Canadian Wine Report – December 2017

2017 in Review: Events, Issues and Auspicious New Wineries
by David Lawrason

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

I spent a great deal of 2017 travelling in Canada, tasting hundreds if not thousands of Canadian wines. Opportunities to taste nationally came at the Prowein Wine Fair in Germany in March, the WineAlign National Wine Awards in Nova Scotia in June, on the ten-city Gold Medal Plates tour in the autumn, and while teaching the Canadian Wine Scholar course for Fine Vintage Ltd in Toronto, Calgary and Kelowna. I was in the Okanagan Valley three times, and on Vancouver Island. I took in the International Cool Climate Conference in Niagara, and also one day of the Atlantic Wine Symposium in Halifax. Here are some of the highlights, a compendium of news, observations and opinions that speak to the fascinating, expanding universe of Canadian wine.

Readers can read on, or skip to any one of the four sections: National, OntarioBritish ColumbiaNova Scotia


Record Numbers at the National Wine Awards
With just over 1700 entries, the 16th annual National Wine Awards of Canada held in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, was the largest collection of Canadian wines ever assembled in one place. And as my role shifted to the back room to help with logistics of the judging, I also had time to survey and taste the incredible range and diversity of Canadian wine all in one room. The record entries were no surprise because every year the number of wineries in Canada grows, now pegged at over 700 by the Canadian Vintners Association. But what I found fascinating is that if you remove the Okanagan and Niagara from the picture (with their focus of famous, mainstream vinifera varieties like chardonnay and pinot and riesling) there are still over 300 wineries in this country doing other things, often with less well known varieties adapted to this country’s landscape. And somehow that makes them even more Canadian.

The entire list of award winners is available in our Awards section. But as the year ends I want to congratulate winemaker Rene Van Ede and the team at Redstone Winery in Niagara, winner of Winery of the Year honours. There is a brilliance and precision to the wines that is quite remarkable. Congratulations also to La Frenz co-founders Jeff and Niva Martin and winemaker Dominic McCosker for capturing the honours as the Best Performing Small Winery. I visited La Frenz earlier this year and was very impressed by the quality up and down the range.

This year we had 20 Platinum Award winners, brought to you throughout this article via bottle shots that link to the reviews.

Flat Rock Nadja's Vineyard Riesling 2016Redstone Riesling Limestone Vineyard South 2013Burrowing Owl Syrah 2015Tawse Quarry Road Vineyard Chardonnay 2013Thirty Bench Small Lot Riesling Wood Post Vineyard 2015

Whither Section 121?

As the year came to an end in early December, I watched live streaming from the Supreme Court of Canada hearings where lawyers for Gerard Comeau were trying to persuade the Justices that Section 121 of the Canadian Constitution makes it legal for Canadians to freely import across provincial boundaries any products made in Canada, including alcohol. Comeau was caught in an RCMP stake out bringing beer from Quebec into New Brunswick. (How petty is that?) The outcome could have a major impact on the development of the Canadian wine industry within this country.

There was much hope and confidence within that this would be a watershed moment in the Free My Grapes movement, and further conjecture that a positive decision would re-shape interprovincial trade in this country and perhaps even lead to the demise of provincial liquor boards. But the mood on the morning of Day Two of the hearings was, frankly, not good. The decision will not be known for months, but the Justices were giving the Comeau lawyers a rough ride on constitutionality issues, and suggesting that if they wanted change to allow unimpeded flow of Canadian alcohol across borders that it needed to come about via political process not the judicial process.

So be it! With pre-hearing polls registering 89% approval of inter-provincial free trade by Canadians, maybe the industry and its advocates need to triple their efforts to embarrass the provinces into political action. And meanwhile, consumers should keep ordering wine from other provinces in a show of political defiance. The federal government says it’s okay. So do B.C., Manitoba and Nova Scotia. Which lays bare the entitlement of the regimes in Ontario and Quebec in particular. They need to give it up and show respect for the people they purport to serve. And the people need to let them know it.

Canada at Prowein, Germany

We are much freer to sell our wine overseas! I often hear Canadians ask why Canadian wine is not more prevalent on the global stage, and in foreign magazines like Decanter and Wine Spectator. One reason is quantity – we are one of the world’s smallest wine producing countries (Napa alone exceeds our national vineyard acreage, so does the state of Washington). We are the world’s 28th largest wine exporter, and much of that is icewine. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be better or more prominent, and I got a first-hand look at the attention the world is willing to pay to Canadian wine at Prowein in Dusseldorf, Germany in March. This is the world’s largest wine trade fair with over 6,000 wineries in attendance.

