Our wine industry has embraced diversity, just as we have as a country … with stunning results. Recently, I invited winemakers from every region of Canada to send me samples of their offbeat grape varieties, in a quest to find out just how adventurous they are. Below are the results of my recent tasting, wine by wine and grape by grape. This wasn’t just an apples and oranges kind of experiment, it was more like kumquats and kiwanos.
Canadian grape growers used to cultivate predominantly labrusca varieties: Catawba, Concord, Delaware, Isabella, Niagara, Okanagan Riesling. By the time I became a wine lover, there were also a few “modern” hybrids coming on board, including Baco Noir, Chambourcin, Chelois, De Chaunac, Marechal Foch, Seyval and Vidal.
Agricultural colleges, like the one at the University of Guelph, recommended avoiding viniferas, suggesting they would not survive in our climate. However, a few pioneers refused to listen. They were mavericks — people like Paul Bosc, Don Eastman, Bill Lenko and John Marynissen. As nonconformists, they gambled on Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Gamay, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Noir and Riesling. Their work eventually paid off and today these varieties are widely planted throughout the country.
Over the decades, with every new generation and every new winery, Canadian winemakers have been pushing their boundaries even further by planting unconventional grape varieties. Every new vineyard has been an experiment.
Nebbiolo in Quebec?
Kékfrankos in Nova Scotia?
Yup. They’re here! From Aglianico to Zweigelt, we grow them all.
Frankly, as I tasted these bottles, I was taken aback by the high level of winemaking. The wines were, for the most part, consistently clean, fresh, ripe, pure and healthy. Every white wine I tasted, without exception, exhibited true textbook characteristics of its unique grape DNA, making it a pleasure to explore the varietal differences. By comparison, some of the reds still need work.
Stylistically, aromatically, texturally and flavour-wise, each wine hit the double bull’s-eye by representing its intrinsic nature accurately. As a group, they clearly expressed the cool Canadian climate, young northern soils, regional nuances and, as mentioned earlier, outstanding overall wine making.
“What a fabulous tasting!” I wrote in my notebook.
The wines demonstrate the amazing diversity of what we are able to produce in this country. These varieties are suited to Canadian soils and climes, and they offer their own unique spin on what constitutes Canadian terroir.
Moon Curser Arneis 2016, Okanagan Valley ($22.52)
This Italian variety is even rare in the land of its origin — Piedmont. Very pale hue, a colourless green-gold. The light, bright nose is delicate, floral and spicy. Dry, medium-bodied palate, with fine green and white fruit notes, intriguing minerality, bright acidity and a fine, well-knit finish. A real find.
Moon Curser Carménère 2015, Okanagan Valley ($37.30)
Bright purple-blue colour with a rich garnet bowl. Charming bouquet of blackberry, black cherry, black currant and black tea with a smidge of lead pencil, i.e., graphite. Supple, medium-bodied and well balanced. Can age a few years. 297 cases.
Moon Curser Dolcetto 2016, Okanagan Valley ($23.39)
Unoaked in the Piedmontese style, for freshness, full fruit and youthfulness. Inviting strawberry-cherry-violet nose breaks out on the palate with corpulent, fruity, earthy, meaty, juicy, cherry-pomegranate and leather flavours. Best young and chilled. A real success.
Moon Curser Tannat 2013, Okanagan Valley ($37.30)
Darkest of dark purple-garnet hues. Elegant and enticing bouquet of black raspberry and plum. A vibrant and complete mouthful with great fruit concentration and excellent tannin control. Tremendous! Cellar-worthy.
Moon Curser Tempranillo 2015, Okanagan Valley ($27.74)
Who’d have thought the grape of Rioja would thrive in BC? Ruby-purple tint fades slightly at the rim. Noble and elegant bouquet, thick with lush raspberry and plum flavours. Clean and pure. Balanced with soft tannins and plenty of fruit to finish. A terrific sip. Cellar-worthy.
Gray Monk Ehrenfelser 2016, Okanagan Valley ($17.39)
Arguably, the largest buyer of this variety in the province and in the country. Spectacularly jubilant fruit dominates the nose and palate. Orange marmalade, candied fruit, wild and lovely flavours with a refreshing, juicy finish.
Gray Monk Pinot Auxerrois 2015, Okanagan Valley ($15.99)
From 30-year-old estate-grown vines. Pale green-gold hue with the slightest hint of spritz. Juicy, dry palate with bright, fresh lemon-lime notes, medium body and a clean, slightly nutty, food-friendly finish. DYA.
