Canadian Winemaking Mavericks

Risky professions: fireman, bomb squad, lion tamer, winemaker. That’s right – winemaking is risky business. Your entire annual income is dependent, to a great degree, on the whims and follies of Mother Nature. 100 straight days of rain this vintage? Write off. Plague of ladybugs? Peanut butter wine. Want to make some serious wine that requires a few years of bottle aging before release? Say hello to a few years before collecting money for the fruits of your labour – literally. Even in established grape growing regions there is a risk involved in committing your livelihood to viticulture. But, as we all know, with great risks also come great rewards.

I took a closer look at five pioneering wineries that really put themselves out there, and then some, to make what they consider the best wine possible. I contacted producers from coast to coast, hearing about extreme terroir, fringe grape growing regions, experimental winemaking techniques, success stories and lessons learned.


Even on Vancouver Island where the locals are at once proudly and fiercely local, Roger Dosman of Alderlea Vineyards is revered as a local champion. Together with his wife Nancy, Roger has been committed to 100% estate grown wines since he opened in the Cowichan Valley in the very early days of 1992. At that point, there were some 30 different varieties planted, so Roger could trial what did and didn’t work in this brand new region. While many of his fellow winemaking colleagues on the Wine Islands bring in grapes from BC’s interior Okanagan Valley, Roger has remained committed to vinifying only what comes off his southwest facing 10 acre vineyard, yielding approximately 2,000 cases in a good year. The rocky slopes overlooking Quamichan Lake are planted to standard Island varieties – Bacchus, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir – grapes well suited to the cooler climate of the Wine Islands. However, he has also planted Merlot – a rarity in the region. While others struggle to ripen bigger reds in this wetter, Maritime climate (even lithe Pinot Noir struggles, for that matter), the Dosmans have perfected a method for the grapes to reach full maturity: tenting. Roger painstakingly drapes polyethylene tents over the vines each spring, cultivating a greenhouse effect for the grapes and increasing the heat units for the plant. The plastic domes warm both the soil and air around the vine to encourage earlier bud break and increase early growth. The tents also protect the vine from spring frost, and for a period, pests. When the vines hit the top of the tent the plastic is removed. Though highly labour intensive, the payoff for Roger is worth it. Alderlea Merlot is surprisingly plush, plumy and deep, a result that few others on the Wine Islands could match (save for other neighbouring wineries that are also tenting). This isn’t to say that Roger is thumbing his nose at the inherent conditions on the coast by tenting his grapes – not at all. He also was instrumental in testing and pioneering the use of climate-suitable hybrid grapes on the Islands, like Marechal Foch and Cabernet Foch. His popular and singular Matrix is 100% Cabernet Foch – dark plum, wild spice and bright, piquant acid.

Alderlea Vineyards
1751 Stamps Rd, RR1, Duncan, BC



Steve Thorp and Mike Macquisten are men on a mission. And in February 2012, when the 7,700 square foot Vancouver Urban Winery opened in a light-industrial-meets-Gastown-hipster area of Vancouver, their mission took flight to the stars. Vancouver Urban Winery multifunctions as a tasting room, public and private event space, and central warehouse for eager local restaurants, casinos, lounges and theatres to source wine on tap. The FreshTAP trend has taken Vancouver by storm over the past 18 months – a market both highly wine savvy and green-conscious. Macquisten and Thorp were inspired to found the company after researching the benefits of wine-on-tap across the USA, and are now owners of Canada’s first custom keg packaging operation. The procedure itself is nothing new; the product arrives at the restaurant like kegged beer and is run through draught lines, pulled through a tap to serve to thirsty customers. What is revolutionary however is that the final product is ending up in a wine glass, not a pint glass, and is quality local wine from both boutique and mainstream producers. This urban winery is not attached to a specific vineyard, but houses wine in bulk from numerous wineries (more than two dozen at present time). The wine is transferred to 19.5L stainless steel kegs upon demand, transported to the establishment and ready to hook up to the bar and be poured for guests. Depleted kegs are picked up, sanitized and reused. Touted as smarter, fresher, friendlier, the FreshTAP program had eliminated the need for an estimated 151,656 bottles and caps/capsules and 18,451 pounds of cardboard as of November 2013. The entire process is accessibly transparent, and according to Thorp, the educational component is key to the company. “We use the space to educate people about the many benefits of Wine-On-Tap. The Winery is a very unique space for Vancouver and we strive to always offer a memorable experience for everyone that visits.” In addition to their interactive tours, the busy tasting bar showcases 36 rotating wines on tap, paired with small bites thoughtfully paired.

Vancouver Urban Winery
55 Dunlevy Ave, Vancouver, BC



Sometimes when you go out on your own, you’re buoyed by the support and experience of your neighbours who have laid the groundwork. If you’re opening a winery on Oliver’s Golden Mile, for example, you will benefit from years of study and know-how. However, when you go WAY out on your own, like to Lillooet, that local ground support crew is absent. Such is the case for Fort Berens Winery, established by Dutch immigrants, Rolf de Bruin and Heleen Pannekoek in 2005. When I asked de Bruin about pushing the boundaries for Canadian winemaking, his response was that it was lesser risky than logical, at least to a wine lover. “Some of the best wine in the world is made in marginal areas. The climate in Bordeaux and Burgundy has unstable from year to year, creating challenges each and every vintage. This annual struggle and the changes in taste from vintage to vintage is the very foundation of this industry.” On the Fraser River, rugged and unspoiled Lillooet is less than two hours north of Whistler, three and a half hours from Vancouver and two hours southwest of Kamloops. According to de Bruin, the climate in Lillooet is comparable to the South Okanagan, and over the past two years harvest has been on par with Oliver. With summer temperatures peaking above 40 C, they enjoy ample heat units during the season. And though precipitation is extremely limited in the semi-arid region, they average only 170 days frost free days, meaning early and mid-season varieties are best suited to site. Winters can drop to -25 C and colder, so de Bruin has wind machines at the ready to mitigate frosts and freezes.