Canada attracted good crowds at the world's largest wine fair.

Canada put on an impressive show, with 25 wineries from three provinces attending. And it was one of the most well-attended, and best-presented stands in the New World pavilion. Thirteen of the Canadian wineries at already had some kind of international agency/distributor representation, mostly in Europe. The other half were actively seeking any kind of international representation worldwide. The moment is just right because there is a huge, positive awareness and curiosity about Canada in the world, and that alone will lead people to try our wine, with the expectation at the very least that wine should be “nice”.  It is starting to happen. For the full report see the Canadian Wine Report in April 2017.

Canada’s Red Icons

In November WineAlign collected over 30 Canadian reds from B.C. and Ontario that might be considered icons – i.e. expensive, top-of-class reds blended from the Bordeaux varieties – cabernet sauvignon, franc and merlot. With cool-climate Canada not particularly well situated to ripen Bordeaux varieties (except in the south Okanagan and Niagara lakeshore in warmer years) there is on-going debate about whether chasing the Bordeaux rainbow is where Canadian wineries should focus. As a result of this tasting, there is enough evidence in the glass to suggest we should, in the few places where it works. But, on a broader, national basis I am still putting my money on Burgundy and Alsace varieties as our core strength year in and year out. For full details on the icon tasting I refer you to the article published in November.


The Passing of Karl Kaiser
On December 8 over 500 people turned out in Niagara for a memorial to Karl Kaiser, a Canadian wine industry pioneer who had passed away at the age of 76. Karl was the viticultural visionary who believed in Niagara’s fine wine potential. He and Donald Ziraldo founded Inniskillin in 1974, being granted the first winery license in the province since Prohibition. His more significant contribution was making the first commercial icewine in Ontario, which of course has evolved to become the world’s largest producer of this sweet elixir. Later he lent his expertise to the Cool Climate Oenology and Viticultural Institute at Brock University. I knew him as a wine colleague over many encounters and tastings, and was always so impressed by his honesty, shy amiability and passion for his craft. His daughters Magdalena and Andrea carry on his legacy in the Ontario industry today.

Leaning Post Chardonnay Wismer Vineyard 2014Thirty Bench Small Lot Riesling Wild Cask 2015Creekside Syrah 2013Trius Showcase Chardonnay Wild Ferment Oliveira Vineyard 2015Redstone Chardonnay Select Vineyard 2013

Ontario’s Expanding Vineyard Belt
It’s time for Ontario consumers and regulators to loosen up their perceptions a notch or three. Although I have not yet visited most of the new wineries in Ontario’s “emerging regions”, it is clear that new plantings beyond established VQA regions of Niagara, Prince Edward County and Lake Erie North Shore are one of the biggest stories in Ontario. Because they are strung out along over 800 kilometers, focus is scattered. But varieties, styles and issues are the same. And If these ventures work out the entire isthmus that is southern Ontario, splitting three Great Lakes, might become populated with vineyards and wineries through and through.

The swath of new vineyard and winery development begins in the west on the shores of Lake Huron (Alton Farms, Dark Horse, Maelstrom) and veers north into Georgian Bay (Coffin Ridge, Georgian Hills, new this year, The Roost).  It then cuts eastward through the highlands north of Toronto (Adamo, Holland Marsh, Galluci, Willow Springs), then farther east into Hastings and Frontenac counties (Potter Settlement and Scheurmann) north of Belleville and Kingston respectively, then into the Ottawa Valley (Domaine Perrault, KIN Vineyards, Jabulani, Vin Bella, Vignoble Clos Du Vully, Smoky Ridge, Blue Gypsy).

What unites most of them is reliance on winter hardy hybrids, including the highly successful Minnesota-bred marquette and frontenac varieties that are not “authorized” by VQA, and therefore prohibit these wines from LCBO distribution and other financial benefits. VQA is dragging its heels on re-drawing that list of authorized varieties. Is the establishment blind to what’s happening, or afraid of competition? What other reason can there be for not admitting successful grapes?

Many of these vineyards also have established hybrids like vidal, seyval, baco and foch and even l’acadie blanc that do qualify for Ontario VQA, and most are least experimenting with vinifera too (pinot, chardonnay, gris, cab franc). There is growing confidence in winter sustainability through climate change, but also more reliable measures such a vine burying and new thermal vineyard blanket technology developed in Quebec. See the Rest of Canada report published in June 2017.

Cave Spring’s Re-Boot

A trip to Cave Spring Cellars in late September to interview for a WineAlign winery profile yielded more substance than I expected. The visit happened hours before Cave Spring announced it was selling off its well established On the Twenty restaurant and Inn on the Twenty lux hotel. The proceeds were being ploughed back into viticulture. This is such an important signal for Ontario wineries, who have historically been focused on tourism as much as wine quality.

