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The Case for Canadian Wine (April 18, 2002)

London, July 1st, 1975. The Canadian High Commissioner is holding a lunch to celebrate Canada Day. I am seated next to a British diplomat and I ask him what he thinks of the sparkling wine we are drinking. It's labelled Château-Gai Imperial Champagne and is made from Catawba, a North American labrusca variety, blended with French hybrids. "It's fine," he replies, "for launching enemy submarines."

Yes, Canadian wine was as much a joke to the British as it was to us in those days. The grapes our wineries used then – mostly Concord for reds and Niagara for whites – are fine for jellies and jams but they make wretched wine with their 'foxy' nose. Thinking back, I would rather taste the glue they used to stick the labels on the bottles than drink a labrusca-based wine.

Canadian Wines –
Facts & Figures

In Canada there are over 190 wineries (including fruit wineries) – Ontario has 90, British Columbia 65, Quebec 30, and Nova Scotia 4. Over 80% of Canadian wine is produced in Ontario.

Vintage 2000, grape tonnage (metric) crushed: 38,377

Major varieties:
(white, in order of tonnage) Vidal (mainly for Icewine), Chardonnay, Riesling, G.M. 318, Gewurztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, G.M. 311-58, G.M. 332, Auxerrois, Pinot Blanc.
(red) Cabernet Franc, Baco Noir, Gamay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Zweigeltrebe.

Icewine production (annual average): 65,000 cases (Icewine production accounts for 5% on Ontario wine production). In litres: 329,000.

British Columbia:
Vintage 2000, grape tonnage (metric) crushed: 8,018

Major varieties: Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Ehrenfelser, Auxerrois, Sauvignon Blanc, Bacchus, Vidal, Kerner.
(red) Merlot, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Gamay, Baco Noir, Syrah, Marechal Foch.

Icewine production (annual average): 10,000 cases. In litres: 39,000.

Approximately 25% of Canadian Icewine is exported, mainly to Taiwan, Japan, China and the United States.

Now flash forward twenty-six years to October 2001. Canada's Governor General, Adrienne Clarkson, pays a state visit to Germany. She brings with her 53 cases of wine from leading Ontario and British Columbia producers – not for her own personal use but to present to German guests at official dinners, receptions and table-top wine tastings. Diplomats, politicians, winemakers, sommeliers, wine importers all taste the wines. Their responses range from the incredulous ("You make wine in Canada!") to the rapturous ("Your reds wines have so much extract!")

Canada's home-grown wines not only get the gubernatorial nod abroad but also at home. The cellar at Rideau Hall, the Governor General's residence in Ottawa, is now exclusively stocked with the best that Canadian vineyards have to offer. This means that when heads of state come to the capital they drink Canadian wine, not French and certainly not Californian.

The Governor General's husband, John Ralston Saul, whose initiative it was to lay down an all-Canadian cellar, tells me that when guests dine at Rideau Hall they would expect to be served Canadian white wines, "but they thought we served European reds. Then at the end of the meal we'd tell them it was Canadian, and they'd say, 'Oh my God!' People had to get used to the fact that we're not just producing better wines, we're producing very good wines."

Today, connoisseurs abroad are talking enthusiastically about Canadian wine. Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson have this to say in the latest edition of The World Atlas of Wine: "Canada's wine industry has only recently come of age. For long hampered by poor quality grapes and smothered by protective legislation, Ontario wine did not even aspire to compete on the world stage until the late 1980s. But now... Ontario's best wines can hold their own in comparison with similar styles produced elsewhere and triumphantly win any Icewine comparison hands down."

How did the industry turn itself in a generation from the butt of jokes to an object of admiration by wine professionals beyond Canadian shores? The answer is a very simple concept: less is more.

In 1981, I crossed Canada researching the first edition of a book entitled Vintage Canada. I visited every winery facility, including those in Quebec and Nova Scotia and Alberta (where no grapes were grown). On that trip I tasted 600-odd wines. For the most part the emphasis was on the odd. Yet I saw glimmers of what was possible. At Château des Charmes, Colio and Inniskillin in Ontario, Gray Monk, Mission Hill and Sumac Ridge in British Columbia I tasted Chardonnays and Rieslings that spoke of the soil in which they were grown. I wrote then, "Canada may never produce a Château Lafite, a Richebourg or a Hermitage but a fine white, Chardonnay or Johannisberg Riesling, is certainly within reach..."

Up to this point in its history the Canadian wine industry had been dominated by large corporate entities such as Andrés, Brights, Château-Gai and Jordan. These wineries produced oceans of homogenous, mediocre wine rather than letting the site where the grapes were grown dictate the individual character and style of the wine.

It took the advent of the estate wineries with their own small, autonomous acreage of vines in the mid- to late '70s (Château des Charmes et al.) to start the quality revolution.

Any winemaker worth his salt will tell you that wines are made in the vineyard, not in the cellar. The winemaker is a midwife; the less he or she has to interfere in the "birthing" process the better the product will be. Fine wine is basically about soil and sunshine – fully ripened grapes grown in the soil best suited to the variety.

