Canada's Sparkling Wine Renaissance

Production in Ontario alone more than doubled since 2004

by Peter Mitham
sumac ridge sparkling
Sumac Ridge Estate Winery (its sparkling wine cave is pictured above) is among the Canadian wineries leading a revival of the country's sparkling wines.
Kelowna, B.C.—As the year draws to a close it’s out with the old, in with the new—sparkling wines, that is, from Canada, whose long and colorful relationship with bubbly is finding fresh effervescence.

A new generation of producers left behind the low-alcohol wines of Chateau Gai, which won Canada a measure of international fame and notoriety, to refresh palates with sophisticated wines that reflect cool-climate enology.

Production is increasing across the country, with Andrew Peller Ltd.’s Trius Winery in Ontario, Constellation Brands Inc.’s Sumac Ridge Estate Winery in British Columbia, and independent L’Acadie Vineyards in Nova Scotia leading the charge, sabres drawn. Sparkling wine production in Ontario alone has more than doubled from 213,840 liters in 2004 to 509,769 liters in 2014, and the number of producers has tripled.

The past three years have seen a similar resurgence in British Columbia, with sales growing at double-digit rates.

“Traditionally you had Sumac Ridge, Blue Mountain and Summerhill. Now, you can count 10 to 15 wineries making sparkling (wines),” Darryl Brooker, winemaker at CedarCreek Estate Winery, told Wines & Vines.

Small producers on Vancouver Island also have made a name for themselves with sparkling wines, including Zanatta Winery and Venturi-Schulze Vineyards in the Cowichan Valley.

Three years ago, Brooker began work on CedarCreek’s first vintage of sparkling wine, which is set for release in 2017. Traditional methods aim to produce an upper-tier wine that will command a premium price.

Previously winemaker at Trius, which together with Sumac Ridge ranks among Canada’s largest producers of sparkling wine, Brooker credited Ontario with changing the country’s perception of sparkling wine.

“A lot of that groundwork was done in Ontario,” he said. “Ontario has been serious about sparkling wine for the past 10 years, with lots and lots of producers making it.”

The province’s wine-growing regions are, on the whole, cooler and more humid than the arid Okanagan, which has tended to win acclaim for reds that are more robust than those from Eastern Canada, with its shorter growing season.

Ontario producers have explored possibilities such as sparkling ice wine, and Brock University’s Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute in St. Catharines, Ontario, recently received $240,000 in provincial funding to identify a signature style of sparkling wine for Ontario. The project will experiment with clones of Chardonnay, Riesling and Pinot Noir.

“We’re such a young industry that we’re still learning,” said Mary McDermott, who was involved in the initial stages of the project in her role as winemaker at Trius, prior to joining Township 7 Estate Winery in Penticton, B.C., this past September. “We’ve been successful with table wines, different varieties, ice wines and that kind of thing—so maybe it’s just a natural progression that we want to try sparkling wines, which seem to suit the cool climate.”

Township 7 currently produces just 200 cases of sparkling wine per year, but McDermott would like to see that number increase. The winery came under new ownership earlier this year, and McDermott will be aiming to elevate its sparkling wine program to target a luxury buyer.

“That’s definitely what we’re working toward,” she told Wines & Vines. “People are interested in luxury brands, and Champagne is definitely a luxury brand.”

But the sparkling wine produced outside France tends to be more affordable, hitting a sweet spot with consumers who have a hankering for affordable luxuries in the wake of the Great Recession of 2009.

“Since 2008, people spending a lot of money on wine isn’t as important anymore, and traditional method sparkling wine that isn’t Champagne is a lot more affordable,” Brooker said.

But if climate has made production attractive in Ontario, an abundance of fruit has encouraged production in British Columbia Veteran producers have been joined by up-and-coming wineries including Bella Winery and Okanagan Crush Pad, and more are on the way.

“Suitability is definitely part of it. It could also be B.C. is in oversupply at the moment, so people may be looking for new categories,” Brooker said.

But a favorable climate and supply of grapes aren’t all that’s needed to make sparkling production work for industry. It also requires a significant investment in education, capital and time.

“A lot of wineries are scared to make sparkling because it’s so different from every other wine,” Brooker said. “Knowledge/education is one barrier, and the second large barrier in Canada is the cost—because it does cost a lot more to make. The bottles cost more; the process costs more, the holding time, then the specialized equipment.”

Ontario producers have benefitted from St. Catharines-based Millesime Sparkling Wine Processing Inc., launched in 2001 to serve the needs of Ontario sparkling wine producers. A similar company has yet to form to offer finishing services to British Columbia producers.

“People are stuck without a large investment, and for the people making 500 cases, they can’t afford to go and buy a disgorging line and all the rest of it,” Brooker said. “There’s not really a go-to place to finish sparkling, so that’s made life a lot tougher.”

But as production and sales continue to increase, producers at both ends of the country seem focused on the sparkling opportunities the segment offers and will find a way to pursue them as a new year dawns.

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