Feature

Domestic Terroir

Will Pinot Noir elevate Canadian wine to world-class status?

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• 4,279 words

Pinot Noir has been called a feminine grape, approximating the qualities of Catherine Deneuve in the film Belle de jour, and it makes a vain, elusive, erotic, magnificent wine. Or it doesn’t. The Pinot vine sometimes dies prematurely and without explanation. It doesn’t necessarily travel well, but is not always happy at home in the Burgundy region of France either, where it is the dominant red grape. It can’t bear excessive rain and is especially sensitive to spring frosts. The skin of the grape is thin and it needs sun, but not too much. If it overripens, the result can be a pale, mean-spirited vintage. The right conditions, however, can yield one of the world’s most sublime wines, variously described as hinting of chocolate, pepper, ripe cherries, or, more baroquely, “the wonderful aroma of the inside of a kid glove worn by a young woman.”

“I believe that Pinot Noir will be the great grape in the Niagara Peninsula,” said Don Triggs. This was in August of 2000, and we were standing in the barren thirty-five-acre Le Clos Jordanne vineyard, its soil broken into jagged clay disks, awaiting its first planting of Pinot Noir grapes. At the time, Triggs was president and ceo of Vincor International, Canada’s largest wine company. With a square, rural face and thick grey hair combed back, Triggs had the look of a man who might be coaching the Brandon Wheat Kings. Situated on the Jordan Bench of the Niagara Escarpment, Le Clos Jordanne is bordered by the Bruce Trail, Highway 81, and picturesque pond. “[It] will happen long after I’m dead and gone,” Triggs said, “but a hundred years from now, Pinot Noir will have taken over most of the production in the Niagara.”

His plan was to make a wine that could compete with those of Burgundy, and to attract attention to the enterprise Triggs persuaded Frank Gehry to design a $30-million winery. “I’ll be honest,” he said, “we want him to do for the Niagara region what he did for Bilbao. There are sixty million Americans within a three-hour drive of Le Clos Jordanne. We’re spending the lifetime advertising budget on this winery.”

Le Clos Jordanne was jointly developed by Vincor and Boisset Vins et Spiritueux, France’s largest burgundy producer and a company that has a history with Pinot Noir. There was a natural symbiosis. Vincor got credibility and centuries of expertise while Boisset got land (something that is long gone in France) and an opportunity for expansion. Boisset also got access to a marketing expertise it hadn’t needed until recently. The volume of French wines sold by the Liquor Control Board of Ontario decreased 6.7 percent between 2005 and 2006, a decline that is reflective of European wine sales worldwide. Between 1988 and 1999, Europe’s share of global wine exports (excluding intra”“European Union trade) dropped from 91 percent to 66 percent, while the New World’s market share grew from 8 percent to nearly one-third. The gap continues to narrow and is approaching parity, although Canada has been largely excluded from this trend. Among New World producers, it has lagged far behind the US, Australia, and New Zealand in finding an international market, and to some degree has been ghettoized by the success of ice wine, which accounts for most of the industry’s international profile.

These tectonic shifts are taking place within a shrinking market. Despite the reported health benefits of wine, both consumption and production have been declining (slightly) for a decade, and the industry has responded with alliances and takeovers. In keeping with this trend, both Boisset and Vincor went on extended buying sprees, Boisset buying dozens of wineries in the UK, Uruguay, France, and Chile. Vincor, with wine interests in British Columbia, New Zealand, Australia, the UK, and the US, emerged as the eighth-largest wine producer in the world.

Consolidation has created financial synergies and delivered benefits to shareholders, but it also carries the potential for increased standardization. There is a nagging fear that globalization will result in the “vanilla-ization” of wine, that it won’t express its origins but will simply reflect broad consumer tastes, tastes that are manipulated by a small number of wine consultants and critics. In some ways, the wine industry already resembles the film industry, where the product is market-tested and pitched to the masses. The move toward more accessible, standardized wines is reinforced by the retail structure, at least in the US, where the majority of wine is sold through supermarkets and Costco is the single largest retailer. As people have become more rootless, so has wine. It is less connected to the soil and to historical technique; it follows the money.