To illustrate how soil can influence the flavour of a wine, you need only taste side by side the five single vineyard Chardonnays Inniskillin produced in 1999. Montague, Seeger, Klose, Culp and Scheule are all vineyard sites within a short distance of each other, yet the Chardonnay grapes from each produce wines that taste as different as Chablis from Chassagne-Montrachet from Pouilly-Fuissé. Inniskillin President Donald Ziraldo's decision to bottle these five vineyard-designated wines has as much to do with politics as with marketing. "It's really attempting to deal with the terroir," he says. "We got the appellation (VQA) in place but we seem to be afraid to step forward and distinguish the different locations. Also behind that whole thinking is trying to force the growers to 'grow' wine, not just grow grapes. Their responsibility doesn't stop at the weigh scale."

When a winery owns its vineyards there is a mystical relationship between proprietor and the soil. Susan O'Dell, co-owner of EastDell Estates in Beamsville, Ontario, says her wines express the Canadian soil in which they were grown. "The wine we get is exactly what we so richly earn from our distinctly Canadian terroir. Where we are on the Beamsville Bench there are outcrops from the Canadian Shield. When you walk out into the vineyard in spring there's no grapes growing, just leaves. But if you manage your way through our seasons and let the grapes come through on the vine then you get wine with that complex granite, austere, true-to-the-origin-of-the-grape flavour."

Wine people are a passionate bunch. Once you're bitten by the grape there is no known cure. And every vintage for the winemaker is a new and unique challenge.

Perhaps the most significant vintage in the history of Canadian wine was 1988. That year the Wine Content Act in Ontario banned the use of labrusca grapes in table wines. 1988 also witnessed the introduction of the appellation system we see on our wine bottles today – Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA). Ontario wineries finally agreed to adopt a code of standards similar to AOC in France and DOC in Italy. The first rule was that 100 per cent of the grapes had to be Canadian-grown in areas designated by the VQA's self-policing regulatory body.

1988 was a busy year. That's when Canada got Free Trade. Subsidies that had once protected domestic wine from foreign competition were gone forever. In order to compete against such mega California operations as Gallo – who spill more wine than Canada produces – Canadian vineyard managers tore out their labrusca vines and most of their hybrids. In their place they planted Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Riesling.

Free Trade forced the wineries to compete in the global marketplace. The VQA pressured them into producing better wines that would be monitored by tasting panels for style and quality. The wines from the 1988 vintage on were a far cry from Baby Duck and those highly alcoholic, sweet wines of 25 years ago – "Block & Tackle" wines as they were known (you drank a bottle, walked a block and you could tackle anyone).

The concept of "less is more" began to pay off. This meant recognizing which vineyards produced the best fruit and pruning back the number of bunches per vine to concentrate flavour. One of the most prominent voices advocating lower yields for better quality was Peter Gamble, the former Executive Director of the VQA and now a wine consultant working on a new winery project. "It's interesting to see Canada reflecting international trends in winemaking," he says. "There's a category of small wineries that are driving quality across the country. And we're seeing greater use of grape varieties beyond the ubiquitous Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. The advent of wineries like Thirty Bench, Thirteenth Street and Malivoire in Ontario had an enormous impact on overall quality. What happened was that all the local viticulturalists had a look and said, 'Wow, this is a whole new ball game' and suddenly everybody needs to take their top end wines and go that direction too. The same is true in BC."

Wine growing is about geography as well as soil and sunshine. Look at a map of the world and you will see that the vineyards of wine-producing countries are concentrated between latitudes 30 and 50 degrees north and south of the equator. Ontario and British Columbia's vineyards fall within this band. Ontario has three wine regions – Niagara Peninsula, Lake Erie North Shore and Pelee Island. Pelee Island, Canada's most southerly point, is nearer the equator than the Chianti Classico zone of central Italy. It's Canadian winters and late springs that differentiate the three Ontario regions from European wine growing countries. Our cooler growing season resembles that of Burgundy, whose Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs are the yardsticks against which other regions measure their quality. Like Burgundy, we can't ripen red grape varieties well every year so some vintages of red wines will be lighter in colour and commensurately less concentrated in flavour than others.

British Columbia's Okanagan Valley, more northerly than Ontario's regions, is technically semi-desert with a maximum of ten inches of rainfall a year. The Okanagan is on the same latitude as Reims, the capital of Champagne. Hot days and cold nights, especially in the southern Okanagan by the Washington border, create an ideal climate for wine growing, especially for reds.

Wine is grown, too, in Nova Scotia and, against all the odds, in snow-bound Quebec, where some thirty wineries quixotically battle the elements to produce light reds and acidic, dry whites.

One measure of the health of an industry is how it evaluates itself in public. Twenty years ago the idea of holding a competition to judge the best Canadian wines in their category would have been laughable. Thanks to better grape varieties being planted and allowed to mature, better vineyard practices (more efficient pruning and lower grape yields) and more skillful winemaking, the wine industry has witnessed a sea-change in quality.

