For years, the question that dogged the Canadian wine industry was whether its product was any good. Now, after earning many accolades and an increasing share of the global export market, wine producers are asking, “How should we define Canadian wine?”
Whatever answer is settled on will have deep and lasting impact on the industry, according to a panel of experts who debated “Canada’s Place in Key Wine Markets” during a seminar at 2019 Vancouver International Wine Festival.
The options aren’t as simple as selecting between red or white. Decisions will have ramifications in the tourism industry as well. When consumers living abroad taste a product that’s Canadian — whether it’s back bacon from Ontario, British Columbia Dungeness crab, or Timbits — their opinion of it has the potential to reflect on the country beyond the flavour on their tongue. Wine is now part of Canada’s brand and should be positioned globally to reinforce the positive view many people have of the nation, says Nik Darlington, a United Kingdom-based wine merchant.
“Canadian wine is esoteric. It is considered in the UK as odd in some ways, and the wines are seen through the lens of icewine. That is still the perception of a lot of people in the UK. On the flip side, there’s a huge amount of goodwill with Brand Canada. People don’t have the same apprehension about Canada that they might with other countries. People already get Canada and that awareness brings down walls,” Darlington says, while encouraging the winemakers in Ontario, British Columbia, Nova Scotia and Quebec to export only their premium wines. Not doing so risks a collapse in the market similar to what Australia has endured when its cheap and poor-quality wines, such as Yellow Tail, flooded export markets and began to define its entire industry.
Janet Dorozynski, who works for Global Affairs Canada and aims to encourage greater cohesion within the nation’s wine industry, notes the export strategy aligns with Darlington’s recommendation. She points out Canada has taken note of how two nations — Austria and New Zealand — used a conscientious approach in “accessing and penetrating” the markets they wanted and showcased high-quality wine with a focus on only two or three varietals.
Canada’s wine industry has targeted markets in the United States, United Kingdom and China, with the latter seeing phenomenal growth. In terms of revenue, Canada sold $21,205,109 worth of table wine (not icewine) to China in 2017, which equated to 1.35 million litres, according to the Canadian Vintners Association (CVA). That’s more than half of all Canadian wine exported. More incredibly, the year-over-year revenue from Canadian table-wine sales in China ballooned by a whopping 37 per cent. Icewine sales to China were similarly robust, accounting for $11,509,870 in revenue in 2017. Meanwhile, sales to the US have seen modest growth and the UK market has witnessed a drop, according to the CVA’s data.
Opportunities for growth abound, though. As Dorozynski says, statistics show that only 40 million Chinese people regularly drink wine, meaning that nation has massive consumer potential for winemakers to tap into. And global trends are creating a landscape where new entrants can find success exporting to many countries.
Exploiting those opportunities will depend plenty on Canada’s ability to better define what it offers. Okanagan Valley winemaker Christine Coletta says Canada’s soil and climate are defining characteristics of the wine in her region.
“We have the conditions here to grow grapes without manipulating them in the cellar or adding to them, and when you do that what you are expressing out is the terroir exactly as it is,” she says.
Darlington points to Oregon as an example Canada should follow. That state has become recognized internationally for producing some of the finest Pinot Noir available anywhere — and has resisted exporting an inexpensive version of it.
“Oregon is a bit of a template for how Canada can position itself in the UK, because Oregon has not had a big supermarket brand wine that defined its industry. Canada needs to stay premium, and you can do that because you have a very strong domestic market,” he says.
Oregon enjoys a robust wine tourism industry, with the Willamette Valley hosting a signature annual Pinot Noir celebration as well as other wine events. Tasting rooms dot the picturesque towns of the area and wineries command high prices for their products. Although other varieties are being grown — and Oregon Chardonnay is gaining in reputation — it is Pinot Noir that continues to bring attention to the state.
Canada has tried for years to diversify from icewine and, as the Chinese market shows, robust growth for table wines is finally possible. How that growth is managed and how the industry navigates the options and temptations it faces will determine the next chapter in the unfolding Canadian wine story — a tale that is longer and far more interesting than some may have imagined not long ago.