Canadian Wines, Grapes & Styles with Drink Adventures’ James Atkinson

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Introduction

Is Icewine the major part of Canada’s wine industry? How does Icewine compare to other dessert wines like Sauternes? How has climate change impacted Canadian winemaking?

In this episode of the Unreserved Wine Talk podcast, I’m being interviewed by James Atkinson, drinks journalist and host of the Drinks Adventures podcast.

You can find the wines we discussed here.

 

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Highlights

  • Is Icewine still a major part of Canada’s wine industry?
  • What makes the process of harvesting grapes for Icewine so unique?
  • How does Icewine compare to other dessert wines like Sauternes?
  • How has the Canadian wine industry evolved over the years since the opening of our first commercial winery in the late 70s?
  • Where are the most established wine regions and varieties in Canada?
  • Which unique Canadian signature elements will you recognize compared to Old World wines?
  • How has climate change impacted Canadian winemaking?
  • Why did I start Unreserved Wine Talk?
  • What have been some of my highlights from the past four years of conversations on the Unreserved Wine Talk podcast?
  • How is my upcoming memoir different from my first two books?
  • Which darker aspects of the wine industry do I explore in my memoir?
  • Are Australian wines popular in Canada?

 

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About James Atkinson

James Atkinson is the creator of the Drinks Adventures podcast and winner of Best Podcast at the Australian Wine Communicator Awards 2021. A lover of all fine drinks, James was previously editor of Australian Brews News and drinks industry publication TheShout. A Certified Cicerone® (beer sommelier) and two-time winner of the Australian International Beer Awards prize for Best Media, James has judged at several prestigious beer competitions. As a journalist, he has contributed to publications including The Age, Sydney Morning Herald, Halliday, Gourmet Traveller Wine, Good Food, Selector and more.

 

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Transcript

Natalie MacLean 0:00
Most of the wine is produced in Ontario 80% to 90% depending on if you’re going by volume or dollars. There’s approximately 10% from British Columbia on the West Coast, and then Quebec maybe one to 2%, in Nova Scotia on the East Coast another 1 to 2%. Some of those they do really well. Riesling, Chardonnay, Cab Franc, Pinot. The bigger reds tend to be in BC where they’re the last 30 miles of the Sonoran Desert. You’ve got sparkling wines, which are made Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Chardonnay, and then the grapes for ice wine tend to be Vidal or Riesling. Its a real mix.

Natalie MacLean 0:45
Do you have a thirst to learn about wine? Do you love stories about wonderfully obsessive people, hauntingly beautiful places and amusingly awkward social situations? That’s the blend here on the unreserved wine talk podcast. I’m your host, Natalie Maclean. And each week, I share with you unfiltered conversations with celebrities in the wine world, as well as confessions from my own tipsy journey as I write my third book on this subject. I’m so glad you’re here. Now pass me that bottle please. And let’s get started. Welcome to Episode 204. Is Ice Wine the major part of Canada’s wine industry? How does ice wine compare to other dessert wines like Sauternes? And how has climate change impacted Canadian winemaking? You’ll hear those tips and stories in my chat with James Atkinson, the host of the Australian podcast Drinks Adventures. James is actually interviewing me this time. Now on a personal note before we dive into the show with the continuing saga of publishing my new wine memoir Wine Witch on Fire: Rising from the Ashes of Divorce, Defamation, and Drinking too Much. As promised, here are more of the things I learned during my legal review with several lawyers who are expert on issues of defamation, invasion of privacy and copyright. Whenever I wondered, in my mind, if something could be true about someone else, I countered it with the opposite possibility. In memoir, an author is permitted to have speculative thoughts and questions, especially in a memoir when telling a deeply personal story and allowing readers into their mind. But I also aim to be fair and to write without even an ounce of malice for anyone mentioned. I could only do this with a distance of 10 years between what happened. And when I wrote the memoir the healing was done. And so I could write from a perspective of an older wiser sister looking back on my younger self. This book isn’t about evening a score or getting revenge. It’s about sharing my story so that those in similar situations, even if they’re in completely different industries, feel as though they’re not alone. This memoir has stretched me emotionally and I feel as though I’m all grown up now. And that’s why I describe it as a true coming of middle age story about transforming your life and finding love along the way. Here’s a review from Dreama drudge. She’s a beta reader who lives in Indiana. “I think anyone interested in wine, writing women’s issues, divorce starting over or depression should read this. I love her writing. It’s heavy and thoughtful. I love the literary bits and references throughout the book. She is so good at creating tension. I kept wanting to race ahead and read, read, read. I didn’t know much about the wine industry going in and I learned a lot. I was surprised to hear how many people are in the industry and that it is backbiting and misogynistic as some other industries. I love the strength the author develops in herself throughout the memoir. I was definitely rooting for her. Five stars”. Thank you Dreama. I’ve posted a link to a blog post called Diary of a Book Launch in the show notes at NatalieMacLean.com/204. This is where I share more behind the scenes stories about the journey of taking this memoir from idea to publication. If you want a more intimate insider seat beside me on this journey, please let me know that you’d like to become a beta reader and get a sneak peek at this manuscript. Email me at [email protected] Okay, on with the show.

