It's time to start drinking Canadian.

Jan. 24 2006 4:44 PM

Days of Wine and Hosers

It's time to start drinking Canadian.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.
Click image to expand.

Being oblivious to Canada is, for many Americans, a point of pride. Some even consider it a civic duty. Who's the new prime minister of Canada? Who cares! Such willful ignorance may be un-neighborly, but it's hard to argue that the United States has suffered any onerous consequences because of it. We still send Canada acid rain; it still sends us hockey players. There are, however, smaller costs. Few Americans are aware, for instance, that Canada has a thriving viticultural industry that is producing commendable wines.

The story of Canadian wine is a tale of two provinces. Although there are vineyards in Nova Scotia and Quebec, wine grapes are cultivated in far greater numbers, and with far more success, in Ontario and British Columbia, which together are now home to more than 200 wineries. Ontario alone accounts for over 80 percent of all the wine produced in Canada. Although wine has been made in Canada for well over a century, most of the wineries and vineyards are relatively new; indeed, it is only in the last two decades that vinifera grape varieties (chardonnay, syrah, and other common wine grapes) have dethroned native labrusca varieties (such as the Concord grape, of Welch's fame) as the mainstays of Canadian viticulture.

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As a result, Canadian winemakers are in an exuberantly experimental stage. They've planted a broad range of vinifera grapes, including cabernet sauvignon, merlot, pinot noir, sauvignon blanc, Riesling, and Gewürztraminer, along with several hybrids, notably Vidal Blanc. Some grapes are working better than others, but there is an unmistakable sense that the wine industry has bright prospects. One indication of the optimism: Groupe Taillon, the French firm that owns Bordeaux's esteemed Chateau Gruaud Larose, has established a vineyard in British Columbia in partnership with Vincor International, Canada's largest wine company, and is now producing a wine called Osoyoos Larose—which, despite the cumbersome name, has garnered fairly enthusiastic reviews.

All this must surely come as a shock to those who think of Canada as just a vast expanse of tundra. In fact, though, the parts of Ontario and British Columbia given over to vineyards have soils and climates that are quite conducive to making wine. The better Ontario wines come from the Niagara Peninsula, which sits at the same latitude as Tuscany and is fortuitously sandwiched between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, where the nearby waters serve to moderate local temperatures. Lake Okanagan has a similarly beneficial influence on the Okanagan Valley, the source of the finest British Columbia wines. In addition, the southern end of the valley is at the northern tip of the Great Basin Desert, and the combination of searing summer days and cool summer nights briskly ushers the grapes from infancy to maturity.

The frigid Canadian winter does, however, serve one useful purpose: It makes possible the production of what has become Canada's signature wine—icewine. This is wine made with grapes that have been left to freeze on the vine. By the time the grapes are harvested, usually in December or January, the juice inside has become densely concentrated, with exorbitant sugar levels. The resulting wines are aromatic and decadently sweet but usually boast a nice spine of acidity that leaves a lingering impression of freshness. Inniskillin, an Ontario winery, is the most famous producer of Canadian icewines and is the one Canadian domaine that has established an international reputation.

So, how were the wines I tasted? The Inniskillins certainly lived up to their reputation; they were plenty voluptuous, but the richness was leavened by good underlying acidity, and while the wines were sweet, they were not cloyingly so. Of all the wines I sampled, these are the ones worth seeking out. Among the table wines, a few were quite good. The 2002 version of the aforementioned Osoyoos Larose was a pleasant, well-made wine that had the same combination of ripeness and restraint that I find, much to my satisfaction, in quite a few Washington state wines; ditto another British Columbia red, the 2002 Jackson-Triggs Meritage. I also liked the sturdy, crisp 2004 Cave Spring Cellars Reserve Riesling, which combines the sturdiness of an Alsatian Riesling with the soaring aromatics of a Mosel Riesling from Germany.

With the exception of Inniskillin and a few others, Canadian wines can be tough to find in the United States. Relatively speaking, not a lot of wine is produced in Canada. In addition, some of the better wines are made by small estates that don't want the hassle of exporting, and Canadians naturally prefer to keep most of the good stuff for themselves. Given attitudes south of the border, can you blame them for not wanting to share?

Inniskillin Vidal Oak-Aged Icewine 2004, $39 for 187 mL (Ontario) A terrific nose of lychees and baked spiced apple, with some tobacco and vanilla thrown in; calls to mind a late-harvest Alsatian Gewürztraminer. Full-bodied and pleasantly unctuous, with gentle acidity and a citrus twist toward the finish.

Mission Hill Five Vineyards Riesling Icewine 2004, $20 for 187 mL (British Columbia) The label says Canada, but the bouquet screams Hawaii—a burst of papaya greets the nose and carries over to the palate. Almost like a spiked tropical fruit drink. One has to marvel at a wine that is made in Canada using frozen grapes yet evokes thoughts of suntan lotion, luaus, and Don Ho

Osoyoos Larose Le Grand Vin 2002, $35 (British Columbia) Not in the same league as its Bordelaise stable mate Gruaud Larose, but an agreeable wine all the same. Dense and chewy, with blackberries, minerals, a sprig of mint, and good oak frame. Only the second vintage of this wine; augurs well.

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