A Francophile’s Unexpected Love Affair With Canadian Wine

A Francophile’s Unexpected Love Affair With Canadian Wine

It began with grape-guzzling bears.

I was on vacation in British Columbia’s pristinely beautiful Okanagan winemaking region this summer when I asked Severine Pinte, a French winemaker, to describe her biggest culture shock since arriving in Canada a decade ago.

Her answer? The menacing black bears that climbed down from the mountains every September, around harvest time, and devoured rows of her precious grapes, forcing local wineries to employ electrified fences, pepper bombs or hunters.

I immediately knew I was on to a story. The settlement of French winemakers in the area also seemed an encouraging sign of its potential.

[Read: Canada’s Napa Valley Seeks Elusive Audience: Canadian Wine Drinkers].

Could the country that gave the world such delicacies as seal flipper pie, shmoo cake and poutine become the land of pinot noir, and enter the pantheon of famed winemaking regions like Bordeaux, Napa Valley and Tuscany?

I have to confess, I approached the question with snobbery and skepticism. I equated great wine with the country of Voltaire. After all, my oenophilia had taken root while I was a Paris correspondent for The Times. Outside of work, I inhaled glasses of full-bodied Bordeaux wines in crowded Parisien bistros and relished traveling to French wine country.

After I moved back to Montreal following nearly three decades in Europe, the sterile efficiency of my neighborhood’s state-run liquor store made me lonesome for my local Parisien wine merchant. There, I had been greeted with a hearty “Daniel!” The wine attendant knew my favorite vintages by heart and lovingly presented me bottles of St.-Joseph or Pomorol as if handing over his children.

Nevertheless, in August, I traveled to the Okanagan Valley with an open mind. Like other Canadians, I had been desperate for a pandemic escape and had braved a nearly six-hour, masked flight to Vancouver, followed by a nearly five-hour drive to the region.

And even without my wine-induced buzz, the informality of jovial Canadian wine pilgrims in shorts and flip flops made the tastings less stodgy than some I had experienced in France.

Possessed by the zeal of a new convert, I was dismayed to discover that most Okanagan wines weren’t easily available in the rest of Canada, including my native Montreal. I needed to find out: Why?

The answer dumbfounded me — Prohibition era regulations continued to hold sway and most provinces still forbade individual consumers to order shipments of wine from other provinces.

This being Canada, regionalism was also at play. At upmarket restaurants in food-obsessed Montreal, sommeliers were more likely to suggest a plucky Quebec wine or a French vintage than wine from faraway British Columbia (Some Quebecers like to use the acronym “ROC” to refer to the rest of Canada, as if citing a noxious foreign planet).

When I asked the Okanagan wineries if I could order wine to Montreal, they explained, often in hushed whispers, that they got around the rules by using a medical supplies company and not labeling shipments as wine. I couldn’t help wondering if this frisson of subterfuge made the wine more enjoyable, like gaining access to an atmospheric speakeasy in New York City in the 1920s.

As we gazed over the vineyard of Osoyoos Larose Estate winery, its chief winemaker, Caroline Schaller, explained to me that it was also challenging for Okanagan wines to gain traction nationwide, when low volumes of production kept prices relatively high.

“You can find a drinkable bottle of Bordeaux wine in a Paris wine shop for $5,” she observed. In contrast, a glass of her Osoyoos Larose Le Grand Vin, can cost as much as $16 in an upmarket Vancouver restaurant.

Nevertheless, the Okanagan Valley is gradually gaining a global following in perhaps unlikely places.

Raphaël Merlaut is part of the family that founded France’s Groupe Taillan, which owns, among other things, Osoyoos Larose Estate winery and 21 châteaux in France. He told me that the creativity he observed in the Okanagan Valley made him feel like he was being transported in a time machine to Bordeaux in the 18th century.

“For my family, B.C. wine is a love affair, like meeting a woman and falling in love,” he told me. “It’s a new frontier.”

Ms. Pinte of Le Vieux Pin explained that the freedom of the Okanagan Valley had attracted her. While the varieties of grapes winemakers are allowed to use is circumscribed in Bordeaux, being able to draw on nearly 60 varieties in the Okanagan Valley made her feel like an expressionist painter.

Yet the region still faces prejudices. “French people think Canada is an arctic place with dog sleighs and snow,” she explained. “They don’t realize there are desert conditions in the Okanagan Valley, which are optimal for growing grapes.”

After my trip, I hosted a socially-distanced blind wine tasting with a group of fellow cork dorks, in which we hid our bottles’ labels with aluminum foil.

The wines in the contest included a venerable Château Pédesclaux 2012 from Pauillac in the Bordeaux region and a Savigny-lès-Beaune, 1er cru, 2012, a Pinot Noir from France’s Bourgogne.

And guess what? My offering, a 2018 Nota Bene from Okanagan’s Black Hills Estate winery came in first place, trouncing its French rivals.

Like a grape-guzzling Canadian bear.

  • This week, I wrote on the recent “lobster wars” in Nova Scotia, during which angry mobs of commercial fishermen attacked lobster storage facilities used by Indigenous fishermen. The conflict follows a series of abuses of Indigenous people in Canada.

  • Residents of Asbestos, Quebec, have voted to shed the town’s name. Being named after a carcinogen was hindering the local economy.

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