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Canadian Pinot Noir: Who Knew?
By Michael Apstein
May 23, 2017
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When I told friends that I was going to Edmonton to taste and judge Canadian wines, the predictable response was, “Oh, icewine.”  Having tasted Canadian wines during trips to Ontario and at a previous edition of the Northern Lands Festival Canadian Wine Competition in Edmonton, I knew that Canada made more than just icewine.  What I didn’t know at the time, but know now, is that Canada makes sensational and unique Pinot Noir that reflect the diversity of sites where the grapes grow. 

Indeed, winemakers in Canada, as a group, seem to know how to coax from the grape both subtle fruity and savory flavors --the ying/yang for which that grape is famous--far better than winemakers working with other New World sites.  The alcohol levels of Canadian Pinot Noir are modest by today’s standards, rarely exceeding 14 percent. Even the ripest that I’ve tasted recently do not come close to the overdone style that I call “Pinot Syrah,” which can give the varietal a bad name in California.  If Burgundians have been looking over their shoulder at Pinot Noir from California, Oregon or Central Otago and Martinborough in New Zealand, they should be checking the other shoulder because the ones from Canada will be upon them before they know it.

The two major regions for Pinot Noir in Canada are the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia, about a four-hour drive east of Vancouver, and the Niagara Peninsula in Ontario.

The Okanagan Valley, running north-south for about 100 miles, has an incredibly diverse climate and a plethora of soils, but one unifying characteristic--long hours of sunshine due to its northern location.  During the height of the growing season the Okanagan receives two hours a day more sunshine than the Napa Valley, which compensates for a shorter growing season.  The southern end, bordering the U.S., is desert-like (in reality it is the northern extension of Arizona’s Sonora Desert) with summertime temperatures reaching 100 degrees. 

Not surprisingly, Pinot Noir, which thrives in a cool, even marginal, climate, doesn’t do well there.  However, 60 miles to the north, in Okanagan Falls and further north in Kelowna, the conditions are perfect for that fickle grape. Pinot Noir does best in climates where sugar and phenolics (skin and seed tannins) ripen at the same time, something that occurs in the northern part of the Okanagan, just as in Burgundy.  The whole valley, north and south, has extraordinary diurnal temperature variations--up to 30 degrees, which helps explain why the grapes hold their acidity, imparting freshness and liveliness to the wines.

From a winegrowing point of view, the Okanagan Valley is young.  In 1990, when it received official VQA status from the Canadian authorities in British Columbia (the equivalent of the French AOC), roughly 1,200 acres were planted to vines. By 2014, there had been a 700 percent increase in vineyards, with about 8,500 acres planted.  The numbers for Pinot Noir are striking--an 80 percent increase in plantings over eight years, 2006 - 2014, outstripping new plantings of every other red variety. The number of wineries has also ballooned from fewer than 20 in 1990 to over 200 in 2014. Many winemakers told me that the Okanagan has been a quality wine-producing area for only the last decade.

I’ve seen (or rather tasted) the steep learning curve that has accompanied the proliferation of vineyards.  Two years ago, at Northern Lands, Canada’s largest all-Canadian wine and culinary festival, which brings together chefs and winemakers from all over Canada, my impression after tasting scores of Pinot Noir was that these were okay wines, but nothing unique or exceptional.  Now, just two years later, my viewpoint is entirely different--these Canadian Pinot Noir make you sit up and take notice.

David Paterson’s 2014 Tantalus Pinot Noir from the Okanagan Valley shows just how far he’s come in two years.  The 2014 had far more polished tannins and a more elegant savory profile erasing the rusticity of the 2012.  Paterson attributes the change to the vines being two years older, which may not seem like an eternity, but two years on the life of an eight-year-old vine represents 25 percent of the vine’s life. Additionally, Paterson is certain that he knows the vineyard better over the last two years and has refined his techniques in the cellar as a result.

