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 !

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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.

Tasting Note: Two viogniers from the North

If you’ve had wines made from the viognier grape, there is a very good chance that they came from warm, if not hot climates, and exploded with aromas and flavors of tropical fruit, over a rich, luscious mouthfeel. Acidity, crispness, freshness? Not so much.

Yet there is another way to make viognier. A more northerly way, like the direction pointed to by Peay Vineyards, one of my favorite vineyards, who make a tiny bit of it in their cool Sonoma Coast vineyards. Syrah is picked as late as the last week of October, at the Peay vineyards, and without the high sugar and high alcohol that you normally see in California syrah.

What would be the perfect place to test the possibilities of cool-climate viognier? Canada, I would say.

Case in point, (more…)

Wine Blogging Wednesday 55: North vs South – a bipolar roundup

It’s always fascinating to see the many ways people can interpret a proposition. So what did the participants in the 55th Wine Blogging Wednesday make of this idea of confronting North vs South?

From Michigan Riesling to Tasmania Pinot Noir, from Spanish Garnacha to Tennessee Chambourcin, there sure were a lot of possible pairings (and threesomes, and foursomes) put together by the 33 participants who took up the challenge. Three of those, I’m happy to say, were first timers in the world of Wine Blogging Wednesday (this one, this one and this one), showing how the concept is still going strong and breaking new ground. (more…)

Regional Wine Writing Project: Napa North? How about Burgundy West?

When I decided to take part in the Regional Wine Writing Project, I started with Quebec, my homeland, which deserves a full introduction to just about anyone that is not a wine lover in Quebec itself. That was easy, in other terms, because just about everything remains to be said. Writing about Niagara, which is, to say the least, more often discussed (and whose wines are more readily available to US readers, as a look through Wine-Searcher.com will tell you), was a bit more of a bind. Where to start?

What finally got me started was a recent Globe and Mail article by John Szabo, where the Niagara region (more…)