Today in Ontario there are five different competitions that judge Ontario wines. In British Columbia there are four, and this fall (2002) the University of British Columbia will mount an event they call the "Chardonnay of the Century – Million Dollar Challenge." The question is: who will pick up the gauntlet? Will the magisterial Burgundian producers of Montrachet deign to enter? Will California's Kistler, Caymus and Au Bon Climat? Or Australia's Eileen Hardy or Leeuwin Estate? They may not be tempted by the top prize of half a million that goes to the wine judged by an international experts to be the best Chardonnay in the world. (The other half mill will be divided among category winners.) Canadian contenders – if they are willing to fork out the $750 entry fee – could be (from Ontario) Inniskillin, Château des Charmes, Henry of Pelham, Cave Spring, Thirty Bench and Malivoire; (from BC) Blue Mountain, Mission Hill, Sumac Ridge, La Frenz and Domaine Combret.

Today, Canadian wine is big business. Where once it was the preserve of farmers and weekend hobbyists, it has become more corporate-driven as entrepreneurs at home and abroad seek a piece of the action. The same thing happened in California's Napa Valley during the 1980s and 1990s, where choice vineyard land that cost US$15,000 twenty years ago now goes for $150,000 an acre and up!

Witness the huge expansion of Mission Hill in BC's Okanagan Valley, where owner Anthony von Mandl has invested $36 million to build an architectural dream in West Bank complete with a Roman-style outdoor amphitheatre, cavernous barrel-ageing cellar blasted out of volcanic rock and 12-storey bell tower with four brass bells cast in France. From its Ontario base, Vincor has become the fifteenth-largest winery in the world, first acquiring wineries such as Inniskillin, London, Sumac Ridge and Hawthorne Mountain and then companies in California and Washington as it pursues the goal of its CEO Don Triggs to become No.10 in the world. Vincor has co-production deals with Bordeaux's giant Groupe Taillan in B.C. and Burgundy's largest shipper, Boisset, in Ontario. For the latter, they're building a dedicated production facility in Niagara designed by the renowned Canadian architect, Frank Gehry. Plans are afoot for three multi-million dollar wineries to be built in Ontario this year.

While there are still boutique-minded enthusiasts opening their own estate wineries, it's the big boys with deep pockets who grab the headlines, especially those who come from outside. The latest rush to Niagara is a Quebec-based company, Maison des Futailles, who announced in December that it will establish a 66-acre vineyard next to the Henry of Pelham winery with the Burgundy shipper, Michel Picard, in order to produce New World wines in that characteristic California style – fruit-driven, soft on the palate and table ready. This operation will involve an investment of close to $2 million in land and vineyards alone over the next three years.

The irony is that more money is being spent to make less wine. Less wine per acre, that is. And less will inevitably cost more because of the higher quality. Already the top wines produced in Canada will set you back $45 a bottle and up, with the most expensive, Vineland Estates Meritage Reserve 1998, cashing out at $125 a bottle.

While these wines have yet to make an impact on the export market, there is one wine from Canada that has attracted the attention of connoisseurs abroad. It's Icewine. Such is the regard for this "gift of winter" that it has reached cult status in the Pacific Rim, where it fetches three and four times the price it does in Canada – a situation that has made it a target for counterfeit products. Suddenly everyone wants Canadian Icewine and, since we are blessed with a climate that can produce this honey sweet dessert wine consistently, every year we have become the world's largest producer. Icewine, incidentally, is the first Canadian wine to gain full access to European Union markets.

But for all Icewine's popularity abroad, the industry cannot survive on it alone. Total production for vintage 2000 was 3.4 thousand litres, compared with a total production of red and white table wines of 10.3 million litres.

Having tasted and judged thousands of Canadian wines since VQA was introduced, I can say without a hint of chauvinism that Canadian wines at their best are as good as anything you can get in their price range from France, Italy, California or Australia. The problem is that the consuming public has yet to catch up to the winemakers. According to Canadian Vintners Association figures, roughly two-thirds of wines sold in Canada for the first six months of 2001 were imported; the other third were made here.

Donald Ziraldo of Inniskillin beats the drum for Canadian wine wherever he goes, but even for a tireless huckster it's still an uphill battle. "What's frustrating in Canada is the recognition," observes Ziraldo. "It's dismal. I go down to Aspen, Colorado, for the food festival, I walk into restaurants and the guys there are making a fuss over the wine. In Aspen restaurants, it's 90 per cent California, Washington and Oregon wines. I come back home and visit a couple of places and there's a token Canadian wine on the list. I just don't know what it's going to take to get Canadians to drink Canadian wine. I go to New Zealand with their 3.5 million people. Eighty-five per cent of the wine on the wine lists and the retail shops are New Zealand. I go to Australia, the same thing. I go to California, the same thing. That's been the disappointing part. Canadians just don't get it. The Icewine they are getting because the rest of the world is telling them."

No man is a prophet in his own land, it seems, even if he is a winemaker.




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