After the Gold Rush

Canadian producers are ushering in a new era of quality north of the border

After the Gold Rush
Martin's Lane Naramata Ranch Vineyard in British Columbia's Okanagan Valley (Shawn Talbot)
From the Feb 29, 2020, issue

Over the past decade, the wines of Canada reached a new level in terms of quality, style and consistency. Chalk that up to investment on the part of talented, passionate vintners, who are planting more vinifera grape varieties and exploring vineyard-designated reds and whites.

This evolution was borne out in my recent blind tastings of more than 100 wines from Ontario and British Columbia. Overall, 40% of the wines earned outstanding ratings of  90 points or higher on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale—an impressive showing compared with our previous reviews of Canadian wines, dating back to the 1990s, only 20% of which rated outstanding. Furthermore, ice wine, the sweet dessert wine made from frozen grapes, no longer dominates the top-scoring bottlings. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot and red blends are showing comparable success.

"I truly believe in Ontario and, in particular, our very unique vineyard on the Niagara Escarpment bench," says Flat Rock Cellars president Ed Madronich, whose Gravity Twenty Mile Bench 2015 (92 points, $35), made from Pinot Noir, is one of this report's top-scoring wines. "The combination of Mother Nature—soil and climate—and a talented group of passionate individuals allows me to know we can not only stand out among my colleagues here in Ontario, but on a global scale."

Although most of the wines included here are available in the United States, I also reviewed a handful of wines that are not imported, in order to cover benchmark producers in Canada's most important wine regions. All of the wines, however, meet the standards set by the Vintners Quality Alliance, the regulatory agency in both provinces responsible for guaranteeing quality and authenticity of origin. The VQA system ensures that the wines come from the appellation on the label and enforces winemaking and labeling rules. (A free alphabetical list of scores and prices for all wines tasted is available.)

In total, there are 30,000 acres of vines planted in Canada. Ontario boasts more than half, with 17,000 acres, mostly found in the Niagara Peninsula, while British Columbia claims another 10,500 acres, the majority of them in the Okanagan Valley. Together, the two provinces make up 92% of Canada's entire vineyard acreage.

A significant impetus for the upswing in quality has been the steady increase in plantings of Vitis vinifera in the country's cool-climate areas. The first vinifera plantings in Niagara occurred in 1952, and by 1986 there were 629 acres of Chardonnay in Ontario. After that, Chardonnay acreage increased to nearly 6,000 acres by the year 2000 and is the most widely planted variety today. Riesling, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Pinot Noir are also gaining ground. During the same period, plantings of Vitis labrusca and hybrids decreased, with the exception of Vidal, grown primarily for ice wine.

Ontario's wine regions of Niagara Peninsula, Lake Erie North Shore and Prince Edward County benefit from the cold-mitigating influence of Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, which decrease the severity of winter weather in the area. Combined with the limestone and sedimentary soils of the old lake beds, these conditions set the stage for high quality viticulture.

The Niagara Peninsula is further divided into 10 subappellations under the VQA. The cooler areas in the western and southern parts of the region are home to Chardonnay, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir, while the warmer northeastern section is capable of ripening Cabernet Sauvignon.

Cave Spring Cellars, an early proponent of vinifera, planted Riesling obtained through Hermann Weis of St.-Urbans-Hof in Germany's Mosel Valley as early as 1978. Its Riesling Niagara Peninsula Icewine 2017 (93, $60/375ml) is one of the highest-soring wines of this report. The 2017 vintage was challenging, with a cool and wet spring and summer, yet ideal conditions in the fall benefited the late-ripening Riesling.

"Because Lake Ontario is so deep and temperate, it tends to allow for Riesling, our grape of choice for making ice wine, to ripen gradually and completely," explains Cave Spring managing partner Tom Pennachetti, who serves as vice president of marketing and sales.

"By cooling the vineyards throughout the growing season at the lakeshore sites [the VQA-designated Lincoln Lakeshore] where we grow our Riesling for this wine, the lake prevents overripening in the late season," Pennachetti continues. "This allows the clusters to survive the harvest window and endure intact, if desiccated, through the freeze-thaw cycles of late November and early December."

Another top-scorer comes from Mission Hill, one of four estates owned by entrepreneur Anthony von Mandl (Checkmate Artisanal Winery, Cedar Creek and Martin's Lane are the others). The Oculus Okanagan Valley 2016 (93, $100) is a Bordeaux blend based on Merlot (56%), Cabernet Sauvignon (27%) and Cabernet Franc (17%), whose grapes are sourced from Mission Hill's estate vineyards at the southern end of the valley.

British Columbia boasts nine Geographical Indications under the VQA system. The Okanagan Valley, a roughly five-hour drive east of Vancouver, is the largest by far, comprising 84% of the region's vineyard acreage. Okanagan Lake is the major climatic influence, extending from the cooler northern section of the valley almost to the semi-arid southern end. Within this diverse backdrop are a number of various microclimates.

