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CanadaWINE150: You should not be surprised by that bottle of Canadian wine. No, not any more

Canadian wine

By Peter Rod

In late April this year I attended a wine tasting with several great friends at the historic Honsberger barn in Jordan, Ontario.

The majority of wines were not Canadian — instead most of the bottles originated in Australia, California and New York State. The lineup was curated by one attendee from his own private collection and was themed “wines I’ve been meaning to drink for a long time with the right people.”

Note: For previous posts on our #CanadaWINE150 series go here

By right people he meant people who could appreciate the unexpected pleasure and pain that comes from long-cellared bottles as the majority of these vintages were at least 20 years old, some much older. The wines ranged in price from $20 to $120 when they were first purchased many, many years ago.

One particular white stood out for the group of 10 tasters. It was a remarkable honey gold colour and exuded notes of spice, nut, toast, popcorn, brown butter, baked apple and citrus. It was so rich and powerful but still beautifully fresh and sublimely balanced at the same time. As all the wines were tasted blind, none of the attendees had any idea what this wine was and the conversation had it pinned as a top Australian, Californian or other warm Mediterranean climate white.

We were all quite certain it was Chardonnay, probably 8 to 10 years old, but the sweet, ripe almost tropical nature of the fruit and beguilingly exotic perfume suggested a wooded Viognier or Roussanne could be possible, in which case it might have been a rare beauty from France’s Rhone Valley or perhaps a top Rhone Ranger from California’s south central coast.

Much to our surprise, it was a 1998 Temkin-Paskus Chardonnay from Niagara.

In retrospect we shouldn’t have been surprised at all. The fact that this Beamsville beauty was drinking so wonderfully at almost 20 years of age or that a Canadian Chardonnay was one of the highlights of a night of great, expensive bottles from around the world should come as no surprise to anyone who has been around Canadian wines for as long as I have. Haven’t we learned our lesson yet? After all, talented winemaker, Deborah Paskus, has been crafting robust and expressive Chardonnays for decades and yet even today, the idea that Canada can produce a range of world-class wines from a huge array of grape varieties still comes as a surprise to far too many, sometimes even industry insiders.

Canada’s wine industry, now officially in its 206th year (thanks to the early work of Johann Schiller), could easily be summed up with that one word – surprising. Time and time again, regardless of the baggage of our past, challenges of our extreme weather, restrictions of our regulatory environment or just plain incredulity of many of our customers, we continue to make some of the finest wines on the planet. The good news is we are really only just getting started.

My first, memorable encounter with a Canadian wine was in 1989 when I had just written the final exam for my Bachelor of Commerce at the University of Guelph. I’d sampled plenty of Canadian wines already to that point but as I reflect back on those times, none resonates the way this one does. As I left the examination room determined to celebrate my achievement, I made my way to the nearest source of alcohol – the wine shop in the local strip mall. Several hours later, I found myself alone in my apartment, half asleep on the couch with an empty magnum of Baby Duck and the leftovers from a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken at my feet. In a way, this is the best and worst Canadian wine experience of my life.

Ontario wine

Years later, I was raising a glass of a much finer bubbly, the very first vintage of Hillebrand Meunier as I toasted my new bride at my wedding at Queen’s Landing in Niagara-on-the-Lake. In the years that followed, now a certified sommelier and hard-core hospitality lifer, I remember taking trips from Vancouver to the Okanagan Valley to search out the newest, greatest small vinous gems to place on my wine list at Raincity Grill. Gunther Lang’s Pinot Meunier, Vera Klockoka’s Muscat Ottonel at Hillside, the Gehringer Brothers Pinot Gris, Ann Sperling’s Pinot Noir at Cedar Creek, Ian Mavety’s Pinot Blanc at Blue Mountain, Sandra Oldfield’s Cabernets at Tinhorn Creek, Ian Sutherland’s Merlot at Poplar Grove, Stephen Cipes’ Brut at Summerhill and John Simes’ Reserve Chardonnay at Mission Hill were just a few of the wines that defined the Okanagan’s incredible quality and diversity at that time. In the mid-90s I worked with Ingo Grady, vineyard manager Richard ‘Dick’ Cleave and consulting winemaker Bill Dyer to market and sell the first vintages of the now iconic Burrowing Owl Vineyard, a winery that spurred on a new era of rich and powerful Southern Okanagan reds.

