Canada House

Canada House, not a dance music sub-genre, although a few readers might not be too surprised if I went off on a different subject, but the venue yesterday for the Taste Canada 2018 event, organised wonderfully well by Westbury Communications. It featured thirty-seven producers from British Columbia, Ontario, Nova Scotia and (one from) Québec. It was the largest Tasting of Canadian wines I’ve been to so far, and the quality on show was exciting.

I would guess that most of us don’t know a lot about Canada. We think of it as an enormous country, northern in climate, nice people but perhaps not really all that well known for wine? This isn’t quite true on two counts.

Canada may be “up north somewhere”, but the wine growing regions lie between 41 degrees and 51 degrees latitude. That’s not too different from Morocco to Kent and Sussex. Of course, that means relatively little. The climate is very different, with different climatic influences, but even so, there are parts of the Canadian vignoble, specifically Niagara, which even lie further south than parts of the USA.

Readers old enough to remember the 1990s will have experienced the first wave of Canadian wines to hit our shores in the UK. Icewine, mostly coming from Southern Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula, and principally made from the French hybrid vine, Vidal (as well as some fine Riesling), had an impact based on its sweet concentration and tingling acidity.

Now there is another major player in Canadian wine, British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, east of Vancouver. Here, it is mainly European vinifera vines which dominate production, of which the most successful seem so far to be the Burgundian and Bordeaux varieties (though I’m making a pitch for Riesling too). Okanagan has some very special and specific conditions which, as we shall see, make this long valley ripe to become, potentially, one of the world’s sources of very fine wine.

There is also a nascent industry (though “industry” isn’t really the right word) in the far east of the country, in Nova Scotia, which might have a good future for sparkling wine. But there are only around 300 hectares here. Québec has more vines, but the only producer on show from Québec yesterday uses apples, albeit to make a wonderful “Ice Cidre”.

I can’t write about each and every one of the thirty-seven producers showing. I tasted most of them, but my own favourites might not tally completely with those of other commentators. Read through my notes and seek out what takes your fancy.

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Okanagan Crush Pad Winery (Okanagan Valley, BC)

This is the Canadian producer I’ve written about more than any other, and I suppose the fact that I like their wines so much is attested to by them having quoted some of my writing in their marketing brochure. But that doesn’t detract from what I genuinely think about them. One or two other wine trade luminaries seem to have the same views, although I should add that one or two of the older and more conservative tasters yesterday apparently found the life and energy in these wines a little hard to handle. A bit too “natural”. That shocks me a little.

Seven wines were on show and as I have written about them so frequently I won’t dwell here. But the Haywire Vintage “Bub” 2013 does need a few more words. A bottle-fermented Pinot Noir/Chardonnay, an equal blend of both, with 52 months on lees, it was only bottled (with zero dosage) and released two weeks ago. Dry, mineral, well balanced between weight and acidity, this is very attractive. They also plan to release a reserve version at seven years old.

Which is my favourite of the Sauvignons is hard to pin down. Haywire Waters & Banks 2015 is made in concrete (concrete eggs are a fixture here). It has beautiful aromatics (citrus and herbs), and has an elegance which hides 13.5% abv very neatly. Free Form White 2016 is Sauvignon Blanc made in stainless steel and is really different. The palate is bone dry, but you get an amazing sweet-fruited bouquet which shouted yuzu fruit!

Gamay is always a favourite here. Haywire Gamay Rosé 2017 has a nose which reminds me pleasantly of confectionery, but the palate is dry with red fruits. Haywire Gamay Noir 2016 sees a 4-week maceration before 6 months in concrete. So there’s some grounding texture under the cherry fruit.

Haywire Freeform Red 2016 is Pinot Noir with 9 months on skins in amphora, no filtration and no added sulphur. This has a lot of texture right now and needs a little time, but it is a singular iteration of Pinot Noir, which in this case I think has translated well to amphora (the amphora wine experiments at OCP are rejected if they feel they haven’t worked).

Wines available via Red Squirrel.

Norman Hardie Winery (Niagara Peninsula and Prince Edward County, Ontario)

Norman Hardie’s vines sit on both shores of Lake Ontario, Niagara in the southwest and Prince Edward County (a newish VQA) in the northeast. He’s one of Ontario’s most renowned producers and the wines exude class. They are the products of the microclimates of the lake, where breezes moderate the temperatures in summer, and also of the fine limestone soils (and glacial deposits in Niagara) which dominate the geology, although Prince Edward can suffer harsher winters.

I began by trying the excellent Riesling 2017. Quite restrained at first, then a touch of florality and minerality came through. Nice presence and texture, coming from fermenting with a lot of solids. Expect to pay around £16 for this, excellent value.

