New Canadian Wine Marries East and West

Vincor launches a line blending Ontario and British Columbia grapes

by Peter Mitham
Inniskillin's East West series blends grapes from Ontario and British Columbia.
Mississauga, Ontario -- A new series of wines is breaking ground in Canada, marrying fruit from the country’s two major viticultural regions in a single bottle.

Vincor Canada, a subsidiary of Fairport, N.Y.-based Constellation Brands, launched its East West series under the Inniskillin banner in September. The initial release features Riesling-Gewürztraminer, Cabernet-Shiraz and Merlot-Cabernet blends. Vincor produced approximately 3,000 cases of each wine; the white blend retails for approximately CA$17 per bottle and the red blends at CA$18 per bottle.

“(It’s) taking the best from both regions and taking what that particular viticultural region can give you in that particular year,” Bruce Nicholson, winemaker for Inniskillin Niagara, told Wines & Vines. “The time was right just to showcase two totally different viticultural regions, and bring out what each does very well. We had the ability to do that because we have facilities in both areas.”

Nicholson led the blending, working with selections supplied by Inniskillin Okanagan winemaker Sandor Mayer, who tasted the results of Nicholson’s work and gave his approval prior to the wines’ release.

Nicholson said the Riesling-Gewürztraminer blend reflects the minerality of the Niagara Peninsula: 58% is Niagara Riesling. The Cab-Shiraz blend incorporates the floral characteristics of Cabernet Franc grapes from the cool and humid Niagara climate and the rich flavors of Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from the Okanagan Valley. The Merlot-Cab blend reflects the richer flavors of red grapes grown on the benchlands above Osoyoos Lake in the southern Okanagan Valley and the soft Merlots from Niagara.

While wines from B.C. and Ontario are frequently blended into value wines, the East West series is one of the rare instances in which a national blend has been marketed as such by Vincor or its closest national rival, Andrew Peller Ltd. Vancouver-based Paradise Ranch Wines Corp., which sources grapes for its ice wines from vineyards in both B.C. and Ontario, is legally barred from blending B.C. and Ontario juice under the stringent regulations governing ice wine production.

The longstanding strategy at Vincor has been to establish regional identities for its wines, on the grounds that each region has something unique to offer; even packaging for Inniskillin Niagara and Inniskillin Okanagan differs, although the Inniskillin brand itself remains the same between wineries.

Coming on the heels of last year’s Cellared in Canada controversy, the East West series gives a distinctive national stamp to a set of premium blended wines, despite their inability to bear the designation granted by wine authorities in each province, because the wines aren’t made exclusively from grapes grown either in B.C. or in Ontario.

Distribution is limited
But if the wines represent the best of Canada’s two major viticultural regions, just one of the two provinces of origin gets to enjoy them. Vincor has limited sales to its Ontario wine club members, the shop at Inniskillin Niagara’s winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake and its network of Wine Rack shops throughout Ontario.

“We’ve got our own stores so we know they can go there. We don’t have stores out west,” said Nicholson, expressing his own disappointment that the wines aren’t available nationally. He acknowledged that this limits awareness of what the country’s wine regions produce.

“I don’t think enough consumers have the ability to try enough Ontario wines,” he said. But feedback to date has been great, fuelling Nicholson’s hopes for the series. The option exists to expand volumes and offerings, but this, he said, will be vintage-dependent.

“The amounts we do are not set in stone. They’re wines for people to enjoy. We’ll do the amount that works, that I can still be proud of,” he said. “We’re not going to make 10,000 cases if I didn’t think we could. And I’ll make less if that’s what I think we need to do.”

He expects a second release in 2011, but it will depend on what the company feels is best. His own attention is focused on the wines currently in the bottle. “I want to see how the East and West are getting along. Initially they got along well, and they were happy with each other, but it’s nice to see how they’re progressing as they age in the bottle,” Nicholson said.

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