Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz (2011)

Attaboy

June 28, 2009 at 11 PM

Drinking wine in and from Ontario: a newcomer’s impression

I moved to Ontario in September 2008. I had been living in England for three and a half years, and while there are many things about it I won’t miss, one of the things I grew accustomed to (perhaps a little too quickly) was the availability and selection of booze. British supermarkets tend to have enormous alcohol aisles with surprisingly good selection. And while each may carry the same big Australian names like Yellow Label and Jacob’s, they also have a surprising selection of stuff you (or I anyway) haven’t heard of. The selection at Sainsbury’s differs from the selection at Tesco or Marks & Spencer. Meanwhile, our local deli in Nottingham, in addition to its handpicked selection of fine meats and cheeses, also carried a handpicked selection of fine wines and beers. Only a dozen or so at any one time, but each one chosen specifically by the manager of the deli. One might compare it to shopping for books — you have your large, chain stores that carry more books than you can ever hope to read, and then the smaller, independent places where the selection is more eclectic and personal — books chosen according to someone’s taste.

In Ontario, almost all wine is sold at the LCBO. Since it’s not spelled out in full too often, I’ll mention that LCBO stands for the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, which is a government agency (run at arms length) that controls the import, distribution and sale of alcohol in the province. To be fair to the LCBO, they keep their customers relatively happy. There have plenty of locations in Toronto where I live, and most stock a decent selection of wine, although the vast majority of it is what I’d call mass-produced stuff without much character, most often from Australia, California and Italy, with sprinklings of New Zealand, Argentina and Chile. There’s a little from France too, but not a lot, because the French don’t really like making mass-produced wines. There is also lots of wine from Ontario itself, and nearly all of it — even the more expensive stuff — is utter plonk.

After about six months living here, I’d concluded that 90% of Ontario wine was downright awful, and the other 10% was merely okay but overpriced. To be fair to Ontario, I don’t care for Riesling, one of the most common varietals here, but even still, everything else, particularly the red wine from the LCBO, is just bad. Many restaurants serve bad Ontario wine too, for which one pays an outrageous markup. The dark secret though is that the majority of the wines sold in the Ontario section of your LCBO are actually made mostly from imported grapes, with a small amount of local produce mixed in. These bottles are labelled “Cellared in Canada”, and while some of them might be inoffensive enough for a night in front of the TV, I resent the false pretense under which they’re sold. By contrast, I assumed that wines with a VQA label, which guarantees the origin and quality of the product, would be at least decent, but even most of these range from bad to mediocre, and most are overpriced at $15-25 a pop. It wasn’t until I took my first trip to the Niagara region, and visited a few wineries between St. Catharines and Niagara-on-the-Lake, that I discovered there is actually some lovely winemaking happening in Ontario. You just can’t buy the fruits of that labour at the LCBO.

Talk to any small Ontario winemaker (or even a larger one who focuses on quality), mention the LCBO, and watch their faces wrinkle in disgust. Why? Many LCBO stores have a “Vintages” section, selling fine wines from all over the world, many made in smaller quantities. It isn’t all mass-produced Aussie shiraz — if you want to explore French wine, the Vintages sections will keep you happy. In theory, you could buy some of the nice, affordable Ontario wines there too, if you could find them, except that mostly you can’t, because most good, affordable Ontario wines are made in such small quantities that the LCBO isn’t interested. The process for getting your products listed with the LCBO is also apparently quite onerous, and even when everything falls into place, stocks will be limited given the public’s level of awareness and interest in Ontario wine — an interest hindered by the horrific rot that is sold in the mass-produced aisles. Most of the good Ontario wine that makes it to Vintages goes straight to collectors’ wine cellars and to nicer restaurants. And what’s left is often astonishingly expensive. Why spend $40 to get a good Ontario wine when a $20 Spanish wine will likely taste better?

Still, the wineries themselves are allowed to sell their own products, and thank heavens for that. There’s even one private retail chain, the Wine Rack, operated by Vincor, the elephant among the gnats of the Canadian wine industry; they own dozens of wineries and thus have enough product to stock their shelves. Most wineries can’t afford to operate retail stores though, so they only sell products directly at the winery or online. Unless one lives in Niagara, buying wine online isn’t a bad way to go, especially if you can convince other people to go in on a case and save on delivery costs. Nearly all the wineries sell products on their websites, or there’s also Winery to Home, which lets you mix-and-match to a very limited degree. This is as close as it gets to my hand-picked selection at the deli in Nottingham.