The Okanagan Valley is farther north than other Canadian wine regions and ranges in elevation from about 300 to 2,000 feet, resulting in shorter growing seasons. Yet the long days of sunlight deliver enough heat and light to fully ripen the region's mix of grapes. The most widely planted varieties are Pinot Gris and Chardonnay for whites and Merlot and Pinot Noir for reds. Earlier-ripening varieties succeed in the north, while the drier southern zone is planted to Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, among other red grapes.

Von Mandl's Martin's Lane, which owns four vineyards around Okanagan Lake, is one producer showcasing the outstanding quality the region is capable of. Specializing in Pinot Noir and Riesling, the winery made three 90-plus Pinots from 2015—the Simes Vineyard (92, $80), Naramata Ranch Vineyard (91, $80) and Dehart Vineyard (90, $80).

"Our climate of course has a big influence in the quality of the best Okanagan Pinots," says winemaker Shane Munn. "Essentially, the large and very deep lake makes this possible, moderating the temperature fluctuations we can encounter. The difference between the east vs. west side of the lake is also crucial—the early morning sun that vineyards on the west side capture is often responsible for wines of greater power, in both fruit and structure. Aspect—whether on either the east or west side of the lake—is also one of the key attributes to retaining the elegance in either variety. Sites facing between west to north yield the wines of greatest finesse, in my opinion."

Today, there are 175 wineries in the Okanagan Valley and another 170 in Ontario. Most wineries have tasting rooms, restaurants and other amenities. In addition to trying the many delicious wines in this report, visiting these wine regions firsthand is a great way to experience all that Canada offers for wine lovers.

Senior editor Bruce Sanderson is Wine Spectator's lead taster on the wines of Canada.


More than 100 wines were reviewed for this report. A free alphabetical list is available. members can access complete reviews using the online Wine Ratings search.


Riesling Niagara Peninsula Icewine 2017

Score: 93 | $60/375ml

WS Review: Floral, apricot, lanolin and white pepper flavors lead to honey details in this balanced sweetie, showing fine cut and length.


Oculus Okanagan Valley 2016

Score: 93 | $100

WS Review: Ripe, polished and complex, with black cherry, blackberry, cedar, tar and toasty oak flavors. Balanced and dense. Merlot blend.


Vidal Niagara-On-The-Lake Icewine 2017

Score: 92 | $48/375ml

WS Review: This plush and creamy dessert wine is full of apricot, butterscotch, orange peel and vanilla cream flavors, offset by bracing acidity.


Gravity Twenty Mile Bench 2015

Score: 92 | $35

WS Review: Silky yet structured, this opulent red shows saturated flavors of black cherry, blackberry, currant, graphite and spice. Pinot Noir.


Pinot Noir Okanagan Valley Simes Vineyard 2015

Score: 92 | $80

WS Review: A suave red, offering pure black cherry and black currant flavors. Dense and concentrated, with fine harmony, complexity and length.


Quatrain Okanagan Valley 2016

Score: 92 | $50

WS Review: Suave and harmonious, with plenty of bass notes in the form of dark plum, blackberry, loamy earth and smoky oak flavors. Syrah blend.


Riesling Niagara Peninsula Icewine 2017

Score: 92 | $85/375ml

WS Review: Jasmine, honey, apricot and lime flavors run along the racy structure in this laserlike dessert wine. Complex and compact.


Vidal Niagara River Icewine Grand Reserve 2017

Score: 92 | $80/375ml

WS Review: Broad and creamy, with fine cut to the butterscotch, peach cobbler and lanolin flavors. Beautifully balanced and racy.


Riesling Niagara-On-The-Lake Icewine 2017

Score: 92 | $75

WS Review: This perfumed, floral-scented white boasts apricot, apple and orange peel flavors. Elegant, pure and vibrant, with a mouthwatering finish.


Cabernet Sauvignon Okanagan Valley 2015

Score: 91 | $39

WS Review: Black currant, blackberry, cedar, licorice and tobacco notes mesh with the rich yet firmly structured profile in this fresh red.


Fool's Mate Okanagan Valley 2015

Score: 91 | $75

WS Review: A bit of a chameleon, starting out soft and finishing with zip and grip, with the flavors supported by bright acidity. Chardonnay.


Vidal Niagara Peninsula Ice Wine Gold 2017

Score: 91 | $80/375ml

WS Review: A creamy dessert wine, featuring vanilla-tinged apricot, baked apple,


Pinot Noir Okanagan Valley McLean Creek Road Vineyard 2017

Score: 91 | $40

WS Review: This red has a racy feel, driving the cherry, currant and licorice flavors. Stays firm and taut, showing fine balance and persistence.


Pinot Noir Okanagan Valley Platinum Block 4 2016

Score: 90 | $42

WS Review: Black cherry, black currant and blueberry fruit shows smoky oak, flint and licorice accents in this sleek, intense red. Supple and vibrant.


Chardonnay Prince Edward County Grand Cuvée 2017

Score: 90 | $53

WS Review: A ripe style, offering tropical notes of pineapple, butter and baking spice. Plush, lingering with a hint of grapefruit peel.

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