James Atkinson 4:54
Canada might be best known for its ice wine, a type of dessert wine produced from frozen grapes, but it’s in increasingly getting global recognition for the quality of its dry table wines. And our guests today, Natalie Maclean can fill you in on some of the regions and styles to look out for. Natalie MacLean is a Canadian wine writer, educator, judge and podcaster. And here we’re doing a bit of a podcast exchange, you can catch me on Natalie show unreserved wine talk sometime around this episode going to air after we explore Canadian wine. We’ll find out a bit more about Natalie’s podcast and her upcoming third book. It’s a memoir that among other things, she says we’ll explore the darker side of the wine industry. Sounds very intriguing, doesn’t it? That’s coming up later in this interview with Natalie. Well, not only with clients, thanks so much for joining us on the drinks adventures podcast.

Natalie MacLean 5:49
James Atkinson. Great to be here. How are you? Yeah, good. Thanks. All right. It’s been a whole 24 hours. I think since we chatted on my podcast

James Atkinson 5:58
it has and now I’m in a much more comfortable position of asking the questions rather than answering them which is which? Relief? All right. Now look, more knowledge of Canadian wine is really limited, I have to admit, but the one style I am familiar with is ice wine. Now is that still a big part of the industry today?

Natalie MacLean 6:18
Sure. It’s what we’re known for, along with all the other stereotypes of lots of snow, the coldest place on Earth, half the polar bears of the planet live in Canada. So ice wine is kind of what we’re known for also, because we’re the world’s largest producer of it. So Germany really invented ice wine, if you will. But it doesn’t get as consistently cold here, year after year to produce it. So on average, Germany will produce ice wine three or four years out of a decade will produce it every year. So yeah, we’ve got the cold to produce it. But that said, we produce a lot more wine than just ice wine. It represents a lot of our export because it’s expensive. But we produce wonderful dried table wines as well as sparkling.

James Atkinson 7:01
We’ll get onto those in a minute. With ice wine. There’s obviously been an established industry there for a long time now. And there are wineries and vineyards that are set up purely to produce ice wine. Is that Is that correct? Yeah, there

Natalie MacLean 7:13
are several specialists, most of the wineries do produce a range of wines and just for the income I mean, it’s risky is fine, you know, the hang time is longer on the vine, you’ve got more predators and so on. So it’s an expensive wine to make.

James Atkinson 7:26
And just for people who aren’t familiar with it, you know, how do you make ice wine? And what’s the kind of flavour and aroma profile of this style of wine? How does it compare to other sweet dessert wines, like you know, some turn or other detritus type wines, for example.

Natalie MacLean 7:42
Generally, the harvest here is happened sometime between September and late October for regular dry still table wines. And then the ice wine grapes, though will hang on the vine until December or sometimes even January into our winter. And they must be picked up minus eight degrees Celsius or colder. So that usually means at midnight, when it’s really cold on a winter’s night. Often they’ll pick below that like say minus 10 degrees Celsius, because they don’t want the grapes to melt. And they want them really to be almost like ice pellets. Now if it gets too cold, like sometimes they’ve picked it minus 15 and lower, they can break the presses. They’re so hard, just little marbles, if you will. But what happens is that as the grapes are hung on the vines that long, they dehydrate and so what’s left is a lot of sugar, a lot of concentrated flavour of course they’ve soaked up a lot more sun into their skins. So they’re just packed with flavour and the flavours tend to be like apricot preserves and peach and honey and the difference in flavour between say ice wine and so turn is a result of the difference in the way they’re made. So with so turn from Bordeaux, that’s noble rot, so they’re also dehydrating the grapes but it’s the result of a noble fungus botrytis, whereas ice wines are dehydrating simply because they hang in there so long and it’s the winter it’s they just dehydrate and shrivel that way. So what you’re gonna get an ice wine is a lot more fresher fruit flavours. Whereas in so turn, you’re going to get perhaps more mature fruit flavours, not the freshness. That’s not to say they’re not fresh wines, but they just have more like spicy, nuttier kind of flavour in a so turn than you would get in an ice wine.