Of course, if you have a free weekend and some cash burning a hole in your pocket, even better is to simply go to Niagara and visit some wineries. I and my travel companions did that this past weekend and we returned with a truly shameless amount of wine, but we were so impressed by what we tried that it seemed silly not to bring back as much as we could afford (and fit in the car). It means we don’t need to go to the LCBO for awhile (a long while if we behave ourselves), and better still we’re supporting the little guys making quality, local products. These people do it because they enjoy it, not because they’re making a lot of money.

One of the wedding gifts we received last year was The Wine Atlas of Canada, a lovely book which helped us narrow down the geography of Niagara and find a selection of wineries to visit. But the book was published in 2006 and many new wineries have opened even since then. This is an industry still in its nascent stages, and I was astonished by how many wineries there are. The majority of them are really small operations, producing something like 5000-10000 cases of wine per year, and perhaps only 500 cases of any one particular wine. On the whole, Canada is a tiny, insignificant player on the world wine scene.

This past weekend we rode bicycles around the villages of Jordan and Vineland, and the town of Beamsville, stopping to taste wines in the area. (We had to bring the car back the next day to pick up the goods.) Producers in Ontario have recently tried to bring the concept of “terroir” to Niagara, to emphasize how much influence local soil conditions can have on the product, so many of the wines now mention exactly where they’re from — sub-appelations like Twenty Mile Bench and Lincoln Lakeshore. You can cycle between these places in no time — they’re tiny little geographic divisions. The Niagara Escarpment scenery is terrific and we were impressed with a great deal of what we tried. Everyone seemed to be excited about the 2007 vintage, particularly the reds, but since different wineries release their wines at different times we tried wine from a number of different years. On a functional note, many of the smaller wineries offer free tastings, but the ones that don’t will usually waive the fee if you buy any wine.

Some of the highlights included:

  • everyone was selling recently-released rosé for not much money ($10-15), and most of it was decidedly drinkable — light, dry and refreshing.

  • Calamus: a small winery near Ball’s Falls. They won points for selling very affordable wine ($12-$20 for the most part), which ranged from merely good to downright great. I enjoyed their Calamus Red and the Meritage, and the Pinot Gris.

  • Featherstone: the highlight was the 2007 “Onyx”, another red blend, but we liked just about everything here, including the fact that they use sheep to eat the leaves off the vines during the late season when the grapes need all the sunlight they can get. They’re also insecticide-free.

  • Kacaba: some big, impressive red wines at this small winery, but they don’t come cheap. The host said his favourite was their 2007 Cabernet Franc Reserve, and I found it hard to disagree. Lots of award winning wines.

  • Fielding Estate: another small winery making great, affordable wine in the $10-20 range. One of many wineries in Niagara where the architecture helps sell the wine. More great reds, both for single grape and for blends, and their 2007 Sauvignon Blanc was very smooth.

  • The Organized Crime Winery: the name and the artsy wine labels made me suspicious — were they selling cheap tat, or going for the trendy crowd? In reality though, it seemed to be neither; this is a tiny “boutique” winery focusing on good-quality wines, and they’re just marketing them with a bit of character. The Pinot Gris was flying out the door thanks to a recent review on CBC, while the 2007 Syrah was maybe the smoothest wine I tried all weekend.

  • Daniel Lenko: if the name makes it sound like one guy pouring wine in his kitchen, that’s because it is. (Well, actually his dad is there too.) There’s no pretension here, but there are some amazing wines. My only regret was that the affordable ones I liked here — the White Cabernet and the 2006 Old Vines Merlot for instance — are only available by the case. And at $60, the 2005 Meritage was out of my price range, although it was superb. His Riesling made me forget that I don’t like Riesling.

