Category Archives: Canada

The Most Beautiful Wine Region That You’ve Never Heard Of…And They Make Good Wine, Too

Our exceptional bus driver and guide, Matt Wentzell, assured us that he could make it up the steep twisty and bumpy dirt road.  I remained unconvinced as the road became more twisted and bumpy.  Halfway up, we stopped, carefully disembarked and stepped onto a plateau overlooking the narrow, mountain-lined valley.  John Weber, who with his wife, Virginia, moved here a dozen years ago to start Orofino Winery, recounted his first impression upon seeing this view.  Driving from Eastern Canada, they took a wrong turn and came over the pass into the valley on this same dirt road instead of the main–and equally beautiful–road.  They looked at each other and simultaneously said, “This is the place.”

The Similkameen Valley runs northwest off the much larger, and marginally better known, Okanagan Valley in British Columbia.  Home to only about 19 wineries and approximately 700 acres of vines, the Similkameen and the Okanagan with its several hundred wineries and roughly 8,600 acres, accounts for over 90 percent of the province’s wine production.  (By comparison, Napa Valley comprises about 50,000 acres of vineyards.)  And contrary to the conventional impression of Canadian wines, most of the production is not ice wine, but rather dry, still and sparkling.

Indeed, consistent with the prevailing pioneering wine culture–the modern industry is only about 25 years old and many producers narrow that to the last ten years for quality production–winemakers have planted most everything.  The results have been astonishingly good, though inconsistent still.  Orofino’s single-vineyard Rieslings, for example, are brilliant, combining elegance and finesse with a distinct sense of place, while other producers are still making over-extracted and ponderous reds.

Jay Drysdale of Bella, who makes only sparkling wines, and focuses on single varietals from single vineyards, epitomizes the adventurous spirit.  “We are not harnessed by rules,” he says, noting that they have a completely different climate and soil compared to Champagne. “There’s no reason to follow their rules.  We must make wines to adapt to our conditions.”  And he has.  This year Bella produced a total of 2,000 cases of 12 different bubblies, including a half a dozen “Pet-Nats.”  His wines are certainly not for everyone, but he has an unbridled enthusiasm, matched only by Buddha, his tail-wagging and body-shaking bulldog. And this enthusiasm, I am sure, will certainly help propel the region forward as, for example, when he says, “I love working in a place where other guys are playing with Touriga, Zinfandel, and Grüner.”

Along with Orofino, Little Farm Winery and Clos du Soleil Winery are two other outstanding producers whose wines will make the Similkameen a name to remember.  Co-owners Rhys Pender, MW and Alishan Driediger, at Little Farm Winery, aptly named considering the garage-sized winery, produce small quantities of exciting Riesling and Chardonnay, while Mike Clark at Clos du Soleil shows the extraordinary diversity of the area with his suave red and white Bordeaux blends as well as an uncommonly deep and elegant Pinot Blanc. These three wineries and their vineyards are within a couple of miles of one another, yet the variations in soil and exposure–the shadows cast by the mountains exert an enormous influence on temperature–allow varieties as different as Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling to thrive in close proximity.

Across the pass in the Okanagan Valley, Pender explains that the culture and feeling is more akin to Napa compared to the rural and laid-back Sonoma-like Similkameen.  With majestic houses and wineries bordering the lake, the Okanagan actually makes Napa look down-market.  The views are breathtaking, matching many of the wines.  But still, not surprisingly given the youthfulness of the area, inconsistency remains.

What is consistent, however, is the spirit of adventure; the, “why not try it” attitude.  Take, for example, CedarCreek Estate Winery’s 2016 Ehrenfelser, made from the grape, a cross between Silvaner and Riesling, of the same name. Instead of ripping out the few remaining acres of it, they have made a delightfully floral fruit salad of a wine with gripping acidity that prevents it from being cloying.  CedarCreek refers to it as a “patio-sipper,” but I think they underestimate its complexity and balance.  Indeed, there’s a modesty bordering on insecurity on behalf of most of the producers in these valleys that is reflected in the tremendous quality/price ratio of the wines.  Sadly, for those of us south of the border, the wines are virtually impossible to find.  When and if we can find them, I suspect the prices will be far higher thanks to our three-tier distribution system.

