Cellared In Canada

March 28, 2011

Firstly, your forgiveness for the 8 month absence! Opening a wine bar and finishing up a Sommelier program left me with little time/sanity for blogging. Hello again.

So, a month or so ago I gave a class presentation on the Cellared in Canada controversy. Afterwards, it was clear that few people had heard of the topic, let alone understood it. So, I thought a blog post was in order.


Credit: vinquebec

According to Wikipedia, Cellared in Canada is a term used to designate Canadian wine produced with varying quantities of Canadian and foreign bulk wine.

These varying quantities of foreign bulk wine (grapes, concentrates, juices) can be anywhere from up to 70% foreign-sourced content (in Ontario) to 100% (in BC). These wines are free to carry a label which states (more, or less) “Cellared in Canada from Imported and Domestic Wines”.

You may be starting to get a sense of what the fuss is all about.

The controversy is essentially two-pronged: one argument centers around language and labeling; the second around the winemaking  practice itself. In a nutshell, the general criticisms are as follows:

1. It misleads the consumer (wording, shelving/store-placement)

The argument here is that “Cellared in Canada” (CIC)  is intentionally misleading to consumers by implying that the wine – made largely or entirely with blends of imported wines – is Canadian. To add to the befuddlement, these wines are often placed in the Canadian section of liquor stores. Few attempts are made to educate the consumer by revealing where its imported content really comes from.

Most of this strife comes from within the industry – growers, winemakers, critics, writers etc.  Many consumers (the ones we’re so worried about) are not even aware of CIC’s existence – never mind what it means. A recent Wine Intelligence Poll revealed that  only 36% of Canadian wine drinkers were actually aware of the term, and only half of these people could correctly state its meaning. Once informed, however, over half thought the term was inappropriate and most of them wanted to see country of origin and percentage on the label at least.

2. It misrepresents and/or damages reputation of Canadian wine

Canada is capable of making top drawer wine. We’ve known this at home for some time and are finally gaining some merit and recognition world wide.  Most agree that a wine created in Canada from foreign content is not a true expression of  Canadian wine. But some feel CIC reflects poorly on the Canadian wine industry as a whole.

jancis robinson

Jancis Robinson Credit: gangofpour

One prominent voice on this front is Jancis Robinson. Jancis can probably also be credited with unleashing the CIC debate on a grand scale. It was on a visit to Okanogan back in the Summer of ’09 where she learned of the practice. Disappointed with what she saw – and even more so the following Spring when she tasted, and rather liked, some of the best VQA Chardonnays at a tasting at Canada House in London – she called CIC “a disservice to real Canadian wine”. Many industry experts agreed with her and still do.

The supporters of CIC,  however, say that the practice is necessary. 100% Canadian Wine is expensive and nearly impossible to compete at lower price points (i.e. the sub $10 category) without incorporating cheaper foreign wine.  They also maintain that buying foreign juice supports a “growing wine industry” by supplementing small grape harvest years and stretching crops to produce more wine. Which leads to better financial security for the wineries and supports them through low-crop years.

Beyond these criticisms there are other problems, too. The program is currently monitored by the Canadian Standards Board – a voluntary standards association, rather than a federal regulatory body, with no force of law behind it. Most agree that this type of regulation is too loose and that CIC would benefit with stricter controls and governance.

There is also the issue of unfair competition. Smaller and medium-sized Canadian wine producers making wine from 100% Canadian grapes are unable to compete at the price points offered by big wineries (and it is the big wineries) bottling CIC wines.

copper moon

Copper Moon Credit: bcliquorstores

The debate, though still considered important, has cooled somewhat in recent months and governments and big wineries are doing little to clarify the issues raised. Tighter regulation is still just a notion, but there has been some movement within the Wine Law/Canadian Food Inspection Agency recently around label transparency. Specifically, a proposal requesting that the source of foreign content be indicated: E.g.

“Made in Canada from [country or countries] grapes (or juices)” or “Blended in Canada from [country or countries] wines”

The bigger question of whether we should we be making CIC wines at all still looms. But personally, I think that’s more of a purist’s battle and not a huge worry of mine.  Cheaper, knockoff versions of the real thing plague nearly every industry. There is a market for them, just as there is for the authentic product. The consumer decides which product they want to buy. The problems arise when the consumer is unable to make an informed decision about that product, or worse, they are duped.

So, the first step, I believe is to tackle transparency. Remove the tricky “Cellared In Canada” wording, clarify origin on labels and display these products accordingly on shop shelves. This would at least educate consumers so that they’re able to make an informed purchase.

    1. labMisrepresents and/or damages reputation of Canadian wine
    2. Unfair competition for small/medium sized Canadian wine producers, making wine from 100% Canadian grapes
    3. Too loosely regulated. Canadian Standards Board is a voluntary standards association, not a federal regulatory body, no force of law behind it
    4. Causes confusion for the consumer (wording, shelving/store-placement)