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Food & Wine Tannat or arneis, anyone? Canada’s grape crusaders embrace offbeat varieties

As any seasoned winemaker will attest, success in viticulture begins with choosing the right grape varieties for the soil and climatic conditions. For most risk-averse entrepreneurs, that means planting vines with a good track record in the region, such as cabernet sauvignon in Napa Valley, shiraz in South Australia, riesling in Niagara and merlot in the South Okanagan. Don’t tell that to Chris and Beata Tolley. When the ex-Calgarians left successful business careers 15 years ago to start a British Columbia winery that would become Moon Curser Vineyards, here’s what they planted: tannat, tempranillo, carménère, viognier, roussanne and marsanne – varieties that at the time were virtually non-existent in Canada.

“It was a bit risky, especially back then, but we thought it would be so exciting and interesting if that worked, to see what South Okanagan tannat would taste like,” recalls Beata Tolley, a chartered accountant by profession, who gives husband Chris, a software engineer turned winemaker, credit for the unconventional start. More recently, the Tolleys doubled down, adding a few more curiosities to their Osoyoos, B.C., property, including arneis and dolcetto from Northern Italy and touriga nacional from Portugal’s port-producing Douro Valley.

The gamble paid off, thanks largely to the South Okanagan’s hospitably sunny, dry climate. Virtually all the vines – members of Europe’s tender Vitis vinifera species rather than the cold-hardy hybrids and labruscas that dominated Canada’s early wine industry – ended up thriving, even late-ripening tannat, a tannic red most closely associated with southwest France and Uruguay. Moon Curser’s rich, ripe tannat is, in my opinion, far superior to many produced in France.

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Tolley says the strategy not only provided Moon Curser with a clear point of competitive differentiation but also dovetailed with the explosion in B.C. wine tourism, which in part brought a new generation of consumers curious about unsung, offbeat grapes.

“I suspect it’s probably the next phase in the growth of this region,” Tolley says. “There is such a huge range of what can be done in the valley, it would be a shame not to experiment a little bit and see what comes up before settling on something.”

Moon Curser may be the most ambitious grape crusader in Canada, but there are others breathing fresh air into an industry that for arguably too long has hitched its star to the secure familiarity of France’s big-name, blue-chip varieties, including not just riesling, cabernet and merlot but also chardonnay and pinot noir.

Among the B.C. renegades is Road 13, which is located south of Oliver. It has an excellent portfolio that includes a splendid roussanne, a marsanne, a viognier, a Champagne-style chenin-blanc bubbly and a voluptuous grenache-syrah-mourvèdre red blend labelled GSM. A little farther north is Stag’s Hollow, with its bright, cheerful dolcetto, earthy tempranillo, jammy grenache and silky albarino.

Or you might want to check out Lake Breeze’s South African-inspired pinotage or the innovative whites from Terravista Vineyards on the Okanagan’s Naramata Bench, run by Bob and Senka Tennant, previous owners of British Columbia’s famed Black Hills Estate (which, as with Moon Curser and Lariana Cellars in Osoyoos, makes a fine carménère, the signature red grape of Chile). Terravista has been working magic with albarino and verdejo, two signature whites of the Iberian Peninsula, as well as viognier from the Rhône. Quails’ Gate makes a lovely, aromatic white blend using chasselas, a Swiss grape, with pinot blanc and pinot gris, while Culmina crafts a marvellous B.C. gruner veltliner based on Austria’s signature white variety. Then there’s Inniskillin’s Okanagan estate with its pioneering Discovery Series, which includes a tempranillo and a zinfandel.

Over in Niagara, Philip Dowell, vice-president of production for Angels Gate Winery as well as winemaker for both Angels Gate and its sister property, Kew Vineyards, got the idea in 2010 to plant some albarino before altering course. The Australian native figured that a grape that could perform well in the cool, moist climate of Galicia in northwest Spain could likely do well in Niagara. That plan was thwarted, however, after a vine dealer told him albarino was not authorized for cultivation in Ontario. So, he bought some marsanne instead and now makes a seductively textured varietal white from it under the Kew banner. What began as a three-acre planting was expanded two years ago by five more acres after the cruel winters of 2014 and 2015 destroyed Dowell’s merlot vines.