Three Chardonnays were all clean and fresh, with the Cuvée des Amis 2015 showing best of all. This comes in at just under 12% alcohol but following 24 months elevage it has genuine personality, with a touch of butter and nuts. The Chardonnays here do see oak, but mostly used wood in larger formats.

Both Pinot Noirs tasted were attractive but different. Prince Edward County Pinot Noir 2016 is pale and bright with nice young cherry fruitiness. Niagara Peninsula Pinot Noir 2016 is also pale but with lovely, elegant, cherry high notes.

This is one address to seek out, wines stocked by The Wine Society and Bibendum.

Norm conducting for his audience, juggling several tasters at once with aplomb

Megalomaniac (Niagara Peninsula, Ontario)

Sébastien Jacquey makes some excellent wines with both the Niagara designation, and labelled from the Twenty Mile Bench, one of a dozen sub-appellations already designated on the peninsula.

Everyone was enjoying Bubblehead NV, a bottle-fermented pink sparkler made from Pinot Noir. Whole clusters see six hours skin maceration, then fruit is pressed gently to preserve lovely aromatics. It only gets two months on lees, before 18 months further ageing before release (bottled sulphur-free at 6g/l dosage). A frothy, fun wine, but not entirely frivolous. It’s seriously tasty as well.

The Bespoke reserve series of wines includes Chardonnay 2016 which comes off shallow soils. Whole clusters see barrels for fermentation (10% new, larger, puncheons) and there is no lees stirring and no maloCabernet Franc 2015 is lovely and floral for a red. It’s very concentrated. Ontario saw a slightly less hot 2015 than BC, but it followed two bad winters where many vines dies, and yields were consequently lower. Pinot Noir 2015 is from a 25-year-old block (like the Cab Franc, from Twenty Mile Bench) with almost no topsoil. Thirty-five days skin maceration sees extraction slowed down as time proceeds, and then 16 months in barrel (15% new). Sébastien says he “builds the bones first and then adds the fat”. It exudes freshness.

There’s also a serious Bravado Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 which is purple, sweet fruited, and in need of more time, plus a very sappy Cabernet Franc called Frank (also 2015) which is not extracted but weighs in at 14%.

A producer to watch carefully. I don’t think they have a UK importer. Sébastien was one of the most engaging producers in the room.

Mission Hill, Martin’s Lane & CheckMate (Okanagan, BC)

This group of three wineries are all owned by Darryl Brooker, but have different winemakers. Mission Hill is one of the oldest and better known in the valley, and from here we tried a very aromatic Reflection Point Pinot Noir 2016 and Vista’s Edge Cabernet Franc 2015. The fruit for the latter comes from right down on the US border. Red and dark fruits both dominate the bouquet, and it reminded me of a nice Loire from a ripe year. You don’t realise it has a shockingly high level of alcohol, at 14.9% (you really don’t).

Martin’s Lane also showed two wines, a Riesling and a Pinot Noir. Simes Vineyard Riesling 2015 was another version of the grape which made me wish I’d seen more Riesling. This is a dry (13% abv) version with perhaps a slight nod to the Pfalz.

CheckMate Artisanal Winery provided perhaps the most interesting wines of the three. Attack Chardonnay 2014 is in a richer style (with 14% abv), made in large 1,500 litre foudres. One is new and the other is a second year cask. It sees just one racking in 14 months. Despite being a bigger wine (a Californian style Chardonnay, perhaps – winemaker Philip McGahan is an Australian born lawyer, turned winemaker, who spent 4 years at Williams Selyem), it still shows freshness.

Opening Gambit Merlot 2014 is a big boy at 14.5%, and indeed is tannic too. But unlike some of Saint-Emilion’s modern monsters, it seems to share that freshness.

On that Okanagan freshness: It does seem a genuine trait of the valley. Alcohol levels can look quite high in these wines, and particularly fruit grown at the southern end of the valley is easy to ripen. Yet other climatic and geographical factors seem to mitigate loss of acids, and the wines seem almost always to taste “fresh”, even in a hot vintage here, like 2015.

It seems that the alignment of the mountain ranges allows breezes to become a major factor in cooling the vineyards. This is coupled with big diurnal temperature variations. Add in long sunny autumns for a longer and slower ripening cycle, and cold winters which close down the vines, and you have a fairly unique set of circumstances which help develop complexity. It is perhaps only a matter of time before the vineyards become more mature, and quality increases even more.