“The real challenge is that no one has ever tried before to grow grapes in Lillooet on the scale we have” he notes. “We can’t rely on a neighboring vineyard to help us out or to share and discuss developments in the vineyard. We are on our own. We have chosen to set up in an area that is unchartered grape growing region.” Even though they are pioneering in this area, “the commonly shared pioneering spirit within the BC wine industry has led to a strong and open relationship between the owners, winemakers and vineyard managers. More than I had expected, other wineries help us and others as we start and grow our business.”

Fort Berens Estate Winery Ltd.
1881 Highway 99 N, Lillooet, BC



Sometimes pushing the boundaries in Canadian wine has less to do with the physical geographic boundaries and more to do with the pushing the stylistic boundaries. Colaneri Estate Winery opened in fall 2010, nestled in established St. David’s Bench in Niagara’s wine region. At first glance, the winery could be mistaken for a romantic villa in Tuscany. The Romanesque architecture and arching building was dedicated to the family’s ancestors and Italian heritage – a familial tribute that doesn’t stop at the facility. Colaneri focuses on the traditional Italian appassimento method of making wine, along with some done in ripasso and recioto styles as well. In the uniquely appassimento technique, grapes are kiln-dried to increase the concentration of aromas and flavours. According to Betty Colaneri, “We are pushing the boundaries so we can do our part in making this area world renowned for winemaking skills. We are providing styles such as appassimento, ripasso and recioto that have not been used in this area and it works to enhance the quality of wine being produced. It also helps with the harvest if we do not get the weather we were hoping for, as the styles compensate for that.” Their portfolio is varied and wide-ranging, filled with many small lot wines, though all are knit together by these shared vinification techniques.

In fact, the entire winery is a family affair, one begun decades ago in Frosolone, Italy, when Joseph Colaneri met his future wife Maria. Soon after welcoming their sons Mike and Nick, the promise of a new future in Canada beckoned, and the pioneering young family settled in Ontario. Over time, the Colaneris purchased a 40 acre vineyard, and the two brothers married two sisters, Angie and Betty – all taking different jobs on the property. Now the Colaneris have a new generation working in the winery, with Joseph and Maria’s grandchildren carrying on the family legacy. Each family member has selected a variety and designed the symbolic label for the wine, and as Betty notes, it’s yet another way to unite the Colaneri clan and carry on their traditions. “We provide a wide variety of wines done in unique styles all in a family atmosphere. Family members are on site to greet guests. The building was designed by the family to give the look of the traditional Italian style bringing a little taste of Italy to the Niagara peninsula.”

Colaneri Estate Winery
348 Concession 6 Road, Niagara-on-the-Lake, ON



Benjamin Bridge is proof positive that no matter how small your backyard (Nova Scotia) or how lofty your goal (solid among the top sparkling wines in the world), if you really set your mind to something, you can make it happen. Of course, it helps a great deal if you have leading wine consultant Peter Gamble on your team, pockets generous enough to bankroll the vision, and an owner (Gerry McConnell) dedicated enough to stay the course. Benjamin Bridge is an exceptionally innovative sparkling-centric winery on the south facing slopes of the Gaspereau Valley. In 2000, Gamble and partner, winemaker Ann Sperling, enlisted the advice of the world’s top Champagne authority, Tom Stevenson. Stevenson recommended the talents of former chef de cave of Piper-Heidsieck Raphaël Brisbois, and after visiting the site and experiencing the potential, Brisbois agreed to consult. Since their first release in 2002, the accolades for the cool-climate, piercingly fresh, complex and vibrant traditional method sparkling wines have greatly outpaced supply.

Of their objective, Gamble, along with in-house winemaker, Jean-Benoit Deslauriers, notes it “has always been to ensure that our wines are accurate reflections of the uniqueness of our growing conditions. We can look back at some of the research we did to improve terroir expression and see something rather progressive about it. For example, in 2002, introducing traditional method sparkling to the NS wine landscape was arguably a very appropriate way to express our signature freshness and turn Nova Scotia’s signature acidity into a strength, as opposed to a stylistic limitation.” Lots are small and aging lengthy (4-6 years before release), and what is released gets snapped up very quickly.

Naturally, having amazing wine that very few can taste only fuels the demand. Fortunately, the frizzante Nova 7 easily helps fill the void. Barely off-dry, with racy maritime Nova Scotian acidity, floral freshness and marginal alcohol (clocking in under 7%), this Muscat-based blend has kept momentum going between Brut Reserve releases. Members of the winery’s limited new BB Club will have exclusive allocation rights on many of the winery’s precious bubbles – some wines even too small, or rare, to be released to the public. Whether the $75 and up premium wines, or the $25 Nova 7, the aim is the same. “At Benjamin Bridge, muses Gamble, “we celebrate the uncommon level of freshness achievable in Nova Scotia and creating uncompromising wines.”

Benjamin Bridge
1842 White Rock Rd, Gaspereau Valley, NS



Written By:

Treve Ring is a wine writer, editor, judge, consultant and certified sommelier, and has been with EAT Magazine for over a decade.\r\n\r\nIn addition to her work with EAT, she is a Wine Critic and National Judge for ...

Comments are closed.