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…

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.

Tasting note: Cave Spring 1995 Beamsville Bench Riesling Icewine, Niagara Peninsula VQA

A little oxydation can be a good thing, now and then. Not only for all these wonderful, “geeky” wines from Jura, as Eric Asimov points out in his New York Times column this week (where he rightly praises the Ganevat Trousseau as a great steak wine… but that’s another story). It can even be true for wines that are not, by design, meant to be oxydated.

Take this 1995 Riesling Icewine from Cave Spring that a good friend of mine recently brought me at a dinner, with a bit of doubt about its condition. There was a tiny bit of leakage on the edge of the cork, and the wine, which he had dug out of a less-travelled part of his cellar, was showing a lot more color than one would usually expect from an (usually bright-gold) icewine.

Was it past its prime? Still drinkable? Hard to tell.

IMG_4170

Instead of opening it with the evening’s dessert, I pulled out a 2001 Ambre from one-0f-a-kind Swiss wine producer Christophe Abbet (see a few words about him here), a fabulous, voluntarily oxydative dessert wine made from late harvest marsanne and arvine. It showed intense candied orange and caramel flavors, and a remarkable freshness, due in good part to arvine’s natural acidity. Not a bad pick at all.

So, my friend did not get short-changed in this exchange of sweets. But neither did I, as I discovered on opening it last week.

The color, when I poured it, was a bit worrisome, as the photo here shows. Dark caramel, almost terra cotta colored, it looked as though it had gone overboard. But the aromas, however, told a different story.

You could sense the oxydative character, with a good dose of baked apple showing up right from the start. But as the wine opened up and met with more oxygen, it started going towards caramelized sugar and, gradually, apricot jam, with a tiny touch of something more earthy, like wet autumn leaves. Nothing rough or tired there, I must say, and the still bright acidity kept it quite fresh and pleasant, with apricot and orange flavors and a touch of spice showing up, with still nice length.

Of course, the high sugar and high acidity in icewine certainly have a good part to play in making it ageworthy and resistant to oxydation. But the extent to which this wine had withstood it – combined with the great impression a four-year barrel-aged icewine from Nova Scotia made upon me last spring – tells me that there could be considerable interest in working that frozen treat with long ageing in oak, which could well bring it more complexity, without taking much away from it.

EnRoute in the vineyards of Canada

Since last spring, I had been impatiently waiting for the publication of an article on Canadian wines in EnRoute, Air Canada’s on-board magazine. I had reason enough to be impatient, since I started working on that project all the way back in January.

The article showcases six Canadian winemakers (plus five tasting notes of wines from other producers) from Coast to Coast : two from British Columbia, two from Ontario, one from Quebec and one from Nova Scotia. Selecting those producers from some 400 active wineries was far from easy – another list could probably have been just as valid. The selection provides a good portrait of the diversity of Canadian wine: there really is something for everyone.

Researching the piece allowed me to discover an unexpected level of diversity, and some little-known treasures of canadian viticulture. Like the sparkling wines of Nova Scotia – the closest thing to champagne I’ve tasted outside of Champagne. Or the pinots and chardonnays of Prince Edward County, the fastest growing vineyard in Canada, located southwest of Kingston, on the shores of Lake Ontario. Although I already had a good idea of the potential of British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley or Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula – and had started taking a closer look at the best estates in Quebec, I was happy to discover just how much wine production keeps progressing all over Canada.

All this just encouraged me to keep going, and so in the last few weeks, I went to visit vineyards in Prince Edward County and Niagara, tasting over 200 wines in a few days through the cellars and vineyards. I’m hoping that I’ll also make it to British Columbia and Nova Scotia in the near future.

I found those visits even more encouraging. Prince Edward County, though its production is uneven – like in any emerging wine region – is already showing some distinctive character, and the best wines show remarkable finesse, elegance and mineral character. In the Niagara, I found solid, distinctive wines all over the place, with serious exploration of terroir at vineyards like Tawse, Hidden Bench and Le Clos Jordanne, creative exploration of winemaking and varieties at Creekside, Ravine, 13th Street, A Foreign Affair or Malivoire, precise, elegant work at Lailey and Southbrook, to name only these few. Beyond cabs, merlots, chardonnays, rieslings and pinots, I also tasted melon de bourgogne, chardonnay musqué, zweigelt, shiraz and even a bit of savagnin. There is less cookie-cutter winemaking, and more and more specific character and quality available.

I’ll write about that in more detail over the coming days. But at least one thing is clear : it isn’t all icewine, and it sure ain’t Baby Duck no more !

Ontario, please clean up the Cellared in Canada mess

Things aren’t getting any better for Canadian wines on LCBO shelves. When I recently returned to Ontario, I was depressed to see that it’s still a struggle to distinguish between real Canadian wines (VQA wines) and Cellared in Canada wines that are made essentially (even totally, in British Columbia) from foreign grapes.

