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…

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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…

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.

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.

Cellared in Canada: big bottlers move to stem growing outrage

Over the last few weeks, pressure had been building nationally and internationally, concerning the deceptive Cellared in Canada wines. These inexpensive bottles, made by the country’s major wine bottlers, give a Canadian aura to blends made totally (or almost) from foreign wine brought in bulk to this country from Chile, Australia or elsewhere.

Last month, articles in The Economist, abroad, and the Vancouver Sun, nationally, were added to a long list of features by Jancis Robinson, Wine Spectator and French industry site Vitisphère, all criticizing the confusion between truly Canadian wine and foreign plonk. A half-hour segment on CBC’s The Current also contributed strongly to the debate by catching Andrew Peller president John Peller in a web of his own contradictions about the clarity (or lack thereof) of CiC labelling. While Peller insisted that the labels were clear, and that all relevant information was clearly stated, a string of LCBO consumer interviews at the end of the segment showed all of them surprised, if not angry, at learning that what they thought was Ontario wine was something else altogether. They certainly thought it was confusing and deceptive. And so did Anthony Gismondi, as he stated in a solid piece also published in the Vancouver Sun.

Facing growing public resentment, as well as growing pressure from the BC government, big bottlers Vincor and Peller met with the Vancouver Sun on Thursday to explain that they were planning changes to the labels and presentation of the wines. While Vincor president Eric Morham and Andrew Peller president John Peller insisted they never meant to mislead the public (then why all the small print on the labels, the incredible similarities between some brands’ VQA and CiC labels?), but that they are hearing the feedback and are working on new label designs.

One reason for the move might be explained by the BC government’s changing attitude towards the confusion:

In a separate interview, Rich Coleman, minister responsible for the Liquor Distribution Branch, said the LDB is on-side with the changes in marketing the wines.

“I have already told our guys to look at how it is displayed in the stores. It will be fixed.”

Coleman said Vincor, which is an official Olympic supplier, told him its Cellared in Canada wines should be re-labeled before the 2010 games begin, a sensitive issue for both the government and the winery

Here’s hoping that not only the labeling will be re-done, but also that Vincor will focus on actual Canadian wines, in its Olympic promotion, instead of products like the Cellared in Canada Esprit wine. The Olympics will be a great opportunity to showcase Canadian wine to the world, not compromise its credibility by blurring boundaries.

At this point, the decisions seem to affect only British Columbia, but it would seem normal that they should apply to Ontario as well. On Friday afternoon, I tried to reach spokespeople for Peller, Vincor and Mission Hill (in this last case, to see if the company would follow suit with the two others), to confirm whether or not Ontario is also concerned, but received no reply. I’ll follow up when I get more details about the proposed changes from the concerned parties.

One person who did reply is Seaton McLean, co-owner of Closson Chase Vineyards in Prince Edward County. Mr McLean, who has been speaking out in public – and working behind the scene – against the present Cellared in Canada situation, welcomed the new position by Peller and Vincor as “good news”, while pointing out in his e-mail message that the labels weren’t the only question at hand:

“However, there are many other fundamental elements of the Ontario Wine Industry that are dysfunctional and the clear labelling of CIC wines is just the tip of the iceberg.  So, we’ll see what happens next week and fingers crossed that it will be significant.  If there is no decrease in the 70% Chilean content a lot of Ontario growers will have a tough time surviving.  I hope that the CIC guys ultimately see how they could make themselves appear to be good citizens if they went ahead and committed to buying the aprox. 8,000 tonnes of grapes that are unsold and will make a wonderful photo op hanging there, dying on the vines, while 50,000 tonnes arrives from Chile.”

Indeed, it’s hard to see how Cellared in Canada wines wouldn’t be having a negative effect on the wine growers of Ontario, who are facing considerable drops in prices and uncertainty about the intentions o buyers, as a Globe and Mail pointed out on Friday. Increasing the amount of Canadian wine in the blended wines would seems like it could be a favorable option (content of Ontario grapes can be as low as 10%, contrary to what the Globe piece says). Especially since Vincor and Peller, while looking to improve the labels, seem to want to hang on to the word “Canada” in what is essentially a foreign product. According to the Vancouver Sun piece:

[Vincor president Eric] Morham produced mock-up labels that Vincor is considering for its Sawmill Creek brand that state in large print on the front of the bottle the origin of the wine. One option states “International Canadian Blend”. The other, “Cellared in Canada.”

Shouldn’t using the word Canada should mean having a majority of Canadian content? In any case, I find it hard to see why the bottlers would want to hang on to CiC, which has been garnering so much negative attention. Time to start fresh, and give straight answers, guys.

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.

Canadian Icewine: Quality and Diversity from Coast to Coast

I used to love Canadian Icewine and its less expensive, but often quite as tasty counterpart, the late harvest. And then, for some odd reason, I practically stopped having it.

Over the last few months, however, I drank icewines from Ontario, British Columbia, Québec and Nova Scotia. And baby, I’m back.

Those were fine, fine wines, with all the apricot, honey and floral aromas and flavors you’d want, the acidity needed to balance out the concentrated sweetness. What struck me the most, however, was the diversity of styles – a much greater range than I would have expected.

Let me give you an idea of this range of styles by giving tasting notes from West to East. (more…)

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…

To read the rest of this review, go to winecase.ca, the new home for The Wine Case blog. New updates are now all on winecase.ca.