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waters on wine

Ripe grapes hang on vines protected from birds with a net at the Okanagan Valley's River Stone Estate Winery in Oliver, B.C.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Eight years since federal restrictions preventing interprovincial transportation and sales of alcohol were partially lifted, the practice of ordering a bottle of cabernet or chardonnay from a winery in British Columbia or Ontario for home delivery is still illegal in most of the country.

Following the passage of Bill C-311, only British Columbia, Manitoba and Nova Scotia allowed residents of legal drinking age to have wine for personal use shipped directly to them from an out-of-province producer. Elsewhere, Prohibition-era legislation allows provincial governments and liquor boards to restrict the delivery of wine from one province to another. If the product isn’t available from provincial liquor outlets, it isn’t available.

The regulations restricting interprovincial shipping to Ontario are set to expire July 1, which has wineries in British Columbia and Nova Scotia eager for the opportunity to expand their markets. At a time when producers rely heavily on internet sales and direct delivery to consumers to make up for losses to retail, restaurant and export sales, this new channel would help struggling businesses, expand consumer choice and help the growth of the domestic wine, beer and spirits industries.

A resurgent interest in buying Canadian and investing in local supply chains also plays into the rationale to embrace internal trade. Stay-at-home consumers are looking to order products for delivery; why not extend that ability to buy bottles from a favourite out-of-province vineyard they’re unable to visit in person?

Looking to limit grey-market sales last year, the Ontario government tightened restrictions on alcohol shipments into the province by requiring consignment through the LCBO, but those regulations came with a built-in expiration date. That deadline has already shifted once, from Jan. 1 to July 1.

Meanwhile grey-market shipments from Okanagan vineyards to Ontario doorsteps continue, albeit a little more veiled and under the threat of criminal charges for the buyer.

Grassroots supporters of free and open wine sales across the country – whose rallying cry has been #freemygrapes – see Canada Day as a symbolic date to usher in a new era of the Great Wine North, but there’s no indication the deadline won’t be extended once again. The rules also govern direct beer and spirits sales to consumers.

Considering that more than 90 per cent of bottles of wine are consumed within hours of purchase​, the ability to order a case of sparkling wine from Nova Scotia, syrah from the Okanagan or pinot noir from Quebec isn’t going to affect provincial liquor sales in Ontario. British Columbia’s retail chains certainly haven’t suffered from increased competition.

Likewise, Ontario wineries aren’t going to lose loyal consumers should they suddenly enjoy direct access to wines from the Annapolis, Okanagan or Lanaudière valleys. British Columbia’s diverse array of wineries didn’t. If anything, that industry became more innovative and increased market share after opening its borders – at least, until COVID-19 wreaked havoc on business opportunities.

Any wine lover who’s looking to take advantage of the newfound freedom to buy direct is the sort to seek out rare or limited release selections from boutique or family operations that lack the ability to supply the necessary quantity or – considering provincial markups for warehousing and transport – compete on price to sell to the LCBO. They enjoy wine. They want the option to buy more of the wines they like to enjoy, especially when they’re homegrown. What are we waiting for?

Three impressive Okanagan wines feature prominently in this week’s recommendations, alongside two ripe and ready international reds and a stunning white that’s consistently one of Ontario’s finest. Here’s hoping.

Covert Farms Family Estate Pinot Blanc 2019 (Canada)

Rating:88 /100

PRICE: $23.80

Located near the town of Oliver, B.C., in the Okanagan Valley, the family-owned Covert Farms winery is part of a 650-acre mixed farming operation that grows a range of organic fruits and vegetables in addition to wine grapes. This enjoyable pinot blanc is bright and refreshing, with tangy citrus and apple flavours that are rounded out by some herbal and floral notes. Drink now. Available direct from Covert Farms.

E. Guigal Côtes du Rhône Rouge 2016 (France)

Rating:91 /100

PRICE: $20.95

This classic red blend of syrah, grenache and mourvèdre from one of the region’s definitive producers is always a safe bet. But Guigal’s 2016 vintage shows another level of quality that makes it truly special. A wine with impressive concentration, depth of flavour and complexity, this is drinking nicely now and over the next two to four years. Available in Ontario at the above price; $24.99 in Manitoba; $19.85 in Quebec; $27.48 in Nova Scotia; $26.09 in Newfoundland. The 2015 vintage is $24.99 in British Columbia.

Joel Gott Zinfandel 2017 (United States)

Rating:90 /100

PRICE: $25.95

Following in the footsteps of his father, Cary Gott, who owned and operated zinfandel specialist, Montevina in Amador County, California from 1971 to 1982, winemaker Joel Gott has made zinfandel since the start of his career. The blend for the 2017 vintage includes zinfandel grapes from Amador, Sonoma and Lodi districts, and a mix of French and American barrels helps to create a juicy and appealing red wine that captures the powerful fruit, spicy fragrance and concentrated charm of the variety. Drink now to 2024. Available in Ontario at the above price; various prices in Alberta; $26.49 in Saskatchewan; $34.99 in New Brunswick. The 2016 vintage is $24.99 in British Columbia.

Hidden Bench Estate Fumé Blanc Rosomel Vineyard 2018 (Canada)

Rating:91 /100

PRICE: $29.95

Always one to watch, Hidden Bench’s barrel fermented and aged sauvignon blanc boasts richness and refreshment. Organically certified and produced with estate-grown grapes from vineyards on Niagara’s Beamsville Bench appellation, this offers attractive citrus and herbal notes that are nicely framed by some vanilla and spice notes from the various French oak barrels used to ferment and age components of the blend. A portion was also aged in concrete to contribute different flavours and preserve freshness. Drink now to 2023. Available at the above price in Ontario and direct through hiddenbench.com.

Noble Ridge Vineyard & Winery Reserve Chardonnay 2017 (Canada)

Rating:89 /100

PRICE: $28.99

Located in Okanagan Falls, Noble Ridge has embraced a richer and riper house style for its chardonnays without losing freshness or focus. The current release is one of the more attention-getting examples, with concentrated tropical and peach fruit flavours alongside buttery and nutty notes. Clocking in at 14.6-per-cent alcohol, this is a decidedly big and mellow white wine, with a strong old-school California chardonnay vibe, but there’s enough crisp acidity to balance that weight. Drink now. Available direct through Noble Ridge.

Stag’s Hollow Sauvignon Blanc 2019 (Canada)

Rating:88 /100

PRICE: $22

This single-vineyard sauvignon blanc from a site in Okanagan Falls is made in a rich and rewarding style, with pronounced ripe tropical and citrus fruit aromas and flavours. The small 123-case production allowed winemaker Keira LeFranc the opportunity to handle portions differently, with batches fermented in a cement tank or oak and then aged in stainless steel or older French oak barrels to contribute more complexity to the final blend. The result is bolder expression, with more weight and texture than one might expect from the variety. Drink now to 2022. Available direct through Stag’s Hollow Winery.

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