Gray Monk Rotberger Rosé 2016, Okanagan Valley ($14.79)
There’s quite a following for this summer sipper. Pale salmon hue. High-toned, honeyed fruit nose with highlights of pink grapefruit, rose petals and orange zest. Medium-bodied, supple, bright with fruit and berry flavours, crisp acid and a fine fruit finish. Firm structure and dry mineral finish.
Road 13 Old Vines Chenin Blanc 2014, Golden Mile Bench ($27)
Discovered this older bottle in my cellar. From vines planted in 1968. Rich gold, developing amber reflections. Ripe tree fruits, stone fruits, peach, white plum and honeyed pear. Round and supple, dry, with plenty of acidity and fruit tannins to keep it fresh and developing several more years.
Road 13 Marsanne 2016, Similkameen Valley ($20.87)
Like most products on the company website, this too is sold out. Rich golden tint with dense amber reflections. Big, bold, firm, oak-fermented nose of ripe pear, vanilla, caramel and wine gums. Mouth-filling and supple with a fullness and roundness rarely achieved with white varieties in Canada. Wowza! Only 75 cases produced.
Road 13 Roussanne 2015, Okanagan Valley ($25.22)
A Wine Club exclusive, also sold out. Rich gold colour with amber reflections. Ripe and powerful nose of dried pineapple, honeyed pear and toasted skinless almonds. Full-bodied, richly flavoured palate of semi-dried fruits saturated in Lyle’s Golden Syrup. Big, full and lasting palate remains solid through to the finish. A real mouthful. Cellar-worthy.
Inniskillin Okanagan Discovery Series Tempranillo 2015, Okanagan Valley ($29.99)
Ruby-garnet bowl and rim. Lovely bouquet of stewed tree fruits along with a rich mocha chocolate overtone. Noble and approachable taste showcasing dark red and black fruit and berry flavours, vanilla and oak through to a lithe and supple finish. Exceptional.
Inniskillin Okanagan Discovery Series Tempranillo Icewine 2012, Okanagan Valley ($86.99/375 ml)
Deep and brilliant ruby-tawny hue with polished copper reflections. Bright aromas of candied fruit, ripe strawberry, red cherry with a gentle underlying nuttiness. Superb balance of thick, ripe, sweet fruit nectar and juicy, mouth-watering acidity that leaves the palate cleansed, refreshed and with a lingering taste of fruit essence. And such a baby!
Inniskillin Okanagan Discovery Series Chenin Blanc 2014, Okanagan Valley ($16.99)
Pale golden hue with the faintest blush. Fullish nose with smoky notes of beeswax, broiled peaches, lemon and honey. Feels supple on the palate but finishes light. Intriguing and very tasty. Cellar-worthy.
Inniskillin Okanagan Discovery Series Malbec 2014, Okanagan Valley ($23.99)
High-toned nose featuring ripe fruits, dark berries, violets and minty chocolate. A cheery wine with bright flavours of milk chocolate, cream and black cherry sweets. There’s a slight herbal undertone reminiscent of crushed tarragon and green pepper. Lovely texture and smooth, lingering finish.
Stoneboat Vineyards Rock Opera 2014, Okanagan Valley ($24.90)
Garnet bowl fades to a red-brick rim. Ripe and inviting nose of stewed strawberries and warm raw meat. Ever-so-slightly herbal. Rustic and gamy flavours of leather, roast coffee, chocolate truffles, tar and raw meat. Remarkably easy to enjoy.
Stoneboat Vineyards Rock Opera Reserve 2014, Okanagan Valley ($34.90)
Dark garnet colour. Ripe and complex nose of strawberry, black cherry, stewed meat and herbs. Earthy, fruity, meaty notes in a soft, plump, dry, satiny wine with a lush texture and refined finish. Overdelivers.
Stoneboat Vineyards Pinotage Icewine 2013, Okanagan Valley ($36.90/200 ml)
Pale ruby-copper with brilliant amber reflections. Concentrated bouquet of fig, honey and dried date aromas along with herbal notes of rosemary and soy sauce. Cranberry-cherry flavours like bright red candies and the sweetness of frosty icing. Smooth and pleasant to swallow.
Culmina Unicus Grüner Veltliner 2016, Okanagan Valley ($29)
We need more of this wonderful Austrian grape grown in Canada. Imposing straw, green-gold tint. Intense nose, full, jarring and inviting. Bold, fruity, dry, lemon-tinged, smoky and mineral laden with tight structure and plenty of grip. Delicious cellar-worthy food wine. Volume undisclosed.
