Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Canadian Wines, VQA, and Other Dark Secrets

There is a dark little secret hiding on Canadian wine labels. It lurks, often in camouflage, waiting for the unwary. In most cases, no one ever notices. Another con perpetuated.

But let’s start at the beginning. In Canada, some wines are known as VQA wines – Vintners Quality Alliance. Theses wines are easily identified by a neck label or by boldly printed letters on the label. They are from either Ontario or British Columbia, and each province administers this program independently.

Ontario rules say a VQA wine must be made from 100% grapes grown in Ontario. Much like Germany, there are rules on minimum sugar levels at harvest for each variety, a restriction that is important for quality especially in a cool weather wine region. Each wine is blind tasted by a panel who determine whether or not the wine demonstrates sufficient varietal character and approve the label. If the board is not satisfied, they can refuse to grant VQA status.

The VQA designation is an appellation system as well. The label can say Ontario Wine or have one of the 12 Ontario regions listed. (Note: Ice wine from Ontario has some different rules but we’ll explore those at a later date.) So far so good, right? In Ontario, the label has to state winery, area, grape variety – hybrids are permitted here – producer, and alcohol content. No secrets here.

With five wine regions and over 140 wineries, the province of British Columbia has almost the same rules but it is voluntary to belong to the VQA. In this province, VQA must be made from 95% BC grapes, and if the bottle says “Estate” on the label, 95% of the grapes must come from the vineyard listed. So far so good, still all above board. Buy a VQA wine and you’re buying a Canadian wine.

Now sometimes you’ll see a bottle of Canadian wine without the VQA label. Many very small producers don’t belong to the VQA program. Since they sell out their entire product every year, they aren’t concerned with having the VQA label and all the government paper work and hassle that goes with it. They simply list the wine region and grape variety on the label, and that’s what’s in the bottle. Once again, not a problem. You know what you’re buying.

So here’s where things get shady. There’s one more designation you’ll find on Canadian wine labels: Cellared in Canada. So if it’s cellared in Canada, it’s a Canadian wine right?

Sorry, wrong. That’s the dirty little secret being perpetuated on an unsuspecting public. Cellared in Canada wines could have very few Canadian-grown grapes in the bottle. In fact, they could have none at all. The only thing you know for sure is that the wine you’re holding in your hand was actually put into the bottle somewhere in Canada. The contents could be Aussie bulk wine, sell offs from southern France, tankers of grapes shipped up from Washington State or California. No wonder some Canadian Cabs taste like they’ve been grown in warm climates. That Merlot, if it is all Merlot, could come from anywhere – literally – in the world.

Even more astonishing, the various liquor control boards willingly contribute to this confusion by placing Cellared in Canada wines on the same shelves as VQA wines. In the three BC government liquor stores we checked, the aisles marked as VQA wines had more Cellared in Canada wines than VQA – by a factor of about three to one. To see what you are actually buying, you have to read the very, very small print. One producer even stooped to the tactic of embossing the miniscule font in a shiny, reflective gold material – unless you were actively looking for it, the Cellared in Canada notation simply looked like part of the graphic design.

Could it be that the government is more concerned with selling big companies wines – wines that clearly dominate on the shelves – than in helping the Canadian wine industry? We’ve talked to many small wineries who can’t get shelf space because their production is considered too small. Come on, LCB and LCBO. Stop misleading the consumer with your placement of Cellared in Canada wines. Try taking some of the conglomerate wines off the shelf and make way for a few of the outstanding Canadian wines this country produces. If we want an Aussie Shiraz or a Napa Valley Cab, we’ll walk to the appropriate aisle.


Here are two final bits of information to get you thinking.
Both BC and Ontario sell more Cellared in Canada wines than VQA.
Air Canada, our national airline, serves Cellared in Canada wines on their flights.

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