If there's one thing that distinguishes us as Canadians besides excessive politeness, a passion for hockey and devotion to public health care, it's this: a need for foreign approbation.
The Ontario wine industry got that in spades late last month at an event in London. The occasion was a tasting of top Ontario chardonnays held, symbolically, at Canada House on majestic Trafalgar Square. Organized by Bill Redelmeier, owner of Southbrook Vineyards in Niagara, it was designed to showcase some of the province's best bottlings to the British press, a group that has historically held inordinate sway in the adjudication of fermented-grape juice.
No less than Jancis Robinson, columnist with the Financial Times and celebrated wine author, was uncharacteristically gobsmacked as she penned her column following the tasting. The 22 wineries represented, she wrote, "showed that Ontario alone can produce a vivid array of styles of chardonnay, some of which can hold their own with the world's finest."
Could it be our Bottle Shock moment? That's a reference to the Hollywood film chronicling the famous 1976 Paris Tasting that vaulted American wines to global prominence when a California chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon defeated top - and much more expensive - entries from France.
To read Robinson's full notes on the tasting (dubbed Ontario Chardonnay - Seriously Cool), you'll have to subscribe to her Purple pages online site at Jancisrobinson.com. But here are some of her top choices: Huff Estates South Bay Vineyards 2007 and Closson Chase South Clos 2007 from Prince Edward County and Southbrook Triomphe 2008, Henry of Pelham Barrel Fermented Niagara Escarpment 2007, Tawse Quarry Road Vineyard Vinemount Ridge 2007, Le Clos Jordanne Talon Ridge 2007 and Malivoire Moira Vineyard Beamsville Bench 2004 from Niagara. They're produced in small quantities and hard, if not impossible, to find.
The results certainly shocked me. Robinson can be admirably blunt and has criticized Canadian winemakers in the past, notably in connection with the industry's controversial labelling practices regarding imported juice bottled under the "Cellared in Canada" classification. So when she compares Ontario wines with "the world's finest," it's high praise, especially given her estimable familiarity with the great, often stunningly expensive whites of Burgundy, all made from chardonnay.
That unbiased, across-the-pond appraisal inspired me to take a second and third sip of some newly released Canadian wines, not just from Ontario but also British Columbia. I'm now more convinced that the following seven (in no particular order) could hold their own against counterparts from around the world - not necessarily vanquish the competition but surely give it a run for its money.
Warning: Just like the chardonnays poured at Canada House, most are made in small quantities and can be hard to find. Check the winery websites for availability in your province.
1) Poplar Grove Syrah 2007 ($30 through www.poplargrove.ca)
Winemaker Ian Sutherland, one of this country's finest, has worked magic with this big red from British Columbia's Okanagan Valley. It's a knee-jerk tendency among scribes such as yours truly to compare any syrah against those of the northern Rhone Valley, where the grape rises to blissful heights. Yet the similarity here is impressive. An opulent, seamlessly textured core of dark-skinned fruit gets a lift from classic, Rhone-like layers of herbs and cracked pepper. I'd love to see this wine entered in a blind tasting of fine syrahs. More than that, I'd love to see it in front of me next to a braised lamb shank simmered in red wine with fresh thyme.
2) Twisted Tree Syrah 2008($24.90 through ww.twistedtree.ca)
Also from the Okanagan Valley, this fine effort is crafted in a more accessible style, with crowd-pleasing fruit and less savoury character than the Poplar Grove. Look for notes of espresso and vanilla along with the ample, luscious core of fruit. It should go well with herb-rubbed red meats on the barbecue.
3) Nichol Vineyard Syrah 2006 ($29.90 through www.nicholvineyard.com)
Robinson liked this wine when she visited the Okanagan Valley recently and so do I. Slightly sweet fruit is carried on a smooth, succulent frame. And to heck with food: This B.C. bruiser drinks beautifully all by its lonesome.
4) Twisted Tree Tannat 2008 ($27.90 through www.twistedtree.ca)
Best known for making the sturdy red wines of the Madiran district in southwest France, tannat tends toward astringency, making it a non-starter with many modern wine consumers. That palate-parching tannic quality is in evidence here, but it's underpinned by a juicy, fruity core and pleasant espresso note. Rugged but flavourful, it's a nice foil for gamey red meats, such as venison.
5) Tawse Carly's Block Riesling 2008 ($29.95 through www.tawsewinery.ca)
Ponder the balance of this Niagara white as you sip it. There's a sweetness to the peach-lemon fruitiness, but the acidity rushes in to carry it through to a long, clean, mineral-accented finish. A hand-crafted wine, to be sure. Perfect for smoked fish and spicy dishes.
6) Henry of Pelham Speck Family Reserve Riesling 2007 ($30 through www.henryofpelham.com)
Close your eyes and think of Germany, as in fine German riesling. Slightly off-dry, this Niagara white shows smooth, peach-apple fruit, a squirt of citrus and notes of petrol and stone right through to the soft finish. I'd love a touch more acidity, but I'm not complaining too loudly. Spicy food is in order.
7) Mission Hill Pinot Blanc Reserve 2008 ($18.99 in B.C. only or through www.missionhillwinery.com)
Medium-bodied, this white is silky-smooth with a pronounced floral note and flavours of apple, spiced pear and herbs. Nice on its own or with pan-seared halibut or chicken breasts.
Pick of the week
Poplar Grove Syrah 2007 ($30 through www.poplargrove.ca) has an opulent, seamlessly textured core of dark-skinned fruit that gets a lift from classic, Rhone-like layers of herbs and cracked pepper. It's an ideal partner for braised lamb shank simmered in red wine with fresh thyme.
Mission Hill Pinot Blanc Reserve 2008 ($18.99 in B.C. only or through www.missionhillwinery.com) is medium-bodied with a pronounced floral note and flavours of apple, spiced pear and herbs. It's nice on its own or with pan-seared halibut or chicken breasts.
Ponder the balance of Tawse Carly's Block Riesling 2008 ($29.95 through www.tawsewinery.ca) as you sip it. There's a sweetness to the peach-lemon fruitiness in this Niagara white, but the acidity rushes in to carry it through to a long, clean, mineral-accented finish. Perfect for smoked fish and spicy dishes.