Canada wines

By Rick VanSickle

Quick, name a flagship wine for Arterra Wines Canada. Right, didn’t think you could.

The former American owned (Constellation Brands) and former Canadian owned (Vincor) company, now 100% owned by the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan after a $1 billion deal, produces a lot of vino in this country, but I am hard-pressed to name one or two wines that define the company’s Canadian portfolio. Hey, I’m not saying there aren’t some fabulous wines in the company’s portfolios, but flagship wines? Not so sure.

In December of last year, Constellation Brands Canada, part of the mega U.S. wine company Constellation Brands, was acquired by the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan in a $1 billion deal and once again became a Canadian company (it was originally a Canadian company called Vincor Canada before being acquired by Constellation).

Ontario wines

According to an Arterra news release at the time, it is the largest producer and marketer of wine and related products in Canada. The company’s leading wine brands include Jackson-Triggs, Sawmill Creek and Inniskillin, maker of the world’s leading Icewine. The company’s products are produced at a family of estate wineries located in the provinces of British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick. These wineries are supported by a national distribution network and dedicated sales and marketing team. Arterra’s wine brands are complemented by a variety of popular priced wines, wine kits (RJ Spagnols) and refreshment products.

With all that access to some of the country’s best grapes and a stable of top-notch winemakers, why is their no crown jewel in the collection of prime properties spread across the country?

Two major brands were slashed during the Constellation days — Le Clos Jordanne in Niagara and Osoyoos Larose in the Okanagan Valley.

Niagara wines

The fruit for those legendary Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays from Le Clos now go into wines made at Jackson-Triggs in Niagara-on-the-Lake, including into a new brand called Arterra. As for the Bordeaux-styled wines from Osoyoos Larose, it was a 50-50 partnership that began in 2001 with the Bordeaux producer Groupe Taillan and now 100% owned by them.

Sadly, these were two showy brands and stood clearly at the forefront of the Vincor/Constellation Brands’ top tier wines produced in Canada.

Arterra has not made any moves since becoming wholly Canadian again. Maybe things are in the works, I don’t know, but I do know this: With Canada’s other largest wine company, Andrew Peller Ltd., making big moves with the purchase recently of three key Okanagan wineries — Black Hills Estate Winery, Tinhorn Creek and Grey Monk — is gaining or has gained the upper hand for having top wines under their umbrella.

I read an interesting post recently by Al Hudec, a Vancouver lawyer whose practice includes various wine law issues, commenting on the acquisition by Peller of the three Okanagan wineries.

Okanagan wines

It is Hudec’s assertion that with the purchases by Peller, a total of $95 million paid for the three wineries, is “the most significant industry roll up since Don Triggs created Vincor and consolidated Inniskillin, Sumac Ridge, Hawthorne and other successful wineries almost twenty years ago.”

Hudec says “the acquisitions make Andrew Peller the largest domestic wine business in English Canada and the largest producer of VQA wines in British Columbia.”

I do not know that to be accurate, but do trust Hudec’s reporting and respect his opinion on wine matters.

Peller already had an existing portfolio of premium VQA wineries in Canada including Sandhill, Red Rooster and Conviction (formerly Calona Vineyard’s Artist Series Brand) in B.C. and Trius, Thirty Bench, Wayne Gretzky and Peller Estates in Ontario.

And the company said in a recent interview with Darren Oleksyn of the Calgary Herald that the company is not done yet and has set its sights on the up and coming Nova Scotia wine region.

Now, I understand that Arterra is in a different situation then Peller, a publicly traded company. The new Arterra owners are conservative in their approach and 100% devoted to making money for teachers’ pensions in Ontario. Everything the company does now has to show profit and add to the bottom line and not put teachers at risk.

But, come on. If this were a race (of course, it isn’t … but if it were!) Arterra had a pretty good head start but (depending on who you believe) are now falling way far, far behind. The original company Vincor kicked some serious butt when they were buying everything everywhere and driving the stock price soaring. A little glitch with a South African winery acquisition that turned into a big glitch ended the spectacular run for Vincor and they were acquired by Constellation Brands. The founders did pretty well in the deal and have gone on to wonderful second careers in the Canadian wine business.

Arterra CEO Jay Wright, above photo, has a lot on his plate, rebuilding a company that had years of rule by a big American company, but one thing he should do immediately.

Bring back Le Clos.

You own the vineyards, you own the brand. These were some of the most profound Pinots and Chards made in this country, highly collectible wines and internationally recognized. These were flagship wines and nothing has replaced them since Constellation killed the brand.