“We still are finding our feet and still finding our way in terms of what does work here,” says Dowell, adding that the list of suitable varieties happens to be a moving target because of climate change. “How much that’s going to play out here we’ll have to wait and see. But it’s going to change the landscape as well as change the landscape in every other region in the world.”

Before most Canadian wineries existed, Paul Bosc Sr., the 84-year-old founder of Château des Charmes in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., was performing trials in the 1970s on numerous European varieties. The fifth-generation winemaker from French Algeria, who had graduated from the University of Burgundy in Dijon, even propagated two workhorse varieties that he had come to enjoy as a student. Both have become Château des Charmes signatures.

One was aligoté, Burgundy’s simpler, unassuming sister to chardonnay. “If you went to bars in that era, this is what they drank by the pail,” says Paul-André Bosc, the founder’s son, who runs the company as president and CEO. “It was the bar white. And he liked it.”

The other was gamay noir “droit,” a spicier, slightly smoky and richer-tasting clone of the classic red gamay of Beaujolais in southern Burgundy. Unique to this day to Château des Charmes, the obscure vine had appeared as a spontaneous mutation in Bosc’s first gamay vineyard, visibly distinct for its tall stature, strong tendrils and tendency to require an extra 10 days or so to ripen in autumn.

“It’s different, it has its own flavour signature,” the younger Bosc says. “And in a marketplace as crowded as the world wine marketplace is now, that’s a recipe towards a sustainable future.”

I’ll drink to that.

Moon Curser Carménère 2016, British Columbia

SCORE: 91 PRICE $39.99

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Carménère, once prominent in Bordeaux, is more closely associated now with Chile. This happens to be better than many from that latter country, displaying full ripeness from the sunny 2016 season. Full-bodied, with flavours of juicy plum and dried herbs along with toasted spices and black pepper. Available direct through mooncurser.com.

Road 13 Blind Creek Viognier 2017, British Columbia

SCORE: 91 PRICE: $20.87

True-blue viognier in the decadent style of Condrieu in the northern Rhone. Edible in texture, with essences of peach nectar, apricot, orange blossom, honey and gingery spice. Sourced from the Similkameen Valley. Great for Indian curries. Available direct through road13vineyards.com.

Kew Vineyards Marsanne 2016, Ontario

SCORE: 91 PRICE: $19.95

A splash of silky viognier helps flesh out the awesome texture in this smartly, subtly oaked white. Soft, succulent fruit mingles with buttery caramel and a smoky, toasty quality. Great balance. Available in Ontario Vintages stores and direct, kewvineyards.com.

Château des Charmes Gamay Noir “Droit” 2017, Ontario

SCORE: 91 PRICE: $19.95

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Based on a spontaneous mutation of the red Beaujolais grape and isolated in the early 1980s by winery founder Paul Bosc Sr., this is just as serious as it is happy. Light and crisp yet smoothly polished, it’s perfectly ripe and cherry-like as well as subtly smoky and spicy. Available direct through fromtheboscfamily.com.

Angels Gate Shine 2017, Ontario

SCORE: 90 PRICE: $19.95

A prosecco-style sparkling wine made from the aromatic, fruity-floral muscat ottonel grape. Australian native Philip Dowell is a master with bubbles as well as with still wines. This shows a rounded, subtly sweet centre and flavours of white table grape, clementine, lemon-lime soda and fresh ginger, carried on a creamy mousse and lifted by zippy acidity. A smiling wine. Available through angelsgatewinery.com.

Stag’s Hollow Albarino 2017, British Columbia

SCORE: 89 PRICE: $18.99

The signature white grape of Galicia in northern Spain gets a compelling treatment here. Simultaneously oily and crisp, the wine is medium-bodied and combines tropical fruit with satisfying tang and a flinty overtone. Available direct through stagshollowwinery.com.

Moon Curser Arneis 2017, British Columbia

SCORE: 89 PRICE: $22.99

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Based on a newly trendy white grape from Piedmont in northwest Italy. Almost effervescent, it’s medium-bodied and energetic, with notes of pear, tangerine and honey. A lovely change of pace for anyone stuck in a chardonnay or pinot grigio rut. Available through mooncurser.com.

Join wine critic Beppi Crosariol and other Globe and Mail journalists this July aboard the Globe Portugal Cruise. For itinerary and booking information, visit globedourocruise.com.

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