James Atkinson 9:41
Tell me about you know, the evolution of the Canadian wine industry then, because from what you said, it’s evolved to now produce some really critical examples of other table wine styles.

Natalie MacLean 9:53
So it wasn’t until about the late 70s that the first commercial winery Oh, opened up, there was always families making wine, just as there are many countries, especially those who were immigrants from Italy or Germany or wherever they came from. But Inniskillin was the first commercial winery to open in the 70s to sell their wine. And gradually, over time, of course, more wineries opened up. And they started learning what works well here in terms of grapes, you know, what are the soils? What’s the climate? And of course, it’s all cool climate here. So think Riesling and cool climate, Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc gambe, a Pinot Noir. And now today, there are more than 800 licenced wineries across the country. We produce a lot more wine compared to them. But we’re still a drop in the bucket globally. Like, I think it’s point 3% of wine produced commercially around the world. That’s Canadian wine point 3%. So that’s probably why you don’t hear about us a lot. But what we do, we’re small but mighty. So the wines win consistently in competitions. They’re great quality, superb. And they went across the board, not just for the ice wines,

James Atkinson 11:08
what are the key regions and one of the grape varieties that you think of what you think Canadian wise, truly world class.

Natalie MacLean 11:16
So most of the wine is produced in Ontario, where I live, so 80 to 90%, depending on if you’re going by volume or dollars, and it’s the most established region. So just at a high level, and then the math isn’t going to add up completely here. But let’s say approximately 10% from British Columbia on the West Coast, and then Quebec, which neighbours Ontario to our east, maybe 1%, one to 2% in Nova Scotia on the East Coast, another one to 2%. So in Ontario, some of those that I mentioned previously do really well so your Riesling, your cool climate Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc ma P. No, I wouldn’t say we’re consistent at ripening big reds. 2020 was a really hot vintage for us. So it was spectacular for big reds. But the bigger reds tend to be in BC where they’re the last 30 miles of the Sonoran Desert. It’s still technically a cool climate viticulture, but they have better luck with ripening big reds out there. That said they still produce in their cooler areas, Pinot Noir Riesling every all the grapes that I just said. And then in addition to that, you’ve got sparkling wines, which are classically made the three grapes, you know of champagne, Pinot Noir, Pinot, Manya, Chardonnay, and then the grapes for ice wine tend to be v del or Riesling, and some reds like cabs over Cab Franc. And then out in the East Coast, Quebec, Nova Scotia tends to be German variables that do well in even colder climates or hybrids. So real mix.

James Atkinson 12:46
Is it mostly consumed domestically?

Natalie MacLean 12:48
Yes. So the ice wine is our biggest export. It comprises about 80% of the wines we export against what we’re known for. But most of the wine is consumed domestically. We are a thirsty bunch. I think like you folks in Australia.

James Atkinson 13:05
When you kind of look at some of your favourite Canadian wines, if you were to put them next to old world examples of those varieties, is there distinctiveness to these Canadian wines?

Natalie MacLean 13:16
Sure, I think there’s sort of a transatlantic sensibility, if you will, I sound like I’m hedging my bets. But we’re definitely in the new world, and in a cool climate. And of course, everyone likes to nod to benchmark varieties like burgundy, Pinot Noir or Chardonnay. So there’s definitely some resonances, there. There’s winemaker exchange of knowledge and stashes and all that sort of thing. But I do definitely pick up a distinctive for me, the one I’m most familiar with Niagara signature, you know, we have our limestone, we have the cooling effect of Lake Ontario. They’re nervy and edgy, the acidity in a good way, makes them spectacularly food friendly with so many dishes. I just think that, you know, there’s so much potential to

James Atkinson 13:58
because climate change played a big role in Canada in terms of sort of making areas that might not have been quite viable, possible for, you know, suited to great growth.