The pioneering spirit of Donald Triggs, one of the pioneers in the Okanagan Valley and certainly now past normal retirement age, is still very much alive after he sold the Jackson-Triggs winery in 2006.  He founded Jackson-Triggs with Allan Jackson in 1993 and it went on to become Canada’s most important winery.  Now, he and his wife, Elaine, have started anew, purchasing vineyards and creating a winery, Culmina Family Estate Winery, in the Golden Mile Bench, the Okanagan’s only officially classified sub-region.  They were the first in the Okanagan to plant Grüner Veltliner (2011).  Six or seven other growers have followed.  What is amazing about Culmina’s wines is how good they are despite coming from vines that are only a few years old.

The enormous length, about 150 miles, of the Okanagan Valley brings with it markedly varied growing conditions, which also stem from whether the vineyards are on the eastern side and receive warmer afternoon sun–or the western side of the valley and receive cooler morning sun.  These variations also suggest that
the region will never have a single signature grape.  Too many grape varieties do equally well.

For example, in the south, which is hot and is really an extension of Arizona’s Sonora Desert, Syrah excels.  Indeed, Pender believes that Syrah is the best grape for this particular part of the Okanagan.  Judging from a tasting of Syrah organized by the British Columbia Wine Institute and held at Le Vieux Pin Winery, one the top wineries in the region, I wouldn’t argue with him.  Le Vieux Pin’s winemaker, Severine Pinte, a transplanted French woman who makes three delectably different Syrahs, believes the area is “exceptionally well-suited to the grape.”  Other producers, such as Burrowing Owl Estate Winery, Bartier Brothers, C. C. Jentsch Cellars, do equally well, capturing a style in-between the New and the Old World.  Some producers co-ferment Syrah with Viognier as is common in Côte Rôtie, while others make 100 percent Syrah.  Regardless of particular practices, these Syrah-based wines manage to deliver generous plumy quality without over ripe jamminess, while maintaining the savory peppery quality and meatiness so prized in their Rhône Valley siblings.

Tasting wines with winemaker David Paterson from Tantalus Vineyards shows the importance of vine age and how far the region has come in such a short period of time.  I had heard from many knowledgeable writers and growers that Tantalus’ Old Vines Riesling, made from vines planted in 1978, was Canada’s best rendition of that noble variety.  After tasting a series of them ranging from the 2014 to the 2006, I have no reason to disagree.  The 2014 had a paradoxical laser-like penetration while still being delicate, while the 2006 had developed a luxurious texture balanced perfectly by a lime-like zestiness.  A similar range of his regular Riesling, made from far younger vines, had buoyancy and lacey qualities that made them easy to recommend, though they lacked the complexity of the “Old Vines” bottlings.

Tasting Tantalus’ Pinot Noir was equally instructive.  The 2010 had developed nicely but lacked finesse compared to the gorgeously proportioned and seemingly weightless yet intense 2015.  Paterson admits he’s learned a lot in the intervening years and so have the vines.

Speaking of Pinot Noir, three pairs of them from three different wineries show that the Okanagan is likely to rank with other great Pinot Noir areas for showing that elusive “sense of place” or terroir.

At CedarCreek, they harvest and vinify two separate portions–an upper and a lower–of one of their hillside Pinot Noir vineyards because they think the soil and climate is different.  And indeed, so are the wines; one is more robust and one more delicate.  Even more convincing are two pairs from wineries located on the Naramata Bench, a non-officially categorized subzone of the Okanagan on its eastern bank.  The Naramata Road marks the level of 10,000 year-old Okanagan Lake formed by a glacier.  Below the road, the soil in the vineyard is sedimentary, reflecting the presence of an ancient lake, while above the road, the vineyards are rocky and less fertile.  Two wineries, Howling Bluff Estate Winery and Fox Trot Vineyards, each make two Pinot Noirs, one from their vineyards that lie above and below the road.  Although the winemaking at Howling Bluff and Fox Trot are different, each uses the same techniques for both their Pinot Noirs.  Yet in each case, the wines are wonderfully and dramatically different.  The wine made from Pinot Noir grown in the less-fertile vineyard above the road in each case was more elegant and savory compared to the riper, fruitier wine made using the same techniques from the grapes grown below the road.

