Toast to Coast

The changing landscape of Canada’s wine regions.

Upon the wooden kitchen table of Michael Lightfoot’s green farmhouse in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, the seventh-generation farmer lays out a deck of architectural drawings for me to flip through. “My wife and I first experienced this concept of agriturismo in Tuscany,” says Lightfoot, stocky in a tan hooded jacket and with crisp blue eyes that radiate optimism. “You stay at a farm in the middle of a vineyard, pick the ripe tomatoes for dinner and see cattle herds wandering nearby.”

The expansion plans for Lightfoot & Wolfville Vineyards illustrate a barn-like structure that he and his wife Jocelyn, a trained sommelier and former travel agent, plan to build just down the road, on a north-facing hillside overlooking the Bay of Fundy. They include a wine-tasting bar, a commercial kitchen, an underground barrel cellar and an events space. Sheep will roam the surrounding farmland, where Lightfoot plans to lay out hiking trails. Phase two, a few years down the line, envisions a series of Acadian-style cottages for overnight visitors.

It’s an ambitious vision for a commercial chicken farmer who planted his first vines in 2009 on land used for pasture and to grow apples. After selling grapes for a few years to the much-lauded sparkling producer Benjamin Bridge, Lightfoot decided that there was true potential to produce exceptional cool-climate wines in Nova Scotia. “In agriculture you have to adapt,” Lightfoot says. “That’s how farming families survive. And wine is the future of this region.”

In agriculture you have to adapt. That’s how farming families survive. And wine is the future of this region.” Michael Lightfoot, vintner

All about place

Today, there are roughly 550 wineries in Canada, spread primarily across four provinces: British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia. Together, these wineries attract more than three million visitors each year. These are no tight-fisted pilgrims, either: Wine tourists contribute $476-million of direct revenue to the wineries, or more than $150 per visitor. Additional spending on other tourism-related activities – restaurants, hotels, transportation – is nearly triple that.

Spend some time in Burgundy, Napa or Tuscany and the attraction of wine tourism is apparent. The most interesting wines we drink, after all, are all about place. What makes them special are things like local microclimates, unique geographies and soil types – what the French call terroir.

But wine tourism also comes down to the appeal of setting, a concept that barely registered in Napa in 1966 when Robert Mondavi opened his winery in a grandiose architectural structure the likes of which the valley had never seen. In 1973, Sterling opened its Greek-monastery-style tasting room on top of a hill, which guests reached via an aerial tramway from the parking lot. By the mid-1980s, Napa was drawing 2.5 million visitors a year, California’s second-highest-grossing tourist destination after Disneyland.

I think about this a week after visiting Nova Scotia, as I sit on the other side of the country, on the balcony of the Sonora Room Restaurant, set in the middle of the Burrowing Owl vineyard in the south Okanagan region of British Columbia. The winery, a cluster of tan hacienda-style boxes jutting up from a hillside striped by perfect rows of cabernet sauvignon and pinot gris, is framed by rocky cliffs above. There’s a tasting room and an 11-room guest house with an outdoor pool deck, where I’ve spent much of my afternoon relaxing.

As I cut into a roasted game hen and sip a brambly, herbal-nosed glass of cabernet franc – (an older “library” vintage available exclusively at the winery), I swear I can taste it: the hot summer sun beating down on this valley, thickening the skins and ripening the grapes, and the vines struggling for the same precious water that the pine trees suck off the dry hillside.

Different strokes

In Canada we sit at the northern edge of the latitudes where high-quality wine grapes can grow. Consequently, the few places where excellent wine can be made tend to be near bodies of water that moderate both summer and winter temperatures – think the string of deep lakes that the Okanagan comprises, or the Niagara region fitted in between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, or Nova Scotia’s Gaspereau Valley on the Bay of Fundy.

Wine regions often have this built-in advantage of being places where travellers, like grapes, appreciate the natural gifts bestowed upon the place. Although Ontario only has around one-quarter of the country’s wineries, according to the Canadian Vintners Association it attracts almost two-thirds of all wine tourists to Canada. The Niagara growing region’s day-trip proximity to Toronto’s six million residents is a big reason, as is the proximity to Niagara Falls, which attracts 13 million overnight visitors each year. The Okanagan, meanwhile, draws many people from the rest of B.C. and Alberta – and doubles as a popular holiday destination for golfers and boaters. In Nova Scotia, Keltie MacNeill, the tasting-room manager at Benjamin Bridge, recounts the same effect: “When I leave the Gaspereau Valley and travel to cities to show our wines, I understand the benefit of having our winery located in this beautiful landscape.”

Of course, all wine tourists are not created equal, nor are the wineries approaching tourism in the same ways. Take Mission Hill Family Estate winery, in West Kelowna, B.C., for example. Set on the crest of a hill overlooking Lake Okanagan, the winery was designed by Seattle architect Tom Kundig and completed in 2002. The grounds are immaculately kept and the architecture, a mix of Spanish and Tuscan monastic forms with a hint of Napa glamour, is majestic in scale – with a 12-storey bell tower that rings out on the hour.

