California Vintages Have Taken the Lead in Canadian Table-Wine Sales

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California wines continue to reign supreme in the Canadian market, boasting retail sales topping $1 billion for the second year in a row, according to the Wine Institute of California (WIC). “California wines have been on a real growth curve over the past seven or eight years … to the point where in 2015 we became the top-selling import table wine category in Canada, surpassing France and Italy for the first time in history,” says Rick Slomka, director of the WIC’s Canadian office in Burlington, Ont. He credits fruit-forward taste profiles and a strong quality-to-value ratio as key factors in the vintages’ Canadian success.

Despite four consecutive years of drought, Slomka says California’s wine production has been virtually unaffected. In fact, grape production figures show counterintuitive results. “In 2012, 2013 and 2014, [production] was above average in terms of harvest size,” says Slomka, noting 2015 was down in comparison but still “around the norm.”

Though California wines have long been popular in the Canadian market, there has been a shift in which varietals consumers prefer. Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay continue to be category leaders, with Beringer, J. Lohr and Robert Mondavi labels leading the pack for both varietals. However, other grapes are capturing attention, including Pinot Noir and Moscato. “Another big success story for California over the last five years has been the emergence of red blends, as opposed to specific varieties,” adds Slomka. These wines — vinified from a combination of grape varieties — have proven particularly popular among the younger cohorts. Slomka lists Apothic Red (approximately $15), Menage à Trois Red (approximately $17) and Cupcake Red Velvet (approximately $14) among the top-selling labels.

These emerging favourites have not gone unnoticed at Cactus Club Cafe restaurants. “California really jumped on the bandwagon and is producing a crazy amount of Moscato,” notes Sebastien Le Goff, sommelier and service director at Cactus Restaurants Ltd. “It’s [popular] across the board [in Canada] but it is definitely seasonal. It’s easy drinking, especially for the summer months.”
Le Goff says California wines are popular at Cactus Club Cafe’s 29 restaurants across the country. “Our number-1 selling red wine by the glass is actually [California Karma’s] Cabernet Sauvignon ($13/6 oz.) in our Toronto location,” he adds.

Canadians’ penchant for the Golden State’s grape elixirs does vary by province. “In Toronto, California is number-1,” he explains. “On the west coast, B.C. wines are number-1 and California comes second.” Albertans also love their California wines and exhibit a preference for Zinfandel — such as The Prisoner (offered by the bottle at $88) — that is unmatched by other regions.

Beyond regional differences, both Slomka and Le Goff agree Canadians’ taste in wine is subject to a generational divide. Younger clientele are favouring lighter California offerings, while their older counterparts remain loyal to “bigger, bolder varieties.” It would seem California’s wine producers are privy to the call for lighter wines. “I think the alcohol level in California wines has been reducing in the past couple of years,” says Le Goff. “Some wineries that were selling wines at 14 to 14.5 per cent alcohol are now selling those with 13 to 13.5 per cent.”

Volume 48, Number 2

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