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.

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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.

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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.

Tasting Note : 1996 Cornas, Paul Jaboulet Aîné

I’ve long had a particular liking for the wines of Cornas, this supposedly toughest, most masculine appellation in the Rhône. I’ve always had a few bottles in my cellar, and was appalled when a scare over some of the oldest vineyards shook the region two years ago.

One of the first Cornas I cellared, shortly after I started putting away a few bottles, was the Paul Jaboulet Aîné Cornas – the regular cuvée, which had the advantage of being more affordable, allowing me to keep two of the 1996 on their side for the following decade.

The 1996 vintage was a significant year for the Jaboulet domaine, since it was the last worked by Gérard Jaboulet, the patriarch who had done so much to enhance the estate’s reputation over the previous decades. Gérard died suddenly in 1997, leaving the family in clear disarray. The quality of the wines suffered in the following few years, as many comments and reviews repeatedly stated.

The long-term result of that difficult period has been the purchase of Paul Jaboulet Aîné, a family operation for almost two centuries, by the Frey family, owners of Château La Lagune, among other properties. Only one Jaboulet, Frédéric, is still working with the company : seven were at the helm up to the sale, in 2006.

The sale has certainly meant an influx in cash. What it means in terms of quality and reputation will have to be seen over the next few year

In the meantime, I am finishing the last few bottles of Jaboulet wines from the Gérard era in my cellar, including a recent tasting of the second bottle of 1996 Cornas. I had tasted the first bottle a year ago, and written a tasting note on my French blog where I was perplexed at the rather reserved flavors and aromas it displayed.

This time was different. Animal smells jumped forward right after opening, blending afterwards with a lovely touch of licorice, some cedar, coffee, a touch of black fruit, and a bit of herbal notes. The licorice and cedar were the most noticeable flavors on tasting, with a pleasant mouthfeel that faded a bit on the finish.

Though this was a pleasant and complex enough cuvée, it seemed unlikely that the wine would have gained anything from staying longer in the cellar. The orange edges and the evolved set of flavors and aromas hinted that while it hadn’t faded, it was on the edge of doing so. Nothing like the 20-year minimum wait time that used to be touted by Rhône experts about the « black wines » of Cornas. Maybe that duration would be more appropriate for the Domaine Saint-Pierre of the same era, the best Cornas vineyard owned by the Jaboulet estates, or for the cuvées of top producers like Clape, Jacques Lemenicier, Vincent Paris or Mathieu Barret’s Domaine du Coulet, to quote a few. I guess I’ll still wait a bit before opening that 98 Clape…

P.S. : Thank you, Jancis !

I’d like to thank Jancis Robinson for her help with this post. Being away from my home, and without any reference books, I couldn’t find any trace of Gérard Jaboulet on the Jaboulet web site or just about anywhere on the web, and my memory was failing to remember the first name. How quickly someone of that stature can seem to be forgotten… I posted a tweet asking for help, and Ms Robinson was kind and generous enough to provide an answer in the next couple of hours. I promise to raise a toast to her with the next bottle of Jaboulet – or Cornas – I open.

News flash : there’s decent wine in Michigan

As I drove through Central and Northwest Michigan, during our recent familiy vacation, I was impressed to see how many vineyards kept popping up as we drove along the roads of a region known (and rightly so) for its bounty of cherries, both black and red (my favorite). We saw dozens of signs, glimpsed at vineyards (facing all sorts of directions), passed some tiny, some ambitious tasting rooms : it was wine country all right.

We had a fair bit of driving to do, so convincing my family to stop in a tasting room was simply out of the question. But as a self-respecting wine geek, I just had to taste something, didn’t I ?

As I went shopping or food, finding substantial wine selections in the supermarkets, I admit I hesitated before buying some wine. Many bottles offered very little indication of what was in there (estpecially the « red table wine » and such), and others were… Well, they bore such ugly labels that I just couldn’t bring myself to buy them. (Really. They were that bad.)

Two Michigan whites, complete with supermarket price tags.

Two Michigan whites, complete with supermarket price tags.

