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The challenges amid Canadian wine’s renaissance

Canadian wine is, after decades of anonymous plodding, coming into its own. Why has it taken so long, and what’s next? Kathleen Willcox reports.

There are more than 650 wineries, 1770 grape growers and 31,650 acres under vine in four major growing regions (British Columbia, Ontario, Nova Scotia and Quebec), according to Wines of Canada.

Growth and quality improvements have been particularly impressive in Ontario, where sparkling wine production has doubled in the past five years, and about one-third is done in the traditional method.

British Columbia is also on the rise: as of 2019, there were 284 wineries 11,085 acres under vine, up from 131 wineries and 6,632 acres in 2006.

Winemakers like Thomas Bachelder, of Ontario’s Bachelder Wines believes that the current zeitgeist and positive growth patterns are coming together to finally put Canadian wines on the map.

“Our time has come,” Bachelder says. “Wine lovers are tired of jammy flavors and high alcohols. Our wines are cool and grown on limestone. There is a future in that!”

Gate-keepers are impressed too. A wide-ranging report in the Wine Spectator as far back as 2020, found that 40% of the wines reviewed from Ontario and British Columbia earned ratings of 90 points or higher, a serious surge in quality from the magazine’s previous assessment in the 1990s, when 20 percent were rated outstanding.

There are several buts though.

But: Interprovincial Trade Woes, U.S. Distribution Blues

Canada is one country, but when it comes to trade, it’s far from unified. A recent “State of Internal Trade” report from the Canadian Federation of Independent Business documents the barriers to trade between the country’s provinces and territories, and the government’s slow-motion approach to resolving issues.

Close to 90 percent of small businesses in Canada want the government to do more to remove barriers that impede the flow of goods. Alcohol, including wine, beer and spirits, is one of the industries with the most barriers to free trade, according to the report, which states that the “inability to transport alcoholic beverages” across borders “continues to be an outstanding irritant” that severely hampers growth.

A separate report from the Macdonald-Laurier Institute points to sky-high trade costs—averaging between 8 and 22% —detract from not just the affected business’ bottom line, but the “overall productivity and the living standards of Canadians.”

While most business owners are loathe to throw their government under the bus, André Proulx, co-founder of Ontario’s 80X Wine Company, and a noted journalist and podcaster, is eager to speak his mind.

“The Ontario government could not give fewer fucks about the wine industry if it tried,” says Proulx. “And yes, you can quote me on that. They even make us compete for shelf space in the monopoly liquor stores. We’re competing toe-to-toe with imported wine, and there is no pride in supporting the local producers. Even in restaurants in Toronto, sommeliers couldn’t give fewer fucks about Ontario wine, with a few notable exceptions.”

Proulx, who produces about 400 cases of wine says he would “export his wine to the U.S.” or send it to other provinces if the amount of paperwork and inevitable markups didn’t make it nigh impossible.

“Our raison d’être is producing the best wine we can at an affordable price,” he says. “We don’t have a Burgundy pedigree. Do you think someone in New York City is going to buy a $35 Canadian wine that they haven’t heard of when they can get a well-known one from California or France at the same price or less?”

Others are finding an equally obtuse thicket of seemingly illogical bureaucratic hurdles when it comes to exporting their wines to their southerly neighbors.

“The general structure of alcohol distribution in North America hasn’t helped us,” says Ilya Senchuk, head winemaker and co-founder of Leaning Post Wines. “Much like Canada, with its 13 different liquor jurisdictions, the U.S. has 50 different sets of state rules, which is a daunting challenge, particularly for a smaller producer like ourselves.”

Getting into Denmark and the U.K., Senchuk continues, was comparably easy.

“In the U.S., you have to think of each state as its own ‘country’ from a distribution point of view,” Senchuk adds.

But: Canada’s Relatively Small Size

While Canadian wine’s recent growth has been impressive, it’s still relatively small potatoes. Compare those 650 wineries and 31,650 acres under vine across the entire country to California’s Napa and Sonoma, where each region has more than 400 wineries apiece and 45,000 and 23,585 acres under vine respectively, and you’ll get a sense of the relative size and power of the industry.

And there are no well-made, larger wineries that can serve as ambassadors for Canada writ large.

“We don’t have a Canadian La Crema,” Proulx says. “Everyone making good wine is doing it on a very small scale.”

Bachelder agrees that the best wine is being made in small batches, at high prices.

“The best Canadian wines are currently all made in small quantities, and the wines are expensive because the cost of production is expensive,” he says. “

But: No One Knows About Canadian Wine

Small quantities, premium prices and a general lack of knowledge about the country’s wine culture compound Canada’s challenges.

“There is a lack of awareness regarding Canada’s wines,” Bachelder says. “For many people abroad, their knowledge of Canadian wine begins and ends with icewine. When confronted with still, dry wine, people cannot believe that Canada is warm enough to make table wine.”

To illustrate the issue, Senchuk compares Ontario’s wine evolution to that of Oregon.

“Any serious attempt at exporting interesting Ontario wine—outside of icewine—has been recent,” Senchuk says. “Oregon and Ontario both started a serious wine transformation at about the same time in the late 1970s.”

Oregon started sending their best Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays to the rest of the country and internationally almost from the beginning, Senchuk observes.

“Ontario started exporting to markets like the U.K. in the 2010s and Denmark and the U.S. only in the last few years,” Senchuk says.

Sommelier, wine educator and founder of Vida Et Fils Wine Consulting Company Marika Vida-Arnold, who grew up in Canada and has watched the evolution firsthand, likens Canadian wine to Swiss wine.

“You’re dealing with a lot of the same pros and cons,” Vida-Arnold says. “The wine has improved consistently over the past 30 years, and candidly due to climate change will continue to improve. But it’s expensive, and the production is very small. Moving it from one province to the other, then into the U.S. is extremely challenging. I really hope that the government makes it easier because I would personally love to see more great Canadian wines here in the U.S.!”

Canadian wine is in the early stages of its world debut. Currently, the $11.6 billion industry is enjoying double digit percentage growth, and wine is the country’s highest value-added agricultural product.

How fast those numbers continue to rise depends on a lot of factors the winemakers have very little control over.

Imports represent about 70 percent of total wine sales in Canada, and more than 92 percent of wines enter the country duty-free. Selling Canadian made wine from province to province, however, is fraught with difficulty and weighed down by extra taxes and fees.

The wine sector has been pushing for more support from the government for years, pointing to the billions of dollars of support foreign governments give to their home wineries.

It seems that someone, somewhere, is listening. On March 1, the federal government in Canada extended the Wine Sector Support Program to provide an additional $177 million over three years to help the wine sector become more competitive.

“We are just at the early stages of our journey,” Senchuk says. “Once we get more of our wine into people’s glasses around the world, they will see that our wines have finesse, charm and subtlety, with energy, youth vibrancy and excitement.”

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