Bottling Isn’t Growing: A Reflection on Canadian Wine for Canada Day

Tomorrow is Canada Day and, symbolically enough, today is the last day of a survey for the blended wine labelling consultation held by the Canadian Food Inspection agency, as it’s preparing to replace the highly problematic “Cellared in Canada” designation with expressions that better describe what is going on in those cheap, mass-produced wines made from blends of (mostly) international wines shipped to Canada in bulk, with some domestic wines (and possibly some water). July 1st will be a good day to celebrate the disappearance of anything relating these bottles to wines actually made from grapes grown in Canada, wines that truly reflect the work of Canadian winegrowers and winemakers.

If all proceeds as it should, we’ll be able to say good riddance to a marketing ploy that did a fair bit of harm. Cellared in Canada created a lot of confusion for consumers, who would buy a bottle that seemed Canadian, up front, before tasting it and finding the cabernets tasted a lot like Chilean cabs, and that the sauvignon tasted an awful lot like New Zealand savvy. Those blends wines do not show what is actually made in Canada, something I’m happy to taste every year, through and through, at the National Wine Awards of Canada. This year, in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, the NWAC jury tasted some 1,700 wines from all over the country, and had the opportunity to taste a good deal of wines from Nova Scotia, who show amazing distinctiveness and personality. This sense of place, from Nova Scotia and everywhere in Canada, is something we should applaud and support in every way.

Why this seems to remain unclear with some people in the industry is a mystery to me.  Case in point, during a session at the Atlantic Canada Wine Symposium, held just before the National Wine Awards, on June 12-13, in Halifax, the representative of the Canadian Vintners Association, Asha Hingorani, put up some statistics about Canadian wine exports that showed some 58 million dollars worth of wine going to the US market. Several people were wondering how on earth we were selling so much wine down south – especially when the figures showed an incredibly low price per liter. Pushed by Ezra Cipes, from Summerhill Pyramid Winery, Hingorani recognized that the figures included movements of the wines soon-to-be-formerly-known-as-Cellared-in-Canada and bulk wine that came through Canada and headed south. The actual exports of actual Canadian wine are much, much lower.

I raised my hand, after a convoluted explanation by Hingorani about the confusion in statistics, to protest the use of such useless figures in public presentations by the CVA. The distinction between wine made in Canada and wine bottled in Canada should be perfectly clear. Period. Statistics Canada itself is not helping, with numbers about sales of Canadian wine that include the international and domestic blends, without any clear distinction from wines grown and made in Canada. And I’ve often heard people in official positions – people who should know better – support that confusion by stating how remarkable that Canadian wine had such a large share of the market… because they included international blends in the total. Even the LCBO maintains that confusion by saying in its 2016 Annual Report that “Ontario wine sales at the LCBO accounted for 24.8 per cent of the total wine market”, when the VQA sales are a fraction of that – and I couldn’t find an actual number for VQA wine sales in the LCBO report.

Do wines bottled in Canada have a positive impact on jobs in the country? Sure. Does a wine bottled in Canada have a greater positive impact on our economy than a wine that comes straight to Canada in bottles? Yes, you can argue that. But there is no way that cheap Chilean or Californian with a splash of Ontario wine can be called Canadian wine, or that it does anything for the development of Canadian wine in the true sense of the word. It’s plain stupid to try to argue otherwise, or maintain an outlook that confuses the issue.

The consultation leading to the end of the Cellared in Canada designation is going to remove that confusion at the consumer level. Isn’t it about time that the confusion disappeared at the institutional level? I certainly hope that organizations like the Canadian Vintners Association, self-defined as the “the national voice of wine in Canada”, will stop fudging the numbers and actually reflect what is going on in the vineyards of the country, coast to coast.

I’d certainly raise more than one glass of 100% Canadian wine to that.

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