It’s 27 degrees today; in October; in Niagara, Canada. Not the cold weather you’d expect from these latitudes at this time of year. For the last five years, climate change has made itself felt. Niagara feels a bit like California; at least in spirit. For winegrowers, this shift is both a threat and an opportunity. Trend diggers are already falling for the popular (and profitable) Cabernet, as grapes that shouldn’t ripen in the region start to do well.
What does the future hold for this dynamic, young wine country?
“We’re trying to figure out our place in the world,”
Jakub Lipinski, Big Head Wines
“We’re trying to figure out our place in the world,” says Jakub Lipinski, proprietor and head of operations of Big Head Wines in Niagara-on-the-Lake, “finding the right grapes that work will take some time.”
Jakub and his family produce exciting wines from unexpected grapes, their Chenin Blanc stands out; the winery first produced 75 cases from the few hectares planted with Chenin in the province, then 2,500. Last year they produced 24,000 cases, and business is growing exponentially. “We’re a very young wine region, with respect to the rest of the wine world, we’ve only been making wine consistently well, as a region, for 20 years if not less”, he remarks.
“I would love if Niagara did a lot more Chenin Blanc,” says the winemaker, “because it’s one of my favorite grape varieties. I don’t know if we have enough experience with it yet, especially figuring out how to keep it alive.” Some wineries have to replant about a 5th of their vineyards every year as the vines give in to the cold. Growing vinifera grapes in such raw weather is surely a feat and consistent results, are more than luck.
Chenin’s spiritual home is the Loire Valley, France, but globally, South Africa grows the most Chenin Blanc, where more than often it turns out as nondescript wine. It’s one of the few classic grapes still looking for a proper home in the new world. Could it be Canada? The will and expertise are already here.
Jakub took part in the wine business thanks to his father, a Polish immigrant and a handyman that did everything, from mechanics to home repairs. As a self-taught winemaker, he soon found himself juggling the operations of four wineries across Niagara. On 2011 the unexpected opportunity to buy his first lot of grapes came into play. His son, who had a business, marketing and restaurant experience, got the call: -We’re gonna have a winery, you’re coming home-.
Every winemaking region has its challenges; for Niagara, it’s not just the weather, it’s finding a suitable market for the wine too. “Having a sustainable business in the wine world is very, very difficult, so a lot of the producers are influenced by what the market wants as opposed to figuring out what we are,” states Jakub.
Pinot Noir, Gamay, Riesling, Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc are best suited for cool environments, and frequently deliver the finest wines in the district. Yet more and more Cabernet Sauvignon is being grown. The grape rarely ripens enough in the frigid Canadian extreme climate, so why the hype? Are producers losing focus? Or is experimentation necessary to understand the regions true virtues?
Of course, Big Head offers a Cabernet Sauvignon, among a wide range from Pinot Noirs and Merlots to Chardonnays. The company is not blind to the market’s desires. But it’s the other varieties that differentiate the winery: Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris and Chenin; Petit Verdot and Syrah, a few sparkling wines too. Like teenage boys, winemakers in the province are doing it all and learning from their mistakes. How does this attitude fit in today’s global market?
In 2016, Jakub traveled to China as part of a wine tour backed up by the Canadian government. “What we’re always told here [in Canada] is that the Chinese market is all about icewine.” But generalization rarely captures reality, especially when talking about China. “The people are learning about wine quickly. Icewine might actually be an endangered species, no one drinks it anymore. Table wines are the future, not just for Canada, but for any wine-producing region in the world.”
Of course, there will always be room on the table for a glass of Vidal Icewine, or Late Harvest Riesling, but wineries relying on them to survive are just narrow-minded. Niagara is home to 100 wineries who make use of 46 distinct varietals. The region thrives with tourism, and the wines are getting noticed.
The Great White North is waking up from hibernation. The time when the country was known just for the sweet icewine is fading. It’s not an easy road, “You get one chance per year… it’s a very extreme learning curve” concludes Jakub. The Niagara region’s potential is unlimited, and you can see a bright future through the melting ice. The world’s climate is changing, but Canadians are ready; they are survivors. Let the rest of the world prepare; winter is here.
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Author: Franco Salzillo, Certified Somm & Wine Writer