Canadian varieties win converts in Japan
Old World wine: Please make way for the new. Ever so quietly, New World wine from Canada has started winning international recognition, and fortunately for Japan, the secret is out thanks to wine lovers such as Jamie Paquin.
“So many world wines are so generic, they just taste like each other,” said Paquin, founder of specialist Canadian wine importer Heavenly Vines. “But Canada now offers some of the best wines in the world that reflect their terroir.”
Critics agree too, Canadian wineries recently having racked up a string of international awards for varieties including Chardonnay, Malbec, Pinot Noir and Syrah. In 2013, the Huffington Post rated the Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, as the world’s top wine destination, ahead of better-known regions such as Bordeaux and Tuscany in Europe, as well as California’s Napa Valley.
Canada’s wine renaissance has seen the industry grow to more than 550 wineries, on a total of 11,950 hectares across the Niagara Peninsula in southern Ontario and the Okanagan Valley, and including the adjacent Similkameen Valley, as well as Lake Erie North Shore and Prince Edward County. Québec wineries are also thought to have reached new levels of quality, while Nova Scotia sparkling wines are receiving rave reviews from the world’s top sparkling wine experts.
Although small in scale compared with international rivals, the industry’s recognized growing zone — within 30 and 50 degrees latitude north — is shared by many cool-climate wine regions in Europe.
An articulate advocate for Canadian wine, Paquin came to Japan in 2006 on a one-year PhD research scholarship. Five years later, and after having discovered his own love for wine, the Brockville, Ontario, native and his Japanese wife established their business in a city famous for its sophisticated palates.
Their Ebisu, Tokyo, outlet currently boasts the largest collection of Canadian wines sold outside the country, offering organic, natural and biodynamic wines from 27 Canadian wineries. The wines are sold both in-store and online.
ONE OF A KIND
According to Paquin, Heavenly Vines is the only specialist Canadian wine store on the planet, giving it a distinctive edge in one of the world’s biggest and most competitive wine markets.
“Even in Canada, there’s no exclusively Canadian wine shop . . . you’ll see regional wines plus imported wines from around the world. Producers on both sides of the country barely know each other,” he said.
Canada now offers some of the best wine in the world
As well as Canadians, Paquin’s educational mission extends to the Japanese, who have shown a willingness to adopt New World wines even as they remain fans of the Old World products.
Canada’s wine industry currently accounts for just 0.5 per cent of the global wine market, which leaves plenty of room for market expansion. As Paquin points out, tiny New Zealand — with a population one-eighth that of Canada — produces three times as much wine, much of which is exported.
Paquin praises Japan’s sophisticated wine culture and passion shown in the thousands of certified sommeliers, and its award-winning, Michelin-starred restaurants and wine bars.
“I went to an international sommelier association competition a few years back in Tokyo. [It was] held in a 5,000-seat auditorium, and it was full. So, when people in Canada ask, ‘Are the Japanese getting into wine?’ I ask, ‘Can you get 5,000 people for a sommelier competition in Toronto?’”
Paquin points out that, while Canada may not be a mass producer of wine, it nevertheless boasts regional differences that produce distinct flavours.
“Canada is really interesting in that it has the conditions to make really great wine, but is not the easiest place to do so. There’s a lot of low yield, hand viticulture with almost no mechanization . . . which really captures the quality of the terroir,” he said.
One example is a winery in Prince Edward County, which faces climatic conditions that would challenge the toughest of growers.
“In winter it gets as low as minus 25 degrees [Celsius] and that kills most varieties. Closson Chase Vineyards tried conventional planting for their first vineyard in 1999 and lost their entire vineyard. So they learned to train the vines along the ground instead, cutting back all the growth after the harvest. It’s that kind of commitment that makes these wines great,” he said.
“Because the climate and soil are almost identical to [those of] Burgundy, one of the producers there was chosen as the number one Chardonnay producer in North America.”
Yet other Canadian wineries face hotter conditions, including semi-arid areas near Oliver in the Okanagan Valley.
“It hit 45 degrees [Celsius] in the southern Okanagan a few years ago . . . That should dispel any notion that Canada is too cold to grow grapes. These are stunning places with rattlesnakes and cactus in the vineyards,” he added.
“There’s a saying in the wine world that the best wines are made on the viticultural edge. So, when everything comes together, you get the nuance, complexity and subtly.”
Paquin is gradually converting the Japanese to Canada and its “jaw-droppingly beautiful” wine regions. He mentions the Japanese businessperson who spent $500 on a taxi fare one evening, touring Niagara wineries.
With more than 303,000 Japanese tourists visiting Canada in 2016, up 10 per cent over the previous year, there appears to be plenty of scope for increased winery tourism.
“Tourists have only been exposed to the Rocky Mountains, the Northern Lights and areas like that. The Japanese think of Canada like Norway and Sweden . . . but once I pull out a map and reacquaint them with the country, they’re fascinated that the latitudes are the same as Europe’s famous wine-growing regions,” he explained.
While helping add to the recent surge in Japan’s Canadian wine imports, Paquin sees potential for business expansion elsewhere in Asia, including Singapore.
“A lot of Canadians have an inferiority complex about our own products . . . but there are now world-famous sommeliers in Japan vouching for Canadian wine,” he explained. “Canadian tourism historically has just hammered away at the same few images, but there’s so much more opportunity there.”