The bottles are mixed on the shelves, with a bottle of foreign plonk sitting beside another made from Ontario grapes. And you still can’t tell that the Cellared in Canada wines are foreign grapes from unidentified sources unless you look carefully at the small print on the back label. Why put that in small print if they’re proud to make them?

It’s a shame. And a crock.

Fortunately, there is a bit of movement on the issue, as forces are mobilizing to correct the situation and apply political pressure on the LCBO and the Ontario government.

In June, an article in the Financial Post talked about ongoing efforts by Seaton McLean, co-owner of Closson Chase vineyards in Prince Edward County, and others in the industry to stop the “clever con” that is undermining Ontario (and BC) wine growers and winemakers. In the article, McLean states that Ontario regulations allow Cellared in Canada wines to have 70% foreign content and 20% water (!), leaving room for as little as 10% Ontario grapes. Wonder why they’re cheap? 20% water will help cut down the price, for sure.

Most recently, Environmental Defence jumped on board the movement to correct this confusing mess. They’ve started an online petition to “Put the “O” back in LCBO”. Favoring local wines (made with local grapes) is coherent with a pro-environment outlook. Media events are scheduled to take place in Toronto and St Catharines on July 31, as I learned through a Facebook group called “Boycott Cellared in Canada wines” that has over 800 members and growing.

Mind you, the Environmental Defence petition isn’t perfect. Their call to increase the minimum Ontario content of CiC wines to 50% is a good start, and so is the call for the LCBO to “Increase access to more retail stores across Ontario to sell more 100% grown Ontario wine”. You’d think 50% Canadian (and no water, please) would be the minimum amount you should need before you can even think of putting the word “Canada” on the label.

However, another petition argument to “Increase the Ontario wine market share to 51% at LCBO stores throughout Ontario” is unrealistic: even if all Ontario producers had easy access to Ontario stores, they don’t make the volumes of wine to cover that figure. Besides, that would become a preferential treatment that wouldn’t last a minute under WTO and NAFTA rules.

Still, it’s good to know that people are organizing, and one can only hope that pressure will keep building for change. Maybe more action at harvest showcasing the effects of Cellared in Canada on grape prices and on actual Canadian winegrowers and winemakers?

Separate shelves for VQA and CiC wines would be an easy, short-term step that the LCBO could take that would make things a bit clearer for the consumers. My sources tell me that it’s already the case in British Columbia (even though both categories remain under a general “BC wine” banner).

What makes me curious, however, is that I haven’t found any significant statements on the issue by major wine writers like Tony Aspler, John Szabo, David Lawrason or Beppi Crosariol. Why won’t they weigh in, at least for consumer advocacy, by clearly stating the difference between the categories for their readers? Jancis Robinson sure has, repeatedly coming out in favor of Canadian wines being made from Canadian grapes. Which is what logic dictates.

Dan Aykroyd is coming to Montreal. Does his wine taste funny?

If I was in Montreal, I’d be tempted to go. Dan Aykroyd, the famous Canadian actor of Saturday Night Live fame will be touring Montreal, today and tomorrow (June 25 and 26), to present the line of wines that bear his name. He’ll be visiting three SAQ stores (see the list here) over the two days, to give the drinking public a taste of what’s bottled for him by Diamond Estates Wines and Spirits, the company behind Lakeview Cellar Wines, East Dell and 20 Bees, among other things.

If I could go, I’d certainly ask him what the deal is with all the celebrity wines appearing on the scene, this past couple of years. Like the Madonna, Kiss and Streisand wines from Celebrity Cellars. Or the Mike Weir and Wayne Gretzky wines made by Creekside Wines. Or the icewines and Napa Cab made for the Rolling Stones by Ex Nihilo Vineyards.

I’d ask him if he sees a difference between having a line of wines made by someone else, with your name on it, from various vineyards from here and there (Dan Aykroyd’s wines are sometimes VQA, sometimes not, sometimes from Canada, sometimes from Sonoma…), and actually owning your vineyards. Like Sting’s Il Palagio Sumner Family wines from Tuscany, Gérard Depardieu in the Loire, David and Victoria Beckham in California, Sam Neill in New Zealand, or even Francis Ford Coppola in California – although that last case definitely has more winemaking tradition in it than just celebrity trendiness.

Wine is certainly fashionable, if celebrities enjoy having their names on labels. It equates with luxury, health, pleasure, the good life. A good association if there ever was one. And you can even make a noble statement about biodiversity, the environment, and farming tradition – as the Sumners do in their biodynamic estate in Italy.