CedarCreek Ehrenfelser 2016, Okanagan Valley ($18.99)
Mannhardt Vineyard’s 40-year-old vines yield some of the most aromatic fruit I’ve had from the Okanagan. The lively bouquet reminds me of Turkish delight, lemon drops, incense, candied fruits and white currant jelly. Ripe and refreshing with a light, clean finish. Can age a couple of years, but I like its youthful freshness. 274 cases produced.
Hester Creek Old Vines Trebbiano Block 16 2016, Golden Mile Bench ($23.95)
The variety is widely grown in Italy, also known as Ugni blanc in Cognac. Winemaker Rob Summers has crafted a gem from old vines planted by Joe Busnardo in 1968. Vinous nose with hints of white flowers, lemon blossom and almond kernel. Full, flavourful and oh so good. Tropical southern flavours with firm northern structure. A real find.
Lightfoot & Wolfville Terroir Series Kékfrankos, Annapolis Valley ($35)
Kékfrankos is the Hungarian name for this grape. It’s Lemberger in Germany and Blaufränkisch in Austria. Light ruby colour. Very fruit-forward with a cherry-cola nose reminiscent of candied cherries, those sugary green and red sticky ones you put in fruitcake and spumoni ice cream. Fresh and clean and light-bodied, this is a nice wine to serve outdoors lightly chilled with spit-roasted suckling pig.
Lightfoot & Wolfville Terroir Series Scheurebe, Annapolis Valley ($28)
Best adapted to the cool climates of Austria and Germany. Has bright lemon, yellow and gold reflections. If a wine could smell of cool mountaintop potpourri with wildflowers and ripe white berries, this would be it. Inviting floral, fruity aromas along with ripe peach and pear flavours. Fresh and jammy with exuberant grapy marmalade nuances. A very quaffable, joyous and charming wine.
Vignoble Carone Italus Nebbiolo 2015, Quebec ($28)
A first for the noble grape of Barolo and Barbaresco to be cultivated in the coolest of cool-climate provinces. Pale ruby colour. Sweet top notes of candied cherries and stewed plums followed by a nutty-oxidative bite like sherry. Still has a way to go. Best in 3 to 5 years.
Between the Lines Lemberger Reserve 2015, Four Mile Creek, Niagara ($39.95)
Dark, brooding garnet colour. Oaky, earthy, smoky notes to start with aromas of Darjeeling tea, blackberry syrup and spice. A hearty mouthful: dry, tannic, plummy, nutty and smoky with a solid finish.
Cape Vineyards Pinotage Rosé 2016, Prince Edward County ($25)
A deep salmon-copper colour implies it’s more like a pale red. Plenty of warm red-fruit notes, including ripe apple, plum and cherry. Full body, full flavour and full-throttle fresh fruits in this mouth-filling and supple rosé. Solid, dry, weighty and balanced.
Casa-Dea Melon de Bourgogne 2016, Prince Edward County ($20.95)
In the Loire, where the variety originates, it’s known as Muscadet. Straw-gold, dry and medium-bodied. Full fruit with plenty of lemon and lime flavours and a clean, salty finish. Perfect with oysters.
Megalomaniac Eccentric Savagnin 2016, Niagara Peninsula ($32.95)
In the Jura region of France, Savagnin is the grape of choice when making Vin Jaune and Vin de Paille. Niagara’s John Howard crafts it into a dry, cellar-worthy white. The brilliance and deep tint of this green-gold wine hints at its tightness, leanness and firmness. There’s tremendous tension here, with sweet green fruit and herbal influences pulling at each other one moment and co-mingling the next. White gooseberry-like fruit notes. Gripping texture. Subtle nutty finish. Available only by special request.
Château des Charmes Aligoté 2016, Niagara-on-the-Lake ($15.95)
Bright, very pale straw. Youthful, ripe, green, juicy nose. Plump and grapey, mouth-filling, focused and balanced. Dry, fresh and quaffable with lemony and white fruit nuances.
Del-Gatto Odyssey Pinotage 2016, Prince Edward County ($45)
Deep, brooding purple-garnet. Youthful nose with dark berry notes — raspberry, blackberry and red plum — and herbal, earthy notes of dark chocolate, roast coffee and forest floor. Medium-bodied, plump and creamy to start and lean to finish. Distinct minerality. A rustic, workhorse wine with plenty to offer.
Ferox Dornfelder Icewine 2016, Niagara Peninsula ($89.95/375 ml)
A single barrel was produced with grapes from veteran grower Erwin Wiens. The wine was processed under licence at Reif Esate by Fabian Reis, who is Herbert Konzelmann’s grandson. Bright ruby colour. Fabulously complex, gingery, smoky, chocolate-laden and deliciously fruity. Brings on memories of Sachertorte, Cherries Jubilee, Black Forest cake and Christmas fruitcake all rolled into one. Thick, rich, lush palate with a clean and balanced finish. Absolutely delightful. Only 600 half-bottles produced.
