How Are Canadian Wines Received Internationally?May 26, 2015
Szabo’s Free Run
Text and photographs by John Szabo MS
Despite the considerable fuss we make over local wines, outside of these borders, knowledge of Canadian wines, and even awareness of their existence, remains limited. Icewine remains the most high profile product by a wide (commercial) margin, while table wines are relegated to the anecdotal ledger book margins of export reports. But over the last half-dozen years or so recognition of quality Canadian ferments has been growing, especially in the UK and the US, thanks to a combination of factors such as shifting taste trends, on-going targeted marketing efforts, the unquenchable thirst for novelty, and, of course, some pretty damned good wines. Canada, it seems, is becoming a bonafide wine category.
The Canadian wine industry is not insignificant, after all. At last count there are over 12,000 hectares of vineyards shared between Ontario, BC, Québec and Nova Scotia. That’s a third more acreage than, say, all of Oregon, a state with considerable international brand awareness, or just over a third of New Zealand’s total acreage, a powerhouse export country. There are also over 500 registered producers across Canada (including fruit wine), all of which suggests that Canada could be more than just a sweet blip on the world wine map.
Although sales at home are strong, there’s still surplus to sell, and more importantly, as with any emerging nation, some outside recognition is a great shot in the arm that can also generate more sales locally. “Positive media and influencer attention from overseas is well received in our own local market creating more pride here at home”, says Magdalena Kaiser of the Wine Marketing Association of Ontario. You may think that’s a typically Canadian position, but Canada is hardly the only country in the world to seek some positive outside reinforcement. Even well established wine producing nations still crave it. So Canadians have been making calls abroad.
On May 14th, 2015, I had a front row seat to listen in first hand on who is answering oversees in the highly influential UK market. On the eve of the annual London Wine Fair, Canadian wine and cider makers were busy pouring their wares to a curious group of British wine tradespeople in the heart of the capital in an event called “Canada Calling”. It was not the first, but in fact the third time in five years that a sizable delegation from Canada presented wines in London (the first in 2010, followed by a 2013 edition). And the setting couldn’t have been more grand: the event was hosted at Canada House, the seat of the High Commission of Canada to the UK, which occupies prime real estate on Trafalgar Square – a subtle reminder of Canada’s pride of place within the Empire.
This year’s delegation included nearly three-dozen wineries from four provinces, building on the success of previous showings that delivered “measurable results” in marketing parlance, according to several sources. Ten Canadian wineries have already signed UK distribution agreements, while others who made the journey this year “are in serious discussions”. It was “the largest pan-Canadian wine event outside of Canada to date”, according to Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada co-organizer and WineAlign contributor Janet Dorozynski. The enthusiastic participation was driven no doubt in part by the forthcoming Canada-EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement. Immediately upon CETA’s entry into force, EU tariffs on Canadian red and white wines, including icewine, will be eliminated, leveling the playing field and mitigating one of Canada’s handicaps, high price.
The day consisted of a masterclass held in the morning, focused on red wines – an eyebrow-raising move to be sure for a country perceived as snowbound most of the year. The tasting was hosted by this writer, along with panelists Jamie Goode (UK based wine writer and WineAlign National Wine Awards of Canada judge), Thomas Bachelder of Bachelder wines in Ontario, Severine Pinte, winemaker at Le Vieux Pin/La Stella in the Okanagan Valley, and Janet Dorozynski.
It was by all accounts a success, hinging in part on the element of surprise, and particularly the BC syrah flight. “I sort of expected pinot noir and even cabernet franc”, Christine Parkinson told me after the tasting, head wine buyer for the Hakkasan Group in London. “But I was surprised by the red blends, and especially the syrahs”, she continued. She later tweeted: “Enjoyed #Canadacalling tasting with @johnszabo today. Syrah flight so good that I actually heard someone whispering ‘this must be a ringer’”.
Her comments were echoed by others, including the venerable Hugh Johnson who likewise tweeted: “Remarkable wines from British Columbia at Canada House. Esp the Rhonies; scented Syrahs, Rouss/Mars/Viognier blends, P. Noirs. News to me.”
The afternoon featured the usual walk-around tasting with tables set up around the perimeter of the main floor salon. But what was perhaps unusual was the number of top-level journalists and wine buyers under the same roof at once for a tasting that included neither Burgundy nor Bordeaux on the list. Paparazzi (like me) were happy snapping candid shots of Hugh Johnson, Jancis Robinson, Oz Clark and Steven Spurrier, to name but a few, who shuffled between a bevy of MWs and sommeliers, wine buyers and educators. Although the room wasn’t packed, as with wine, it’s quality, not quantity that counts, as Jamie Goode pointed out. “Thursday’s Canadian wine tasting and seminar at Canada House was a great success. Lots of energy and enthusiasm, great people, and some lovely wines”, he later wrote on his popular website.
I caught up with Steven Spurrier from Decanter Magazine at the Tawse Winery table, fittingly enough, as the Tawse Estate Chardonnay had recently appeared on the cover of Decanter. “This is brilliant chardonnay, brilliant chardonnay”, he said animatedly, tasting the wine again with genuine enthusiasm. When I asked him what he thought of the value, he responded quickly saying that Canadian wine isn’t about value. “This should take the place of good village or premier cru Meursault on a wine list”, he said, continuing on to point out the importance of sommeliers in the UK market. “If the sommelier proposes it, clients will take a chance and enjoy it. And all the sommeliers at these new restaurants and wine bars are looking for new wines to sell. You don’t see Bordeaux on wine lists anymore.”
It’s likely not news to any Canadian producers hoping to export that the best way into any new markets where you can’t compete on value (and I doubt Canada will never compete on pure value alone, even with tariff eliminations), is invariably via the on-trade. And there does seem to be genuine appetite for high quality Canadian wines.
Xavier Rousset MS, co-owner of the Michelin-starred restaurant Texture and three wine bars under the 28-50 brand in central London where Canadian wines have found a spot on the list, was also enthusiastic about the overall quality on offer at the event. He cited chardonnay, pinot noir and cabernet franc as personal highlights. But he also commented on value: “Canada is not seen as great value”, he said frankly. “North American wine in general is not seen as value. But we buy on quality, and the story behind it”. The comment underscores another well-known aspect of wine sales.
So, Canada, What’s your story? When the world answers, it needs to be sharp and focused. Attention spans are narrow.
Here’s one idea: Canada is genuinely cool. Whereas a mere decade ago in the age vinous largess, when the more a wine would give the better it was, a cool climate was a major handicap. But now that the style pendulum has swung to the more restrained and understated side, authentic coolness (and not just a “relatively” cool climate) has become one of Canada’s greatest strengths across the country, even in the southern Okanagan. Canadians needn’t work hard at crafting crackling, sharp, finely tuned wines with all the drinkability of a glacial stream on a hot summer’s day. No need to apologize anymore for slim size or electric acids. Seems like a good place to begin the story.
The rest is yours to tell.
Calling Canadian Wineries: Wine Align National Wine Awards 2015
It’s not too late. If you’re a Canadian winery and would like to see how your wines measure up against the best from shore to shore, calibrated by a dozen and a half professionals with vast domestic and international experience, enter them in the NWACs. We’re pleased to welcome back the very sharp Dr. Jamie Goode to the panel this year.
Click here for more information and to register.
That’s all for this Free Run. See you over the next bottle (of Canadian?) wine.
John Szabo MS