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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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.

A look at the 2008 Canadian Wine Annual (the good and the bad)

A few days ago, I grabbed a copy of Wine Access magazine’s Canadian Wine Annual for 2008 at my neighborhood news stand. It is a great reference about all that is wine (and fruit wine, and cider, etc.) in Canada, from Newfoundland to British Columbia, and everywhere in between. Some 393 wineries are listed, with coordinates and a short but often very precise and useful description. Really cool and useful stuff, by qualified contributors, including articles on green initiatives in Canadian vineyards and on wine tasting and wine-food matching.

You also get the full listing of results from the 2007 Canadian Wine Awards, a competition chaired by Anthony Gismondi with, I must say, admirable restraint. Gold medals (more…)

Confusion in the Cellar(ed in Canada)

The Cellared in Canada wine category, as I’ve written previously on this blog, is a marketing category whose first aim, it seems, is to create confusion with actual wines from Canada, since in fact, it can contain practically no Canadian wine, as opposed to the 100% homegrown VQA wines. Which doesn’t stop the LCBO from selling them side-by-side and mixed together on the shelves.

Apparently, the category has reached its goal perfectly. Now, even the LCBO is confused.

As an article in the St. Catharines Standard stated, last week, (more…)