Burgundy is one of the battlefields in a war that pits the forces of globalization against the purity of the terroir, a Burgundian term describing a philosophy that sees wine as an expression of a specific soil and climate, of a geographical and even cultural essence. In the documentary film Mondovino, filmmaker Jonathan Nossiter interviewed Jean-Charles Boisset, the young, handsome heir to the family business. He is depicted as the bad guy in the battle for the soul of Burgundy. His nemesis is an amiable, sagacious septuagenarian named Hubert de Montille who owns an eight-hectare premier cru vineyard. Boisset is the mass producer, de Montille the artist. Mondovino restages the Paul Bunyan story, with its attendant charms and simplifications, in the vineyards of France. “What is wine” asks Mondovino. One French vineyard owner says it is culture, another says civilization. A third says wine is dead.

Vincor and Boisset represent the forces of globalization, but with Le Clos Jordanne, which is part noble experiment and part risky marketing exercise, they are also champions of the terroir. Then this June, the American company Constellation Brands, the largest wine conglomerate in the world, snapped up Vin­cor. Don Triggs immed­iately resigned as ceo, and the fate of Le Clos Jordanne was suddenly in doubt. After the takeover, the president and coo of Constellation, Robert Sands, said that no decisions had been made about the winery or the Gehry building. Constellation loomed as a familiar American threat: would Vincor become a branch plant Constellation’s presence has raised the issue of further takeovers. Due to poor harvests in the last few years, some of the smaller Niagara producers are particularly vulnerable. The situation recalls some of Mondovino’s antithetic themes: is wine culture or is it dead

As a discipline, wine appreciation most closely resembles religion, with its mixture of worship, uncertainty, awe, and use of harvesting metaphors. There is a reliance on hierarchy and litany, and the promise of scandal. Still, who can argue with the man who has been saved by faith And who can argue with the visceral impact of a brilliant wine, one that produces an immediate and distinctive inner peace, the palate connecting with something that seems profound. We want that connection to be meaningful, even if we can’t articulate the actual meaning.

Discussions of wine in magazines, at tastings, or just about anywhere range from sombre reflection to giddy absurdity. Wine is the perfect vehicle to explore Wittgenstein’s contention that confusion over language is the basis for most philosophical problems. The relationship between the word for a thing and the thing itself has rarely been murkier. There are certain critical measures of wine, like colour, that could fairly be called empirical. And there is broad consensus on characteristics like tannins. But when it comes to taste, all bets are off. There aren’t many descriptors that haven’t been used: menthol, quince, cedar, truffles, scorched earth, farmyard, restrained melon, coffee, fresh coconut, vinyl, plum, beeswax, gasoline, rubber, sun-dried tomatoes, Band-Aid, caramel, bread dough, melted asphalt, fruitcake, bubblegum, and modelling glue being a small but not unrepresentative sample. Wines are anthropomorphized into prizefighters, virgins, corrupt priests, bullies, seedy aristocrats, slick operators, and blowsy blondes. They are described as cantankerous, playful, subtle, enlightened, stupid, and disturbed. “Mild, sweaty and slightly poopy nose,” reads one review. “Rather Burgundian so far. But then, when I taste it, what’s this Something here tastes like chocolate Necco wafers.” At this point even aficionados might concede that we are on pretty thin linguistic ice.

The abstruse vocabulary is balanced by the numerical rating systems that many wine critics use, chiefly the influential American critic Robert Parker, who employs a metric yardstick, with 100 representing a perfect wine. He sees himself as a force for democracy but speaks in the aristocratic third person and wields a pope-like power, replacing the tyranny of the French elite with a personal tyranny that is sold as American populism. But even the comfort and familiarity of a numbered system doesn’t necessarily provide clarity. In a tiff over the 2003 Château Pavie, from the Premier Grand Cru Classé estate in St. Émilion, Bordeaux, Parker gave the wine a 96”“100 and claimed it to be “a brilliant effort”; his critical nemesis, Jancis Robinson, wine columnist for the Financial Times of London, gave it 12 out of 20, noting its “completely unappetizing overripe aromas…[a] ridiculous wine more reminiscent of a late-harvest Zinfandel.” Some critics sided with Parker (Charles Metcalfe of Wine International gave it 90”“94 out of 100, and said that it represented “a return to traditional form”), while others agreed with Robinson (Clive Coates of The Vine wrote, “Anyone who thinks this is good wine needs a brain and palate transplant. This wine will be scored simply as undrinkable.”). There is a vast landscape between a brilliant $150 wine and an undrinkable $150 wine, a nervous thought when it’s the same wine. And that landscape is where we, the untutored enthusiasts, live in fear and doubt.