LaStella Winery & Le Vieux Pin (Okanagan, BC)

Another pair of wineries run by one person, in this case Severine Pinte, who was on hand to run through the bottles. LaStella (like Checkmate, no space) is Severine’s “Italian-style” winery, and makes two impressive but pretty big wines. Fortissimo 2016 is her professed nod towards the supertuscans, mainly Merlot (79%) with both Cabernets and Sangiovese. Although fairly tannic, and 14.3% alcohol, it is savoury and classy, and will be food friendly when mature. Allegretto 2014 is, despite the Italian name, 100% Merlot off sandy soil and planted on its own rootstock. Maybe she has Bolgheri in mind? This wine comes in at 14.7%, but like most Okanagan Merlots, seems to be balanced despite that. Both wines require cellaring.

Le Vieux Pin might fool you into thinking this is Severine’s homage to Bordeaux’s Right Bank, but the grape varieties tell you not so. Ava 2016 is based on 50% Viognier with Roussanne and Marsanne. Stone fruit is fresh and aromatic, and the palate is dry and textured (13.9%). The three Syrahs contrast a hot year (2015) with a cooler one (2014), and one in between (2016).

Cuvée Violette 2016 is easy drinking, even for a wine at 14.4% alcohol. Some Viognier is blended in, and it has lots of lifted fruit on nose and palate. Cuvée Classique 2015  (14.3%) has a deeper, warmer, bouquet of plum and violets and the palate has an unexpected lick of fresh acidity, though it has plenty of tannins at this stage too. Equinox Syrah 2014 ironically has more alcohol for a cooler year. It’s quite rich and smooth as well. But it’s a barrel selection, about ten barrels from 150. It will be long-lived, I think.

Severine Pinte’s properties are imported by Flint Wines.

Liquidity Wines (Okanagan, BC)

Liquidity is one of eight Okanagan wineries (including Okanagan Crush Pad) which this year formed the Okanagan Wine Initiative to promote the excellence of Okanagan wines outside of BC. They make some lovely wines, with vineyards once more right down at the southern end of the valley, near the US border.

There’s a good, dry, Viognier 2017, which was followed by two good Chardonnays. Estate Chardonnay 2016 is barrel-fermented (15% new oak) with ten months on lees after malo. It is creamy, and so far, the most aromatic Chardonnay of the day. If it lacks anything, perhaps a touch more acidity? But it is relatively inexpensive (£16 rrp).

Reserve Chardonnay 2016 is a step up. It sees 25% new oak, and is more complex, currently more restrained, and finer than the Estate wine. Quite subtle, I’d say, but with dormant power too. It won top wine in the Chardonnay du Monde 2018 competition in Burgundy, apparently, whatever store one gives…but the wine is certainly very impressive.

Reds included a Bordeaux blend, Dividend 2015, and two Pinots, the entry level version being nice and fruity, and Pinot Noir Equity 2015 being more serious: older vines, and emphasis on clone 828, 35% new French oak and 15 months in barrel. Deeper, a little more earthy, yet polished too. Keep it for five years.

Sadly they didn’t think to bring their Dornfelder-Zweigelt pink! At least they know how to have fun.

Next, a couple more Okanagan wineries, friends with the folks at the Crush Pad, to wind up our British Columbian element.

Painted Rock Estate (Okanagan, BC)

This producer had four reds on show, three of them from 2015, which was the hottest vintage ever in this part of BC. “Dark and Inky” was a frequent note here. You might wonder why I’d write about a bunch of wines coming in at between 14% and 15.3%, but it’s that bizarre freshness that makes them irresistable. The vines here are sheltered by a low mountain range, just a little way up the valley. The vineyards have a gentle slope averaging 6% and the cooling breezes sweep down through the vine rows, blowing the heat off the grapes.

There was a Rhônish Syrah 2015 nodding a little to Cornas in texture, a concentrated and ripe Cabernet Franc 2015, and a Merlot 2014, from that cooler vintage. Red Icon 2015 contains a blend of the five Bordeaux varieties, with 45% Merlot dominant. It has a classic profile of what really seems to be becoming an equally classic Okanagan “Bordeaux blend”.

Had to include the swirly decanter here, which supposedly works. Fascinating, hypnotic even!

Poplar Grove (Okanagan, BC)

Poplar Grove is the friendly neighbour of Painted Rock. Tony Holler’s estate is at Penticton, on the Naramata Bench, but with vines down on the border as well. Tony was one of the most fun people to taste with, truly enthusiastic but not over serious. He makes some tasty wines too.

