Canada has some strange laws. Being a witch isn’t illegal, but pretending to be a witch can land you two years in jail. Loonies are not legal tender if you purchase an item costing more than $25. It’s an offence to depict crimes in a comic book, even if they are fictitious. Forget marijuana; it’s time to decriminalize Spiderman.
If you are a wine lover, the oddest law of all is the prohibition on bringing alcohol across provincial boundaries. Under the Importation of Intoxicating Liquors Act, transporting just one bottle of wine from province to province is outlawed and carries a minimum six month jail sentence for your third offence. I’ve never heard of anyone being convicted for bringing a couple of bottles home after a business trip, but this archaic law nicely illustrates a real problem in our glorious federation: it’s absurdly difficult to find Ontario wines in west coast liquor stores or BC wines in stores east of the Rockies.
I like buying Canadian, and so I need British Columbian wine. As a resident of Toronto, I can find crisp whites from Niagara, as well as some elegant Pinot Noir and Syrah. But one thing that my home turf can’t produce dependably is a rich, full-bodied and fruity blend of the noble grapes of Bordeaux — a style called meritage in the New World. Our short growing season means that Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, or Malbec rarely ripen properly, often leaving the resulting wine with an unappealing whiff of green pepper.
Normal 0 0 1 424 2422 20 4 2974 11.1282 0 0 0 Normal 0 0 1 424 2422 20 4 2974 11.1282 There are exceptions, of course, and they are worth mentioning. Hidden Bench’s 2005 Terroir Caché is one outstanding example. But Hidden Bench’s success has made it a cult wine and the Terroir Caché is not easy to track down. A more low-key treasure comes from Marynissen, perhaps the most underestimated winery in Niagara. The Marynissen 2002 Merlot blew my tiny little mind when I opened it last summer. Although under 20 bucks, it was stuffed with ripe berries and an array of mellow, earthy notes that age beautifully. Marynissen has a leg up on most Niagara wineries because its Merlot vines are over 25 years old, giving them great roots to suck much more flavour out of the soil.
The grit of Ontario wineries like Hidden Bench is admirable, but the Okanagan Valley’s geography gives it a dominating advantage in terms of making meritage. The steep slopes, hot days and low rainfall could squeeze a tear of joy from the eye of even the most jaded winemaker. Such a lovely climate comes with one big problem: British Columbians are happy to buy as much wine as the Okanagan can pump out, which leaves no incentive for the wineries to organize an effective export market for the rest of Canada.
Although it’s difficult finding the best Okanagans across the country, one winery that’s pushing to establish a Canada-wide reputation for itself is Osoyoos Larose. The superb 2005 Osoyoos Larose Le Grand Vin recently hit shelves all over the country. This winery is new on the scene; the vines were planted in 1999 and the first vintage to see public release was 2004. It’s located in Osoyoos, the hottest, driest and southernmost Okanagan sub-appellation. Osoyoos Larose has one mission: producing world-class meritage. They don’t even bother with white wines.
What intrigues me about Osoyoos Larose is that it is the west coast doppelganger of one of Ontario’s star wineries, Le Clos Jordanne. Both Osoyoos Larose and Le Clos are owned by the wine conglomerate Vincor (which itself is owned by Constellation). Both estates have been groomed by Vincor as standard-bearers for their respective regions in order to create new markets nationally and internationally. In both wineries, Vincor has partnered with French winemakers; the Boisset family in the case of Le Clos, and the Groupe Taillan for Osoyoos Larose.
Le Groupe Taillan owns the established Bordeaux estate Chateau Gruaud-Larose (whose wines Oz Clarke memorably described as having “an unnerving animal quality”). The expertise of Le Groupe Taillan, plus Osoyoos’s French winemaker, Pascal Madevon, brings traditional Bordeaux winemaking techniques to Canadian soil. The winery doesn’t just rely on the fruit-driven Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot popular in North America: they also use Petit Verdot, Malbec and Cab Franc to add sonority and overlapping body. The emphasis is on structure and balance. Vincor is reimagining Canada’s New World wine in an Old World mould.