Not only was I impressed with re-commitment to viticulture, but I loved hearing CEO Len Pennachetti, one of the architects of VQA say, “we are not here to be a hospital for vine varieties that don’t work well in our vineyards”.  Ontario is a detailed and difficult grape growing environment. Those who focus on what they do well, rather than what the LCBO and marketing departments might want, will ultimately succeed through quality. By the way, Cave Springs focus going forward is riesling (its marquee grape), chardonnay, cabernet franc (very excited), pinot noir and gamay. This is not “news” but it is important that a leading winery is making the statement.

Auspicious New Wineries in Ontario

Potter Settlement, Hastings County
At years’ end I tasted a pair of reds from a new winery soloing in near Tweed, north of Belleville and Prince Edward County at the foot of the Canadian Shield. The soils are granite based as opposed to the limestone that begins a few kilometers south. I have only tasted three wines and the white did not impress for reasons of volatily. But the 2016 Cabernet Franc and Marquette are fascinating, partially for their simplistic, juicy, virtually tannin-free amiability and balance, and for their price at $40 and $50. They did sell out, so I guess that’s a measure of success, but I am noticing a trend among some start-ups to price too boldly.

Ferox Wines also debuted this year in Niagara. It is a new virtual label from Fabian and Stephanie Reis. Fabian is the grandson of Niagara pioneer Herbert Konzelmann. Fabian studied and made wine in Germany before coming to Canada. Stephanie is an accredited sommelier. They have teamed up with Four Mile Creek grower Erwin Wiens, and they make the wine at Rief Estate. I was again, not impressed with the winemaking on the whites, but other WineAlign critics gave them a pass. I was however impressed by the unfiltered 2015 Cabernet-Merlot, again a sign that in good vintages the warmer, later ripening Niagara-on-the-Lake vineyards can impress with the Bordeaux varieties. But again, the $55 price tag is a push.

Trail Estate, Prince Edward County
Trail had something of a second coming-out this year with winemaker Mackenzie Brisbois taking over. The owners – Alex and Sylvia Sproll – bought the 14-acre property in Hillier in 2011, and like many PEC wineries made wine from Niagara fruit early on, with intent to transition to County fruit. Winemaker Mackenzie Brisbois is a Niagara College grad and Norman Hardie protégé who has done vintages in New Zealand, South Africa and Vancouver Island (Chateau Wolff). Her wines are edgy and intense. In a chardonnay blind tasting at the International Cool Climate Conference I picked hers as Norman Hardie. She is dabbling with skin-contact and barrel fermented riesling, as well as intriguing cabernet franc. Again, prices are hefty.

Meldville Wines, Niagara
This is a “virtual label” by Derek Barnett who is making the wines at Legends Estate. It is not a brand-new venture but it caught my notice with a silver medal win for the 2015 Cabernet Franc at the National Wine Awards. Derek is one of the most beloved winemakers in Ontario, beginning his career with Southbrook, then moving to Lailey Vineyards in the Niagara River appellation where he fashioned big Bordeaux reds, syrah and chardonnay. Derek’s big style lives on in Meldville.


The Northward Push

B.C. viticulture is pushing its boundaries. In July 2017 I made my first visit to wineries near Lilloet and Kamloops, and the potential of these more northerly areas in the upper Fraser and Thompson River Valleys is very clear.  We were tasting at Fort Berens in Lilloet at 5pm on July 6, with temperatures at 40 Celsius. That night the first of the summer-long BC wildfires broke out near Ashcroft/Cache Creek west of Kamloops. So certainly, this area gathers the summer heat units required. In 2015 however, cold winter temps did affect some vineyards, so winter measures are being now being considered. There are some hybrid vineyards in the region but cooler climate vinifera dominate – riesling, pinot noir, pinot gris, chardonnay and cabernet franc – plus the odd variety like Austria’s blaufrankisch.

Lake Breeze Syrah Torok Vineyard 2014La Frenz Ensemble Reserve 2015Tantalus Old Vines Riesling 2014Inniskillin Okanagan Discovery Series Tempranillo Icewine 2012The Similkameen Collective GSM 2014

In the Kamloops area I was very impressed by the pinot noirs at Privato, which may be Canada’s most northerly winery. At Harper’s Trail Okanagan winemaker Mike Bartier is crafting great riesling and cab franc on limestone-laced benches facing south over the Thompson River. Monte Creek’s ambition farther east on the Trans-Canada is stunning with over 55 acres planted and plenty of potential to grow. And the tasting room/retail/restaurant experience rivals most in the Okanagan. Eastward in the Shuswap Recline Ridge near has made a very good blaufrankisch, and tiny neighbour Marionette in Salmon Arm has succeeded with zweigelt.