Natalie MacLean 14:09
One of our more northern Lee regions is Prince Edward County, it’s not that far north. It’s not up there with the polar bears by any means. But what they traditionally have had to do is hilling. So pushing the vineyard soil up against the vines before winter comes so that the vines don’t die from the frost kill over the winter. And although they still do that, were from the winemakers I’ve talked to, they’re experiencing overall, a lot warmer vintages and less winter kill. And I think what’s happening here might be happening globally. For us, it’s not so much climate change as Global Weirding, like instead of global or climate change climate weirding in that we’re getting extreme weather events. So 2020 was so hot, and then you know, there been freak hail storms that will destroy the budbreak sometimes in spring, it’s not constant, thank goodness, but it’s there. And people notice these extreme weather events so,

James Atkinson 15:08
so we are not very beneficial and for the Lions,

Natalie MacLean 15:11
no, not usually no, you know, even if we get El Nino effects like a warm warm right into December, we can’t harvest our ice wine because they just don’t get to that frozen state. So anyway.

James Atkinson 15:24
Now let’s talk about your podcasts unreserved. Tell me about how you came to launch the show?

Natalie MacLean 15:31
Sure, well, you know, I’ve always loved the intimacy, that theatre of the mind of radio, having a more in depth conversation with someone versus on Facebook, a video that lasts two minutes because no one’s got the attention longer than a sparrow on social media. And so I am now into I think it’s episode 166 of unreserved wind talk. And it’s also given me permission to email and ask for guests to come on the show whom I never would have had the courage to just reach out and say, hey, I want to grab a drink sometime. And yet this is even better because I get to talk to them for about an hour.

James Atkinson 16:09
What has been some of the highlights that you’ve had in terms of guests and some of your favourite episodes.

Natalie MacLean 16:15
I really love some of the winemakers who have had some colourful stories to tell, like Randall Graham, Bonnie doon California he is just, he is a real wit. He’s written a couple books. And He is a poet, I think, too. But he’s just got such insight but it’s wrapped in this dry wit and I love it. He knows how to tell a story. Charles back was another one from Fairview in South Africa. He also makes the whimsically named goats do roam label. So he was a hoot. He, you know, I interviewed

James Atkinson 16:48
on Cote de Rome. Exactly, exactly.

Natalie MacLean 16:53
The French authorities the the wine authorities actually threatened him with trademark lawsuit. So he got a busload of his farmworkers to go down to the French Embassy. And they sang freedom songs outside the embassy and then called on the ambassador presented him with a vacuum sealed package of goat droppings because there’s, there’s all the goats and goats to roam. He actually has a herd of goats on premise. So anyway, he told me with a wink, I don’t know how CNN heard about this, but they showed up. And he said,

James Atkinson 17:28
I was gonna say it sounds like, oh, yeah, exercise.

Natalie MacLean 17:32
Exactly. Lots of other media. And so the French authorities backed off completely dropped the suit. And so he said to me, anything you could do to stir up the controversy again, would be really appreciate it. I’ll try. I’ll try.

James Atkinson 17:45
Now you’re obviously best known really well known for your wine writing as well and have published multiple books. You currently want writing a memoir? How’s that different from the books that you’ve written today?

Natalie MacLean 17:58
Yeah, well, in my first two books, red, white and drank all over and unquenchable. They were told from first person perspective from from my perspective, and they were travels around the wine world, you know, day in the life becoming a sommelier working a wine store, helping work, the harvest, and so on. So I could get deeper into my topic. But memoir is a whole other type of animal. It’s very personal, you’re trying to marry the actual events that happened. It’s just a slice of life. By the way, memoir is different from autobiography, that’s your entire life. And only if you’re like Winston Churchill, or some Rockstar celebrity, would anybody be interested in that memory is a slice of life. And for me, it was one year, a very bad vintage, started with my divorce and ended with a social media meltdown of epic proportions. But the two are tied in many ways. And so what people look for from a memoir is kind of the reflections. What can I learn from this for my own life? Or how can I see my story in this story? It’s definitely still wrapped all up in the wine world. So there’s lots of wine content in it, but it’s not like the first two were let’s go visit Australia and talk to a wacky winemaker who doesn’t have a PR agent and will give us great quotes. This one is more about let’s go behind the scenes of the wine world. Let’s look at the underbelly, but also the really great parts about the wine industry. There’s lots of wonderful people welcoming hospitality, but there is a darker side that I think deserves exploration just as I aspire to be, but nowhere near in comparison, but what Tony Bourdain and Anthony Bourdain did with Kitchen Confidential for the restaurant world, trying to go behind the scenes in the wine world and especially for people who love wine are curious about it, but really don’t have access to some of the things that you and I both get access to James from tastings, to trips to all kinds of things but also just what happens within the industry as well.

James Atkinson 19:58
Without going into too much detail. What’s the sort of darkness the dark underbelly of the industry that you’re referring to?

