I have to admit that throughout my wine drinking life I have had a prejudice against Ontario wine (excluding of course Niagara ice wines because they are simply the best in the world… brought to you by the land of ice, snow and parkas). My reasons are fourfold.
First, in the 1970s, linking Ontario and wine together in the same sentence was, to be polite, an oxymoron. My enduring taste memories of the unpalatable regional plonk of my youth conjure images of sweet concord syrupy goop that made the exotic foreign American import Manischewitz taste like the good stuff. The quality of North American wine in general during this era probably underpins why spirits and beer were so popular with the age of majority generations.
Second, in the early 1980s, when I lived on the German-French border, I took it upon myself as a rite of passage into adulthood to learn about and try as many varieties of the intoxicating bacchanalian elixir that I could lay my mouth on. During this period in my life, I developed an enduring passion for dry Burgundies, made from two grapes in particular – the fussy pinot noir (red burgundy – which has aromas of black current-violet-hay/truffle) and the neutral chardonnay (white burgundy – with whiffs of honey-brioche-amber). While sometimes I wander off and have profound crushes on other types of wines, most recently Barolo and Barbaresco, I keep coming back to my true fermented psychoactive drug loves, made from pinot noir and chardonnay.
Third, as a hobby, I studied to be a sommelier to be able to better revel in my innate gastronomic hedonism. In studying wine, there is a strong emphasis on Old World wines which highlights French wines, and only gives a passing nod to New World wines (e.g., North America, South America, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand). According to the descriptive rhetoric, New World wines aim fruit-forward and clean rather than the barnyard (but in a good way) and earthy terroir flavors (e.g., climate, soil type, geology) characteristic of Old World wines. As a result of being a good student, I developed an uneducated persistent snobbism based on an absence of experience and knowledge.
Fourth, LCBO-ism (Liquor Control Board of Ontario). The LCBO and the SAQ (Societe des alcools du Quebec) are to my knowledge amongst the largest alcohol-buying monopolies in the world. I live in a city where it takes me just as long to get to an LCBO as an SAQ. What this means in real terms is that I have the largest selection of alcohol in the world available to me without having to go on a protracted quest for a perfect bottle. In each outlet there is a professional sommelier who is delighted to help you sort through the plethora of decorative flagons.
Each LCBO has a Vintages selection of rare/low production fine wines and premium spirits. Many of the vintage bottles are signed with wine-tasting notes and ratings. It is this section that I gravitate to like the paparazzi to the incognito celebrity. I tend to fill my grocery-sized wine cart with vintages that: are highly rated; do not exceed my pre-set price range; and, I have never had before.
While the prices of individual bottles may be higher at the LCBO than in other places in the world, this is not always the case. Last year while I was in the Piedmont region of Italy, I found out why. I was on a quest for the perfect Borolo with the Love of My Life (LOML). We walked into a lovely private wine store that had a decent although not stellar collection of Borolos. The problem was not the selection – sometimes these things happen – but the prices on the Borolos I knew from the LCBO. They were much higher, even though we were in Borolo land. We asked why, and the explanation instantly made me a fan of state-run alcohol monopolies versus private sector ownership. Hands-down.
In a nutshell, the LCBO/SAQ go into an area. If they like what they taste, they ask each producer how much they can produce. If the quantity is large enough to stock the whole province, then they ask for the best price the producer will offer for the entire, or most, of the production. If the price is agreeable then a deal is struck. The LCBO/SAQ reliably pay on delivery, which is not often the case with the local small-scale buyers.
As a result: vintners will sell to the LCBO/SAQ for much lower prices than they would sell regionally; Ontario and Quebec have the lion’s share of many of the finest wines and spirits in the world; and, as a monopoly, if a particular location does not have stock of a specific item but stock exists in the province, they will get it for you at no extra cost.
Thus, as a result of the plethora of outstanding and interesting wines available at the LCBO, coupled with my unreasonable aversion to Ontario wines, I missed experiencing the remarkable evolution of the local wine industry – that is until now.
Over the past few weeks, as an ode to the fall harvest, LOML and I have been visiting Prince Edward County wineries to sample their wares. And the fact that the scenery is jaw-dropping doesn’t hurt.
To my utter astonishment the climate and soil conditions make Prince Edward County perfect for growing pinot noir and chardonnay…
I think I am in love.
[Next post in this Experiment: Ontario Wine II: Prince Edward County Wineries]