Peller are looking to “improve clarity”, but the final results of this operation “will have to be seen”, adds Walker.

Others are more enthusiastic about the fact that things are moving ahead: “We agree that more transparency in labeling would be incredibly beneficial, as the confusion surrounding the “Cellared in Canada” issue hurts all of us in the local wine industry!”, Mission Hill winery’ director of public relations, Lori Pike, wrote in an e-mail to The Wine Case. (An interview request with Andrew Peller has remained unanswered so far.)

Mission Hill, or more precisely, its parent company, the Mark Anthony Group, has indeed gone to more pains than many other Canadian bottlers to make the distinction between its VQA wines and Cellared in Canada wines. Mission Hill, Ms Pike points out, is 100% VQA, while CiC wines are produced by a sister company, Artisan Wines. Also, she stated:

Artisan has taken an industry leadership position on the Cellared in Canada issue.  They do make some other brands with domestic and imported grapes, however they are one of the very few (only CIC wine?) that states quite clearly on the front and back labels the grape origin, with their Wild Horse Canyon wine.  It is comprised of grapes sourced from British Columbia, Washington and California, which they have termed a “west coast appellation”.  The winemaker makes the wines with a different percentage of grapes from each of these regions every year depending on the variability of grape quality and flavour each season so that she has consistency from vintage to vintage.

Whether or not an artificially created “appellation” aimed at “consistency” is a good thing for the wine world is a question in itself, but it must be said that in terms of branding, Wild Horse Canyon wines have the advantage of avoiding confusion created in other brands. Jackson-Triggs Cellared in Canada wines, for instant, sports a label design that is incredibly close to that of VQA wines (same typeface and design, except for the color), and the grapes’ country origin is not specified.

J-T Cellared in Canada labels differ only in color with those of their VQA wines

J-T Cellared in Canada label design differs only in color with those of their VQA wines

Vincor has certainly become conscious of the branding problem with Jackson-Triggs caused by the cohabitation of CiC and VQA wines within the same company. “J-T Cellared in Canada labels should go”, stated Bruce Walker. “We’ll see a change in the not too distant future”.

A planned change

The reason Vincor is able to start moving quickly is because the process of redefining Cellared in Canada actually “started 3 or 4 months ago”, when a Cellared in Canada subcommittee was created, explains Vincor’s executive vice-president. This is what allowed Vincor and Peller to come to the Vancouver Sun editorial meeting of October 1 with mock-ups for new label and a possible category name change (“International Canadian Blend”).

The fact that the industry was already at work also largely explains why the Ontario Wine Council consultation has been started so quickly after Peller and Vincor first came forward, and why the process deadlines are so short. This “high priority” process is to be completed by the end of December, with the consultation phase concluding by the end of November. Implementation will begin in the New Year, with a gradual phasing out of old labels. “At Vincor, we’ve stopped reordering labels” for the current CiC labels, says Bruce Walker, pointing out that the timelines for completing the change will vary, according to inventories and sales of the various products involved. Shelving will likely change more quickly than labelling, because of these production constraints.

In the case of British Columbia, where the Olympics have been presented as a deadline for clearing up the confusion surrounding Canadian and non-Canadian wines, as thousands and thousands of international visitors get ready to travel to the province, it is not clear that the labelling can be changed in time for the big event. At least, the Olympic-label wine Esprit, originally launched as a Cellared in Canada product, has been bottled with 100% VQA wine since July 1st. That way, the Canadian Olympic Wine, part of Vincor’s sponsorship of Vancouver 2010, is now being made with 100% Canadian grapes.

Ontario’s growing pains

While things are looking up in the labelling department, the change will do nothing to solve growers’ problems, for those who did not have a contract with a winery ahead of the 2009 harvest.

For Vincor, the current grape glut is due to “speculative growers” who decided to grow grapes without a contract in hand. Clearly, they are not in Vincor’s plans. “Can we buy all the grapes that don’t have a home? We can only buy what we can sell. So that can’t happen in the year we’re in”, says Mr Walker, who even went as far as saying that the Ontario governement “encouraged bad behavior” by bailing out growers who were stuck with 4,000 tons of unsold grapes last year.

Asked if growing purchases of foreign grapes by bottlers of Cellared in Canada products could be at least partly responsible, he insisted that “we have not been increasing our foreign content” in those wines, and that a lot of the CiC wines sold in Ontario by Vincor contain significantly more than the 30% minimum required by law. In the case of BC, Vincor CiC wines always hold some Canadian content, even though there is no minimum content: Mr Walker was unable to specify amounts for any of the BC bottlings, however.

The executive vice-president of the Constellation subsidiary went on to give a spirited defense of Vincor’s role in promoting Ontario wines and bringing them to market. A defense that also gives an idea of the weight the company carries in the Ontario industry: “We buy the most grapes in Ontario, and we are the largest producer of VQA wines in Ontario. We work on a long-term basis with 85 growers, and we buy a quarter of the total Ontario crop: two thirds for CiC, and one third for VQA.”

He also stated figures according to which a 10$ bottle of Cellared in Canada wine brings 6.67$ in revenue to the local wine industry, while a foreign bottle only brings in 72 cents. Half the crop of Ontario wine grapes goes into Cellared in Canada.

For Mr Walker, another factor that makes buying more grapes difficult is the presence of a marketing board for Ontario grapes. The price paid for the grapes at harvest is a predetermined amount negociated between Grape Growers of Ontario and the Wine Council of Ontario (see here for details). That price has to be paid for any and all grapes, regardless of quality. Buying an oversupply of grapes at a lower price would be illegal, contrary to what has been going on in places like California.

Clearly, Vincor would like the marketing board and uniform pricing go, and be replaced by a “market driven pricing system”. Grape Growers of Ontario have proposed a two-tier pricing system (a higher price for VQA, a lower price for lower-quality destined to Cellared in Canada wines), but have been turned down so far by the Wine Council of Ontario. Bruce Walker doesn’t see any significant change happening before the next harvest, as long-planned purchases are already completed for 2009.

While a system that would encourage better price for better-quality grapes, and allow a more flexible supply management, do seem desirable in theory, Walker himself recognizes that a transition from controlled price to market-driven pricing “is difficult for suppliers”. With the weight of big players like Vincor and Peller, it’s hard to see how growers could achieve a strong negotiation position in an unregulated grape market.

Question marks

Though the lack of pricing flexibility in Ontario does seem like a significant issue, some questions remain. It is a little difficult to see how a 5 or 10% increase in Canadian content in the CiC wines, even at current prices, could result in a drastic increase in the price of those bottles. Certainly, it seems outlandish to claim, as Ontario Wine Council president Hillary Dawson apparently did, that the price of Cellared in Canada wines could shoot up to 18$ or more if the Ontario grape content was increased. There are, after all, VQA wines sold in Ontario for as low as 11 or 12$ at the LCBO – including Vincor’s OPEN brand.

Also, if Vincor is putting in “much more” than 30% Ontario grapes in CiC wines, why would it worry about seeing the minimal requirements rise?

Whatever the end result of the current efforts being undertaken by producers of Cellared in Canada wines, the current situation has clearly got to stop.  As Calgary blogger CDUB put it, the category, as it is now, challenges many areas of common sense that apply for a number of other products:

If a shirt is made in China but I’m wearing it, can the tag say “worn in Canada” and be offered for sale in a local-products store? Would it be allowed to dominate prime shelf space?

As we are in the middle of the LCBO’s Go Local campaign, where VQA wines are promoted… side by side with big signage for Cellared in Canada wines, that is indeed a very good question.