Natalie MacLean 20:04
Oh, my, well, I can’t give it all away. But yes, it’s very mysterious and dark. So there is a piece of it, James, about being a woman in this industry. And I’m sure you’ve heard of a lot of the things that have come out in the wine industry recently from the quartermaster sommelier scandal that was unveiled by the New York Times the sexism, the misogyny, the harassment. That’s not my story, the quartermaster sommeliers. But there’s many stories like that the attacks of Instagram are women and all kinds of things. But as a woman who’s been writing about wine for 20 years, I’ve had my fair share. And this is not a revenge book. But it’s kind of like, here’s my experience, here’s what’s happened. And it’s just a way of reflecting on where the industry was 10 years this took place 10 years ago, where it was where it is now. And as a way of understanding the industry.

James Atkinson 20:56
And you’ve got to publish. Alright, you’re

Natalie MacLean 21:01
signed it at Christmas. But with traditional lead times, it’s a traditional publisher Dundurn press. Usually it’s a year or two. So they’re going to work fast. That was air quotes right there. And it will be published probably spring 2023. So yeah, I’m really excited about it. But yeah, it’s still a long road ahead.

James Atkinson 21:23
Oh, look, another question I meant to ask earlier on Canada, I noticed recently is the fifth top market for Australian wine exports. What are the predominant Australian wine styles that you’re exposed to over there?

Natalie MacLean 21:35
Yeah, Australian wine is really popular here. So we love your blends, you know, Cabernet, Shiraz blends. GSM grid ash thrown in there. Of course, the standalone grapes are marvellous, Australia really has a great reputation here, I think. And again, we talked a little bit about this on your podcast, I think there is still a stereotype about it all just being a warm climate instead of all these marvellous cool climates like the McLaren Vale or, you know, the Adelaide Hills or Margaret River. There’s still lots of education to be done here about Australian wines. But yeah, we have a great thirst for your wines here.

James Atkinson 22:14
Fantastic. Well, Unreserved Wine Talk the podcast. You can find that wherever you listen to podcasts.

Natalie MacLean 22:21
Yes, including this one. Unreserved Wine Talk is in all the places and then they can also find the podcast and everything else I do, including my online wine and food pairing courses, the books, everything else at NatalieMaclean.com. So that’s N A T A L I E M A C L E A N .com NatalieMacLean.com.

James Atkinson 22:44
Wonderful, Natalie, thanks so much for joining me on the show.

Natalie MacLean 22:47
Oh, thanks, James. This is great. We have to chat again maybe tomorrow.

Natalie MacLean 22:57
Well, there you have it. I hope you enjoyed my chat with James. In the show notes, you’ll find my email contact, the full transcript of my conversation with James, links to his podcast and website, and where you can find the live stream video version of these conversations on Facebook and YouTube Live every Wednesday at 7pm. They’ll also find a link to my free Ultimate Guide to Wine and Food Pairing. That’s all in the show notes at NatalieMacLean.com/204. Email me if you have a sip, tip, question, or want to be a beta reader of my new memoir at [email protected] You won’t want to miss next week when I chat with Aleks Zecevic who hosts The Vintners Podcast. In the meantime, if you missed episode 175 go back and take a listen. This time I interviewed James Atkinson about wine sommeliers versus beer cicerones and related tasting techniques. I’ll share a short clip with you now to whet your appetite. What is the difference between a wine sommelier and a beer sommelier or a Cicerone? Apart from the type of alcoholic beverage.

James Atkinson 24:12
The title for one is not trademarked like Cicerone. No one can call himself that legally without having completed certification. Who started the Cicerone organization? Ray Daniels. A beer professional got sick of going out to bars and being served a beer in a dirty glass. The beer itself might have been sitting in the keg for too long. Was tired. If you get a bottle of wine, it can withstand a little bit of abuse. Beer once it’s brewed, it starts degrading like immediately. People have this idea that that a can of beer is like a can of food that you put it on the shelf and it doesn’t change, but that’s really not correct. So Ray was like we need structured education for professionals.

Natalie MacLean 25:07
If you liked this episode, please email or tell one friend about it this week, especially someone you know who’d be interested in the wines, tips, and stories we shared. Thank you for taking the time to join me here. I hope something great is in your glass this week, perhaps a Canadian ice wine or sparkling wine.

Natalie MacLean 25:32
You don’t want to miss one juicy episode of this podcast, especially the secret full body bonus episodes that I don’t announce on social media. So subscribe for free now at NatalieMacLean.com/subscribe. Meet me here next week. Cheers.

 

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