Six years after standing with Triggs in his empty field, I met with Le Clos Jordanne’s viniculturalist, Thomas Bachelder, in the vineyard’s temporary headquarters, a warehouse along the Queen Elizabeth Way. We were swishing, sniffing, sipping, and spitting our way through the last few seasons. Bachelder, a very tall, informative Quebecer who learned his trade in Burgundy and worked with Pinot Noir in Oregon, talked about wines as children, growing inside those barrels, becoming strong and complex, or occasionally, despite his best efforts, wayward.

” This one is still fighting me,” he said, spitting. “Can you taste it But I think it will come around. I think it has the greatest potential.” The various wines taste of rose petals, rhubarb, and black raspberry. Some of the wine still has a rawness, though it possesses that Pinot signature. An hour later there is something that lingers on the palate, or at least the palate’s unreliable memory, a chalky, wistful taste. This is the mythic strength of Pinot Noir: it becomes more complex and delivers more meaning as the evening wears on. It is the spiritual opposite of those oversized Australian reds that come out of the bottle swinging like Russell Crowe, delivering a big, immediate taste. Though it could be argued that this, too, is a valid expression of culture.

Le Clos Jordanne is making its debut in October with the release of several wines from the 2004 vintage. Constellation’s Robert Sands has been out to the temporary winery for a tasting. Though circumspect about the future of Le Clos Jordanne, the self-professed Pinot Noir lover wrote in a statement that the wines “are absolutely incredible!!!” (emphasis his).

Bachelder and I drove through the vineyard in his truck. The Jordan Bench lies near the south shore of Lake Ontario, its slightly rolling terrain a quilt of small and subtle microclimates. As we ascended a slight rise, the vines became thicker, leafier, the upper part of the vineyard getting better wind and sun than the lower section thirty metres away. Bachelder pointed to where he feels the Bench’s sweet spot is, an innocuous field that somehow captures the area’s best elements. Alongside the road, Mexican and Jamaican field workers tended to the vines under an intense June sun. To the north, air pollution covered Toronto like poisoned flannel.

The soil contains limestone that was dragged from the mother rock by a retreating glacier (rocky soil is good for the vines because it forces the roots deeper and holds the heat from the after­noon sun). The hot, strong wind ventilates the grapes. Le Clos Jordanne is organic and low yield, the grapes picked and sorted by hand. Workers don’t use pesticides and they apply homeopathic doses of seabird guano mined in Peruvian islands as fertilizer. To invigorate the soil, the paths between vines are seeded with a combination of white clover, alsike, yellow blossom sweet clover, and creeping red fescue.

Bachelder outlined in meticulous detail the workings of a vineyard and the combination of technology, ancient knowledge, agriculture, and art required for producing a premium wine. It is science that allows winemakers to deliver consistency, controlling when the process stops and starts, what type of yeast is used, and the level of humidity in the cellar, but Bachelder is also an artist. He talked in a stream of consciousness that recalled the Pinot Noir soliloquy in the film Sideways, in which the main character described the difficulty with the Pinot Noir grape, how it can’t just be grown anywhere, how it represents something approximating truth. “In Burgundy,” Bachelder said, “they had five centuries to find the right terroir, the right techniques for each vineyard. Here we have five years.”

With a certain sense of resignation, Bachelder pointed to new development along the edge of a vineyard. “They’re building houses before we even know where the best fields are. And once the houses are there, the fields are lost. The soil is gone.” He steered the truck off the road to get a closer look at the vines. “Part of creating great wine is getting out of the way of the wine, letting it grow up, like a child, to be what it is. If you ask too much of the vine, you get a diluted wine. It should develop after you open it. The same bottle could take you somewhere different an hour later. Pinot Noir is a bitch. It should dance on that line between the red and black fruit tones. Sometimes in the Niagara we lean too far toward the red.”

There are now more than twenty Pinot Noir producers in the Niagara region, their wines costing between $12 and $50 a bottle. But not everyone agrees with Triggs’ prediction that Pinot Noir will become the dominant grape of the Niagara industry. Jean-Pierre Colas, a native Burgundian and the winemaker for Peninsula Ridge Estates Winery, doesn’t make Pinot Noir and is doubtful of its potential. “It is still based on a dream,” he said. “It is a myth. Everyone is a Pinot fanatic, but they don’t know how to make it. I don’t understand all the excitement here.” He remained unimpressed at a tasting of fifteen different Ontario Pinot Noirs. “They don’t have the structure,” he said in the accent that is such a good med­ium for disdain. “Some were average, some were faulty, and some were quite stupid. And an average Pinot Noir is just a red beverage.”

