The wine mavericks

From Cape Breton to the Kootenays, there’s plenty of wine to be coaxed from grapes far from established regions

As the 2014 Wine in Canada guide makes its debut, Maclean’s dips into the archives to publish some of the best of the 2013 edition online.

From the sandy soils of British Columbia’s interior to the rocky shores of Cape Breton’s coast, a growing group of independent-minded vineyard owners are eschewing the exorbitant price of grape-growing properties in mainstream regions in favour of other promising plots of land—albeit sometimes in the middle of nowhere.

While a remote location has its downsides, there are definitely perks, says Mike Newman, owner and winemaker at Newman Estate Winery, about an hour’s drive from Charlottetown. “I make a very good wine, but I’d be uncomfortable if I was in an area where there were 200 other wineries,” he says. In 2012, his chardonnay was the province’s fourth-highest selling white wine—from any region—with 24,000 bottles sold in a province of 145,000 people.

For engineering contractor Ken MacLellan, buying Cape Breton’s only vineyard—already planted with cayuga, Lucie Kuhlmann, marechal foch, marechal Joffre, St. Pepin and l’acadie blanc by former owner John Pratt—gave him an opportunity to move home and fulfill a lifelong dream of being a winemaker.

“The place has an amazing view overlooking the Bras d’Or [Lake]. Just the property itself was worth the asking price,” MacLellan says. Now called Eileanan Brèagha Vineyards, MacLellan recruited Moira Peters, a friend and sommelier who runs wine workshops in Halifax, to help with his first vintage, which, barring any catastrophes, will be released this year.

Part of the challenge of starting a vineyard far from an established region, says Peters, is that the onus is on winemakers to introduce a range of wines that will appeal to local customers. She laughs at the memory of a tasting party she hosted in Halifax a few years ago, where she brought an accessible, $16 Gaspereau rosé to woo the rum-and-Coke crowd. “Girlie,” said one woman, a friend of her aunt’s, “I can get a real nice pint of rum for $15.”

The logistics are difficult and the costs are higher for trucking in supplies and equipment, says Tersia De Jager. Originally from South Africa, she and her husband, Ben, bought Columbia Gardens Winery, about 10 km from Trail, B.C., in August 2013. “In the Okanagan you order the bottles and the next day they deliver them, but for us it can take some time.”

In 2003, Al and Marleen Hoag transitioned from growing apples and cherries to producing wine at Skimmerhorn Winery in Creston, B.C., which is near the border with Idaho, but about nine hours from Vancouver and six from Calgary. Despite producing some award-winning wines, they have to fight for every customer. “I’m envious of the folks in the Okanagan with their massive walk-in traffic. It almost seems too easy,” Hoag says. “It’s been a long, hard grind.”

But that also means they are under less pressure to produce wines that adhere to a regional style. Their Kootenay Crush, for example, is a $16 boundary-blurring blend of pinot noir, ortega and gewürztraminer, with aromas of rose petals and lychees.

In Ontario, there are two emerging wine regions far away from balmy terroir further south: the Ottawa Valley and Georgian Bay. Jabulani Vineyard and Winery, owned by South African Tom Moul and his wife, Janet, is within Ottawa’s western city limits and relies heavily on day trippers and tourists drawn by free tastings.

Moul, who has been making wine since he was 14, says the cool climate makes the job more difficult. While the couple grows hardier hybrid varieties of grapes that are bred to withstand harsh winters, they always blend their juice and adjust the acidity before fermentation, and tannic extraction is done very carefully.

“In this region, there is no doubt a challenge with maximizing sugars,” says Robert Ketchin, a partner at Georgian Hills Vineyard. “That means our wines are slightly lower in alcohol and a little higher in residual sugar to balance out that acidity. But that’s the beauty of who we are.”

While Moul considers Jabulani part of a growing wine community that includes Domaine Perrault in Navan and another winemaker in Morrisburg, both Moul and Ketchin say they have endured skepticism from locals. “Down the road from me, there’s this guy who came to see me in 2007 when I was planting. He said, ‘Grapes don’t grow here; you’re an idiot,’ ” says Moul. “The next year he was planting his own.”

That spirit marks the difference between an aspiring winemaker who settles in a mainstream region and one who blazes a trail. In Lillooet, B.C., years of research funded by the provincial and municipal governments had concluded the area was perfect for growing grapes, according to Fort Berens Estate Winery’s Rolf de Bruin, but no one was willing to take the plunge.

“You’re going to move to Canada, which is a huge step in your life,” says de Bruin, who immigrated from the Netherlands in 2005 with his wife, Heleen Pannekoek, and started the vineyard a few years later. “For us, choosing to set up in Lillooet over the Okanagan was only an incrementally small extra step.”

Back east, an hour outside Fredericton in Cambridge Narrows, N.B., Sonia Carpenter and her partner, David Craw, make wine, including a fabulous sabrevois, at Mott’s Landing, but also spend part of their year making wine in New Zealand. Carpenter says winemakers from abroad are always wonder why they go to the extra effort to make good wine in an unknown, cool-climate location.

“They look at us like we’ve got two heads,” she says. “But we’re trying to rekindle an interest in agriculture, and pioneer something that will benefit our region and our province. That’s why we’re here.”

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