Place matters.  At least for Pinot Noir and Riesling, the Okanagan/Similkameen Valleys allow those varieties to show their distinctive and unique origins.  It may take another 50 years or so to fine tune the map, but the basics are there.  Will the same be true of other varieties?  Time will tell.  It would help if the authorities would de-lineate and define the other important sub-regions, such as the Naramata Bench, Kelowna, Okanagan Falls, and Osoyoos, of this diverse area.

Don’t expect a single grape or two to represent the Okanagan and Similkameen Valleys the way Malbec and Torrontés have defined Argentina.  From my experience, Riesling, Syrah, and Pinot Noir all can excel, as do Bordeaux varieties (more on those in a future column).  These two British Columbia areas, while still finding their way, will be home to many stars.  Will one shine brighter than another?  I doubt it.  Rather, I think we’ll be looking at a bright constellation.


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September 13, 2017

E-mail me your thoughts about Canadian wine in general and those from British Columbia in particular at and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

Canadian Pinot Noir: Who Knew?

When I told friends that I was going to Edmonton to taste and judge Canadian wines, the predictable response was, “Oh, icewine.”  Having tasted Canadian wines during trips to Ontario and at a previous edition of the Northern Lands Festival Canadian Wine Competition in Edmonton, I knew that Canada made more than just icewine.  What I didn’t know at the time, but know now, is that Canada makes sensational and unique Pinot Noir that reflect the diversity of sites where the grapes grow.

Indeed, winemakers in Canada, as a group, seem to know how to coax from the grape both subtle fruity and savory flavors –the ying/yang for which that grape is famous–far better than winemakers working with other New World sites.  The alcohol levels of Canadian Pinot Noir are modest by today’s standards, rarely exceeding 14 percent. Even the ripest that I’ve tasted recently do not come close to the overdone style that I call “Pinot Syrah,” which can give the varietal a bad name in California.  If Burgundians have been looking over their shoulder at Pinot Noir from California, Oregon or Central Otago and Martinborough in New Zealand, they should be checking the other shoulder because the ones from Canada will be upon them before they know it.

The two major regions for Pinot Noir in Canada are the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia, about a four-hour drive east of Vancouver, and the Niagara Peninsula in Ontario.

The Okanagan Valley, running north-south for about 100 miles, has an incredibly diverse climate and a plethora of soils, but one unifying characteristic–long hours of sunshine due to its northern location.  During the height of the growing season the Okanagan receives two hours a day more sunshine than the Napa Valley, which compensates for a shorter growing season.  The southern end, bordering the U.S., is desert-like (in reality it is the northern extension of Arizona’s Sonora Desert) with summertime temperatures reaching 100 degrees.

Not surprisingly, Pinot Noir, which thrives in a cool, even marginal, climate, doesn’t do well there.  However, 60 miles to the north, in Okanagan Falls and further north in Kelowna, the conditions are perfect for that fickle grape. Pinot Noir does best in climates where sugar and phenolics (skin and seed tannins) ripen at the same time, something that occurs in the northern part of the Okanagan, just as in Burgundy.  The whole valley, north and south, has extraordinary diurnal temperature variations–up to 30 degrees, which helps explain why the grapes hold their acidity, imparting freshness and liveliness to the wines.

From a winegrowing point of view, the Okanagan Valley is young.  In 1990, when it received official VQA status from the Canadian authorities in British Columbia (the equivalent of the French AOC), roughly 1,200 acres were planted to vines. By 2014, there had been a 700 percent increase in vineyards, with about 8,500 acres planted.  The numbers for Pinot Noir are striking–an 80 percent increase in plantings over eight years, 2006 – 2014, outstripping new plantings of every other red variety. The number of wineries has also ballooned from fewer than 20 in 1990 to over 200 in 2014. Many winemakers told me that the Okanagan has been a quality wine-producing area for only the last decade.

