What is a Canadian wine?

My recent summer vacation in the quiet and picturesque Manitoulin Island, in Northern Ontario, was a bit ginger-peachy – as far as wines go, that is. I had some lovely wine from New Zealand, France and Ontario, but was quite depressed by the “Cellared in Canada” section of the LCBO stores.

A few years ago, it seems to me there was a clear distinction, in the stores, between wines bottled by Canadian companies with hardly any criteria, and VQA wines, which require all grapes used in the wines to come from Canadian vineyards and, if a specific region is mentioned (like Niagara), from the region in question.

Now, it’s all muddled together in a single section, and what’s terrible about it is some of these wines are hardly Canadian at all. If you look closely enough at the labels, you’ll find out that the bottles are made of “a blend of Canadian and domestic wines”. And according to all the information I’ve read, that amount of Canadian wine can be as low as 10% or maybe even none at all, according to a well-informed blog. Frankly, tasting a Jackson-Triggs sauvignon blanc “cellared in Canada” was an extremely bland experience. There was nothing unpleasant about the wine, but there was hardly anything to be said about it either. It was very pale and without any character.

Quite a contrast with, say, a Peninsula Ridge sauvignon blanc (very well-balanced, to an extent I’ve rarely seen in Niagara sauvignon blanc), a Clos Jordanne pinot noir (perhaps the closest thing to the spirit of Burgundy on this side of the Atlantic), a Château des Charmes single vineyard chardonnay (like the St David’s Bench, which I’ve always appreciated over the years), or a Hernder riesling (I’ve had several crisp, balanced and ageworthy cuvées), all VQA wines that have lots of character, and all express a sense of place. The very nice and very typical mineral character of the best Niagara chardonnay can’t be found in a “blend of domestic and imported wines”, now can it?

The fact that a Cellared in Canada wine (whatever that means) can sit alongside a VQA wine without any clear distinction is, in my opinion, a retrogade idea that can only weaken the image of Canadian wine, an image that has progressed remarkably with the quality of the wines since the late 1980s. By muddling the whole question, the companies and authorities that are allowing this lack of distinction are harming local production and confusing consumers who should be able to make a clear choice. It seems to me that the only ones who benefit from this are big producers who can make a profit from using really cheap bulk wine from Australia or Chile in their big volume labels. In terms of winemaking, it’s the equivalent of blueberry yogurt made without any blueberries – a deceiving marketing ploy.

And here’s a disturbing thing. That bland sauvignon blanc I had was proudly claiming on its label that Jackson-Triggs wines are official wines of the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games. Better yet, Jackson-Triggs has released a special line of wines called Esprit, as part of its sponsorship deal with Vancouver 2010. And guess what. The official press release fails to mention anything about where the wines come from, and from what I’ve seen of the labels or any other information, they don’t seem to be VQA.

I’ll try to investigate this matter further to find out exactly what is going on here, but I’m quite worried. Vancouver 2010 seems like an amazing opportunity to make the world discover the wines of Canada. And Vincor, the Constellation subsidiary that owns Jackson-Triggs and signed the sponsorship deal, has plenty of great Canadian wines in its portfolio (including the beautiful pinot noirs and chardonnays from Clos Jordanne, or NK’Mip Cellars, a BC aboriginal winery they distribute). However, if the Canadian wine industry is to be represented by cheap globalized plonk, what’s the point?