Taking stock of half a century of Canadian vintages

Michael Vaughan has been writing about Canadian wines for fifty years and assessing the vintages for most of those years, available today on his online publication www.vintageassessments.com. In this interview Amanda Barnes asks him how much Canadian wine has changed over that time, and where he sees the most potential in Canadian wine for the future.

You’ve been writing about Canadian wine since the 70s. How have you seen the categories of wine change in that time?

The 1970’s was the decade that began the total transformation of the Canadian wine industry. Prior to that, certainly from the 1950’s, Canadian wine (other than fortified wine) was rather insignificant – people drank a bottle of Canada Club when they went out to celebrate – not wine. At that time there were only 11 wineries in Ontario which was dependent on labrusca-based table wines. Cheap fortified wines (Canadian ‘ports’ and ‘sherries’) were king followed by Canadian ‘champagne’.  By the 1970’s flavoured low alcohol pop wines such as sparking Baby Duck flourished.

The early 70’s saw the movement to hybrids under the push of Donald Ziraldo’s Inniskillin – the first new winery in many decades. This led to my “experts” tasting in London in 1976 with the world’s experts at the time, which I wrote about at the time (click here to see feature). From the late 70’s Vitis vinifera began to take hold once growers became aware and confident that these new varieties really could survive in selected regional miroclimates.

Today, the former fortified category has almost disappeared at least for most consumers, while high-quality vinifera-based sparklers are now blossoming right across the country. From Nova Scotia (Lightfoot & Wolfville 2014 Blanc de Blanc Brut being perhaps the best in Canada in my opinion); to Ontario (Flat Rock Cellars 2017 Riddled being an excellent well-priced contender) to British Colombia (Blue Mountain’s reliable Gold Label Brut now having go-to value). This classification is growing by leaps and bounds and it’s all being made in the classic traditional method.

Have you seen any notable changes in Canadian wine which can be attributed to climate change? How has vintage variability changed?

Yes, changes are afoot, although it is both encouraging and terrifying. The latter relates mostly to BC where the annual ever-growing summer forest fires represent a real potential threat to wine-making. In Ontario, thanks to an abundance of water, new varietals are being successfully planted in the Niagara Peninsula. Who could believe that Shiraz could be grown here? And yet the boutique Kacaba Vineyards Winery has had some incredible success from it’s small specific winery-based sites over the past decade. Of course, variability is still a big issue, especially for red grapes in Nova Scotia with its fluctuating short growing season. As for icewine, of course, Canada still excels. 

Reflecting back on the last two decades, what grape varieties do you think are the most consistent performers vintage by vintage in Canada?

I do not judge the annual competition in the Okanagan any longer, however I believe that Ontario Riesling would be my choice as a consistent winner. Of course, there are a wide varieties of Rieslings produced here, but internationally speaking, from the less expensive entry-level styles to the pricey classics, there really is something for everyone at a good price. There is only one key problem that relates to the latter and that is drinkability. I find that a great Riesling takes time to really mature properly especially under screwcap. It’s hard to believe that I assessed the full line-up of 2014 Thirty Bench Rieslings in 2017. The high-fill screw-top bottles went back into my 4C wine cellar. Last week a previously-opened 2014 Thirty Bench Small Lot Riesling Triangle Vineyard (278 cases) reemerged for a tasting. It exploded with intense, complex, mineral-driven, ripe, apple-lemon-lime-meringue flavours. Wow, who would have ever guessed?

And what wine style or region do you think shows the greatest potential for the future?

I am betting on Marsanne in the Niagara Peninsula thanks to the unrelenting efforts of winemaker Phil Dowell at Kew Vineyards and Angel’s Gate. His small production barrel-aged/stainless blends of Marsanne and Viognier show great promise. My only concern is total acidity (something I look for), which on occasion, can quickly drop out. As for local efforts at ripasso/appassimento blends – it’s a really mixed bag at least for me so far.

As a fan of Grüner Veltliner – at least good GV – I have been very impressed with the efforts of long-time Canadian wine icon Don Triggs, founder of Culmina in BC’s Okanagan Valley. This and his Culmina Rieslings have been well-priced and quite delicious! As for reds, Cabernet Franc has demonstrated that it can really excel in Ontario at least in certain years with lots of ripe fruit, structure and great balance.