Just 30 minutes down Highway 97, in Summerland, Tyler Harlton has staked out a different sort of empire. He makes his TH Wines in an industrial park, occupying two bays that used to house a fabricator of skis for snowmobiles. “I don’t own my land, I don’t own my machinery,” says Harlton, who grew up on a farm in Saskatchewan. He calls it the négociant model, referencing Burgundian producers in France who buy grapes exclusively from growers. But visiting his space, I’m reminded more of the Steve Jobs-esque, build-it-in-your-garage spirit that pervades California.

The TH Wines that we sample inside the tiny 42-square-metre tasting room, designed to fierce minimalist standards by Tarynn Liv Parker and opened in 2014, blow me away. The “By Hand,” a blend of chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, hits that crucial marriage of refreshing acidity and lush, creamy texture that makes you want to keep sipping it all afternoon. “Tarynn told me when she came up with the design that it would look great on Instagram,” says Harlton, who is clearly aiming his operation at a new generation of wine aficionados. “Younger people with GPS phones can find this place pretty easily, but some of my older clients show up exasperated. So I’m trying to get more road signs installed.”

Emerging clusters

If Mission Hill is aiming to be Napa (founder Anthony von Mandl counts the late Robert Mondavi as a mentor) and Tyler Harlton is a Sonoma garagiste, then Benjamin Bridge, in Nova Scotia, is emulating grower-style champagne in its approach to both wine and hospitality. “We saw the by-appointment model a lot when we toured Champagne,” says Devon McConnell-Gordon, whose parents Gerry McConnell and Dara Gordon founded the winery in 1999. The modern black and white tasting room where I’ve tracked her down is barely visible from the road – the building’s facade, with its long rustic-cut wooden boards punctuated by a massive glass-walled entrance, faces the valley instead. An hour-and-a-half visit, which includes a tour, a tasting with one of the winemakers or family members and some light catering – seared scallops, smoked salmon on mini bagels, local goat cheese – costs $200. “We don’t sell aprons and jam,” says McConnell-Gordon.

What Benjamin Bridge does sell is wine – its traditional-method sparkling wines are popping up on wine lists at top restaurants across Canada, priced similarly to some top champagnes. Indeed, Benjamin Bridge is likely to be the first wine from Nova Scotia that drinkers in Toronto and Vancouver will ever taste. “We take that responsibility – to be an ambassador for Nova Scotia wine – very seriously,” says McConnell-Gordon.

The tasting-room manager, Keltie MacNeill, estimates that half of all visitors to the winery come from Atlantic Canada. “The rest are sommeliers and serious collectors,” she says. “Last week we had the somms from Chateau Lake Louise in for tastings.” A wine club offers smaller production wines exclusively to some 200 members, and the quarterly releases are celebrated at a party hosted at Benjamin Bridge and catered by chefs such as Jason Lynch of the Gaspereau Valley’s top restaurant, Le Caveau at the Domaine de Grand Pré winery. “We have people in Ontario and B.C. who will plan their vacations around it,” says MacNeill.

As the national and global perception of Canadian wines – riding a wave of interest in the sort of cool-climate, food-friendly styles that we produce so well – grows stronger, the bet is that more visitors will travel to wine country to discover the terroir they are tasting in the bottle. While a drive through the Okanagan or Niagara-on-the-Lake suggests that many wineries and their hospitality partners are already pulling their weight, it is some of the up-and-coming regions – Vancouver Island and the Similkameen Valley in B.C., the Eastern Townships in Quebec, Prince Edward County in Ontario – that will be the exciting new labs for what Canadian wine country might truly become.

Regions like Vancouver Island and the Eastern Townships will be the new labs for what Canadian wine country might truly become.

From the roots up

While the hospitality sector has the capacity to grow quickly, making wine remains a process best practised by patient souls. Back at Lightfoot & Wolfville in Nova Scotia, Michael Lightfoot follows up our survey of his grand architectural plans with an unpretentious tasting straight from the oak barrels and stainless steel tanks where his upcoming vintages are fermenting. “We’re releasing our very first vintage this year,” he says.

The wines – energetic pinot noir, aromatic riesling and a ripe, mesmerizing cryo-extracted chasselas – call to mind the rolling, sun-dappled hills licked by salt air that I’d driven along earlier this morning in Lightfoot’s truck. The head winemaker, Josh Horton, was a former Lightfoot farmhand. He studied oenology in Ontario and honed his skills as an assistant at Benjamin Bridge. Horton’s assistant is Lightfoot’s 24-year-old daughter Rachel, and I can tell after three minutes of tasting with her that she is knowledgeable beyond her years. As with the moment that grapes come off the vine, this project still has a long way to go. But the potential is here. Speaking as much to the nature of a generational family business as to the intoxicating contents of any great bottle, Michael Lightfoot sums up the strategy for him and every other winemaker in Canada: “It’s the long game.”

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