I’ve seen (or rather tasted) the steep learning curve that has accompanied the proliferation of vineyards.  Two years ago, at Northern Lands, Canada’s largest all-Canadian wine and culinary festival, which brings together chefs and winemakers from all over Canada, my impression after tasting scores of Pinot Noir was that these were okay wines, but nothing unique or exceptional.  Now, just two years later, my viewpoint is entirely different–these Canadian Pinot Noir make you sit up and take notice.

David Paterson’s 2014 Tantalus Pinot Noir from the Okanagan Valley shows just how far he’s come in two years.  The 2014 had far more polished tannins and a more elegant savory profile erasing the rusticity of the 2012.  Paterson attributes the change to the vines being two years older, which may not seem like an eternity, but two years on the life of an eight-year-old vine represents 25 percent of the vine’s life. Additionally, Paterson is certain that he knows the vineyard better over the last two years and has refined his techniques in the cellar as a result.

Part of my enthusiasm for these Canadian Pinot Noirs is that even within a small area, such as the northern part of the Okanagan Valley, the character of the Pinot Noir varies greatly, depending on the sites, which vary considerably.  The soils are diverse and interdigitating because the area was formed by glaciers which have left their scars on the region in the form of canyons and cliffs and stones in the vineyards.  Just as conventional wisdom says that the southern end of the valley is warmer, so is the east side because of the effect of the hot afternoon sun.  However these broad generalizations can fail to predict the character of the wines.

Take, for example, 50th Parallel Estate’s 2014 Pinot Noir, in which graceful red fruit flavors mingle with savory notes that dance across the palate.  It’s delicate and fresh, a Côte de Beaune-style wine.  From a site just across the lake on the western side is Quails’ Gate Winery’s 2014 Richard’s Block Pinot Noir, which is a more robust darker expression of the variety that maintains uplifting freshness, more reminiscent of the Côte de Nuits. Here are two beautifully made Pinot Noirs made from grapes grown less than a mile apart, yet which convey vastly different, yet equally captivating, expressions of my definition of Pinot Noir–that is, flavor without weight.

Or, take two 2015 Pinot Noirs from Meyer Family Vineyards.  Their bottling from the more northern located Reimer Vineyard is riper, a more fruit-driven style compared to their version from the more southern (and theoretically warmer) McLean Creek Vineyard, which has a far more savory character.   Michaela Morris, a Vancouver-based wine writer and authority on Canadian wines, explains that individual microclimates can trump the sometimes simplistic conventional wisdom.

Despite being geologically and climatically very different from the Okanagan Valley, the Niagara Peninsula in Ontario is another ideal spot for Pinot Noir.  This wine-growing area runs east to west, is limestone-based without the residue left by glaciers, and has such a harsh winter that some producers actually bury their vines so that they survive the cold.  To dispel the notion that it’s not too cold in this part of Canada for fine wine, winemakers in Ontario emphasize that their latitude is comparable to France’s Burgundy and Champagne regions.  In truth it’s the Niagara Escarpment coupled with Lake Ontario that makes wine-growing here possible.  (If latitude alone determined the ability to make fine wine, there would be wineries in Vladivostok, on Russia’s east coast.  A more critical factor is whether the vineyards are located on the eastern or western side of a land mass.)

The Niagara Escarpment is the name given to a 1,000-mile ridge that runs from upstate New York to Wisconsin.  On the Niagara Peninsula this several hundred foot high ridge traps warm air rising from Lake Ontario and forces it down onto the vineyards, warming them and creating a constant flow of air that reduces the chance of frost and helps keep the vines free of disease. Indeed, the distance that the vineyard lies between the lake and the foot of the escarpment determines, in large measure, the character of the wine.

Paul Pender, winemaker at the highly regarded Tawse vineyard in Ontario and another leading Pinot Noir producer, explains that Ontario, like the Okanagan, is basically a young area for winegrowing.  He estimates that serious quality winemaking has only been around in the last ten years.  One of his explanations for the rapid learning curve is that winemakers are staying put and thereby learn about their vineyards.  In the past, he says, the focus was on the winemaker.  “If you had ‘that’ winemaker, you were golden.  Winemakers moved from winery to winery.”  Now, it’s clear to everyone that the focus needs to be on the vineyard.  Winemakers need to learn how an individual vineyard responds year to year. The only way to do that, is to stay in one place.