The Peller and Arterra Okanagan Acquisitions

In September Andrew Peller Ltd announced the purchase of three important, well established Okanagan wineries – Gray Monk, Tinhorn Creek and Black Hills. Then, in November Arterra Wines (formerly Constellation) purchased Laughing Stock on the Naramata Bench. I was in the Okanagan judging the B.C. Wine Awards when the Peller purchase was announced, and there was immediate reaction among the pundits that this was somehow a threat to wine in B.C. in general, and to those labels specifically. I am not sure this is true. For starters, in both the Peller and Arterra acquisition cases the new ownership has said they are planning to keep original personnel in place, and that should keep existing wine styles and quality on track. And elsewhere Peller in particular has not only preserved but elevated quality at Thirty Bench and Trius in Ontario, and to some degree Sandhill in B.C.

In my view the three new Peller-owned properties had already reached a point at which they were middle-aged and mainstream, with very good but no longer leading-edge wines. I daresay that both Peller and Arterra will be more interested in volume than creating new, leading edge wines, but the properties are each based on significant vineyard holdings that should maintain a sense of terroir in the brands. And wine lovers seeking small, terroir-driven and edgy wines have so many other options in B.C. that it makes the head spin (see below as well).

The Short Retirement of Howard Soon
Just after news of the Peller deal broke it was announced that Howard Soon had been hired as the winemaker at Vanessa Vineyards in the Similkameen Valley. Earlier in the year Howard, who is considered one of the pioneers of single vineyard, terroir-driven wines in B.C., had announced his retirement from Andrew Peller-owned Sandhill Wines. One of his favourite Sandhill Small Lot sites was the Vanessa Vineyard, a rock-pocked, west-facing bench with a reputation for granitic, energetic reds.

After the BC Wine Awards judging I spent a few days in the south Okanagan and one morning drove over to the Similkameen to see the newly-opened tasting room and winery at Vanessa, without an appointment. Howard was there, and with Cheshire cat grin revealed to me that he was soon to be announced as Vanessa’s winemaker. The reds here are solid, and I have every expectation Vanessa will quickly be joining the premium ranks in B.C.

Auspicious New B.C. Wineries
What follows is an incomplete scan of some of the most promising new wineries in B.C., at least new to me. I know there are other wineries and labels with which I have not yet become acquainted. But the on-rush of new wines in B.C. is staggering.

The Chase, Lake Country
Opened last summer The Chase is the nifty vanguard of a much larger project taking shape on and within a steep granitic slope overlooking the lake north of Kelowna. Alberta road construction magnate Dennis O’Rourke has planted 180 acres to pinot noir. Chardonnay and riesling, and burrowed over 300 metres of tunnel into the mountain, a project that will be O’Rourke Family Vineyards. The Chase is the more commercial face, with a classy new tasting room pouring refined, mid-priced varietals that include riesling, chardonnay, pinot gris and pinot noir. They are made by New Zealander Adrian Baker who was hired away from Craggy Range to spearhead both projects.

Maverick, Golden Mile
With 2011 being the first vintage Maverick is not “new” but it crossed my radar for the first time this year at the National Wine Awards with gold medal winning 2014 Bush Vine Syrah. I followed up with a brief visit in September where I was very impressed by 2016 Sauvignon Blanc, 2016 Pinot Gris and 2015 Rubeus, a syrah-merlot blend. Maverick is owned by South African emigres Schalk de Witt and Lynn Safroniuk, with Stellenbosch trained, son-in-law Bertus Albertyn growing the grapes and making the wine. His philosophy is “slow and natural”, allowing his east facing bench vineyards to speak. I am impressed by the purity of his wines.

Kitsch Cellars, East Kelowna
One of the hippest new projects in the country has been created by entrepreneurs Trent and Ria Kitsch. Trent, the creator of highly successful SAXX underwear in 2006, has returned to his family’s Kelowna roots building a small winery with a fabulous view on the eastern benches overlooking Kelowna and the Lake. The portfolio is based on scintillating riesling, pinot gris, chardonnay and pinot noir made by sommelier-trained Grant Biggs, an import from nearby Tantalus. Social media, wine events/parties and an eye for design make Kitsch, well, kitschy.

