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Canada's Evolving Wine Tastes  (October 3, 2003)

We've come a long way, baby. A long way, that is, from Baby Duck. Twenty years ago, the largest selling wine in Ontario was that sweet 5 per cent sparkler that was sold in Quack Packs.

In the mid 1980s we traded up in quality, and when we went to bars and restaurants, we ordered "white wine." Didn't matter what it was as long as it wasn't red, because someone somewhere got the idea that white wine was less fattening than red.

Then, as our palates became more sophisticated, we began to ask for wine by grape variety – usually Chardonnay, as in "I'll have a glass of Chardonnay."

Then in 1992 we were hit with The French Paradox. You may recall that famous edition of the TV news show "60 Minutes" in which Morley Safer first explored the benefits of moderate wine drinking, particularly red wine.

The two doctors he interviewed stated that the incidence of heart attacks among the French population was one-third that of the United States and Canada, despite the fact that the French eat as much fat as we do (think cheese, cream, butter, foie gras, as opposed to French fries, potato chips, hamburgers on this side of the Atlantic). The reason for the disparity in mortality rates due to heart disease, claimed the doctors, was that the French habitually drank wine (mainly red wine) with their meals.

Sales of red wines in North America immediately shot up after that show, and now as a nation Canadians are drinking more red than white. Where once we bought two bottles of white for every bottle of red, now it's almost the reverse.

The next revolution in our wine drinking history could be called more of a revolt: the ABC movement - Anything But Chardonnay. We got tired of the vanilla ice cream of the wine world and looked around for something new to titillate our jaded palates. So we turned to Sauvignon Blanc and, having exhausted its popularity (in spite of a long run with New Zealand Sauvignon), we settled on Pinot Grigio – the Italian version of Pinot Gris, which is still in favour.

On the red side, Cabernet Sauvignon was replaced by Merlot in the affections of the wine drinking public. But now the flavour of the month is Shiraz. Particularly Australian Shiraz. Which has created an even more ironic situation. The French call that variety Syrah, and it's grown in the Rhône Valley. In the northern part of the region Syrah makes single varietal wines such as Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, Côte-Rôtie, etc. In the southern part of the valley Syrah is one of the grapes in the blends that make up Châteauneuf-du-Pape and the various village wines of the Côtes du Rhône.

But so successful has Australia been in marketing Shiraz that the French are beginning to label their Syrah as Shiraz. (Witness the newly listed Domaine des Fées Shiraz from the Pays d'Oc at $8.95). And this demonstrates another trend – the shift from Old World to New World wines.

The difference between Old World wines and those of the new World is not only a geographic difference but a philosophical one as well.

In "Old Europe," the tradition of winemaking has been handed down over the generations and not much has changed. They make their wines to last. You have to lay them down to allow the tannins to soften. In Canada, we're not used to buying a wine that we have to cellar for seven years. We're not prepared to wait that long. A survey done to find how long consumers kept wine from the point of purchase to the pulling of the cork showed the average time was 54 minutes.

So if we demand wines that are accessible as soon as we buy them, the winemaking has to be different. The fruit has to be forward and soft. This makes for fruit-driven, jammy wines with little evidence of tannin (and therefore structure). A perfect example is the new hot wine from Australia, Yellow Tail Shiraz 2002 ($11.25), which is now outselling Wolf Blass Yellow Label Cabernet Sauvignon in BC (Yellow Label is Ontario's largest selling red wine).

And where are we going next for those elusive wine bargains? I predict that South African Pinotage will begin to attract wine drinkers with its blackberry and iodine flavour. Spanish wines based on the Tempranillo grape will enjoy a renaissance, and red wines from the Douro Valley (famous for its ports) will also find a place on our tables.

The next trend in whites I believe will be Viognier with its exotic, honeysuckle, peach and apricot flavours. And then there is the retro-grape, Riesling, that most versatile of varieties, which can make a wine for all occasions.




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