Connecting with Canadian Wine


I recently appeared on BBC World’s Connecting Commerce, a series highlighting companies around the world that are successfully trading beyond their home market. “We’d like you to comment on Canadian wines John”, was the initial request from the BBC producer. I’ve tasted several Canadian wines over the years but have yet to visit the vineyards, “sounds interesting”, I replied booking the filming day into my diary. I was right. The programme, the wines and the featured winemaker were all very interesting! What’s more, after the show, Canadian wines are far closer to my heart!

The featured winery was Norman Hardie Estate based in picturesque Prince Edward County, Ontario, a two-hour drive east of Toronto on the shores of Lake Ontario. The vineyards lie on latitude 43 degrees north; for the record, Burgundy in central France straddles 47 degrees north. The relevance of the comparison will unfold below.

The vineyard summers are often glorious but with temperatures often dipping below minus 25 degrees centigrade it’s the Canadian winter temperatures that get the adrenalin pumping, "minus 25 is the absolute death knell for vitis vinifera [the common grape vine]; we have to bury our 80 000 vines in the winter to protect them. It's a huge job," says Norman Hardie who had travelled to London to appear in the programme. If that wasn't labour intensive enough, come April and May fires are lit and wind turbines positioned in an attempt to drive away late frosts. Sadly, sometimes in such an extreme climate their efforts fail - they lost more than 80% in 2015!

Up against such challenges, you might question why Hardie ever chose to plant vineyards in Ontario back in 2004. “Despite the challenges, the combination of cool weather and the clay and limestone soils of Prince Edward County allow us to make unique, world class wines. Great wines are always made on the edge, and we're certainly on the edge," says South African-born Hardie, who prior to going into winemaking had been a sommelier in Toronto.

Here comes the first Burgundy link. Norman Hardie Estate wines are primarily made from the Burgundy grapes, that’s Chardonnay for white and Pinot Noir for red. I was impressed … the wines had a Burgundian style but carried a unique Canadian passport.

Over the years I’ve seen winemakers around the world attempt to make ‘Burgundy’ and fall short, eventually realising that Burgundy’s unique climate, ‘terroir’, land and tradition, and therefore wines, cannot be replicated. Happily, global winemakers are now making excellent Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in a style that reflects their own unique ‘terroir’.

Hardie, a Burgundy aficionado, wisely realised this from the very start. His 2015 Chardonnay (£25, $40) part fermented in 500 litre French oak with its crisp, citrus apple flavours, yeasty overtones and layered finish brought a smile to the BBC filming crew as did the 2016 Pinot Noir (£30, $45) with its cherry, strawberry aromas and flavours, crisp, silky mouthfeel, attractive earthy edge and lingering red fruit finish.  

Norman Hardie’s sommelier story is a bit of a red herring for he studied winemaking in Burgundy, Oregon, California, South Africa, and New Zealand prior to establishing his own winery. He always had big ideas, “from day one I wanted my wines to be sold internationally”, he smiled. This dream brought his next big challenge however - how to persuade a sceptical world to take Canadian wine seriously, not easy as he’s on record as saying that Canada made ‘terrible’ wines 30 years ago.  

I was asked on camera why Hardie is succeeding, “he had to start with a high quality wine of course but as Canada is so little known on the global wine stage he also had to work extra hard to make his wines stand out. Most winemakers don't tell stories, they say 'here's my wine what do you think about it?' but they don't tell the story behind the wine. For me, that’s really important as it gives a picture to the consumer. Norman Hardie tells great stories!”, was my reply.  

The internet is an amazing tool but to be able to see eye to eye you have to meet face to face, a point not lost on Hardie who, armed with great stories and a few cases of wine, turned himself into a travelling salesman to build his wine's global reputation, “one top sommelier, one top buyer, and one top wine journalist, at a time”. Flying around the world, pounding the pavement, speaking to people, visiting wine fairs, importers and Michelin-starred restaurants, Hardie changed people's concepts about Canadian wine, “I slowly built up export orders focussing initially on the U.K. and New York”, he revealed.

To put Canadian wines in perspective, Italy (17%), France (16%), Spain (12%) and the U.S.A. (10%) are the leading global wine producers – in meagre comparison, Canada produces just 0.4% of the world’s wine. If Norman Hardie has anything to do with it Canada’s percentage is set to rise.

From selling 6,000 bottles in 2004, the Norman Hardie Winery produced 240,000 in 2016. From that, bottles were exported across eight countries - China, Denmark, Japan, New Zealand, Sweden, Taiwan, the UK, and the US. “Export success has also had the added bonus of boosting home sales”, notes Hardie. Now you’ll understand why he was picked up on the BBC radar.

“Where would you suggest for Hardie’s next global marketplace”, I was asked. “Australia”, I swiftly replied. I present corporate and masterclass events regularly ‘Down Under’ and have long realised that the Aussie wine drinker appreciates quality and is prepared to pay for it. AUS$30-40 is a common price tag in a Sydney bottle shop. Compare these Australian price tags with the £5.50 (AUS$9) average UK price and you’ll see why I am often amazed at winemakers jostling desperately for a space on UK shelves.   

Preparing to bury the vines for another winter, Norman Hardie smiles, “it’s all worth it, that credibility, that international credibility, says you're doing something right."

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