He tasted Bachelder’s Pinot Noirs from the barrel and conceded there was something Pinot there, something interesting. “But without disrespect to Boisset and Vincor,” he said, “they are not quality producers, they don’t have that reputation. They are more mass market.” Colas acknowledged, however, that Vincor had been a large part of the Canadian wine industry’s development. Constellation, which doesn’t have the same nationalist stake, has arrived on the scene at a delicate moment, when the Canadian industry is poised to reap the benefits of its years of hard, often frustrating work. “There has been a revolution in the last ten years, even the last five years,” Colas said. “It’s the beginning of everything here.”

The desire to produce fine wine in Canada was expressed as early as 1668, when a French Jesuit priest named Jacques Bruyas wrote from Quebec, “If one were to take the trouble to plant some vines and trees they would yield as well as they do in France and the grapes would be as good as those of France.” That this remains an ardent wish more than three hundred years later attests to the tortured history of the Canadian wine industry. The first commercial Canadian winery was established in 1811, and by the end of the century there were forty-one wineries, most of them located in Ontario, using local grapes and operated by Euro­peans with some background in winemaking. The fortified wine produced in these largely basement operations wasn’t just awful, it was dangerous; in 1928 the Provincial Department of Health set up a winemaking school in the east wing of Queen’s Park not as a cultural initiative, but as a public safety measure.

Postwar prosperity helped fuel a more ambitious viticulture, and in 1946 Brights Winery tried to grow Pinot Noir in Niagara, hoping to produce a red wine that could compete with those of Burgundy. By the 1950s, the experiment was abandoned, the yields too low for a viable commercial enterprise. But in 1955, they managed to produce a Pinot Chardonnay, the traditional white of Burgundy. There was hope. The estate wineries continued to expand and experiment, but their efforts were partly hijacked in the 1960s by the arrival of Cold Duck, a sparkling wine that originated in Michigan using labrusca grapes and a process that produced heroic amounts of sugar. It was a happy marriage of soft drinks and alcohol, and became instantly popular. In 1971 came a further scourge, André’s Baby Duck, another labrusca-based confection, this time produced in British Columbia.

By 1973, Baby Duck was a significant part of the Canadian market, and it spawned many variations. The Canadian wine industry became an almost purely corporate enterprise, with most of its energy spent on producing and marketing wines with homely names like Gimli Goose, Baby Deer, Baby Bear, Little White Duck, and Pink Flamingo. The success of sweet, sparkling wine divided wine consumption into two categories: European wines for the sophisticate, and Canadian wines for those who wanted to get their girlfriend drunk after the prom.

The impressive gains made by Ontario and British Columbia estate wineries were partly eclipsed by the large, pejorative shadow cast by the various Ducks. In 1976, the government began offering subsidies to wean growers off labrusca grapes, and in 1988 the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food finally banned their use in the production of table wine. That same year, the Free Trade Agreement stipulated that tariffs on American wines would be cut in half in two years and phased out in seven. Canadian winemakers would no longer be protected from their American counterparts, who had made significant gains after a similarly dismal colonial start. Soon after, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade increased European access to our market and exposed Canadian producers to even greater competition.

Yet the national industry survived. In 1991, the Ontario government financed a $5-million advertising campaign targeting people who hadn’t thought of buying Canadian wine since their girlfriend threw up on prom night. “We’re Ready When You Are” was its somewhat noncommittal slogan, but it produced a favourable response; by the following year, the sale of Ontario Vintners Quality Alliance (vqa) approved wines had increased by nearly 100 percent.

Only in the last decade or so has there been a significant attempt to produce premium wines in Ontario. Previously, winemakers had tried to maximize quality by perfecting technology inside the winery. But real improvement started in the vineyard, with new plantings, clone and root stock selection, and canopy management. The effort has paid off. Government revenue from Ontario wine went from $2 million in 1990 to $245 million in 2006.

Even in the age of globalization, it seems that to be successful on the world stage, first you have to win the nation; domestic markets are where wine sales begin. In France, 95 percent of the market belongs to French wine. In Australia, that number is 90 percent, and in the US it is over 80 percent. In Canada, it is 44 percent. The Canadian wine industry is at a watershed moment.