Two wines passed the label test and showed descriptions that made them seem trustworthy enough. And besides, they weren’t that expensive. A little over 10$ for the 2007 Reserve Tall Ship Chardonnay by Leelanau Cellars, and just under 14$ for the Château Grand Traverse 2007 Old Mission Peninsula Dry Riesling.

Competitive prices. Competitive wines?

The Leelanau chardonnay had a fair bit of oak and a touch of residual sugar, along with decent citrus flavors. Pleasant enough, even if it felt a little “cookie cutter”. But hey. 10 bucks, right?

The Grand Traverse Riesling, on the other hand, showed a good set of fairly intense varietal aromas (citrus, mineral, floral) that showed up in the flavors as well, with a relatively light body and refreshing acidity. Oh, and it was, indeed, dry, as advertised.

Of course, this is by no means an actual assessment of what Michigan vineyards have to offer. Just a tiny sample. But it at least shows that there is decent wine to be had in Michigan. And competitively priced, too. Which is a good place to start.

Published in: on August 9, 2009 at 9:59 am  Leave a Comment  
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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.

A season of wine conferences: Santa Rosa or Dallas anyone? Lisbon maybe?

Next Friday, July 24, 2009, the second edition of the Wine Bloggers Conference will get started at the Flamingo Resort in Santa Rosa, California (again). Last year’s inaugural conference was a sold out event, with some 170 participants, and this year is sold out again, at an increased capacity of 250.

The conference program brings back the best stuff from last year (like the Live Wine Blogging) and adds to it, with the presentation of the American Wine Blog Awards, and a day in Napa Valley. Keynote speakers include Barry Schuler of AOL fame (and Meteor Vineyard) and Jim Gordon, editor of Wines & Vines, and after parties will feature wines from Russian River and Portugal. Wish I could attend, but late July is family vacation. I’ll wave hello from the shores of the Great Lakes.

Can’t make it to WBC and still looking forward to a wine conference? How about heading to Dallas, Texas, on August 15, for the first DrinkLocalWine.com conference? The goal of the one-day event is to showcase the evolution of the Texas wine industry, which now boasts some 177 wineries. One more proof that you really shouldn’t think of California wine and American wine as synonyms. I’ll miss that one too, but will try to follow the tweet-up/live blogging event featuring 40 of the Lone Star state’s best cuvées, which is set to conclude the event.

The one conference I’m still hoping I can make it too is the second European Wine Bloggers Conference, taking place in Lisbon, Portugal, October 30 to November 1. I certainly wouldn’t mind polishing up and updating my knowledge of Portuguese wines, and meeting with the very interesting, multinational group of bloggers who gather there (the word “European” refers to the location of the conference, but bloggers can come from anywhere). The program includes a visit to the cork forests, guided by natural cork producer Amorim, which in itself should be worth the trip for any wine geek.

And if I don’t make it to this one either, there will be other gatherings in the new year. TasteCamp should move to the Finger Lakes, while the American Wine Bloggers conference will be heading to Washington State. More opportunities to discover wine regions and their production. Last year, at the first Wine Bloggers Conference, I loved the opportunity to learn more about Sonoma Wines, and especially Dry Creek, where I had the chance, during and after the conference, to visit Preston and Quivira, two very solid producers of sunny, intense, well-defined wines. Just that made the trip worthwhile.

Tasting note : three wines from Ontario (Niagara and Prince Edward County)

Every time I go on vacation in Ontario, I quickly head to the LCBO to get my hands on some local wines. Since I started writing about wine, about 12 years ago – a column on Canadian wines and spirits for a magazine -, I’ve always been interested in finding out more about the wines produced in this country. And since only a small proportion of wines from the ROC make their way to Quebec, it’s always a treat to get my hands on some cuvées I’ve never tasted before.

On a quick stop by the Vintages store on Rideau Street, in Ottawa, I picked up three bottles :

  • 2006 Triomphe Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot by Southbrook Vineyards, Niagara Peninsula
  • 2007 County Pinot Noir by Norman Hardie, Prince Edward County
  • 2006 Old Vines Chardonnay by Lailey Vineyard, Niagara River

Three very different cuvées, all pointing in different directions. A good thing : there is clearly something for everyone in Ontario wines.

