"We can probably just skip Canada."
Standing near the entrance to the Winnipeg Wine Festival public tastings, I overheard this gem from one of the thousands of people pouring through the Winnipeg Convention Centre doors last Friday night. As a Canadian wine booster -- heck, I taste hundreds of 'em a year -- it's discouraging to hear the wine-drinking public dismiss our country's product so outrightly.
As co-theme regions at this year's festival, British Columbia and Ontario wines were poured side by side, in many cases by a winery representative or the actual winemaker. This in and of itself is remarkable -- the two regions rarely work together, each has its own Vintner's Quality Alliance (VQA) regulatory board and marketing organization, and so forth.
One visiting producer emailed me after the fest with some remarkable insight about what the Winnipeg Wine Festival (and the Manitoba market) meant to him. "True to its central position in the country, you have brought Canada's wine producers together," he began. "We mingled and poured wine as one; it was great.
"We have remarkably different industries, different growing conditions, and different provincial market systems.... When federal governments review education grants, etc., they want us to work as one industry. From my limited experience this has been difficult to do because of we have so many differences.
"Yet here we were, displayed and essentially working and marketing as one industry. At after-events, the industry chatter turned to shared problems that, in some cases, we didn't realize we shared. We were able to share notes and compare issues in ways that we (the small producers) don't normally do with each other."
In a way, such a co-hosting could only happen in Winnipeg -- our geographic location between the two provinces means we're neutral ground, and we receive nearly equal (albeit relatively small) amounts of B.C. and Ontario VQA wines. While sales of VQA wines are split almost exactly 50-50 between the two regions, these Canadian wines make up only two per cent of Manitoba Liquor Mart wine sales. By contrast, the cheaper "bottled/blended in Canada" wines -- those made from domestic and imported juices by the country's bigger wineries -- retain a much larger (35 per cent) share of the wine market.
The good news is that Canadian VQA wine is one of the fastest-growing categories at Liquor Marts. Hopefully most of those who passed through the convention centre's doors last weekend learned a thing or two about Canadian wine, and how many world-class whites and reds are made here.
Maybe one day the Canadian wine industry will have a strong, unified means by which Ontario and British Columbia producers can work together to foster the industry, both within our borders and beyond. Would the passing of a private member's bill introduced by Conservative MP Dan Albas to allow for interprovincial shipping of Canadian wine help Canadian producers in general? Possibly; certainly the smaller guys that are fighting for spots on Manitoba shelves. Interprovincial shipping could provide the opportunity for Canadian wine drinkers to taste Canadian wines that might never otherwise make it to their province.
Which just might lead fewer wine lovers in our country to "skip Canada."
NOTE: these were wines tried at Winnipeg Wine Festival events. As such, vintages may vary from what you find on the shelf and availability may be sporadic.
NIAGARA COLLEGE TEACHING WINERY "DEAN'S LIST" 2009 CHARDONNAY
(St. David's Bench, Ont. -- $28.38, Liquor Marts and beyond)
There's certainly some complexity to the nose of this Ontario reserve Chardonnay: vanilla, spice, peach, ripe apple and caramel aromas deliver ripeness with a dollop of oak. It's full-bodied, rich and soft Chardonnay, with the ripe tropical fruit and red apple notes fleshed out by 11 months' time in oak. Most Niagara Chardonnay I've tasted is lean and racy, which I like, but this fleshier version works for me too. 88/100
BURROWING OWL 2009
(Okanagan Valley, B.C. -- $33.21, Liquor Marts and beyond)
The balance of bright fruit (red apple, peach, lemon) and oak (vanilla, caramel) on the nose is spot-on here. While it's a full-bodied Chardonnay with great depth (thanks in part to nine months in oak), the intensity of fruit stands up here, with peach and pear notes and that lemon component that delivers light acidity. The balance here is notable, and the wine delicious. 90/100
HENRY OF PELHAM 2010
(Ontario -- $14.95, Liquor Marts and beyond)
I've probably tried every vintage of this Ontario red for the past decade, and this might be the best. Baco Noir can be overly foxy, barnyard-ish and downright unpleasant -- all traits this wine avoids. Instead, raspberry, raisin, plum, black pepper and grapey aromas and flavours come through in harmony on this wine. Many people avoid Baco Noir like the plague -- this vintage of the Henry of Pelham may change their minds. 88