Canada – the evolution of a wine industry

3 October 2017 by in Classic Wine Library, Wine and spirits

By Rod Phillips, author of The wines of Canada

When I migrated from New Zealand to Canada in the 1960s at the age of 19, both my country of departure and the one I arrived in had embryonic modern wine industries. Much New Zealand wine at that time was fortified, and much of what was not should have been. The same was true of Ontario, where I settled down. Both regions were heavily dependent on hybrid varieties: Müller-Thurgau and Baco Noir in New Zealand, Baco Noir, Maréchal Foch, and Vidal in Ontario – as well as Concord, a native grape that turned out to be brilliant for grape juice and jelly.

At 19, I had already been interested in wine for several years – thanks to a sympathetic wine merchant who agreed that having to wait until I was 21 to taste it was ridiculous. I tasted as widely as I could, and by the time I was 17 I had become the wine steward (now I would be called the sommelier, I suppose) in one of Auckland’s few licensed restaurants, Tiffany’s. I read the likes of André Simon on wine generally and Julian Jeffs on Sherry – and I’m very happy to join him as a Classic Wine Library author, 50 years later!

I also built a small private cellar of about 20 bottles, mainly Australian Shirazes and Cabernets (Australia was ahead in planting Vitis vinifera) and a few friends and I drank them all in the weeks before I left for Canada. We drank my two best bottles, Château La Tour Carnet 1953, with chicken and fries at another Auckland restaurant, Lutèce.

In Canada I began to drink more European wines because the range of imports was much greater than it had been in New Zealand. I did discover a few drinkable Canadian wines made from Baco Noir and Maréchal Foch, but the Canadian offerings in the 1960s were very dreary. Later, during the 1980s, I lived in the Niagara Peninsula – then and still Canada’s largest viticultural region. This was a period of rapid change because in the 1970s hybrid varieties had begun to give way to Vitis vinifera and licences were finally being issued to new wineries – none had been issued between 1927 and 1975.

If a week is a long time in politics, a decade can be a short time in the wine business, and in the 1990s Canadian wine really began to perk up. By 2000 some of British Columbia’s and Ontario’s best-known wineries had been founded, and in the few years since then they have been joined by hundreds more. It’s not just that the number of producers in Canada has burgeoned – more than three-quarters of the wineries have opened since 2000 – but that the quality has risen exponentially.

Canada now produces a wide range of fine wines. Many styles are made throughout the country, but there are some noteworthy concentrations: robust reds from the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia, cool-climate whites and reds in Ontario, edgy whites in Quebec, and sparkling wines in Nova Scotia. Icewine, the early standard-bearer of Canadian wine, has been pushed aside by quality table wines, but its export sales are more than robust. Canadian wines run the gamut from conventional, through organic, to biodynamic and low-intervention.

Still, Canada’s wine production is well under one per cent of the world’s, and that’s in a good year in Canada. A handful of the 700-or-so wineries export their table wines to Europe, Asia, and Europe, and they tend to be small-production and high-quality wines that are to be found on the lists of high-end restaurants, not on supermarket shelves. Production is so small that that’s not likely to change soon.

I’m fortunate to have lived through a significant phase of the evolution of Canada’s wine industry, from the awful stuff being made in the 1960s to the fine wines produced by many Canadian wineries today. In The Wines of Canada I’ve provided a historical overview that captures some of this story. But the bulk of the book deals with Canadian wine today, in general terms and within the important regions: British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec, and the Atlantic Provinces.

At the same time, this is a critical book. The Canadian wine industry has its blemishes: there’s no national wine law, labelling can be confusing, and there’s a persistent failure to deal properly with blends of foreign and Canadian wines. So The Wines of Canada is not just another celebration of a wine region. It highlights the achievements, discusses the challenges, and points to areas in need of improvement.

The achievements are many and solid, and one of the reasons I wrote The Wines of Canada is to help get the word out that Canadian wines have arrived. Of course there’s a wide range of quality, as there is everywhere, but a little research will lead you to astonishing whites made from Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, and other varieties, and fine wines from varieties such as Pinot Noir, Gamay, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, and Merlot. Nor should hybrids be discounted: look for a few stellar wines from Baco Noir and some terrific sparkling wines made from hybrid varieties. And there are more and more exciting rosés.

If you have trouble finding much Canadian wine where you live, come to Canada and visit the wine regions. Almost all the wineries are so recent that they were built with wine tourism in mind. You’ll find well-marked wine routes that lead you to tasting rooms, wine shops, and winery tours.

Reading is an excellent start. Tasting is the next step

The wines of Canada was published on 21 September 2017, priced £30, available from your favourite book shop. Or click here to buy your copy today.