Canada only exports about 2% of its total wine production. And, according to statistics from the Canadian Trade Commission, China and Hong Kong are its second and third biggest export markets respectively, after the US which took nearly half the total. It turns out that, although Canada also produces still wine, the majority of its wine exports to us are ice wine. Looking at another set of data, the top 10 countries exporting wine to Hong Kong account for 99% of the market share here (by volume) and Canada is not one of them. So you can picture how tiny Canada's still wine market share is in Hong Kong. Perhaps because of this, the Canadian Trade Commission here has recently become fairly active in promoting this category. Only seven months after it hosted a Canadian wine tasting event with wineries representatives, it invited Janet Dorozynski, Global Practice Lead, Canadian Wine, Beer and Spirits from its Ottawa office, to lead a series of master classes on Canadian wine.
The lineup was certainly impressive with two sparklings, ten whites, twelve reds and three sweets—a total of 27 wines. It was an interesting tasting, not least because the wines were of widely varying quality standards, which led me to have the following thoughts.
I can see that Canadian winemakers face big challenges, especially in British Columbia. Although the diurnal temperature difference is high (15-20ºC), something generally considered a good thing in growing quality grapes, the maximum daytime temperature can reach 35ºC and quite often 40ºC. At these temperatures a vine basically shuts down. Combine this with the relatively short growing season and the result tends to be that grapes accumulate sugar very fast but simply don't have enough time to develop flavours. Riesling in particular does not like heat stress and needs a long growing season to develop. Pinot Noir can be tricky too in extreme conditions.
Perhaps this explains why some of the wines tasted were not showing very well. It could of course be my palate, but it might also be the choice of wine. Canadian still wine, with its relatively small production, will always be a niche product in export markets, commanding only a small market share. Given its relatively high production costs, Canada will never be able to compete with other countries at the entry level, and the average non-expert consumer is unlikely to buy Canadian still wine anyway. So wineries might well do better to focus on quality when exploring export opportunities.
I do believe there is potential for Canada to produce some good still wines. I have tasted some very good Cabernet Franc from the Niagara Peninsula and I feel Canada should put some real focus on this variety. There are not many 100% varietal Cabernet Francs anywhere in the world, and given that there is a trend, at least in developed markets, for lighter reds, this may well be a golden opportunity for Canadian wineries. A well-made Cabernet Franc often pairs better than Cabernet Sauvignon with Chinese cuisine because it is more fragrant and less tannic. The two we had, 13th Street 2011 Essence Cabernet Franc and Tawse Winery 2011 Laundry Cabernet Franc, both from Niagara Peninsula, did not disappoint at all.
As Janet said, the industry is very young, only being developed in earnest since the 1990s, so there is a lot of scope for winemakers to experiment. And I really hope Hong Kong importers will consider bringing in some quality Canadian still wines in the near future.
Apart from the Cabernet Francs, I was encouraged that there were a couple of interesting wines at the tasting:
Benjamin Bridge 2008 Brut Methode Calssique, Nova Scotia: pleasant with layers of aroma from citrus and white fruits to honey and brioche. Janet offered a prize for anyone who could guess the percentage of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the blend but none of us even got close. The wine was made with 42% L’Acadie Blanc, 40% Seyval Blanc, 10% Pinot Noir, 8% Chardonnay. L’Acadie Blanc is an extremely complex hybrid developed in Niagara and mainly grown in Nova Scotia.
Stratus Winery 2010 Stratus Red, Niagara Peninsula: Good fruit concentration with a fine tannin structure. It is a Bordeaux blend with 42% Cabernet Sauvignon, 28% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Franc and 15% Petit Verdot.
None of the wines above have importers in Hong Kong.