Brits developing a taste for fine Canadian vintages, and not just icewine

In the wine business, the U.K. is Broadway. If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. Suddenly, in this heady and crowded and cutthroat market, Canadian table wines are getting rave reviews.

Canada, while still a niche player, is making a name for itself in one of the world's bellwether markets

Canada, while still a niche player, is making a name for itself in the U.K. 1:55

Those of us of a certain vintage may well remember a popular TV campaign by Red Rose tea from back in the late '80s and early '90s.

It featured some exaggeratedly British characters fawning over a cup of the tea until they're told it's available only in Canada.
"Oh? Pity."

Well, something similar is going on right now in the U.K. with Canadian wine. Only, unlike the tea, the Chardonnays and pinot noirs are actually available over there, and when Brits find out the wine they're drinking is Canadian, they're snapping it up.  

"I enjoy bringing it home and pouring it out in a glass and giving it to someone blind and saying, 'What do you think of this?' and they go, 'Oh, I like that,'" says David Gleave, managing director of Liberty Wines Ltd,, a London-based wine importer.

"And then you tell them it's Canadian and you watch their face look quite surprised."

Small, precious, and pricey

Canadian wine is still a very small player in Britain, accounting for only $1,582,316 Cdn in sales in 2015. And of that, more than $1.2 million was icewine. But in the last three years, table wine sales have surged, jumping from a paltry $34,889 in 2013 to more than $168,500 last year.
Ontario winemaker Norman Hardie says the U.K. market likes Old World-style wines with New World energy. (Aaron Saltzman/CBC)

The "table wine" term used here is the North American sense, denoting a wine style; an ordinary wine, not a dessert or a sparkling wine, and not the lesser quality wine Europeans call table wine.

In fact, much of the Canadian wine making inroads in the U.K. is higher-end vintages.

Gleave's Liberty Wines imports two Niagara Chardonnays by winemaker Thomas Bachelder. Both retail in the U.K. for more than £30 ($57) a bottle.

"Which is pretty expensive. You're dealing right in the very top, less than one per cent of the market at that price. It's going to be top quality wine shops and good quality restaurants. Restaurants that can sell wines that are £100 a bottle and above," he says.

They drink a lot. And then there's the Queen.

The U.K. is the sixth largest wine market in the world and experts say one of the most important.  

"It's a critical marketplace. It's one of the best marketplaces for your super premium products," says Dan Paszkowski, president and CEO of the Canadian Vintners Association.

"They're big consumers of wine in the U.K. Also, some of the top sommeliers and wine writers, etc. are all based in the U.K. It's an important market, not only for sales, but to build recognition for your product," he says.

It may be no coincidence that the start of this rise in sales for Canadian wine in the Britain roughly coincided with a positive article by well-known wine critic Jancis Robinson.

Robinson has been the Financial Times wine correspondent since 1989. She is also an adviser to the royal wine cellar, appointed by Queen Elizabeth.

Robinson wrote that wines from B.C. and Ontario "have clearly improved considerably recently."   

Marks & Spencer, one of the U.K.'s best-known retailers, lists a pinot noir by Okanagan winemaker Meyer Family Vineyards, describing it as "complex … with tart black cherry, plum and vanilla aromas and a richly elegant freshness with violets and red fruit depth."

So what's changed?

Canadian wine hasn't always enjoyed a stellar reputation abroad.

"For many years Canadian wine was made with either hybrid varieties — so it was made with wine imported from California and blended in with Canadian wine." says Gleave.
British critics have good things to say about Canadian vintages, and buyers have responded. (CBC)

But about 10 years ago, he says, a growing number of artisanal Canadian wine makers started focusing on individual varietals, and quality over quantity.

"The right grape varieties, planted in the right places, tended in the right way, and then made by someone who's got an eye to quality." he says.

"And there are now some people, a growing number of people, in Canada who are making very good wines that can compete on an international level."

An ever easier sell

Prince Edward County winemaker Norman Hardie sent his first batch of wine from Ontario to the U.K. in 2014. That shipment consisted of 50 cases. This year, he's sending 200 cases, a number he says would be double or triple if he had the stock.  
U.K. importer David Gleave says the rise of artisanal wineries in Canada is opening new markets. (CBC)

Hardie's wines are listed by The Wine Society in Britain, said to be the oldest wine co-op in the world, with more than 100,000 members.

Hardie's first 100-case allocation to the society sold out the day it was released.

"The fact that a number of importers are taking Canadian wines — from Nova Scotia, to here in Ontario, to British Columbia — it says that we're doing something very, very special in Canada." Hardie says.

"And as Canadians, sometimes we need to hear that from the outside."

Hardie's Chardonnay is made from grapes grown on vines planted in clay and limestone soil, in a climate tempered by nearby Lake Ontario. The wine is aged in French oak barrels in a cellar cut into a limestone shelf below the vineyard.  

Hardie spent a year in Burgundy, France, learning his craft.  A taste of his 2013 Chardonnay evokes comparisons to a vintage from that renowned French wine region.  

That, Hardie says, is what appeals to the U.K.

"If we can make Old World style wines in the New World," he says, "that taste of here but have those Old World characteristics, this is what the U.K. loves."

"It's that vibrancy and acidity. [Other] New World wines are bigger and rounder and softer and while delicious, they just don't have that energy that we have here."  

"And this is what we can do here, given our temperatures and our soils."

Only in Canada, you say?

Not anymore, it seems.  

Follow Aaron Saltzman on Twitter @cbcsaltzman

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About the Author

Aaron Saltzman

Senior Reporter, Consumer Affairs

Aaron Saltzman is CBC's Senior Business Reporter. Tips/Story ideas always welcome.


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