The Wines of Canada
Infinite Ideas Ltd., Oxford, 2017
ISBN 978-1908984999 (paperback)
248 pp., $39.95
Reviewed by Richard E. Quandt
This is an excellent and authoritative primer on the wines of Canada, a subject on which most of us are woefully ignorant.
The initial chapter sketches the broad outlines of the Canadian wine industry from 1850 to Prohibition in 1917, then to the Canada–U.S. Free Trade Agreement in 1988, and followed by the modern period. It is noteworthy that much of Canadian wine history is under the auspices of labrusca wines, with vitis vinifera gradually gaining ground over labrusca and hybrid wines. The gains made by the higher-quality wines were clearly spurred by the increasing availability of acceptable but cheap California wines. The post-2000 period also witnessed the rapid growth in “the number of wineries … the volume of production, a more sophisticated infra- structure that includes the delineation of viticultural areas and sub-appellations” (p. 37) among other developments. The youthfulness of the Canadian wine industry is attested by the fact that most Canadian wineries came into existence after 2000.
An interesting and unusual feature of Canada is that there is no national wine law and producers in the different regions have to conform to different sets of regulations (p. 42). These are so confusing on the whole that “only residents of British Columbia and Manitoba can legally order as much wine as they like from another province” (p. 43). The principal wine regions are British Columbia and Ontario, with fairly com- parable levels of wine production, with Quebec and Nova Scotia being much smaller, though not insignificant. It is also noteworthy that British Columbia and Ontario rely predominantly on vitis vinifera varieties, while the other regions depend much more on hybrid varieties. In Ontario, the most popular white varieties are Chardonnay, Riesling, and Pinot Gris, while the most popular red varieties are Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Pinot Noir. British Columbia is not all that dissimilar, with whites being dominated by Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Riesling, and Gewürztraminer and reds by Merlot, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc. While many of the Canadian reds and whites are enjoyable, they are not, on the whole, ready to compete with those of the major French or U.S. producers.
The one wine in which Canada has much more than a modest edge is icewine, which is quite sui generis. The section describing icewines (pp. 68–78) is outstand- ingly informative and strongly recommended. Although icewine has been made in Europe as early as the late-18th century, the first commercial icewine in Canada was not made until 1978 in British Columbia, with Ontario following some five years later. The crux of icewine is that it must be exposed to temperatures of –8°C, which is achieved in British Columbia, but much more routinely in Ontario. This low temperature causes the water in the grapes to freeze, leaving only a highly condensed sugary syrup in its unfrozen state, where it can be pressed. As a result, yields are low and “in many cases a single vine produces no more than one 375 millilitre bottle [of wine]” (p. 69). In addition to British Columbia and Ontario (with the latter being the main producing area), Nova Scotia also produces some icewine. It is to be noted that because of the modest yields, it is permitted to gather the berries that have fallen off the vine between the onset of the regular harvest and the beginning of the icewine harvest. Icewine is highly regulated, including its name, which is icewine, not ice wine or ice-wine, as per regulations of the Vintners Quality Alliance of Ontario. In Ontario and British Columbia the pressings must have an average of 35° Brix.1 The yield is about 125 liters per ton of Riesling, much lower than for table wine. Because of the higher price of icewine, it is a good target for counterfeiting. Economics also drives the practice, legally permitted, of blending Canadian wines with non- Canadian wines; the production of these is quite widespread and accounts for 75% of Ontario-sold wines. It should also be noted that winter temperatures at times descend in the –35–40°C range, which would kill the vines unless specific protective measures were undertaken, such as covering the wines with soil for the winter. (It is noteworthy that –40°C equals –40°F.) While normally one would think that such regions are outside the region that can be profitably cultivated, global warming will almost certainly diminish the problems that extreme cold can cause.
The remaining four chapters cover in detail the producers and the characteristics of wineries in British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec, and the Atlantic Provinces. A size- able number of producers are discussed and anyone interested in acquiring Canadian wines would be well advised to study these chapters.
The writing is uniformly clear and accurate and useful maps of the various wine regions are provided in the various chapters. The only thing that might have improved the maps would have been to include measures of a geographic scale on each of the maps. In any event, the author provides a useful service to the wine-drinking public.