A case of Canadian wine on Palate Press – and thoughts on the Canadian Wine brand

Busy week on the blogging front for me, as I contributed a sizeable article on Canadian wines for Palate Press, and started The Food Case, the companion food blog to The Wine Case. And that’s not counting the amount of tinkering involved from moving The Wine Case to its new winecase.ca address. Energy-consuming, for sure, but also energizing, as these moves also involve great new possibilities. Let me know what you think about the move, the new food blog (already got some very interesting comments and great compliments with only two posts up), and the Palate Press story.

That story, entitled Canada Dry: it ain’t all icewine, baby, was great fun to write – although choosing only 12 wines to present in detail is really tough, with all the great stuff coming from vineyards from Coast to Coast. Here, just as when I wrote my piece on Canadian winemakers in EnRoute’s August issue, I keep coming back to what I left out, rather than what I put in.

For instance, I certainly haven’t blogged enough, so far, about Southbrook or Ravine, two of the most solid and interesting makers of bordeaux blends (among other interesting cuvées) in Niagara. Ann Sperling, at Southbrook, and Peter Gamble, at Ravine, are two of the most accomplished and interesting winegrowers and winemakers I’ve me – and a great couple, on top of that. They have a clear sense of what the local climate and terroir provide them with, a commitment to organic and biodynamic winegrowing that is all about quality and expression of the wines, and a focused know-how that allows them to get the most out of just about anything nature throws at them.

The 2008 Triomphe Merlot from Southbrook, with its vibrant red fruit and refreshing, zippy feel, shows just how good things can be made in a challenging vintage, while the 2007 Meritage Red from Ravine avoided any of the tough tannins that plagued a number of the 2007 reds from Niagara, in a vintage that has been somewhat overpraised. The whites are also solid, distinctive and tasty. I’ve written about the Ravine Riesling on a Spotlight Toronto feature on Top Ontario Rieslings, and I should also mention the 2008 Whimsy Fumé Blanc from Southbrook, a mostly barrel-fermented sauvignon blanc that is one of the most balanced examples of that grape I’ve had from anywhere in Canada.

I could also talk about 13th Street Winery, whose bubblies, gamays and Et Ceteras white, a blend including some savagnin (!) with some lovely licorice and apple aromas, were some of the most fun wines I tasted in my visits to Niagara, earlier this year. I could go on about Lailey’s shiraz and chardonnays – and pinot noirs – and Canadian Oak cuvées, which are certainly worth the trip to Niagara-on-the-Lake. And I haven’t even mentioned Fielding Winery, where I recently sampled some solid aromatic whites and promising pinot noir barrel samples. And many other wineries I still have to take a closer look at. And I’m not even talking about the Okanagan, which I hope to get to next year, in order to get a real sense of what’s being produced by all these lovely artisan wineries whose wines never get out East.

Raising the brand

Which brings me to the whole subject of the Canadian Wine brand, something that is very partially and unevenly established, beyond the borders of each province. Ontarians are getting to know Ontario wines pretty well, BC drinkers know there’s good stuff being produced in their vineyards, Quebecers are gung ho about ice cider, Nova Scotians excited about the top bubbly that’s starting to come out of the young cellars of the Gaspereau Valley. But BC wine lovers I converse with on Twitter often express regret at how little Niagara wine they see over there – and vice versa for Ontario. Quebec saw a bit more Canadian wine this fall, with the arrival on SAQ shelves of a couple of dozen previously undistributed wines from Ontario and BC. But there’s a long way to go before there’s any sense anywhere, beyond a few experts and aficionados, of what all of Canada can produce.

The Palate Press story generated a fair bit of interest, driven by curiosity. Most people I heard from, especially from south of the border, commented on how intrigued they were by all these wines and how little Canadian wine they had tasted so far. Few wines make it beyond the borders of the province or the country, so it’s a bit normal that a fair number of people still equate Canadian wine with icewine only: they haven’t had much opportunity to taste much of it.

That’s certainly one of the things that has to happen over the next few years. Many, many winemakers have built up quality to world-class levels, and produce distinctive, well-devised cuvées. So the raw material is there for brand building. Promotion now has to pick up and follow through on the promise offered by the wines. That’s a challenge for the growth of Canadian wine in years to come.

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