The best wine this side of Burgundy comes from . . . Canada?

by Alex Dutson

Staff Writer

Jamie Paquin is a man who likes a challenge. Three years ago, the 42-year-old Ontario native opened Heavenly Vines, the world’s very first all-Canadian wine store, in the leafy backstreets of Ebisu. Day in day out, he’s a tireless champion for what Matt Kramer of U.S. magazine Wine Spectator has called “the world’s least-known great wine zone.”

But often, the challenge begins right at the door.

“It’s quite common for my customers to approach the store, and then, after they see my face, politely read the signs and walk away,” he says.

Still, Paquin is undeterred. Swirling a glass of 2013 Colaneri Estate Pinot Grigio, he insists Japan is a perfect fit for the elegant Chardonnays and pinot noirs produced in Ontario’s Niagara and Prince Edward County regions, as well as the punchy reds from British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley.

“Here, people will drive hundreds of kilometers for a particular kind of noodle. Being around that, I’ve developed an appreciation for those things and I see that expressed in wine,” he says.

“Canada has a wide variety of microclimates and elevations, and top-quality soils from chalk to clay and limestone. Those give you fine nuances in aroma and flavor, and we felt Japan was the perfect fit for these wines, given the sophisticated culinary sensibilities here.”

Elsewhere, international wine critics have heaped praise on Canadian wine, with British writer Oz Clarke saying Canada can claim to be “the best terroir for chardonnay in North America,” and Jancis Robinson of the Financial Times waxing effusive about the “luscious Syrah” from the desert area of Osoyoos, at the southernmost tip of the Okanagan valley.

But knowledge of Canadian wine in Japan has been clouded by perceptions of Canada as a country simply too cold to ripen grapes, something implicitly endorsed by its reputation as a producer of ice wine — a nectarous dessert tipple.

“There’s no existing demand, because nobody knows it exists,” says Paquin. “Canadian tourism commissions around the world tend to present images of the Rocky Mountains and the Aurora Borealis. So nobody imagines us as a grape-growing region.”

Drinking patterns also present a hurdle. Wine accounts for just 3.5 percent of total alcohol consumption in Japan, with 98 percent of wine imports dominated by 10 countries, among them the powerhouses of France, Italy, Spain and Chile.

According to Paquin, this adds up to the need for an educational approach to business, something reflected in the intimate nature of his store, stocked with nearly 300 wines from more than 30 producers, as well as informational brochures, images of vineyards and a detailed map of Niagara’s wine-growing appellations.

Through tastings, presentations and events organized via social media, Paquin is gradually getting the word out, and now supplies wines to several top-tier Tokyo hotels, including the Grand Hyatt, Ritz Carlton and Four Seasons, as well as Tokyu department stores and a number of well-known eateries across the country.

Japanese restaurants have been quick to latch on to the unique flavors of the wine. Hiroshi Sato, head sommelier at the popular and often fully booked Shiro yakitori restaurant in Sapporo, is now a frequent buyer from Heavenly Vines, selling upward of 150 bottles per month. But like many, his first experience with Canadian wine came by chance.

“I was browsing a liquor store on a trip to Canada when I happened to pick up a bottle of 2011 Quails’ Gate Chardonnay,” he says. “When I got back to the hotel and took my first sip, I was overwhelmed — I’d never tasted a new-world wine that was so elegant.

“There were aromas of lemon peel and chalk, hints of vanilla and caramel, but as the temperature rose that gave way to a smooth honey-like texture, with richer flavors of orange peel and fresh pine.”

Sato says the characteristic minerality and what he describes as a savory umami flavor, combined with a rounded acidity from Canada’s cool, crisp nights, pair perfectly with the restaurant’s lightly-salted charcoal-grilled chicken.

He also said Ontarian wines are frequently mistaken for old-world wines, especially those from France.

Paquin confirms the trend. “When customers find out our wines are in the same wheelhouse as Burgundy, that often piques their interest. The quality kicks it in.”

Norman Hardie, whose Prince Edward County-produced wines recently received a series of rave reviews from U.K. columnist Jamie Goode, has supplied Heavenly Vines since it first opened. He sees a bright future for Canadian wines in Japan.

“Japan has always had a huge following for great Burgundian pinot noir and chardonnay,” he says. “Given that we make wines in a very Burgundian style that work well with the Japanese cuisine, they are growing in popularity.

Meanwhile, exports of Canadian wine reached nearly $1.2 million in 2013, and have almost doubled in the last five years.

Taking a final sip of that peach-colored Colaneri Estate, Paquin elaborates on the position of Canadian wines in Japan. “With the soils and climates we have the conditions to produce top-quality wines. But it’s never going to be mass scale. Our niche is artisanal wines at affordable price points for those who want something different.”

But until Japan’s wine lovers get to know Canadian wines, sommeliers such as Sato continue err on the side of caution.

“I always recommend (the wine) first on the basis of the grape variety, without mentioning it’s Canadian. Almost 100 percent of the customers will then take a sip and tell me it’s delicious. Only then do I let them in on where it comes from,” he says.

“Fortunately most of our customers trust the sommelier’s judgment and go along with the advice.”