Prices for Canadian Pinot Noir are incredibly reasonable.  Parallel 50th Estate’s 2014 Pinot Noir, “Unparalleled,” a barrel selection that represented a few percentage of their total production and was voted “Best in Show” at the recently completed Northern Lands Wine Competition sells for $50 CAD (about $37 at the current exchange rate) at the winery.  Parallel 50th Estate’s regular 2014 Pinot Noir, which was voted 2nd best Pinot Noir after Unparalleled, sells for $29 CAD ($21.50). Sadly for us south of the border consumers, Canadian Pinot Noir are difficult to find because they are made in small quantities and consumed locally.  But they are worth the search.

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E-mail me your thoughts about Canadian wines in general or Canadian Pinot Noir in specific at and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

May 24, 2017

Cave Spring Cellars, Niagara Peninsula (Ontario, Canada) Riesling 2008

($12, Boutique Vineyards):  The moderating influences of Lake Ontario and the Niagara Escarpment allow vinifera grapes to survive the otherwise frigid and snowy winter.  Riesling is especially well suited to the relatively cool climate of the Niagara Peninsula where the harvest in 2008 for this wine extended until November 18th.  Cave Spring Cellars’ offering is tight and sleek.  A touch of peach-like notes harmonizes nicely with bright citrus notes and vibrant, but not screaming, acidity. 89 Aug 31, 2010

An Unlikely Area Producing Very Likeable Wines

The Niagara Peninsula is as unlikely a place as you can imagine for producing fine wines. Let’s start with the obvious. It’s in Canada–and not Western Canada where more temperate climate prevails. The Niagara Peninsula is a strip of land in Eastern Canada separating Lake Ontario from Lake Erie. And in case you’ve forgotten, Buffalo, with its hundreds of inches of snow each winter is on Lake Erie, the only one of the Great Lakes that actually freezes in the winter. In some places winegrowers actually mound snow around the base of the vines in the winter to protect them from the cold.

It sounds like a good place to make ice wine–and it is–but more on that in a subsequent column. More surprising, winemakers are producing excellent dry table wines made from Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling, and other Vitis vinifera grapes.

Stellar Pinot Noir

Starting at the top is Le Clos Jordanne, a joint venture of Vincor Canada (part of Constellation) and Boisset from Burgundy, that is making stunning Pinot Noir and Chardonnay under the guidance of winemaker Thomas Bachelder. (You know when the French start investing in a place there must be something to it. Just look back thirty years to sparkling wine production in California and twenty years to the Drouhin’s involvement in Oregon.) Truly a garage operation, the winery is located in an industrial looking green building on the service road that parallels Queen Elizabeth Way, one of Canada’s major highways (plans are in the works for a new winery designed by Frank Gehry). But the wines are not at all “garagiste” in style. Rather they are layered, suave and long, the epitome of fine Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Using the Burgundy model, Bachelder makes a “village” wine from grapes from their four vineyards, wines from the individual vineyards and a wine from one section of the vineyard. Even though it’s a young venture–the first plantings were only in 2000–he has found a distinct difference in both the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from adjacent vineyards. The vineyards, Le Clos and Claystone, are within 50 yards of one another, but are separated by a steep ravine. He’s smart enough to know he cannot explain what precisely is responsible for the difference in the wines–drainage, soil, slight difference in exposure–but notes the differences are similar stylistically for both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. He believes there is great diversity of the soil even in adjacent vineyards as a result of erratic glacier movement thousands of years ago, and that the ravine marks a transition of soil types. Tasting his stellar wines from barrel makes a powerful argument that place matters here on the Niagara Peninsula.

