It has been eight months since Ottawa decriminalized direct-to-consumer wine sales across provincial lines. That enlightened amendment to an outdated law, unanimously approved in the House of Commons, was designed to free up access to small-lot Canadian wines, many of which are not carried in liquor stores across the country. But this is Canada, where it takes more than an act of Parliament or the will of the people to break the shackles of almighty liquor boards.
The country remains a confusing legislative hodgepodge. Beverage alcohol ultimately falls under provincial jurisdiction and most liquor boards – addicted to the handsome profits that come with monopoly control – will not give in to the inevitable e-commerce future without a fight.
Here's the geographical rundown, courtesy of Mark Hicken, a Vancouver lawyer who has been advising Canadian wineries on the issue. He's not a judge, so don't take what follows as your conclusive stay-out-of-jail card. It's one lawyer's perspective, though a sage one.
British Columbia and Manitoba are wide open. Residents there can order from any winery in Canada, provided the quantities are small enough to be considered personal, rather than commercial, purchases. (One 12-bottle case is generally considered reasonable.) Both of these provinces have issued public statements to this effect, though British Columbia, unlike Manitoba, specifies that the wine must be made with 100-per-cent Canadian juice.
Next down are Alberta and Prince Edward Island. Both have laws stating that it's legal to "import" out-of-province wine. However, their liquor boards – which, I should add, interpret and enforce liquor laws but don't write them – have indicated that the wine must be carried across provincial lines by the consumer rather than, say, by a courier. "I don't think it's possible for a liquor board to reasonably interpret the word 'import' to exclude shipment," Hicken says. In other words, he believes that consumers have the right to shop by phone or over the Internet.
Nova Scotia is in transition, having recently announced it intends to liberalize the market in line with the federal amendment. So far, though, no regulations have been introduced.
The field is murky in Ontario, where there is no explicit statute preventing e-commerce but where LCBO policy allows consumers only to personally carry up to one case of wine into the province – no e-commerce, according to the liquor board. "The law is silent on importation from other provinces," Hicken says. He adds, however, that in Canada, as in most civilized countries, that which is not expressly prohibited is permitted. In other words, the LCBO would have a hard time prosecuting an online shopper.
In Newfoundland and Labrador, New Brunswick, Quebec and Saskatchewan, consumers would appear to be out of luck. Each of these jurisdictions has explicit laws that overrule the recent federal amendment and in one way or another prohibit importation.
You can study the matter further in Hicken's recent post at winelaw.ca/shippingupdate. In the meantime, I'm leading today's tasting notes with a few worthy Canadian offerings – should you wish to take the law into your own hands.
Closson Chase S. Kocsis Vineyard Chardonnay 2010 (Ontario)
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $34.95
Closson Chase is based in Prince Edward County in eastern Ontario but the grapes here hail from Niagara's Beamsville Bench district. The sunny 2010 growing season yielded superbly ripe, luscious fruit, which hints at pineapple and peach. The toasty oak is well-integrated into the silky frame, and the wine offers up complementary nuances of honey and butter woven all the way through. Fabulous stuff from world-class grape grower and winemaker Deborah Paskus. Try it with lobster or grilled salmon. It's available through clossonchase.com.
Perseus Invictus 2009 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $32.99
Originally known as Synergy Winery & Vineyards, this Penticton estate was founded in 2009. Veteran winemaker Tom Di Bello and respected viticulturist Richard Cleave were recently brought on as consultants. This is a Bordeauxstyle red blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, petit verdot, cabernet franc and malbec, and there's fine Bordeaux complexity and elegance in the bottle. It's luscious, with cassis and raspberry fruit laced with graphite and tangy acidity. Pair it with grilled steak. Available through perseuswinery.com.
Tawse Meritage 2010 (Ontario)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $59.95
Expensive, yes. But this top-end red from one of the country's most ambitious estates delivers. It's a blend of merlot, cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon, with a smooth, soft core of berry and dark chocolate infused with sweet pipe tobacco, earth and vanilla. It would shame many California reds in its price bracket and is perfect for big beef or lamb roasts. Get it through tawsewinery.ca.
Colio CEV Small Lot Syrah 2010 (Ontario)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $19.95
From the Lake Erie North Shore appellation, this medium-full-bodied red bears a compelling resemblance to good Crozes-Hermitage, with dark berries in the foreground lifted by white pepper, subtle smoke and crisp acidity. Try it with braised short ribs or roast poultry. Visit coliowinery.com for purchase info.
Château des Charmes Cabernet Merlot 2009 (Ontario)
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $12.95
An imposing estate on the Niagara landscape, Château des Charmes remains a family-run affair. I suspect that's one reason it continues to produce good wines at very affordable prices. This red is medium-bodied, a blend of cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon and merlot. The franc component seems to take charge, lending a classic bell-pepper herbal character to the ripe cherry-like fruit. And there are nuances of cigar and earth in the mix. Nice for roast chicken or tomato-sauced vegetarian fare, such as eggplant parmesan. It's available through chateaudescharmes.com.
Peller Estates Private Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2011 (Ontario)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $18.95
Punchy grapefruit, in-your-face grass and satisfying fullness in the mid-palate – this is a lovely, fragrant white wine, reminiscent of the New Zealand style. Pair it with zesty fish dishes or young cheeses. Find it through peller.com.
Casale Dello Sparviero Chianti Classico Riserva 2009 (Italy)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $18.95
Lots of fun for the nose as well as the palate. Medium-bodied and fragrant, it conveys a sense of cherry liqueur infused with spices, old wood, cigar tobacco and leather, suggesting the library of an old private men's club. Treat it to roast leg of lamb or herb-crusted poultry. Available in Ontario.
Cave de Rasteau La Domelière Rasteau 2010 (France)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $15.95
A juicy Rhône red, this offers up lively blueberry, cassis, cherry and licorice pulled together by tight acidity. It's versatile at the table, though especially good for stewed meats. $19.99 in B.C., $18.55 in Man.