The Southbrook Triomphe, produced by a winery that was recently certified biodynamic, scored very well at dinner with a classic lasagna. Expressive, with ripe fruit, good structure, balance and a smooth mouthfeel, with a touch of spice. Clean and neat, it felt uncluttered and easy going. It just drank itself, and thanks to a reasonable alcohol level (under 13%) that kept it fresh and open, it left us wanting more.

The following evening, the Hardie pinot didn’t fare quite as well, however. After hearing a lot of great things about Prince Edward County – one friend even wrote me that the Niagara was being completely overrun by PEC, a much superior region, according to him – and having tasted the excellent pinots and chardonnays made by Deborah Paskus at Closson Chase (I sampled them for an En Route piece on Canadian wines that will be published in the August issue), I was happy to get the chance to taste more.

The wine, clear and bright red, had some fresh cherry aromas, with some earthy notes, but felt a bit thin, when you moved from aromas to flavors. Now, I’m very pro-Burgundy, and find warm climate pinots often tiring, with their dark colors and jammy, spicy flavors. But this just didn’t have the intensity and amplitude you’d want from a pinot – especially one selling for 35$. Mind you, it didn’t have any striking flaws, either – no green flavors, no rough tannins, no off taste or aromas. It just didn’t show enough of its good things for me.

The last wine tasted was the Lailey chardonnay, which showed a very pleasant nose, with lemon, toasted almonds and toasted bread with a dab of butter and herbs, and maybe a bit of pear. The mouthfeel was expansive, substantial but still fresh, thanks to a nice amount of acidity and a twist of lemon rind giving it just enough bitterness. Flavors matched the aromas, and rolled around smoothly to a fairly long and silky finish. My only regret is that a rather nice mineral component seemed a bit smothered by the toasty and fat elements of the wine. But since everything else about this light-gold colored wine was so great, I’m willing to let bygones be bygones.

After this first stint in Ontario, this week, I’ll be returning a couple of times in the coming weeks, including stops in Prince Edward County and the Niagara region. Expect more notes to come as these trips unfold.

Everybody’s talking about natural wines – thanks, Saignée!

How do you celebrate a year of blogging? With a month of blogging, of course.

A special month of blogging, I mean. Like the 31 days of Natural Wine put together by Cory Cartwright of Saignée, one of the most interesting wine blogs around. He asked a number of other voices of the online wine world to contribute their thoughts on natural wine, every day of that feast of a month.

Alice Feiring, Jeremy Parzen of Do Bianchi, Amy Atwood from My Daily Wine, Brooklyn Guy and a bunch of others have been contributing, and it’s quite an interesting bunch of reads. Everything from a visit to Nicolas Joly, the biodynamic pope himself, to discussions of sulfur in wine, to a very… honest tasting of the latest Bonny Doon wines by Mr Saignée himself.

The series brings forward all sorts of questions about the concept of natural wines – a rather vague category that includes, depending on who you speak to, everything from sustainable winemaking to biodynamics and no-sulfur wines. In French, the moniker “vin naturel” has been more closely defined by the likes of Thierry Puzelat, Marcel Lapierre and such as no-sulfur wines (rather often made with carbonic maceration). In the US, that would be closest to “organic wine”, although the fact that sulfites must be totally absent from certified US organic wines (even the naturally occuring sulfites), making it an even more extreme category. Translating “organic wine” back to “vin bio”, in France, leads to another category altogether. And don’t get me started on the various “sustainable” winegrowing and winemaking programs established in the US and New Zealand, among others. (This Wine Business article will give you an idea of the concepts and regulations involved.)

What’s right or wrong with these categories? I’m certainly in favor of any move towards more careful, ecologically-friendly wine-growing and towards making wines whose ingredient list is limited to grapes, period. But I don’t think adding a little sulfur is a heresy, or that one single approach has all the answers. It does make for a very interesting discussion, though… More than enough for 31 days.

Tasting Note: 2008 Txomin Etxaniz Getaria Txakolina

This review – and all the new content on The Wine Case – is now at a new address, winecase.ca. Click here to read the review.