Le Clos Jordanne is not the only winery that takes advantage of the diversity of soil and site. Coyote’s Run Estate Winery makes two dramatically–and refreshingly–different Pinot Noirs from adjacent vineyards. One vineyard has darker clay soil and gives rise to their Black Paw Pinot Noir, which has a Côtes de Nuits-like earthy intensity. The adjoining vineyard is replete with a lighter red clay soil that produces their Red Paw Pinot Noir, a lighter, red-fruited stylish wine more reminiscent of a wine from the Côtes de Beaune.

The Niagara Escarpment Makes it Possible

Although winemakers point to the 43 degree latitude of the Niagara Peninsula (on a level roughly with great wine growing areas of France and Oregon) to dispel the notion that it’s not too cold in this part of Canada for fine wine, it’s really the Niagara Escarpment coupled with Lake Ontario that makes it possible. (After all, Vladivostok, on Russia’s east coast is also on the same latitude, demonstrating that latitude alone does not determine the ability to make fine wine. A more important factor is whether the vineyards are located on the eastern or western side of a land mass.) The Niagara Escarpment is name given to a 1,000-mile ridge that runs from upstate New York to Wisconsin. On the Niagara Peninsula this several hundred foot high ridge traps warm air rising from Lake Ontario and forces it down onto the vineyards, warming them and creating a constant air flow that reduces the chance of frost and helps keep the vines free of disease.

A Place for Pinot

Bachelder notes that the Niagara Peninsula is beneath everyone’s radar for the moment. But that won’t last forever. He’s already seeing a lot of investment and new wineries popping up like mushrooms in the rain, focusing on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Another sign that the area’s on the way up is movement of winemakers from the established leader in the region, Inniskillin, to establish their own labels. Just as Warren Winiarski peeled off from Robert Mondavi Winery to start his own winery in Napa, David Sheppard’s departure from Inniskillin after 20-plus years to found Coyote’s Run Estate in 2003 shows that those who know the area best believe in its potential.

Although the major focus of the Niagara Peninsula now is its glorious ice wine, Pinot Noir does has a promising future here because the soil and climate is right for producing elegant complex wines without high levels of alcohol or overripe flavors. Riesling, Viognier and Pinot Gris have great potential as well, based on samples I tasted from Twenty Twenty Seven Cellars, Chateau des Charmes and Calamus, respectively. But in another ten years, I wouldn’t be surprised if Niagara Peninsula stands with Oregon, parts of California, and New Zealand’s Central Otago and Martinborough areas as a top place for Pinot.

If You Go

The area, sometimes called Napa of the North, is, as the Michelin Guide would say, “worth a journey.” Accessible by car from either Buffalo or Toronto, wineries are easy to visit because of the relatively compact landscape and–unlike Napa–a multitude of roads crisscrossing the area. Inniskillin and Jackson Triggs are two wineries set up to receive visitors easily without appointments. An indispensable book to take is The Wine Atlas of Canada (Random House Canada) by Tony Aspler, one of Canada’s leading wine authorities. Beautifully laid out and well written, it provides succinct description of the wineries as well as contact information.

The area offers plenty–Niagara Falls for starters–in addition to winery visits. There’s the charming town of Niagara on the Lake, home to The Shaw Festival, an extraordinary theater schedule (not just Shaw plays) with three stages each featuring an average of at least two plays daily (even short ones at 11:30 AM as a lunch break). The River Bend Inn is well-appointed “grand house” style hotel conveniently located to wineries and a quick three-minute drive to the center of town. It also has an inviting outdoor patio overlooking vineyards, for breakfast or a late afternoon respite.

Although many wineries have excellent restaurants attached to them, don’t miss the Stone Road Grill in Niagara on the Lake because it has an extensive, all-Ontario wine list. But my personal favorite–and the place to start any visit to the region–is Treadwell’s, a restaurant with a fabulous riverside location in Port Dalhousie, the charming port area of the otherwise undistinguished city of Saint Catherines. Owner and sommelier James Treadwell has a well-selected and extensive list of wines by the glass (tasting portions or drinking portions) that allows you to explore the local wines–and plan visits based on what you taste–at one stop. Take his advice and you will not go wrong. The food is imaginative without being precious or overwrought.

September 22, 2009