CANADIAN WINE EXPLORED WITH AUTHOR ROD PHILLIPS
Updated: May 2, 2021
Transcription of the podcast interview
Mattia Scarpazza 01.05.2021
FIRST OF ALL A BIT OF CONTEST ON CANADIAN WINES AND ROD
Canada as a wine producing country has grown exponentially in the last 20 years since it embraced Vitis Vinifera and also thank to the investment of local producers that believed in the potential of their regions.
In this podcast episode, of the Looking into Wines I talked to Rod Phillips, author of the Wines of Canada.
You can list en to the episode here: Canadian wine explored with author Rod Phillips.
Rod is a wine historian and we could not start by talking about the key dates of the development of Canadian wines. We also explored some contradictory techniques used in Quebec to produce
Ice-wines. The potential of Nova Scotia Classic Method sparkling wines and on the market potential for Canadian wines.
NOW ON WITH THE INTERVIEW
I do not think I ever took as many notes on the dates of any other region in the world while reading a book, such a detailed accounting. So, I wanted you to ask a bit about these dates and see the key moments that happen in the Canadian wine industry. I think we could start from the 1850s, then there were the first documented wineries. Where was that and what was there the idea?
Well, wine was made probably back in the six hundred thousand and seventeen hundred in exceedingly small quantities made from local grape varieties from native grape varieties. Probably some of the missionaries made their own wine for religious purposes.
But we do not really know about it, there are a few records, but for sure it was not until about the 1850s that you could start talking about commercial wine production. Why it that is hard to say,
I would say that probably there was a growing middle class in Canada. The cities were starting to become larger, and wine was being imported from Spain and from France and other places, and quite clearly some entrepreneurs decided that it was possible to make wine in Canada.
And that was in Ontario and they started the first wineries.
Yes. In Ontario, that is right. I mean, some of the early wines were probably made in Quebec and Nova Scotia places like that. So, this is in Ontario that is this is the first records, and they made the wine mainly using native grapes, which probably was not particularly good.
In Quebec, they cut the grapes and they put them in nets on top of the vines so that they are still on the vines, but they are not on the vines in the same way. In the rest of Canada, they leave the grapes on the vine to freeze and they harvest the grapes when they are frozen.
We can then jump to like a hundred years, into the nineteen seventies, when there has been a shift from native hybrids into more of it is vinifera based Wine in Canada and then was sort of the beginning of the modern Canada Wines.
Yes. I think, you know, it went from native grapes into hybrids and then to vinifera. But, you know, vinifera began very slowly in the nineteen seventies. Gamay and some Chardonnay and some other varieties. But the real take-off was in the 1990s. So, you know, it is just sorts of a slow it is like an aeroplane ride just taxiing along the runway and in the 1970s and 80s and then began to take off sometime in the 1990s.
There was a bit of experimenting to see where they could plant Vitis Vinifera because it is a bit more delicate than hybrids or the Lambrusca for example, and it was in 1983 when there was the iconic first Canadian Ice- wine to be produced. Canada has a bit of a different approach to stricter regulation to Ice-wine than other countries in the world.
It is quite strict regulation, and it is now codified in wine law that the grapes have to stay on the vine until the temperature goes down to minus eight, and then they can begin to pick. But there are some variations even in Canada. But in Quebec, they cut the grapes and they put them in nets on top of the vines so that they are still on the vines, but they are not on the vines in the same way. In the rest of Canada, they leave the grapes on the vine to freeze and they harvest the grapes when they are frozen. It is a very debated subject, as you can imagine.
And there is experimentation with different varieties used for production of Canadian Ice-wine?
Yeah, obviously the varieties I mean, the grapes have to have to stay on the vine for a long period, sometimes the harvest is not until January or even later.
They are going to stay on the vine, they have got to be healthy as they have got to survive winds, cold, birds and humidity. The most common varieties that are used are Vidal at least on Ontario Vidal and then Cabernet Franc and Riesling, but people have made Ice-wine from just
about every great variety you can imagine.
There is also some sparkling Ice-wines produce, we are going to speak about sparkling wines later, because are some remarkably interesting sparkling wine produced in Canada.
Continuing on the dates, the key date for the modern history of Canada was 1988. There were two factors that came in, one was the free trade between Canada and the USA and the stablishment of the Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA).
