There are a few ways to gauge the progress of a nation's wine industry. Sales and international medals would rank up there. Here's another: proprietary names.
A reader recently expressed amusement at the catchy branding she had noticed on Canadian wine labels, names like Malivoire's Guilty Men, 13th Street's White Palette and Flat Rock Cellars' The Rogue, all from Niagara, and The Judge from Hester Creek in British Columbia.
I can't quantify the phenomenon, but I believe she's onto something, trend-wise. Back in the sapling youth of North America's wine boom, producers astutely seized on grape names to simplify the shopping experience. This stood in contrast to the European model, with its Byzantine array of place names. The Inuit may have 100 words for snow, but if you really want confusion, look at the Burgundians; they've got 700 synonyms for chardonnay and pinot noir.
Though still the norm in Canada, so-called varietal labelling – in which wines are named after grapes – has in many cases become a straitjacket. Producers today are keen to craft novel styles based on multiple grapes. That's what White Palette is, a blend of riesling, sauvignon blanc, gewürztraminer, chardonnay musqué and viognier. It's much the same with Cachet, a red from Stag's Hollow in British Columbia that combines tempranillo with merlot, syrah and cabernet sauvignon. There's scant room on a front label to cram in all those words. Besides, who's to say what the mélange of flavours is going to taste like until you open the bottle (or read a wine review)? Better to give the wine a simple name people can remember.
Many European wineries, in fact, latched onto proprietary names decades ago for another reason – to skirt restrictive appellation laws that dictate how a wine is to be made. Perhaps the most famous is Tignanello, a Tuscan red born in the 1960s that was unable to use "Chianti" (though it's made in the Chianti zone) because producer Antinori insisted on blending local sangiovese with cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc, two French varieties then forbidden by the Chianti blending rules.
Aside from such practical considerations, unique names can, quite simply, represent a competitive advantage. They're now applied widely even to single-grape wines, as in Closson Chase's Iconoclast, a chardonnay from Ontario. Want to stand out from the grapey crowd? Give your wine a unique brand name. In that sense, Canadian wine is, ironically, coming full circle. Remember Baby Duck?
Stag's Hollow Cachet No. 01 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $49.90
This is the inaugural vintage for Cachet, an ambitious trophy red released last year by a winery that opened in 1996 in Okanagan Falls. Inspired by the modern wines emerging from Spain's Navarra region, it's a novel blend for Canada, made from tempranillo, merlot, syrah and cabernet sauvignon, aged for 18 months in new American oak. Full-bodied and succulent, it shows sweet berry, luscious dark chocolate and savoury nuances that include cigar and spice. Ideal for roast lamb, it would reward up to six years in the cellar, perhaps longer. Just 1,500 bottles were produced, and what's left is available through the winery, www.stagshollowwinery.com.
Closson Chase Iconoclast 2010 (Prince Edward County, Ont.)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $69.95
This is 100-per-cent chardonnay. The intriguing name is designed to draw attention to its rarity. Just 47 cases were made from two barrels – set aside by winemaker Deborah Paskus because the liquid was deemed so good it would suffer if blended with other barrels designated for Closson Chase's higher-volume chardonnays. It is full and rich, with ample pineapple, vanilla and butter flavours lifted by lemony zest. Think Meursault with a hint of New World sweetness. It is ideal for rich fish dishes, such as lobster with butter. Available through www.clossonchase.com.
Haywire The Bub 2011 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $24.90
Here's a sparkling blend of chardonnay and pinot noir made in the bottle-fermented Champagne style by Okanagan Crush Pad. The name is a double entendre. "Bubbles" is the conspicuous allusion. The less-obvious reference is to Alison Scholefield, 24-year-old daughter of David Scholefield, wine advisor to the brand, and Christine Coletta, the winery's co-owner. Alison was affectionately called The Bub and Bubba, among other things, as a child. The least her parents could do now is make amends by giving her a lifetime supply of this fine sparkler. It's a charming wine, with substantial sweetness beneath its dry shell and notes of green apple, pear and mineral carried on a lively froth. An initial batch sold out promptly, and orders for the soon-to-arrive second batch can be placed at www.okanagancrushpad.com.
Creekside Laura's White 2010 (Ontario)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $18.95
Named after owner Laura McCain, this is made with a grape smorgasbord: chardonnay, chardonnay musqué, pinot gris, muscat, gewürztraminer, viognier and sauvignon blanc. Somehow the oddball chorus sings a compelling tune. It is medium-bodied, dry and smooth, with nuances of pear, tropical fruit and vanilla and an aromatic ginger-floral quality. Nice on its own, it would harmonize with spicy Asian fare.
Malivoire Guilty Men Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot 2010 (Ontario)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $19.95
Owner Martin Malivoire once vowed he would never stray far from his chief passions, which include pinot noir and chardonnay, certainly not to include such offerings as a Bordeaux-style blend of cabernet and merlot. Well, here he is with just such a wine, and he and winemaker Shiraz Mottiar want us to know they're guilty as charged. The warm 2010 season delivered ripe, succulent, berry-like fruit framed by juicy acidity and spice, set against fine-grained tannins. Very easy to drink, and great for lamb or steak.