Chardonnay 2016 is lightly oaked and aromatic for Chardonnay, with melon and pineapple, plus citrus on the finish. A fruity wine which should retail for £15-£16. This aromatic freshness seems to follow over into the reds, especially Cabernet Franc 2014. This despite 13.9% abv. In this case Tony puts it down to the slow maturation of the grapes in the region’s long autumns. The equally alcoholic Merlot 2014 and Syrah 2014 are in a similar style. Legacy 2013 with and extra year in bottle is another classic Bordeaux blend, this time build around 44% Cabernet Sauvignon.

All the reds see oak (a third new, a third one-year-old and a third two-year-old), followed by 18 to 21 months in bottle before release. Classical in style, and once again, although you would expect Canadian wines to be fairly expensive, most are around the £15 to £20 mark, the Legacy rising to around £25.

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Hidden Bench Estate Winery (Niagara Peninsula, Ontario)

We now skip back to Ontario, and Hidden Bench, another reasonably well known producer even outside of Canada. Harald Thiel’s wines are certified organic, and he follows biodynamic methods, and these are serious bottles. The winery is just outside of Beamsville, and part of the Beamsville Bench sub-appellation.

This was another producer of a tasty Riesling, Estate Riesling 2016, fruity with 11g of residual sugar. I was more taken with this than with the Fumé Blanc 2016, but that is doubtless more down to style than quality with me. A single vineyard Felseck Chardonnay 2014 is directly off the Beamsville Bench and hopefully helps to show why the land here is so sub-divided (largely down to geology). It sees 14 months in oak (20% new) and then 8 months in stainless steel to settle, and it undergoes partial malolactic. The result is complex already, and nicely rounded.

There is also a Felseck Pinot Noir 2015 from the same site, which is quite serious too, and contrasts nicely with the pale and vibrant (if slightly leaner) Estate Pinot Noir 2015.

The growing season in Niagara is ostensibly somewhat shorter than that in Okanagan, and it is particularly impressive to see Pinot Noir doing well here, but it may be that climate change is having an effect, as producers report longer summers than usual in recent years (though winters can still be frighteningly cold, despite the ameliorating effects of the water in Lake Ontario).

Harald looking serious for his serious wines

Inniskillin Wines (Niagara, Ontario)

Inniskillin must be the most famous wine producer at the Tasting. In the 1990s it was their Icewines which won Trophies at the major Wine Competitions, and put Canadian wine on the map. True to form, for those of us planning to taste the ultra sweet dessert wines towards the end of the day, they were almost all gone, and the table was unmanned.

The main grape for Icewine production, as I’ve already said, is the French hybrid vine, Vidal. Inniskillin make a still Vidal, and a sparkling version, which I rarely taste and had very much wanted to on this occasion. Riesling is made in generally smaller volumes, but perhaps the least well known Icewine variety is Cabernet Franc.

Cabernet Franc Icewine 2016 was the only bottle left with any wine inside. I was tempted to liberate that bottle, but thought better of it. Suffice to say that these are fine wines, and they combine concentration with a nice acid balance. The grapes are picked frozen, and as with European Icewine/Eiswein/Vin de Glace, that intensifies the sugars as the frozen water is removed in pressing. The wines are refreshing, due to their acidity, but boy are they sweet.

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Mainly empties at Inniskillin, sadly.

Pillitteri Estate Winery (Niagara, Ontario)

This producer makes a range of inexpensive (and quite good value) dry wines, red and white, but was also showing a couple of Icewines. Typically, as Pillitteri are more or less unknown in the UK, the bottles still contained plenty of wine. A Reserve Vidal 2014Reserve Riesling 2013 and a Reserve Cabernet Franc 2015 were delicious examples of the genre. Perhaps not with the concentration that I remember with Inniskillin, but not far off. These wines had slightly more alcohol than those of that better known producer (11% abv, as opposed to 9%), and they both come from the more specific Niagara on the Lake, where you will also find the more well known producers Jackson Triggs, Peller, Stratus and Southbrook Vineyards.

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Lightfoot and Wolfville Vineyards (Annapolis Valley, Nova Scotia)

We now come to three quite different producers in one of Canada’s new wine frontiers, Nova Scotia. Peter Gamble, who was pouring the wines, has been creating a bit of a frontier ruckus, being largely instrumental (and vocal) in the formation of Nova Scotia’s Tidal Bay appellation (2012). The estate produces nice Chardonnay and Pinot Noir which shouldn’t be discounted, but I was especially impressed with the Lightfoot Woolfville Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut 2013, Annapolis Valley.

Commentators say that Nova Scotia’s climate, cool but moderated by the Atlantic Ocean, is a shoe-in for sparkling wines. This one is  biodynamic Chardonnay with four years on lees, bottled at 5g/l dosage. Just right, it balances fruit with crispness. As the Winery Association of Nova Scotia declares, “acidity is the signature attribute of Nova Scotia Wine”.