Oh, and by the way, I’ve had one of the Dan Aykroyd Discovery Series wines, before. The chardonnay, on a summer trip in Ontario. And no, it didn’t taste funny, despite my attempt at humor in the title. It wasn’t memorable, but it was simple and easy-drinking. In other words, it was fun.

EU regulators give up: rosé will remain rosé.

Now that’s some good news to start my wine week.

The European Union Agriculture Commissioner, Mariann Fischer Boel, announced today that the EU is giving up on its plan to allow rosés to be made from a blend of white and red wines. This commercially-minded regulation, which I’d written about with dismay in February, was explicitely aimed at making rosés that would be competitive in the Asian markets. Let’s say quality and tradition were not at the heart of that move. 

The rule – or lack thereof – was first supposed to be adopted in April, but the vote had been pushed back to June 19, after vignerons in France started agressively protesting it. A compromise was first proposed to allow the mention “traditional rosé” to be put on labels, thereby signifying that the wines had not been made from a blend of red and white. Fearing that a free-for-all would set in and that their craft would be discredited, vignerons rejected that as well, and the French agriculture minister came on side (although France had originally allowed the project to be put on the table). Italian and Spanish winemakers also came on board to protest, worried that the anything-goes approach would undermine rosé’s freshly acquired respectability. Pressure had been building recently, with columns appearing all over the world questioning the move.

Over the course of the debate, I read and heard from many people in the wine world who wondered what the fuss was about. Some pointed out that rosé Champagne can be made by adding a little red (from pinot noir) to white champagne – a notable exception to the current european ban on blended rosés. Others noted that many New World rosés are actually blended – and doing fine on the market.

Granted, blending white and red wine, besides being the butt of a very old joke, may not be a total horror. I probably drank a New World rosé that was a blend without knowing it. Surely, there are quaffable blended rosés out there.

What I can say, though, is that the best rosés I’ve had, the serious, truly delicious ones, were all made in the traditional way. That’s true in the New World too. A Donkey and Goat’s brilliant Isabel’s Cuvée, made from grenache gris grapes, is a fine example, with bright flavors, minerality and depth. Refreshing, but not just that.  And back in the Old World, try any Tavel, or a Chinon Rosé, or a beautiful rosé from pinot noir like Jean-Marc Brocard’s Bourgogne Rosé, which was our official usher of spring, at home, a few weeks ago, and had all the expansive aromatic qualities of pinot in a sunny, summery mode. I’ll surely raise a glass of something like that tonight, to celebrate.

As I do, I’ll also reflect on the capacity of European vignerons to get a regulation derailed, and to preserve their trade over industrial interests. And I’ll wonder about what would happen if Canadian vignerons got together to fight the awful Cellared in Canada category, where a minority of domestic wine blended with foreign wine of unknown origin and sometimes water is passed of as Canadian wine. And I’ll raise another glass to Seaton MacLean, of Prince Edward County’s excellent Closson Chase vineyards, who decided to fight this “clever con”. Here’s to real wine from real places.

Tasting notes: Le Clos Jordanne, Le Clos Jordanne Vineyard 2006 chardonnay and pinot noir, Twenty Mile Bench

I’ve been a fan of Le Clos Jordanne wines since their first release, the 2004 vintage, two years ago. Made from young vines, they may not have had the depth of great wines, but they certainly showed the promise. It was terrific to taste pinot noir that from the Niagara that had such a clear sense of place and such a remarkable balance and restraint.

This certainly has a lot to do with…

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The California Wine Fair is back already

A year can sure go by fast. It’s spring in Canada, and time for the California Wine Fair again. I even missed the Western Canada dates (sorry guys), and barely caught up with it on time for the East Coast part of the tour.

It’s no April Fool joke. Ottawa gets its turn this Wednesday, April 1, at the Westin Hotel, just a stone’s throw from Parliament Hill. Montreal is next on the list on April 2nd, and the event is as a fundraiser for the Heart and Stroke Foundation, while Quebec City’s Fair, on Friday, April 3rd, will benefit the Fondation Cardinal-Villeneuve, which seeks to help people with physical handicaps.

After that, it’s Toronto on April 6 and Halifax on April 8.

You can get the full details right here. As well as the list of participating wineries for each city. The list varies, but includes the likes of Heitz Cellars, Calera, Seghesio, Ravenswood, Bonny Doon, Bonterra, Kenwood, Hahn Estates, L’Aventure, Hess Collection, Jordan, to name only a few. 

While I’m at it, I should mention that the New Zealand Wine Fair will also come to Canada this spring. A first event took place on March 24 in Edmonton (sorry again), but the others will be in late May in Montreal, Calgary, Toronto and Vancouver. The list of participating producers is not out yet, so we’ll come back to this closer to the event date.