Recently I had the pleasure of attending the Best European and South African Sommelier Competition in Vienna, courtesy of the Austrian Wine Marketing Board, and I was surprised and a little saddened to discover how little knowledge there is – even among top wine professionals – about Canadian wines.
Sure, Canada is famous for Icewine, and rightfully so, but from my perspective, it seems like that is all Canada is known for. As a sommelier I encounter Canadian colleagues who joke about the quality of Canadian wines! This sort of attitude goes a long way in explaining why Canadian wines are not as respected around the world as they should be. If we, as Canadian wine professionals don’t appreciate and respect our own terroir and wines, then we can’t expect it from anyone else.
As a sommelier guiding diners in many top-tier Toronto restaurants and at Chef & Somm, I have always found it quite challenging to sell local wines. This has always been a mystery to me, since in most of Europe and America, enjoying local wines is a natural part of life.
After tasting many local and non-local wines, comparing notes, trying one vintage after the other, following the development of different local wineries, trying them with and without food, it is still my assertion that there is much to recommend about Canadian wines in general and Ontario wines in particular.
Let’s Stop Comparing Apples to Oranges!
People love competition. Just turn on the TV; all the most popular shows, from Top Chef to Survivor, have an element of competition, winners and losers. But the world of wine is more complex than that – thank goodness! – because it’s a product of nature, and nature is wider, more varied and beautiful. It’s not black and white, or a case of winner and loser, good or bad. Celebrating variety and difference might not be as easy or as popular as black and white, winners and losers, but it’s more nuanced and quite frankly, more satisfying.
Sadly, people often compare Canadian wines with Californian or Italian wines, looking for clear winners and losers, but look closer and you’ll see our distinctly Canadian soil, climate, and wine-makers’ attitudes and techniques are unique. Comparisons like this don’t make sense, they’re not fair, and I think, misguided. This isn’t how we should judge our wines, and it most definitely isn’t how we should strive to make them.
If a Niagara winemaker pushes to produce a California-style wine he will almost certainly end up with a very artificial, unnatural wine. Each terroir has its own magic and style, all the winemaker has to do is reveal it, and let it shine; all the consumer has to do is appreciate its unique charms.
Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day and Not Without the Support of the Italians
Knowing how many generations the Italians and French have been making wine for, it’s wildly unfair to expect the same from Canadian vineyards after less than 50 years of wine-making. Let me put this into perspective; it wasn’t until 1975 when the first new winemaking license was granted in Ontario. That license was hard-won by Inniskillin, and it was a game-changer, allowing grape-growers to uproot concord and labrusca vines and replace them with noble, Old World varieties. There’s a fantastic book all about the birth of the Ontario wine industry – Niagara's Wine Visionaries; Profiles of the Pioneering Winemakers by Linda Bramble. It’s good read and I think it will fill your heart with national wine pride!
I grew up in Europe, where there is still a tradition of supporting your neighbour by eating and drinking locally. No one talks about it much, it’s just how it is and how it has been for generations. Of course, they will try wine and food from around the world, but what they enjoy on a daily basis is what’s grown and produced in their own villages. It’s like visiting a friend, or visiting a new country, you'll do it once in a while and enjoy it, but you always come back home.
What Grows Together Goes Together
If you consider wine in the context of a dinner – which is the traditional way of experiencing wine – then there should be common ground between the food and the wine. The terroir-induced flavours of a wine will naturally pair best with the flavours of the ingredients that grow in the same land. For example, an Ontario cheese, such as Comfort Cream from Upper Canada Cheese Company pairs beautifully with an Ontario Botrytis Affected Sémillon from Stratus. Whereas, Reblochon – a French, washed-rind, ripened cheese – works best with Sauternes (the French Botrytis Affected Sémillon).
Try it yourself! Taste the Comfort Cream with the Sauternes and you’ll no doubt notice, even though the Sauternes is the more expensive and prestigious wine, it doesn't pair as well with the Upper Canada cheese. The wine comes across as too rich, deep, and overbearing next to the young, fresh, Ontario cheese. Now try the Reblochon with Stratus Semillon; the feeling is similar, with the more mature Reblochon dominating, making the Stratus Sémillon seem shy next to it.
This is to be expected, as Canada is a much younger wine-making country; our vines are younger, and of course, our terroir is different. When observing the most important role of wine and food pairing – that of matching the weight of a dish with the weight of a wine – pairing by geography just makes good, tasty, sense!
I immigrated here; I’ve chosen Canada as my home, and this is one of the reasons I drink Canadian wines. I have a few rules, mind you! No, I will not drink Canadian wines that are not loyal to our terroir; wines that try to be copies of something else from somewhere else. And no, I do not restrict myself to enjoying only Canadian wines; I won’t limit my education and my experiences that way. But, my wine cellar will always be at least 35% Canadian, I will keep showing people how beautiful Canadian wines can be, and I will continue to support the great wineries that express the beauty of our Canadian terroir, such as Southbrook Vineyards, Henry of Pelham Family Estate, Château des Charmes, Norman Hardie, Mission Hill Winery, Back 10 Cellars, Rosewood Estates, Stanners, Checkmate Winery, Kew Vineyards, Stratus Vineyards, and Lacey Estates to name but a few.