Benjamin Bridge (Gaspereau Valley, Nova Scotia)

Gaspereau Valley, which lies south of the Annapolis, is described as a “valley within a valley”. The Bay of Fundy moderates the climate producing a longer than expected growing season, with a “longer hang time” for mainly “Champagne varietals” (sic). This is why Benjamin Bridge is able to claim to be “Canada’s most acclaimed sparkling wine house”. I only mention this producer briefly to signal that if you do see any Nova Scotia sparklers, they are worth picking up.

Luckett Vineyards (Gaspereau Valley, Nova Scotia)

Sophie Luckett was reasonably sure she’d met me before. I don’t believe that is the case, but I have certainly drunk one of the Luckett wines before, back in October 2016. It was their Buried White 2013. The grape variety is the hybrid L’Acadie, and it is conceptually interesting because it is fermented in Hungarian oak which is buried in the vineyard where the vines for this cuvée grow. Only around 200 bottles were produced.

Four Luckett wines were on show, all of them really quite exciting in their own way, because they show a different side of Canadian wine (and they don’t cost all that much money).

Phone Box Fizz 2016 is a tank fermented fizz made from L’Acadie again, with Muscat and Traminer. A floral nose gives way to crunchy grapefruit on the palate, but it is bottled with 25g/l of residual sugar. It’s a simple but refreshing summer wine. The name? There’s a London phone box in the middle of the vineyard. Random!

Tidal Bay 2016 is the appellation wine, but from fruit still sourced in the Gaspereau Valley. Production of this wine, along with the Tidal Bay appellation generally, is seeing rapid growth. This is another wine based on L’Acadie (which covers around 25% of Nova Scotia’s vignoble), this time blended with Seyval Blanc, Muscat and Ortega (the great hope for Kentish white wine). I think you would also describe this as a light, summery, wine, think seafood.

Phone Box Red 2015 is also a blend of a few hybrids based around one of Nova Scotia’s leading red varieties by volume planted, Marechal Foch. It’s quite dark in colour and sees 12 months in French oak. Quite sappy.

Rosetta was an under the counter special and I didn’t spot the vintage. By this stage I admit I was tiring, but it perked me up no end. A simple, fruity, pink but none the worse for that.

It seems that Luckett Vineyards is well geared up for wine tourism, with a restaurant and lovely views which remind me a little of pictures I’ve see taken from New Zealand’s Waiheke Island. I’d love to visit…though Toronto and Vancouver do beckon forcefully.

One more time with feeling: Sophie Luckett communicating with tasters until the bitter end

Domaine Neige (Hemmingford, Québec)

Domaine Neige was the first producer of Ice Cidre in Canada, producing this delicious product from mainly MacIntosh apples planted on 100 acres. I suppose that with the apple-friendly climate, and perhaps, if fancifully, the connection Québec has with Normandy settlers, an apple product which mirrors Canada’s famous Icewine is not unusual.

There are two versions which were on taste yesterday. Both were very fine products, and both reminiscent of Icewine, but with apple clearly the source fruit. Neige Première 2014 is quite light, though 12% abv, with a fresh zip and a touch of apple skin bitterness to counter the sweetness. The fruit here is picked in September and the apples are stored and frozen before pressing. The nectar is then put into tank for fermentation.

Neige Winter Harvest 2008 was quite different. The fruit here is picked in December when the apples are frozen on the tree, just like a true Icewine’s grapes are frozen on the vine. It has a richer and deeper flavour, something akin to toffee apples. You get more complexity but no loss of fresh fruit above the deeper toffee/caramel notes. I’ll tell you, if the guy had a bottle to sell I’d have bought one.

Suggested partners are cheeses (especially cheddar), which funnily enough I’d not thought of, but would work well, I imagine. Or cocktails, it says on importer Cellartrends‘ web site. I’d try cheese, or just drink as a digestif. The winter version has just 9% alcohol. Both should retail at about £26/half, a little expensive to drown in a cocktail.

This was an excellent Tasting, and as with the wines of other countries not sufficiently represented in the UK, Canada should be on the Wine Lists of far more merchants and restaurants. The quality is generally very high. Canada’s profile is growing, and this tasting definitely helped cement the reputation of its major producing appellations and regions.

About dccrossley

Writing here and elsewhere mainly about the outer reaches of the wine universe and the availability of wonderful, characterful, wines from all over the globe. Very wide interests but a soft spot for Jura, Austria and Champagne, with a general preference for low intervention in vineyard and winery. Other passions include music (equally wide tastes) and travel. Co-organiser of the Oddities wine lunches.
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