Yes, the well, the free trade agreement with the United States, and it really opened up trade between the two the two countries, and there were fears that Canada would be swamped by cheap wines from California. So, there was a decision to try to improve the Canadian wine industry, the government made grants to help the wineries to pull up the mediocre vines and to replant with Vitis Vinifera to raise the quality. So that was that was very important, and then at the beginning of a wine law, really, with the Vintners Quality Alliance, which is just in Ontario, there is another one in British Columbia, but it's called the British Columbia Vintners Alliance, only these two provinces have the VQA and it's like an appellation law and it's meant to regulate the percentage of the varieties in the wine, the appellation, and it also has is a tasting panel to establish quality.
That obviously helped in bringing up the quality and uniformity of the wines. There is a bit of discrepancy, between the different counties, and the law is not really a law, right?
Well, like all appellation laws, there always a little bit of flexibility, and not everything that's labelled AOC is necessarily very good wine. But there is a real advantage commercially to having your wine certified as a VQA wine, because in people's minds, it is a guarantee of quality, and a lot of restaurants like to have the VQA. But I think it has been a bit of a shift away from that now because a lot of wineries in British Columbia just do not bother to have their wines certified secure, and now this is a sort of a cachet that some natural wines and some slightly different styles are not being certified VQA. I think probably there is a bit of movement away.
When you talk about a natural, is there a lot of movement?
There are some natural wines made. There is certainly a lot of orange wines and so on made. But no, it is not it is not a question of the climate so much. It is just a question of the market, you know, whether there is a lot of market for these kinds of wines. I think there is, it is a small market perhaps, but there are several restaurants in Vancouver and Toronto and Montreal and so on that have wine lists that are predominantly what you would call natural wines of one kind or another.
In the book, you mentioned that Canada is the second-largest country in the world, but it produces one percent of wine in the world, that puts things in perspective!
It is a small production. I think I say it is the same as Slovakia and or Macedonia, which we do not think of it as a noticeably big wine producers know we produce a very small.
amount of wine and most of it I mean, most of it is sold on the Canadian market, there are some exports, of course, but they are quite small.
Because the climate is so marginal, you need to have mitigating influences nearby, like a lot of the region near the lakes or other bodies of water.
Water is especially important. In Ontario, the main wine regions are on either on the shores of Lake Ontario or Lake Erie, which are two of the other Great Lakes.
In the east, Nova Scotia, it is the Atlantic. Then in British Columbia, it is either the Pacific area or inland, it is Lake Okanagan and smaller lakes to the south of Lake Okanagan, which are critical for the grape growing.
Okanagan is the main region in British Columbia, it produces very different styles of wine from its counterpart Ontario. How?
Well, the climates are very different. I mean, Ontario is really a cool climate region, it is a combination of Continental and a sort of a bit of maritime. But it is a really cool climate, even though it can be very hot, I mean, as I am talking to you, it is 31 degrees at the moment. During the growing season, for the most part, it is cool with lots of sunshine.
In British Columbia, you know, there is a big range of climatic conditions from the islands, which are quite cool and wet, to the valley of Lake Okanagan, which is sort of cool and wet in the north, but when you get to the south, it is very dry and very warm, and that part of the Okanogan Valley actually has a desert, once you get to the American border, it is actually a desert. So that area produces a lot of very big red wines, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Bordeaux blends and other red blends.
When you look at Canada as a whole, it has the conditions to grow a wide range of wines from cooler varieties, Rieslings, lovely Chardonnays, Gamay, and Pinot Noir, for example. There is light but very quite acidic whites on the East Coast and the Atlantic, where it is cooler. Then when you get to the southern part of the Okanogan Valley, you have got these very big, robust red wines. It is a very good country, in that respect, it has got a nice wide range of things. Canada is a big country from east to west, it is six thousand kilometres, and it is not easy to move wines those great distances Canadian wines are not readily found yet around the world. as I said, a lot of the consumption is done internally and I think, as you say, most of the exportation is done for Ice-wine, which is the main market.
If you have a temperature gauge on your car, you can actually drive from one end of the Niagara Peninsula wine region to the other, and you just see like a four-degree difference from one end to the other, depending on the day.
Do you see still wines are catching up on the production levels?