  • Hidden Bench: they don’t make enough wine here apparently, because they were running out of red when we arrived. The single type left, a Merlot-Cabernet Franc blend, was very good, but more impressive to me was the 2006 Estate Chardonnay. I’m generally apathetic about chardonnay, but this one really wowed me. Hidden Bench is one of the newest wineries to have opened in Niagara, but apparently already in great demand. They tossed their entire 2004 vintage because it didn’t meet their standards so you know their wines aren’t cheap, but most hover around $30, good for a special occasion.

I understand why the LCBO may not carry any of these wines — when you sell to all 12 million Ontarians, it’s hard to justify carrying a wine that would sell out if 0.05% of the population bought one bottle. But this just highlights the absurdity of the system. It should be possible for a small winery in Niagara to sell its products to people 100 km away in Toronto without making them pay a visit or buy a whole case at a time online. The simple explanation is that liquor laws in Canada stem from the Prohibition era, and while they’ve changed since then, they’ve never been overhauled completely. I find it bizarre that our governments perpetuate a system that is stacked against our own domestic producers — and by extension, consumers — not only within each province, but between provinces. As difficult as it is a for a small Ontario winery to have products on Ontario store shelves, they can all but forget about the idea of appearing on shelves anywhere else in Canada, and good luck finding any of the nice Okanagan wine if you live in Ontario. Tasting BC wine in Ontario is largely a matter of having your relatives bring it with them when they visit, but even that is technically illegal. It’s also illegal for wineries to ship their products to other provinces. And don’t even get me started about beer. I look forward to the day that the “free trade” mantra applies to Canada itself rather than just between Canada and other countries. And I look forward to the day when our government realizes it should promote our wine industry rather than hinder it.

2 Comments

I'm not sure you care as much about this topic because of your move to a very well known wine region, but the LCBO vintages sells 128 canadian wine for less than $30 (some greater than half proportion is Ontario) while it only sells 49 wines from New Zealand for less than $30, so the better(?)Ontario wines seemingly have higher visibility to consumers through the LCBO. Ontario's pop. is about 12.2 million. New Zealand's is about 4.3 million. How do they market very good wine halfway around the world with such a small population to help get the industry going? And how many good Ontario wines are sold in New Zealand?
Hi Attaboy, I thoroughly enjoyed your article and truly appreciate your candidness; I found your article by googling "Ontario Wine Bad" just to see what kind of honest opinions are really out there! If I may add: Vineyards and Wine Rack stores are operated by a small handful of large companies only thanks to some silly and archaic grandfathered licenses that they have some how managed to hold on to from before the Free Trade agreement was reached in 1989. For further explanation follow the link below: http://www.agco.on.ca/pdfs/en/guides/3168_a.pdf To Ckinsley's comment: The reason why NZ is able to market good value wine halfway around the world, and do it fairly successfully, is because they actually have **it* all together. At this point I would like to state that this is also just an opinion piece... When you think of NZ wines, what comes to your mind? More than likely you are now drooling for a crisp, grassy Sauv Blanc with beautiful citrus notes and racy acidity. Or, maybe you’re into reds lately and you're writing down the word lamb on a shopping list so you can match it with that elegantly rich, plumby yet mildly spicy bottle of well-grounded Pinot Noir your friend just told you about. No, my name is not Mrs. Cleo…! Now, tell me, what first comes to mind when you picture yourself drinking a wine from Ontario? Go on, pick something... Are you confused yet? I sincerely applaud the LCBO for the great support they show for local wines through their WOW program and on that note, I don't necessarily think that they have much to do with the perception of price and "value" that we as a consumer look for in a wine. This is largely to do with the fact that it is in fact the wineries themselves setting the price points for their products. This is not to say that the ball of blame and fault is entirely in their court. What can you really do when the only market you have to play in forces you to hardball with regions like Chile and Argentina. These two booming regions produce stellar wines at a fraction of the cost - no thanks to their advantageous climate and local economic, err… environment. The real striking difference between Ontario and New Zealand as wine regions (keeping in mind that they are technically the same age) is much to the point that I had made earlier. New Zealanders have been able to reduce their industry scope to exactly what it is that they produce the best. Then, they took their two varieties, they added a touch of Kiwi style (tēnā koe to Hunters Wines for the outstanding Pinots

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