In August, I had the great fortune to be invited to my cousin’s wedding in Niagara-on-the-Lake, giving me an opportunity to check out Ontario & Quebec, as well as visiting the Falls (natch). It was a fascinating 2 week visit to a wonderful country that has weathered the recent financial crisis well, based on a solid banking sector that largely avoided the boom bust elsewhere and strong natural resources (Canada is a commodities exporter). Toronto is an exciting, vibrant city of 4m that regularly appears in those lists of the Top 10 Best Cities in which to live, Montreal is not far behind and with a French insouciance that makes you laugh.
So what about the wine? Several highly-respected sages of the wine world (Jancis Robinson, Steven Spurrier) had written of the advances in Canadian wine standards in recent years. This may well be true, but it’s still got some way to go. Regions such as Niagara-on-the-Lake and Prince Edward County have got the wine tourist experience down to a tee. It’s a great day out touring the vineyards by bicycle, but the wine itself? So-so. Sure, there’s some decent Riesling, some drinkable Pinot Noir and some interesting ice wine, but there’s too many baked Cabernet Francs and unsubtle Chardonnays. It’s also pretty expensive, even in situ, with the best Pinot Noirs commanding Burgundian prices and half-bottles of ice wine costing the same as top Sauternes. Compare this with what you might pay for good German ice wine or what you could buy from the cellar door in the Languedoc and it simply doesn’t match up. Perhaps that’s what you get with 200 years’ of wine-making experience coupled with fierce local competition in the Old World. Maybe I am being a bit unfair, but it reminded me of the emerging UK wine-making industry – too much poor wine and the price of the undeniably good stuff pushed north due to limited supply.
In terms of imports, supply is controlled by the state monopolies (Alberta being a welcome exception). In Ontario this is the LCBO (Liquor Control Board of Ontario) and in Quebec it’s the SAQ (Societe Alcool de Quebec). All distribution is through their network of stores or through them to restaurants (who can choose from an extended list of approved import agents). What this means in practice is a pretty boring list of the usual brands – Jacobs Creek, Duboeuf, Latour. It’s as if our limited supermarket selection was moved out of the supermarket and into a high street store. So you get none of the convenience (no slipping a bottle into the weekly shop, or even buying a few beers from a corner shop if you’ve run out) and none of the independents offering interesting wines from small producers.
In no way did this take the edge off a wonderful trip (the wedding was a blast, the wilderness was stunning and the welcome was always warm), but it’s a shame the status quo can’t be changed. For the time being, you’re better drinking the range of good craft beers – McAuslan, Steamwhistle, Naughty Otter, to name a few!