Play Estate Winery, Penticton
Owned by Calgary-based Stagewest Hospitality CEO Jason Pechet, Play takes it theatric theme to almost Vaudvillian heights. It is restaurant/winery combo perched in the Skaha Hills just southwest of Penticton (near the airport).  Former manager of Spirit Ridge Resort in Osoyoos Mohamed Awad manages the restaurant and makes the wines. The 14-acres, southeast facing vineyard includes cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, sauvignon blanc, muscat, and viognier. Some go into blends with names like Improv, Applause and Ad Lib. During a rather noisy dinner, which I expect is the norm, I was most impressed by the Moscato, Viognier and a Syrah from purchased from in Oliver.

Lock & Worth, Naramata Bench
At the Victoria edition of Gold Medal Plates in October I was utterly charmed by a cabernet franc rose from Lock and Worth, a small, earnest winery on Poplar Grove Road in Naramata. It is a partnership born out of Naramata’s Nichol Vineyard. Nichol marketing manager Matt Sherlock is well-travelled with roots in Vancouver wine retail, and Ross Hackworth, who purchased Nichol from the founders in 2005, is the winemaker. Their new venture is focused on small lot, fairly priced, single vineyard wines, and shares a tasting room with Poplar Grove cheese.

Fitzpatrick Family Vineyards, Summerland/Peachland  
I can’t tell you how many times I have driven past the Greata Ranch vineyard perched above Lake Okanagan between Peachland and Summerland, and thought it was the postcard site for Okanagan wine. It has been owned by the Fitzpatrick family since 1994, but was not fully developed until Gordon Fitzpatrick sold CedarCreek to Mission Hill in 2014. He retained possession of Greata Ranch and began to develop the site to its full potential. The winery opened this year focused on traditional method sparkling wines cleverly branded as Fitz. In the summer of 2017 they also released six still wines.


The excitement emanating from Nova Scotia in 2017 was blistering. It hosted the National Wine Awards of Canada in Wolfville in June, timed alongside the Atlantic Wine Symposium that brought delegates and speakers not only from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, but from central Canada and the UK (which is enjoying its own sparkling wine boom).

Benjamin Bridge Méthode Classique Blanc De Blancs 2009Bench 1775 Blanc De Blancs 2012Henry Of Pelham Cuvée Catharine Carte Blanche Estate Blanc De Blanc 2012Domaine Acer Charles Aimé RobertDomaine Acer Val Ambré

Sparkling wine fuels the enthusiasm in Nova Scotia, and we NWAC wine judges were treated to virtually every bubbly produced. Benjamin Bridge leads the charge with its battery of keen, lean, shimmering sparklers, but I was equally pleased by the efforts of Blomidon Estate (especially is Late Picked 2011 Chardonnay) and those of L’Acadie Vineyards. I returned to NS in October with Gold Medal Plates Halifax, where three L’Acadie sparklers – all based on hybrids – finished one-two-three in the local competition for Best of Show. I am very impressed by this, because it eats away at the perception that great sparkling wine must be made a la Champagne from chardonnay and pinot noir. Again, hybrids have a place in this land of ours.

Lightfoot and Wolfville

The other major story from Nova Scotia in 2017 was the opening of Lightfoot & Wolfville’s state of the art winery overlooking the tidal Minas Basin near Wolfville. This earnest, quality-focused, organic project by the Lightfoot family began in garage under the tutelage of consultant Peter Gamble, but broke out this summer with a full-fledged, modern winery. And with some of the most fetching label designs in the country. I tasted the entire range in June, including many small lots, and was totally impressed. Availability will be the problem going forward.

And that is a wrap for 2017. My resolution in 2018 is double down on my focus on Canadian wine, and I am in the midst of planning that. I also plan to visit many more new wineries, especially in Ontario and Quebec. My next report will report on the Canadian Culinary Championship and voting for the Gold Medal Plates wine of the year.  Meanwhile, raise a glass to Canada during the Holidays. Cheers and Happy New Year!

David Lawrason
VP of Wine


The Canadian Wine Report brings you News and commentary on Canadian wine from a national perspective. Which means that the subject matter, events and tastings have elements or implications beyond provincial and appellation boundaries.

Canada's Red Icons

Canada's Red Icons

Past issues:

Red Icons Unfiltered

Pinot’s Progress

Bubbles Rising Across Canada

Speaking Up for The Rest of Canada

Prowein 2017: The Maple Leaf Takes Root Overseas

February was a HUGE Month for the Canadian Wine Conversation

New Wineries That Turned My Head in 2016

Trends and Winners from Gold Medal Plates 2016

Speaking up for Canadian Wines

Judgments on Canadian Wine

Canadian Wine: One Grape at a Time