These are important wines, wines that need special attention: their own winemaker (is Thomas Bachelder busy?), their own winery, their own marketing plan. Maybe not five different Pinots and four different Chardonnays. Try the Grand Vin in both, then a single-vineyard offering in both (please keep Claystone Terrace) and a blend of vineyards for both the Pinot and Chard. So, $65 for top wine, $45 for single vineyard and $30 for the village wines. That’s nine wines down to six. You’re welcome.

You must do this and do it soon before Le Clos fades into a distant memory. Which would be a horrible, horrible mistake.

Next … find your flagship wine in the Okanagan. But we’ll leave that for another day.

Canadian wines released
at Vintages Saturday

Bachelder Saunders Vineyard Chardonnay 2013 ($45, 92 points) — The Saunders vineyard is planted to old-vine Chardonnay on the gentle slope of the Beamsville Bench, just off Mountainview road. Warren and Ivy Saunders moved to Niagara when barely 40 years old to escape the Hamilton steel mills and get “back to the land.” What they ended up with was a prime piece of the Beamsville bench. The nose reveals poached pear, apple skin, lemon chiffon, subtle spice and a note of saline minerality that is just gorgeous. It is beautifully balanced, even at this young age, with creamy pear and fresh citrus with an interesting vein of minerality that defines this Chardonnay. The subtle oak spice notes echo through a long, freshening finish. This is a very fine Chardonnay.

Castoro de Oro Unoaked Chardonnay 2015, Golden Mile Bench, Okanagan ($23, 89 points) — What a nice unoaked Chard from the Okanagan’s Golden Mile Bench and a rare treat to be offered this in Ontario. The nose is an expressive mix of pear, peach and tropical fruits with just a hint of freshening citrus. It’s clean, fresh and generous on the palate with pure orchard fruit flavours and a zesty citrus finish.

Henry of Pelham Speck Family Reserve Pinot Noir 2010 ($35, 93 points) — The top Pinot from Henry of Pelham that’s in a very good place at the moment with still plenty of room to improve. It has a complex nose of baked cherry fruit with notes of raspberry, bramble, red currants and well-integrated spices. It’s harmonious on the palate and highly structured with the range of ripe fruits and savoury bits melting into the elegant spice and softening tannins. This is everything you want in a nicely maturing Niagara Pinot.

Also released, but not reviewed:

• 13th Street White Palette 2015 ($16)
• Cave Springs Estate Bottled Gewurztraminer 2013 ($18)
• Fielding Estate Bottled Riesling 2016 ($20)
• Smoke & Gamble Chardonnay 2016 ($18)
• Gray Monk Gewurztraminer 2015 ($22)
• Marquis The Silver Line Epic Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc 2013 ($31)
• Reif Estate Pinot Noir 2014 ($17)
• Tawse Sketches of Niagara Cabernet/Merlot 2012 ($22)
• The Magician Shiraz 2013 ($30)

At Vintages flagship stores

• Icellars Arinna 2015 ($39)

October Classics Collection

Bachelder Wismer-Parke Vineyard Pinot Noir 2014 ($45, 93 points) — A sublime take on Pinot, with complex aromas of cran-cherry, violets, meaty/earthy notes and swirling minerality with oak barrel spice accents. The red berries and dark fruit notes are rich and layered on the palate with plush tannins and minerals that combine with fine, elegant spices. Such a beauty.

13th Street Essence Pinot Noir 2011 ($45, 92 points) — In the Essence wines, this is where you find the personality of winemaker JP Colas, this is his playground, a place where he can make the wines that best express the best of the vintage, his take on the vintage. The Pinot shows black cherry, meaty-loamy notes, truffles and swirling spices on the nose. It is built with structure, designed to age, with ripe, assertive tannins, savoury cherry flavours, currants, earthy and spicy but doesn’t seem over the top on the palate. My temptation would be to lay this down for a while to bring it all into harmony.

Bachelder Wismer Vineyard Chardonnay 2012 ($45, 94 points) — Wines in Niagara’s White Wine of the year in 2015. Such a gorgeous nose of elegant poached pear, flinty minerality, gorgeous oak spice, vanilla toast, apple and citrus. While very young and tightly wound (at the time of my first tasting) the fruit still shows persistence as it unfolds on the palate revealing its pear, baked apple and citrus/lemon peel flavours with wonderful understated spice notes through a long, glorious finish. This is a Chardonnay you can enjoy for years to come.

Also released, but not reviewed:

• Stratus Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 ($42)