Canada's Revival

Impressive new Chardonnays, Rieslings and ice wines reflect a transformation in the vineyards
Feb 3, 2000
Bruce Sanderson's top-scoring wines from British Columbia.

Bruce Sanderson's list of top-scoring wines from Ontario.

Canadian bargains we've rated 85 and higher.

Recipes we suggest for that Canadian Chardonnay, Riesling, or ice wine.

For other ratings of Canadian wines, check our Wine Search.

For Bruce Sanderson's detailed tasting report, including tasting notes for 68 Canadian wines and profiles of British Columbia and Ontario, see the Oct. 31 issue of Wine Spectator, page 107.

Canada's Revival

Impressive new Chardonnays, Rieslings and ice wines reflect a transformation in the vineyards

By Bruce Sanderson

Mention Canada to the average American, and a likely association might be hockey or comedy -- not wine. Even Canadian beer evokes a more immediate image than Canadian wine. If anything, rare, nectarlike ice wine, made from frozen grapes and highly sought after as far away as Japan, drives the reputation of Canada's wine industry.

That may all be changing. The 1989 U.S.-Canada Free Trade Agreement provided the first impetus for the overhaul of the stagnant Canadian wine industry. Continuing under the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, the phase-out of Canada's protectionist wine tariff structure led to a surge in plantings of traditional European grapes so that Canadian winemakers might improve quality and compete globally. The results are promising, at least for the elegant whites, a handful of luscious late-harvest sweet wines and, of course, the intense, honeyed ice wines.

By world standards, Canada makes a negligible amount of wine, its 25.7 million cases barely surpassing the production of Austria or Bulgaria (but nearly four times New Zealand's 6.5 million cases). Of the four provinces in which grapes are grown, two cool-climate regions have emerged as sources of distinctive and elegant wines: the Niagara Peninsula of Ontario and British Columbia's Okanagan Valley.

With warm summers and winter temperature extremes moderated by lakes, winemakers in both areas fashion fresh whites from Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Blanc and Gewürztraminer. The cold winters also allow the pressing of frozen grapes consistently from year to year, resulting in the rare and expensive ice wines. With a few exceptions, both regions present challenges to the achievement of full ripeness in red grape varieties, judging by their herbaceous and vegetal flavors and firm, lean structures.

VQA (Vintners Quality Alliance, which sets standards for wine production in both regions) wines from Ontario and British Columbia have enjoyed considerable domestic success, posting sales increases of about 40 percent a year from 1989 to 1998. Currently, Canada exports roughly 10 percent of its wine to foreign markets, including the United Kingdom, Japan, China and the United States. "The future \[for Canada\] is in quality wines, especially being a cool-climate region," says Peter Gamble, VQA's executive director. "Tremendous success at international competitions and inroads into Asia for ice wine have shown that."

Wine Spectator organized an exclusive tasting of 68 Canadian wines representing the best from Ontario and British Columbia's Okanagan Valley. Most are currently available in the United States. I blind-tasted the Ontario wines in our New York office, while editors in our San Francisco office blind-tasted the British Columbia wines.

Bruce Sanderson is tasting director and a senior editor at Wine Spectator.

Bruce Sanderson's Top-Scoring Wines from British Columbia

Riesling Okanagan Valley Ice Wine Proprietors' Grand Reserve 1996 (375ml) / 91 / $70

Zippy and somehow light despite the rich sweetness. A touch of ginger lingers on the palate, with a finish that is long and rewarding.

Burrowing Owl Chardonnay Okanagan Valley 1997 / 89 / $19
Well balanced and elegant, with bright pear and apple flavors, this offers a certain weightiness on the palate, which helps carry the finish.

Mission Hill Pinot Gris Okanagan Valley Barrel Select Grand Reserve 1996 / 89 / $15
A richly styled wine. Has depth and structure, sitting firmly on the palate and finishing with a stony, slightly tart edge.

Sumac Ridge Sauvignon Blanc Okanagan Valley Black Sage Vineyard 1997 / 89 / $15
Bright and fragrant, showing classic varietal flavors. Firm and zingy on the palate, it finishes with a fresh, clean mineral edge.

Tinhorn Creek Kerner Okanagan Valley Icewine 1996 (375ml) / 89 / $NA
Thick, rich and spicy. Everything is kept lively by the acidity, which refreshes on the finish.

For more top-scoring wines from British Columbia, see our Oct. 31 issue, page 112.

Bruce Sanderson's Top-Scoring Wines From Ontario

Henry of Pelham Riesling Niagara Peninsula Ice Wine 1997 (375ml) / 92 / $50
Concentrated, complex and focused, it remains nimble and keeps pumping out the flavors. Long, rich finish.

Konzelmann Vidal Blanc Niagara Peninsula Ice Wine 1997 (375ml) / 92 / $45
Thick, rich and vibrant. Showing great intensity, this needs time for the sweetness and structure to integrate.

Hillebrand Vidal Blanc Niagara Peninsula Ice Wine Trius 1997 (375ml) / 90 / $45
There's a brilliance to the apricot and citrus peel flavors from the racy acidity that lends an ethereal quality. Light on its feet.

Thirty Bench
Chardonnay Niagara Peninsula Beamsville Bench Reserve 1995 / 90 / $NA

Simply delicious, buoyed by tangy acidity and a smooth texture. Taut and racy, it has fine length and is at its peak. Like a white Burgundy.

Stoney Ridge
Chardonnay Niagara Peninsula Butler's Grant Vineyard Reserve 1997 / 89 / $13

Fans of fat, buttery Chardonnay will love this. Smooth and concentrated, showing elegance, fine balance and a lingering finish.

For more top-scoring wines from Ontario, see our Oct. 31 issue, page 116.