Although France influences Canada, the Canadian palate also pokes through. Good Bordeaux is notoriously tannic, requiring years before it becomes drinkable. Canadians generally don’t have a taste for hard tannins or the patience to cellar their wine for ten years. As a result, the Merlot-heavy Osoyoos Larose is designed to be laid-back and approachable. And though it still needs some aging, it has the capacity to evolve quickly. Pascal Madevon told me this gentle touch was a “compromise of Bordeaux vision with an Okanagan vision.” I detected just a hint of sadness as he said this. Perhaps like me, Pascal likes his wine powerful and animalistic, not domesticated in the best tradition of Canadian politeness.
But the real question is how does a Canadian meritage like Osoyoos Larose or Hidden Bench match up with a comparably priced Bordeaux? Of course, in Canada, $45 buys you a big-shot in the highest price point, whereas in France, it’s only enough to eke into the middle of the pack. But that doesn’t mean you have to settle for something less in France. There are a few fantastic values in Bordeaux, especially if you look to some of the lesser appellations on the Right Bank.
For example, Château D’Aiguilhe is a gem of the tiny sub-region Cotes de Castillon. The Château is owned by wine maverick Stephan von Neipperg, a Count of the Holy Roman Empire with a reputation for dressing nattily and resuscitating wineries that have slipped into mediocrity. Comparing his gorgeous Merlot-based wines to their Canadian cousins is an interesting experience. During good years, like 1999 or 2005, the D’Aiguilhe has more complexity, texture and aging potential. But if you examine so-so vintages, the situation shifts. 2004 was a more challenging year in Bordeaux and D’Aiguilhe was clearly not up to the task.
Quality is much more consistent in Canada. 2005 in Osoyoos was a little cool and a little wet, but the resulting wine didn’t suffer because Pascal Madevon and his team were able to roll with it, choosing to emphasize elegance over power. This is what single-minded dedication and state of the art equipment will do for you. To paraphrase Yogi Berra, “Good winemaking will always trump bad weather — and vice versa.”
We can only hope that more BC wineries follow in the footsteps of Osoyoos Larose and start marketing their product more widely. Until that day comes, I’ll be faced with a dilemma every time I travel home from Vancouver: respect the august majesty of the law? Or commit a crime of passion?
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91 Chateau D’Aiguilhe 1999, France ($42.80)
Ten years haven’t shaved off any fruit from this delightful wine, although it’s peaking now. Blackberry and cocoa predominate and segue into a long and slightly hot finish. The tannins fall off the bone, leaving a food-friendly acidity to lead the way. Rich earth tones on the nose and the palate: moss, mouldy leaves and white mushrooms. A picture of autumn.
90 Osoyoos Larose Le Grand Vin 2005, Okanagan ($44.95)
A classic beauty reminding me of a Greek statue because it’s so damned polished and poised. On the nose it has the hint of burnt toast and barnyard, but this is about as crazy as it gets. Otherwise, the flavours are restrained and remarkably integrated given its youth, although the tannins still need about two years to open. “A wine for women,” says Pascal Madevon, because of its gracious elegance.
92 Osoyoos Larose Le Grand Vin 2007, Okanagan (unreleased)
When Osoyoos Larose releases its 2007 vintage, be ready to pick up this soaring triumph. It has the potential for the same finesse as the 2005, with more power and gripping complexity. Bright berries and liquorice flavours drive it, without any cloying jamminess. The nose is perfumed and velvety, with a touch of rosewater. Tannins are pervasive but fine as ash against the tongue. This is Le Grand Fromage.
91 Hidden Bench Terroir Caché 2005, Niagara ($35)
This is an expressive and muscular Bordeaux blend designed for mid-term cellaring. Cedar, currants and tobacco feature. There’s a lot of oak influence, but it is fully supported by a rich fruit extraction almost impossible to achieve in Ontario were it not for the obsessive attention to detail lavished upon the vineyard by winemaker Jean-Martin Bouchard. The best meritage I have tasted in the Niagara region.