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Steven Kolpan is Professor and Chair of Wine Studies at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, NY. Steven is co-author of Exploring Wine, which has sold more than 125,000 copies, and was nominated as Best Wine and Spirits Book by the James Beard Foundation. Steven is also co-author of WineWise, a consumer-friendly guide to the wines of the world, which won both the 2009 James Beard Foundation Award for Best Beverage Book and the 2009 Georges Duboeuf Award for Best Wine Book of the Year. He is also the author of A Sense of Place, a history of Napa Valley's Niebaum-Coppola / Rubicon Winery (foreword by Francis Ford Coppola) that received the prestigious Versailles Award for Best American Wine Book in 2000. He is a contributing editor and the wine columnist for The Valley Table and Salon.com. In 2007, Steven Kolpan was named Wine Educator of the Year by the European Wine Council. He has been a member of Slow Food International for 20 years. Steven Kolpan lives just outside of Woodstock, New York.

The Cool Wines of Canada

I am writing this article on October 19th, 2008 (literally at the very moment that Colin Powell is endorsing Barack Obama on Meet the Press), but by the time you read this, Election Day will have come and gone. Barack Obama is our new President-Elect. If I’m wrong about this, don’t even bother reading the rest of this piece, because we’ve got really big problems that even good wine can’t defeat. But it is the 2008 Presidential Election and its seemingly endless campaign that provided the impetus for this article.

I can’t tell you how many friends and colleagues told me that “If Obama doesn’t win, I’m moving to Canada.” For many this was bluster-in-defeat, but for some the statement was sincere, representing an escape from the political nightmare of the last eight years, and the possibility of four more years of the same to follow. In an attempt to lighten the sullen gloom-and-doom mood of the conversation, I pointed out with all the faux joviality and jocularity I could muster that should my pessimistic peeps decide to make the move, at least they would be able to enjoy good Canadian wines.

Canada, our neighbor to the North (note to Sarah Palin: you can see Russia from there. Remember Sarah Palin?) has a lot going for it, including nice people, universal health care (John McCain attacked the Canadian health system as “broken.” Remember John McCain?), fine universities, good restaurants, and terrific wines.

Canadian wines, eh? As Sarah would say, “You betcha.” In these days of global warming (get to work on this one, Barack and Joe; give Al a call), Canada is the rare spot that can produce cool-climate wines featuring moderate alcohols and high levels of refreshing acidity. Canada’s best wines are whites, but they can produce some excellent sparklers and very good reds.

About 80% of Canada’s wines are produced in the province of Ontario, mostly in the Niagara Peninsula Designated Viticultural Area (DVA). From the Hudson Valley, you can be in Canada’s wine country in about six or seven hours (be prepared for possible long waits at the border; thank you, W.), and visiting Ontario to enjoy its food and wines makes for a nice post-election-decompression-relaxation long weekend. Gone are the days when you’d pay for a cup of coffee with a US $10 bill and get $12 back in Canadian dollars, but its not as bad as visiting Europe, where the Euro is so strong and the dollar so weak that you feel like you come from a Third World country that happens to issue credit cards (aren’t you glad we bailed out Wall Street?).The other 20% of Canada’s wines comes from the province of British Columbia and its picturesque Okanagan Valley DVA. BC’s capital city, Vancouver, is a wonderful place to visit, and is food-and-wine central for Canada’s west coast.

The modern Canadian wine industry began about 35 years ago, growing by fits and starts. Today, there are more than 300 wineries in Canada (about 125 more than New York State, 200 less than Washington State, 2,000 less than California). Canada has staked a claim as a fine producer of white wines, especially Riesling and Chardonnay, and sparkling méthode champenoise wines made from the classic blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Canada is also the world’s largest producer of Icewine, a sweet nectar made from frozen grapes, but with a compelling vein of acidity that cuts through any cloying sweetness and refreshes the palate. Canada’s best Icewines are made from Riesling grapes, but other grapes are used, including the hybrid varietal, Vidal. Canadian winemakers also produce red Icewine made from Cabernet Franc, and even sparkling Icewine.

Icewine production began in Franconia, Germany in 1794, and German producers have produced small amounts of this rare and expensive wine ever since. Until relatively recently, Germany was the world’s largest producer of Eiswein, but due to the impact of global warming, Germany’s Icewine production has been sporadic over the last five or so years. In 2007, there was no Eiswein produced in Germany, where, by law, you need temperatures of -19ºF/-28.3ºC to make the wine, and winter temperatures got no colder than 15ºF/-9.5ºC. The same year was a near-perfect Icewine vintage for winemakers in British Columbia. But even in BC, Icewine harvests are occurring later and later in the year - late November/early December.
A half-bottle (375ml) of Canadian Icewine will cost anywhere from $40 to more than $75, so it is obviously a rare - and wonderful – experience, best savored on its own, but also a good match with blue cheeses and fruit-based, not-too-sweet desserts. I have almost-never seen a fine bottle of Icewine produced in a full bottle; a half bottle should serve six, as the appropriate pour is about two ounces per person. Serve it very cold.

Not limited to Icewine, Canada produces other, more familiar wines, and they are often great values. The still and sparkling wines of Canada are, due to cool climate-driven high acidity, refreshing and food friendly. The wines range from bone-dry to super sweet, but just about all of them feature clean, crisp fruit flavors. The Rieslings, especially the dry to off-dry styles from the Niagara Peninsula are worth seeking out, and pairing with spicy Asian dishes, charcuterie/sausages, or pork. A sautéed trout with a healthy dose of fresh lemon, or smoked Nova Scotia salmon served with a dry Canadian Riesling is my idea of culinary Nirvana.

Canada’s vineyards enjoy long days with a lot of sunshine, so that mouth-watering acidity is counterbalanced by ripe fruit flavors. Chardonnay from Canada is, thankfully, not over-oaked, letting the mineral and fruit of the grape speak for itself. Gewürztraminer, mostly produced in the off-dry style, is fragrant and spicy. Pinot Gris (aka Pinot Grigio) is substantial, with hazelnut aromas and moderately high acidity. And don’t forget to look for Canadian Sauvignon Blanc, redolent of green grass in the nose, and green apples and green figs on the palate. Think Green (and with Bush soon gone and Barack in the House, hopefully we can turn our thoughts into action).

In my experience, the best Canadian red wines are made from the Cabernet Franc grape; I’ve also had some pretty good Gamay (the grape of Beaujolais). Reds from the Niagara Peninsula tend to be lighter, while Okanagan/British Columbia reds are usually somewhat more full-bodied.

Is it easy to find a wide selection of Canadian wines in the Hudson Valley? Not yet. But the wines of several producers are available, and you should not hesitate to ask your local wine merchant to order some of them. Inniskillin, Jackson-Triggs, Henry of Pelham, and Peller Estate are producers that make great wines and have national distribution. My favorite Canadian wines are produced by the Pennachetti family of Cave Spring winery. Cave Spring wines, grown and produced in the Niagara Peninsula, are also available in the Hudson Valley. Most Canadian wines live in the $15 to $25 retail community of the wine world, and represent good value. Of course, Icewines are far more expensive and represent an occasional indulgence.
With any wine from Canada, look for the VQA (Vintner’s Quality Alliance) seal on the label. The VQA ensures that the wine is made only from grapes grown in Canada, and that the wine is produced there, too.
So, the good news for all of us is that Canada produces some great wines worth seeking out, worth enjoying, And the good news for me and especially for my relieved friends who worked so hard to elect Barack Obama president is that we’re free to celebrate his election with a glass of Canadian wine, and none of them had to leave the country to do it. Welcome home to all of us.