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Ontario vintners make brave foray into Italy

Norman Hardie, left, the owner and head viniculturalist at the Norman Hardie winery, and Italian-Canadian wine enthusiast Ian D’Agata.

Eric Reguly

Canadian wines in Europe are almost impossible to find, unless you're in the market for ice wines, which are becoming fairly popular and picking up awards at wine shows such as Vinexpo and VinItaly.

But a nice Canadian Pinot Noir, Riesling or Chardonnay from Ontario's Niagara and Prince Edward County grape regions? Forget it. In Europe, New World wine choices are pretty much limited to California, South Africa, Australia or New Zealand unless you find a particularly enlightened and adventurous sommelier.

The Ontario wine industry is trying to broaden the choice for Europeans -- and boost sales -- with a little help from Canadian trade commissioners in Europe. A few days ago, the Canadian embassy in Rome sponsored a tour of Ontario wine makers. They were in Florence to meet distributors and wine writers and did a similar event in Rome Sunday evening.

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The Canadians had a superb salesman in the form of Ian D'Agata, the Italian-Canadian doctor (disclosure: he is my kids' pediatrician) and wine enthusiast, lecturer and book writer.

Alternating between perfect English and Italian, he explained that, believe it or not, Ontario has a wine-making history that goes back to the early 1800s. The industry expanded tremendously in the 1970s, when Inniskillin burst on the scene after winning the first Ontario wine licence since the Prohibition era. Since then, Ontario (along with British Columbia) has developed sturdy and increasingly well-known vineyards, each of them eager to tap the export market. "I believe that Canadian Pinot Noir is among the five best in the world and the Rieslings among the three best in the world," Ian said.

On tour in Italy were four Ontario wine makers: Cave Spring Cellars, Flat Rock Cellars, Malivoire and Norman Hardie Winery and Vineyard.

Their goal was to get some media exposure, all the better to nab the attention of distributors. To be sure, none has fantasies of seeing Canadian wines standing proud on the shelves of Italian wine shops or supermarkets. "Our market will never be supermarkets," says Norman Hardie, the owner and head viniculturalist at the Norman Hardie winery in Wellington, Ont. "It's all about placement in great restaurants."

Mr. Hardie, clad in jeans for the embassy event -- ever so Canadian -- makes about 7,000 cases of wine a year and has already had some success outside Ontario, with sales in Quebec, Tokyo, Hong Kong and other spots (he doesn't sell much through the LCBO). "The right importer will find you," he says.

While Ontario wines may not take off soon in Italy, it's worth remembering that, a few years ago, no one thought other New World wines and ice wines would either, and they have.

By the way, the embassy showcased another Canadian product at the wine-tasting event -- bison meat. In the land of pasta, that one is one item that is bound to carry ultra-niche status for a long time.

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