Karlo Carménère 2016, Prince Edward County ($40)
Bottled just 1 day before our tasting. Bright ruby-purple hue. Exuberant nose of candied red berries, sweet green pepper, fresh herbs — basil, cilantro, tarragon — along with funky notes of barnyard, green straw and stewed choke cherries, possibly from wild fermentation. This first vintage is from young, property-grown vines.
Karlo Malbec 2016, Prince Edward County ($45)
Vegan-friendly. Ruby-purple, fading toward the edge. Fruity/floral aromas centre on black cherry and bush berries along with funky sweet green pepper notes. Sweet plummy fruit dominates at first while tart fruit acids and tannins leave a dry finish.
Lakeview Cellars Kerner Morgan Vineyard 2016, Niagara Peninsula ($17.95)
Former fighter pilot and member of the elite Snowbirds acrobatic team, Stu Morgan, planted 1.5 acres of Kerner at his lakeshore farm near Beamsville in 1994 and now harvests 6 tonnes of fruit in an average year. Pale straw gold with emerald reflections. The Niagara terroir is wonderfully expressed here on the nose and palate. Candied ginger, sweet citrus, green pineapple and pear purée nuances are offset by lemon-lime acidity for a clean, dry, juicy finish.
Malivoire Melon 2016, Beamsville Bench ($21.95)
The Muscadet grape, as interpreted by a wine producer who loves oysters. Rich golden hue with glints of green. An enticing lemon curd nose, subtly fruity and floral, ripe papaya and quince in the plump and fresh finish. Dry, mineral aftertaste.
Pillitteri Sangiovese Icewine 2008, Niagara-on-the-Lake ($35.00/200 ml)
Amber brown with a golden rim, much like an oloroso sherry. Sweet, cooked nose with intriguing nuances of hoisin sauce, beef bouillon, molasses and buckwheat honey. Tight, focused palate adds notes of stewed prunes, dried dates, smoky charred fruit, sage, herbs and balsamic figs. Fully mature. 100 cases produced but long sold out. This bottle came from the winery’s library.
Reif Chenin Blanc 2016, Niagara River ($18.95)
Produced from the same patch of vines every year. As the vines get older, the wine gets better. Pale gold with a twinkle of green. Strong honeyed nose rife with white blossoms and a palate of crushed apple, white plum, and cantaloupe melon flavours. Will continue to develop through 2020.
Reif Kerner Reserve 2016, Niagara River ($18.95)
Estate grown. Fresh, bright and fruity, with a floral perfume that tilts to dried apricot and preserved orange. Clean texture with refreshing green apple acidity and lime zest finish.
Southbrook Vineyards Petit Verdot 2013, Four Mile Creek, Niagara ($39.95)
Organic and biodynamically grown on the estate. Noble and deep bouquet is both rich and restrained. Flavours lean toward dark chocolate, blackcurrant tea, blueberry jam and stewed plums. On the palate, it’s still a bit stiff with tight tannic structure but the fruit is there: dark bush berries giving a sense of concentration and depth through to the finish. Cellar-worthy.
Stratus Petit Verdot 2013, Niagara-on-the-Lake ($38)
Enticing, inviting bouquet. Dark chocolate-berry liqueur, cherry and plum fruit syrup. Very elegant and complex nose and taste. Raspberry, strawberry fruit preserves. Soft tannins and supple mouthfeel, round and creamy with a firm finish. Cellar-worthy, 10+ years.
Stratus, Sangiovese 2016, Niagara-on-the-Lake ($42)
Light ruby-cherry colour. Fresh nose of cherries, berries and strawberry jam. On the palate, there’s a hint of the fragility in the structure and delicacy of the fruit. There are silky-smooth plum and leather and cherry notes, but I get the sense the whole thing could collapse unexpectedly soon. Best young and fruity; drink by 2020.
Stratus Tannat 2013, Niagara-on-the-Lake ($42)
Dark ruby-garnet colour, dense to the rim. Rich nose, still young and radiant. Strong cedar and graphite notes, like freshly sharpened pencil. Lush fruit, black raspberry, black berry and black cherry. Sensational! Cellar-worthy.
Stratus Tempranillo 2013, Niagara-on-the-Lake ($42)
Deep and solid ruby-garnet to the rim. Aromatic nose: floral, fruity and chocolatey. Noble and elegant bouquet and taste. Thick, lush fruit is smooth and exceptionally rich with flavours of dark berries, black olives, tea, smoke and more. Concentrated and polished. Cellar-worthy.