Part of my enthusiasm for these Canadian Pinot Noirs is that even within a small area, such as the northern part of the Okanagan Valley, the character of the Pinot Noir varies greatly, depending on the sites, which vary considerably.  The soils are diverse and interdigitating because the area was formed by glaciers which have left their scars on the region in the form of canyons and cliffs and stones in the vineyards.  Just as conventional wisdom says that the southern end of the valley is warmer, so is the east side because of the effect of the hot afternoon sun.  However these broad generalizations can fail to predict the character of the wines. 

Take, for example, 50th Parallel Estate’s 2014 Pinot Noir, in which graceful red fruit flavors mingle with savory notes that dance across the palate.  It’s delicate and fresh, a Côte de Beaune-style wine.  From a site just across the lake on the western side is Quails’ Gate Winery’s 2014 Richard’s Block Pinot Noir, which is a more robust darker expression of the variety that maintains uplifting freshness, more reminiscent of the Côte de Nuits. Here are two beautifully made Pinot Noirs made from grapes grown less than a mile apart, yet which convey vastly different, yet equally captivating, expressions of my definition of Pinot Noir--that is, flavor without weight.

Or, take two 2015 Pinot Noirs from Meyer Family Vineyards.  Their bottling from the more northern located Reimer Vineyard is riper, a more fruit-driven style compared to their version from the more southern (and theoretically warmer) McLean Creek Vineyard, which has a far more savory character.   Michaela Morris, a Vancouver-based wine writer and authority on Canadian wines, explains that individual microclimates can trump the sometimes simplistic conventional wisdom.

Despite being geologically and climatically very different from the Okanagan Valley, the Niagara Peninsula in Ontario is another ideal spot for Pinot Noir.  This wine-growing area runs east to west, is limestone-based without the residue left by glaciers, and has such a harsh winter that some producers actually bury their vines so that they survive the cold.  To dispel the notion that it’s not too cold in this part of Canada for fine wine, winemakers in Ontario emphasize that their latitude is comparable to France’s Burgundy and Champagne regions.  In truth it’s the Niagara Escarpment coupled with Lake Ontario that makes wine-growing here possible.  (If latitude alone determined the ability to make fine wine, there would be wineries in Vladivostok, on Russia’s east coast.  A more critical factor is whether the vineyards are located on the eastern or western side of a land mass.) 

The Niagara Escarpment is the name given to a 1,000-mile ridge that runs from upstate New York to Wisconsin.  On the Niagara Peninsula this several hundred foot high ridge traps warm air rising from Lake Ontario and forces it down onto the vineyards, warming them and creating a constant flow of air that reduces the chance of frost and helps keep the vines free of disease. Indeed, the distance that the vineyard lies between the lake and the foot of the escarpment determines, in large measure, the character of the wine.

Paul Pender, winemaker at the highly regarded Tawse vineyard in Ontario and another leading Pinot Noir producer, explains that Ontario, like the Okanagan, is basically a young area for winegrowing.  He estimates that serious quality winemaking has only been around in the last ten years.  One of his explanations for the rapid learning curve is that winemakers are staying put and thereby learn about their vineyards.  In the past, he says, the focus was on the winemaker.  “If you had ‘that’ winemaker, you were golden.  Winemakers moved from winery to winery.”  Now, it’s clear to everyone that the focus needs to be on the vineyard.  Winemakers need to learn how an individual vineyard responds year to year. The only way to do that, is to stay in one place.

Prices for Canadian Pinot Noir are incredibly reasonable.  Parallel 50th Estate’s 2014 Pinot Noir, “Unparalleled,” a barrel selection that represented a few percentage of their total production and was voted “Best in Show” at the recently completed Northern Lands Wine Competition sells for $50 CAD (about $37 at the current exchange rate) at the winery.  Parallel 50th Estate’s regular 2014 Pinot Noir, which was voted 2nd best Pinot Noir after Unparalleled, sells for $29 CAD ($21.50). Sadly for us south of the border consumers, Canadian Pinot Noir are difficult to find because they are made in small quantities and consumed locally.  But they are worth the search.

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E-mail me your thoughts about Canadian wines in general or Canadian Pinot Noir in specific at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

May 24, 2017