Well, I mean, the main export is still Ice-wine, which sells very well in Asia and China especially but also in the United States and elsewhere. It is a very big product for duty-free stores because it is you know; it is a luxury product that is quite expensive. In Ontario where I am a half bottle of Ice-wine, will cost 60 to 80 dollars, which is two or three times the price of a good bottle of table wine. So, that is still a very important export, the exports of still wines and sparkling wines are very small. I mean their exports to the U.K., some to China, other parts of Europe, the United States. But it is very much an activity of individual wineries who are building export markets. I mean, there is a group of wineries in British Columbia that is promoting exports of their wines, but it is quite small.
Then quantity-wise, would you say there is more production of still wine in Canada in recent years?
Oh, yeah. I mean, there is a good production and certainly room for more exports, these wines are going to be quite expensive. Volume is very small; production costs are relatively high because salaries are high just the costs of making wine can be fairly high. So, I just do not expect to see, you know, vast volumes of Canadian wines anywhere outside Canada.
I can imagine also that vineyards cannot be as vast as other countries,
No, no. Most wineries are very small. I mean, there are 600 wineries in Canada, and when you look at the area of land, it is not very big either. So, you have got wineries with, you know, just a few hectares of vines.
When we were talking about Ontario, I remember seeing in the book a beautiful diagram of the Niagara Peninsula, on the airflow and the lake influence. How can they diversify so much from like a still red wine or some Cabernet Franc produced to an Ice-wine in such a small region?
Yeah, there is some variation in the region. Some areas are just warmer. And you can see if you have a temperature gauge on your car, you can actually drive from one end of the Niagara Peninsula wine region to the other, and you just see like a four-degree difference from one end to the other, depending on the day.
But I mean, the Ice-wine is it depends on getting down to sub-zero temperatures in November, December, January, but the for the rest, you know, the temperatures are pretty good for white wines, especially.
Riesling and Chardonnay would be I would be the core whites and then for the red, you know, you are looking at cooler varieties that need perhaps a shorter growing season. So, we would be looking at Pinot Noir and Gamay and Cabernet Franc, and that's why Cabernet Franc is successful because it just ripens that much earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon.
I mean, they have been growing Cabernet Sauvignon and in Niagara for decades. But, you know, it does not ripen every year, and it might ripen one year in three or four. Cabernet Franc is so successful simply because it ripens well just about every year.
I imagine, there is a lot of vintage variation year to year.
I mean, I think I say in the book that the concept of an average year does not make any sense, in Ontario, because it can be very hot or it could be very cold, you get frosts that kill, 50% of the vines in some regions. And then, you will have heavy rainfall, have a very wet summer, then you have a very dry summer.
And so, it is very, very volatile. Vintage variation is really, important. When you are buying Ontario wine, you want to know the vintages.
Oh, yeah. I mean, there is a good production and certainly room for more exports, these wines are going to be quite expensive. Volume is very small; production costs are relatively high because salaries are high just the costs of making wine can be fairly high. I just do not expect to see, you know, vast volumes of Canadian wines anywhere outside Canada.
I can imagine also that vineyards cannot be as vast as other countries.
No, no. Most wineries are very small. I mean, there are 600 wineries in Canada, and when you look at the area of land, it is not very big either. You have got wineries with, you know, just a few hectares of vines.
A good percentage of wines from Canada are sparkling wines and of very good quality.
Very good. Excellent sparkling wine. I think t's one of the strengths of the Canadian wine industry.
That is true of British Columbia and Ontario, but especially Nova Scotia.
Nova Scotia is not known as a wine-producing province, you know consumers would have heard of Niagara Peninsula and the Okanagan Valley, for example, but no-one has really heard very much of Nova Scotia wines.
In Nova Scotia there are not many wineries only 20 odds of them, but more than half of them is making sparkling wine, it is a very a cool area, and so, you know, they can pick grapes that are a little just ripe with very high acidity and they can make really fantastic sparkling wines.
Nova Scotia is on the eastern side of Canada on the Atlantic Ocean. What grapes are they using to produce sparkling?
Some of them are using hybrid grapes, with many now moving to conventional varieties Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and so on.
Now some sparkling wines are produced with Ice-wine as liquor de tirage.
In Ontario, there a couple of wineries that are giving a dosage of Ice-wine to their best sparkling wines, so it gives a little bit of sweetness to it, clearly there is a market for that, there are consumers who like a little sweetness in the wine, but I mean, it is not common.
