9 Of The Best Wines From Canada And Northern Europe To Try
As the cooler weather finally starts to arrive, we have only one word to describe the summer: hot, and not in a good way. Though the region’s sultry heat was punishing, we can only imagine the sufferings of our northern hemisphere winemaker friends, who battled a historically hot July.
True, warming temperatures over the past few decades have yielded an unprecedented string of great vintages of Barolo, red Burgundy (arguably fewer white) and German riesling, with winemakers consistently achieving ripeness unthinkable in the middle of last century. However, more warming probably isn’t better and we seem to be pushing past the sweet spot into a world of chaotic, uncertain weather with quality-wrecking temperature extremes.
Though poor vine growers can’t simply pick up their vines and move, as consumers we have the luxury of being able to turn our sights northward to cooler latitudes. Luckily, towards the north, and even beyond the 30-50º band historically favoured for vine growing, lie a number of regions just hitting their stride.
Though hardly that far north in European terms—the Okanagan Valley lies around 50º and Niagara-on-the-Lake around 43º—Canada’s wine regions were once of near-exclusive interest to ice wine drinkers but now have an increasing bounty to offer dry and sparkling wine drinkers as well.
However, wines from the two key provinces of British Columbia and Ontario differ significantly. The extreme continentality and unexpectedly warm, dry climate of BC’s Okanagan tend to produce generous, plush-fruited chardonnay, Bordeaux blends and pinot noir that could be confused for slightly dialled-back California wines. Meanwhile, temperatures in Ontario’s Niagara-on-the-Lake and Niagara Escarpment are stabilised by their proximity to Lake Ontario and are generally lower, consistently producing lean, chiselled sparkling wines and tense, mineral expressions of chardonnay, pinot noir, riesling and, trendily, Chinon-like cabernet franc.
As any avid royal wedding watcher will tell you, English sparkling wine is having a moment. Perhaps soon to be separated from the French region to the south with which many (though not all) English wine regions share their chalky subsoil—along with their winemaking method and grape variety blend—UK winemakers are delving deeper into regionality, with Sussex having earned its own appellation. They will have a lot more material to play with soon, with the UK’s land under vine having roughly trebled since 2000 and about a million vines being planted in 2017 alone.
Once fairly easily identifiable by their “sherbet” fruit flavours and a dearth of the toasty, cedary characters we love in traditional method sparklers, English fizz is starting to take on encouraging levels of polish, particularly as more producers develop prestige bottlings. Though not yet launched, pioneering Nyetimber’s rosé and white cuvées called 1086—referring to the year the “Nitimbreha” estate was mentioned in the Domesday Book—are made using a selection of their estate-grown West Sussex fruit and promise to be English sparkling benchmarks.
Though we’ve been hearing about vineyards in Sweden, Denmark and even Norway for several years, we had yet to actually taste any of the wine until recently. Production in the Scandis is mostly based on cold-hardy grapes like the sci-fi sounding solaris, which is resistant to both frost and fungal diseases and has a relatively full body and low acidity (helpful in a marginal, cold climate).
Demonstrating a Viking-like proclivity for risk, such producers as Denmark’s Vexebo have pushed the envelope further by embracing natural winemaking and organics, only achieving painfully low yields of 10 hectolitres per hectare (compared to about 50hl/ha for classic Bordeaux). However, having won favour with red-hot Copenhagen restaurants like Noma, Kadeau and Relae has allowed them to make a go of it.
Nk’Mip Cellars Qwam Qwmt Chardonnay 2016: The nigh unpronounceable name (the guide on the bottle advises: “in-Ka-meep kw-em kw-empt”) comes from the Salish language of the controlling Osoyoos Indian Band, the first aboriginal group in North America to own and operate a winery. The Okanagan chardonnay itself is straightforwardly delicious, with sumptuous yellow peach, pineapple and mango and a dash of custard cream for good measure.
Cave Spring Cellars CSV Riesling 2016: Planted among the Niagara Escarpment’s limestone caves in the 1970s, Cave Spring’s CSV wines are made from some of the oldest European vines in the region. The world-class riesling has been made in an increasingly dry style over the years as full ripeness becomes regularly achievable and now has a radiant green plum and medicinal herb character with perfectly balanced acidity.
Domaine Queylus Pinot Noir La Grande Reserve 2013: Decidedly Francophile (by way of Quebec), this Niagara Peninsula pinot evidently draws on its winemakers’ combined experience in Burgundy, Oregon and, contrastingly, Napa. This minute-production barrel selection is fine-boned and sheer, with gleaming crimson fruit and an acidic mid-palate lift that drift fragrantly back to a rounded, generous finish.
Stratus Vineyards Cabernet Franc 2015: The Niagara-on-the-Lake project of Loire Valley native JL Groux, Stratus has embraced both the Loire’s natural-leaning tendencies (gravity flow, sustainability, all things that make us smile) and its finely wrought, translucent wine styles. The black cherry fruit is deep and rich but lacks unctuousness, with a cedary, charcoal smoke quality rarely found in cab franc outside France.
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Nyetimber Classic Cuvée Brut NV: Beloved since the early ’90s when it first smashed experts’ preconceptions that England couldn’t ripen Champagne grapes, Nyetimber’s flagship wine still has it all. Flinty and ethereal on the nose, somewhere between a bitter lemon and a tonic in the mouth with pinprick bubbles releasing a sourdough breadiness, this lingers on for minutes with a savoury hit of salinity.
Rathfinny Rosé Brut 2016: Co-founded by former Hong Kong resident hedge fund manager Mark Driver and ex-City lawyer Sarah Driver, this achingly ambitious Sussex winery aims to have production capacity of more than a million bottles by 2021, a mammoth undertaking for new private owners. Leaning heavily on the quality of the pinot noir, this rosé’s plump, succulent pink berry fruit is neatly encased in a toasty, polished frame.
Chapel Down Three Graces 2014: Famous for supplying both 10 Downing Street and William and Kate’s wedding, Kent-based Chapel Down has ventured into craft beer, gin and vodka but the sparkling wine is the brand’s cornerstone. Its Three Graces vintage bottling brings together pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier in an upright, citrussy wine with subtle biscuit notes, evoking the “dreamlike” 2014 vintage with its soft, rounded finish.
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Vexebo Vin Regent & Monarch Rosé 2016: The first wine we tried from maverick producer Daniel Milan, who planted a hectare of his family farm on Denmark’s Sjaelland island just over a decade ago, this is the more straightforward of the two Vexebo entries here. Despite its watermelon hue, it’s unexpectedly subtle, exuding a mildly smoky, rustic raspberry perfume and slipping down ever so easily at a mere 9.5% alcohol with a whisper of fizz.
Vexebo Vin Solaris Orange 2017: The only wine Vexebo were able to produce in 2017, this is definitely not one for the classic claret drinker. However, this lightly cloudy concoction with its amber colour, fizz and almost shaggy, greenish tannins is likely to win the hearts of craft beer or kombucha lovers. Wafting aromas of apricot, candied ginger, sorrel and crushed banana leaves, it’s characterful, refreshing and impressively food friendly.