Wine & spirits: Canadian wine
In 1988, the Ontario industry established the Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA). British Columbia winemakers accepted similar quality standards in 1990. The results have been more than dramatic. In the same year, Inniskillin of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., scored international fame at the high-profile VinExpo when its icewine beat out almost 4,000 wines. Okanagan-based Mission Hill took top prize for its Chardonnay in '94 at the International Wine Challenge in London, England. The judges were so perplexed by that win, they threw out the results and started again. Mission Hill topped the list a second time. Since then, some of the world's best winemakers -- from France, the United States, Australia and New Zealand -- have chosen to settle here, bringing their families and their expertise. The result has been a sharing of techniques and another spectacular increase in quality.
In the past two years, major French wine companies have invested millions of dollars here. Groupe Taillan, the owners of several top Bordeaux estates, have pumped barrels of money and know-how into the southern Okanagan Valley at Osoyoos, while Boisset, the largest wine merchants in Burgundy, have invested in the Niagara Peninsula's Beamsville Bench. Boisset hired Canadian-born architect Frank Gehry to design a winery that promises to become a superstar in its own right. The facility may attract tourists from far and wide, but the quality of the wine should make the most profound impression.
There's a saying in the industry, "To make a small fortune in the wine business, start with a large one." Classic vinifera vines, which produce fewer but higher-quality grapes, have, for the most part, replaced our native varieties. Today's state-of-the-art computerized winery equipment may take some of the romance out of the process, but the trade-off is worth the resulting excellence. The best French and American oak barrels cost plenty, but they are the salt and pepper of every winemaking team. In Ontario, expensive underground drainage lines are almost always necessary in order to compensate for unpredictable rains; in British Columbia, irrigation must be installed as the Okanagan Valley is a veritable desert.
Premium winemaking techniques have prompted Canadian vintners to charge premium prices, but a top French, Italian or Californian wine can cost hundreds of dollars, which makes that $50 local specialty a genuine bargain.