Almost one out of five wineries in Canada are was founded after the 2000s. so only about 20 years now, they have new interests and doing experimentation in new regions. What are you seeing that is new to contemporary Canada?
Well, climate change is making a bit of an impact as it is everywhere, so it is possible to go a little further north then wineries used to go, most of the wineries in Canada are between about 42 to and 50 degrees. In the north of Okanogan Valley there are now about three or four wine regions up there, just recognise in the last year or two and now north of the city of Toronto in the Georgian Bay Area, there are some wineries, being developed there as well.
Quebec, we have not talked much about Quebec, but Quebec is a very big province, and it has a lot of wineries, is more than 100 wineries. But it makes it a very small amount of wine. And, you know, we are seeing the emergence of a number of quite good wineries there, mainly Chardonnay and Pinot Noir again.
But again, with climate change, the projections are that within 20 years, 30 years, they will be able to grow Chardonnay and Pinot Noir regularly. They will probably have to bury the vines in the winter the same as they as they do now. it could be a pretty, pretty important region.
They have to bury vines in the winter because they have got like minus 30, minus 40 degrees, it has to be a laborious job, yes?
They have to do that in Ontario as well, in the Prince Edwards County region, which is the most northerly most on the Lake Ontario.
It is done by either burying the vines with soil or now they are using geotextiles, thermal blankets, basically to cover the vines.
Snow also is very good insulation against cold, it does not seem to make any sense, but snow is very good insulation against cold. It is labour-intensive, it is expensive, So, you know, it is you have got to that has to be built into the price of the finale wine.
I do not expect the Canadian wines, to come out in the market for an entry-level price considering the labour and the fact that many wines are from small planting.
That is a problem even in internal marker, as it is extremely hard to find a Canadian wine under about our terms, about 13 dollars or fourteen dollars. If you are looking at premium, high-quality wines, you will easily pay 30 to 40 dollars for a bottle of wine. it is a bit of a hard sell to get people to buy Canadian wines.
Now some more delicate matters
What is the biggest problem for producing wines in Canada?
Well, I do not think there are any real problems with production. I mean, there are some disease issues and so on.
If you talk to producers, of course, they will tell you that there are thousands of reasons. They say they think they pay too much tax, too many regulations, and so on.
But you know I think wineries that produce good wines will do quite well, one of the potential problems that people deal with is the fact that it is difficult to move wine from one part of the country to another. For example, if you live in Ontario, I cannot order wine from a winery in British Columbia. It is illegal for them to ship wine to me, for the monopole that we have in Canada.
Also, we need a national wine law, there are wine laws in Ontario, British Columbia, Quebec, and Nova Scotia, but there is no national wine law and I think it would help to have a Canadian wine law, there have been attempts to do it and they failed.
An unified front in the world, it would help with recognition, events promotions, and other marketing as well as other securities. Just a couple more questions, Ontario they have created different sub regions, which was new for me.
There are a lot of sub-appellations in Ontario, especially at Niagara Peninsula, they decided to do that simply because wineries were starting to label their wines with names that looked like sub appellations. So those other places could be a bit confusing, I think a lot of consumers may not necessarily know where the wine is from.
But now British Columbia is also creating a lot of sub appellations as well, and they may run into the same kinds of problems.
If you have got a good brand like California, it pays to put that on the label and so Niagara Peninsula is something that is known as Okanogan Valley is known and a lot of producers simply decide to use it as appellations.
Any final word on Canadian wines?
I think, the wind is in the sails of the Canadian wine industry. I think it has it has immense potential to become quite well known, but the main limiting thing is that is a very small industry, and there is no way that that they can actually make a big splash, in the international wine world with big volume wines, so it is always going to be a sort of a niche and niche product on international markets. And, you know, there is no way that, you know, Canada is going to compete with France or California or anything like that.
What interested me to the wines of Canada is the diverse styles that a relatively small country in terms of vineyard can producer form the lake shore to semi-desertic regions of Okanagan.
Canada produces wines from a range grape variety from Merlot, to Cabernet Franc, Riesling, and Chardonnay, from bone dry, through sparkling and Ice wines, you can find those style from a tiny region such as Lake Ontario. For me It encompass the spirit of the new world wines, where a bunch of wineries in an unknown part of the country can turn the area in a fully fledge recognised wine region.
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