When my wife, Andrea, and I decided to return home to Ontario in 2000 to be closer to family, we were presented, thanks to the generosity and friendship of iconic hospitality veteran Sinclair Philip, with a parting gift of dinner and a night of accommodation at the luxurious Sooke Harbour House. There is nothing like eating an 8-course meal made with 100% ingredients harvested moments before from gardens, fields, farms and waters mere meters from your tableside. And the wines … oh the wines were magnificent.

All individually selected from tiny producers on Vancouver Island, the Gulf Islands and Fraser Valley to accompany our exquisite feast. The fact that we were gazing out over the Pacific Ocean expecting orcas to surface at any moment and surrounded by the extraordinary art of numerous Canadian First Nation masters only added to the great Canadianness of the evening. This remains one of the greatest gastronomic moments of my life and I’m happy to say I’ve had plenty in many corners of the wine world.

Best Niagara wine
Peter Rod hamming it up with 13th Street winemaker JP Colas.

Returning to Ontario in 2000 brought a whole new world of learning and opportunity. The Niagara wine industry was in a major growth spurt as VQA was now provincial law, Brock’s CCOVI had just opened its doors, Niagara College was just about to receive its first cohort of Viticulture and Technician students and so many exciting small producers such as 13th Street, Malivoire, Daniel Lenko and Creekside were just getting started.

I must admit, the B.C. wine brand was still proudly emblazoned on my forehead but I was eager to learn more about this ‘other half’ of the Canadian wine industry, now as an experienced sommelier and wine buyer rather than struggling student. It didn’t take long before I realized just how different and yet equally amazing the wines of Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula and Prince Edward County were.

Living in Niagara made falling in love with these wines all that much easier because I was becoming friends with so many of the great people who grew, marketed and sold them. Wine growers, like so many farmers, fishermen and other food providers are the salt of the earth!

Niagara wine

In the years that followed as I embraced all the goodness and diversity of Ontario wines, I was also learning more and more about the exciting and innovative bottling’s coming from Quebec and Nova Scotia. It’s so exciting to see the rich culture and passion for good food and wine turned into thriving industries in these provinces and growing at such an impressive rate with more than 80 producers in Quebec and over 20 in Nova Scotia working with a vast range of vinifera and hybrid varieties. Today, as professor of wine programs at Niagara College, I see our youth embracing and stimulating the Canadian wine industry with new ideas and a real commitment to carrying the torch handed to them by several generations of passionate and brave wine growers before them.

I’ve lived an amazing life. I’ve eaten and drunk well surrounded by friends and family every step of the way. I couldn’t imagine having had a better 51 years in any other country on the planet. Our people, our land, our culture and our quiet but burning passion and patriotism is something to behold.

Next time you open a bottle of Canadian wine, take a moment to think where we’ve come from and all that we’ve had to endure to get to where we are today. And if that bottle happens to be absolutely delicious, you shouldn’t be the least bit surprised … not anymore.

About Peter Rod

Peter A. Rod is a 30-year veteran of the food and drinks business. Currently, Peter is on the faculty of the Canadian Food and Wine Institute at Niagara College and part time instructor for the Wine and Spirits Education Trust at Brock University. Before that he was curriculum department head and sommelier instructor with the International Sommelier Guild.

He has held management positions in fine establishments such as The Windsor Arms Hotel, Inn and Tennis Club at Manitou, C Restaurant, Raincity Grill and Biffs. He worked for a combined 12 years for Mission Hill Family Estate and 13th Street Winery as brand ambassador and sales consultant. Peter is currently pursuing his Master’s Degree in Education at Queen’s University and holds a Bachelor of Commerce in Hospitality Management from University of Guelph.

He is also an Associate of International Wines and Spirits from the WSET, a certified wine educator through the Society of Wine Educators, a fellow of the OHI and was named top sommelier in western Canada in 1997 and in Ontario in 2006. Oh and please don’t ask him what his desert island wine is.