How well the industry fares in the coming years will depend to some extent on wine tourism. The Niagara region now brings in more than 750,000 people a year, according to the Wine Council of Ontario, though a higher Canadian dollar and an increasingly rigid border threaten this trade. Wine sold at the wineries is the most profitable sale for the producer and, for some, the primary retail channel. As such, the wineries themselves are becoming a critical marketing device, and it was considered a coup when Don Triggs persuaded Frank Gehry to design the winery for Le Clos Jordanne.

Triggs didn’t know much about archi­tecture when he set out to commission the winery. He thought Gehry’s work was organic and uplifting but, given his marketing background, it was the Bilbao story that held the greatest appeal. The marketing benefits would be given a further boost by Gehry’s stat­us as a quasi-Torontonian. Although the architect was born and raised in Toronto, he had never done a large Can­adian commission, guaranteeing considerable media attention for the project. When he came to Toronto in 2000 for the press conference, Gehry was received as a favourite son. He talked about wine with his usual self-deprecating humour, the shrugging, almost Catskillian delivery that informs his public persona. “I don’t know one wine from another,” he said flatly, confessing that when he lived in Paris in 1962, he drank plonk. He pointed to his modest paunch as a “wine belly.” A preliminary sketch that looked like a line drawing of a crumpled napkin was met with reverence and applause.

Over the next three years, Gehry’s office produced more than twenty models for the winery, though none of them was within the budget. By 2002, there was a viable model, a 3,250-square-metre building with a draped roof made of either stainless steel or titanium strips that suggested, Gehry said, “a silver cloud floating.”

The date for breaking ground was initially slated for 2005, but it was repeatedly pushed back be­cause of delays in finding a workable, affordable model, and also because 2002, 2003, and 2004 were all poor wine years”“the winters cold, the yields small. There wasn’t enough wine to stock the winery, and there wouldn’t be any point in opening without suf­ficient wine to sell. Gehry’s design had been originally estimated at $30 million, but that figure has likely grown in the six years since the winery was commissioned.

It is unlikely that the design will have the impact Triggs initially hoped for. The marketing power of the Bilbao Effect”“the idea that a building can transform a city, or even a business”“has less currency now than it did then. Even Gehry has declared the Bilbao Effect to be over. The crumpled napkin drawing that was cheered six years ago emerged as parody on an episode of The Simpsons in which Gehry played himself. After reading a letter from Marge Simpson requesting that Gehry design a $30-million concert hall for the town of Springfield as a way to put it on the map, he crumples the note up and throws it on the sidewalk. Observing the form, he exclaims, “Frank Gehry, you’ve done it again!” A crumpled, swoopy concert hall goes up, which holds the public’s attention through the first few notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and then immediately languishes. The building is sold for a dollar to local billionaire Montgomery Burns, who turns it into a prison. Springfield remains Springfield.

Further blunting the impact of a Gehry winery is his redesign of the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, a high-profile commission that received enormous publicity. The ago is located in Gehry’s old neighbourhood, and so the returning-son element was cranked up to fever pitch. The Gehry name may no longer suffice to generate the buzz that would bring in the millions.

Gehry’s design for Le Clos Jordanne is graceful, if slightly generic. It was greeted, unsurprisingly, by reviews describing it as either “vintage Gehry” or “not vintage Gehry.” It has drama, and the central interior will be appropriately cathedral-esque in scale, but there is a certain anti-terroir aspect to it; it doesn’t engage the site in an organic way. With the marketing element diminished, and with the absence of Triggs, the building’s champion and the main connection to Gehry, the project’s future is in doubt. Constellation will have to embrace the architecture on its own expensive merits.

There is still the wine. Le Clos Jordanne is an ambitious enterprise, an attempt to see if ultra-premium wines (as they are called in the overheated oenological lexicon) can be made in the Niagara Peninsula. The other question is whether they will sell. Will oenophiles flock to the $60 Pinot Noirs of the Niagara region or retreat to the safety of the Old World Or will globalization kill the public’s taste for both

Robert Sands has said they will be better able to make a decision on the winery in October, after the new wines are launched. Then there will either be a quiet announcement about the sanctity of the shareholder or a louder proclamation about the sanctity of Pinot Noir (and possibly the sanctity of Frank Gehry). Perhaps fifty years from now, Le Clos Jordanne Pinot Noirs will allow Canadians to seek truth, or something like it, in their own backyard. Love truth, Voltaire wrote, but pardon error.

Don Gillmor (@dongillmor) published his latest novel, Long Change, in 2015.