Heard it Through the Grapevine: with Craig McDonald

We had the pleasure of meeting Craig McDonald (Vice President of Wine Making at Andrew Peller Wines and Senior Winemaker at Trius Winery) at the Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute (CCOVI) at Brock University back in April of this year. Not only does Craig craft one of our favourite sparkling wines here in Ontario (the Trius Showcase “5”) but he’s also the man behind the magic at a number of other establishments under the Andrew Peller umbrella.

Craig was born in Australia and has over two decades of winemaking experience in diverse wine regions like the USA, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. He joined Andrew Peller Wines in 2010 and now has a total of 31 vintages under his belt. You gotta admit, that’s pretty impressive! Not to mention the fact that he was awarded “Ontario Winemaker of the Year” – twice!

We were lucky enough to tour Trius’ sparkling wine cellar with Craig back in April, and to catch up with him after an excellent panel discussion on the “Explosion of Canadian Fizz” at the Terroir Symposium in May. We were extremely excited to chat about his winemaking style, Trius’ sparkling wine portfolio, and the potential for Ontario to become a leader in cool climate viticulture. Check out our full interview with Craig below…

Can you tell us a little bit about Trius and its history with sparkling wine?

Trius has been around since the early 80’s, but only really became known for its sparkling wine in 1989 (although they had done a lot of trials before that). The interesting thing about Trius is that historically they knew what they wanted, and they set out in a very big way to achieve it. They built a huge underground sparkling wine cellar – which at the time was considered a gargantuan exercise! People thought “there’s no way people will ever drink that much sparkling wine in Canada”. You’ll remember brands like Andrès, Baby Duck and President… all those sparkling wines were very much in fashion in the 80’s. So to go in and make a commitment like that for traditional method sparkling wine – where you could produce half a million bottles – was a very bold move. And one which I’m very thankful for. It was pretty ballsy to do that back in the day!

As a winemaker, do you consider your approach to winemaking different than others?

I never treat success as being final. It’s just another stepping stone towards learning and my experience here in Ontario. Every vintage I learn something different. My style has always been to never rest on your laurels, always try something new, and let innovation speak. We have a much larger winemaking team now, and I’m instilling that in our team as well. Even though we’ve been doing things a certain way for a long time – we’ve been making sparkling wine pretty much the same way for 30 years – we’re still doing creative things with the composition of the wine, the dosage, the length of time and the way that we age the bottles… so there’s minor tweaks along the way. We’re never going to just sit there and say “well, we’ve got sparkling wrapped up!” So my personal philosophy is: each vintage is different, so try to take advantage of that and be open minded. And never think you know everything… because there’s always something around the corner!

What’s something about Trius that most people don’t know?

We do an incredible amount of blending, which is part of our signature style because we’re non-vintage. We have 30 tanks of base wines which we’re constantly using to come up with new blends in order to keep things consistent. The thing about blending is you have to visualize… not what you see now, but what you’re going to see in 2 or 3 years time. It’s very much a forward thinking exercise. Trius is all about the blend – whether it’s a red wine, a white wine, or a sparkling wine – the art of the assemblage is very important and very much an art form.

There’s been a lot of talk in Ontario about the new “Orange Wine” category (skin-fermented white wines) and the regulations around them. The regulations allow for skin-fermented white wines that are effervescent, have you heard about that?

There’s quite a move to get creative and take a different piece of the market. I respect that and I give the winemakers credit for trying to carve out their own niche, for example with “Orange Wine.” I do wonder about that type of winemaking and its fit with sparkling. For me, sparkling wine should always be clean and focused. That being said, I still think that it has its place. You always need the outliers, eccentricities and new angles in the industry.

Trius has been in the industry in Ontario for a long period of time. How have you seen things change and where do you think things are going to go?

I would say that we’re going to see a lot more traditional method extended lees aged wines. We’re going to see those emerge over time because I know they’re in the cellars right now. When producing sparkling wine, you only need to have your wine on lees for nine months – and you can be in the market within a year from harvest. You’re going to get a great well-made wine, but it’s not going to have that finesse and complexity like the “5” [Trius’ vintage Blanc de Noirs] or other extended lees aged wines. Malivoire just released their second sparkling wine and they came right out with a 4 year old. That’s the future, that’s where we should be headed. The problem is it costs a lot of money to tie up inventory like that, but I think the consumer will pay for quality in the end. People buy Champagne because it has rules and regulations, which mean you have to make it a certain way with quality top of mind. Norm Hardie just came up to me earlier – and he doesn’t throw his compliments around – and he was pretty stoked about the “5”! It really re-enforced to me that this is the type of wine we should be making. We should be making more wines like this and putting them in front of the consumer and letting them decide.

You’ve won “Ontario Winemaker of the Year” twice! Most recently again in 2016. What does that mean to you, and how does it feels to be recognized by your peers?

It was amazing! I was extremely honoured to receive that award – from Tony Aspler, no less. He’s one of the the foremost wine gurus around, and he really knows his stuff. So I was tickled pink! I work for a large company [Andrew Peller Limited, the largest Canadian-owned wine company], and the award speaks not only to the winemaking at Trius, but our contribution to the wine industry as a whole. I’m a big advocate of stepping outside of our corporate shoes and into the broader community. I think as I get a little older that’s where I like to focus.

Besides Trius, if you were to order a glass of sparkling wine at a bar or restaurant, what would it be?

It would be a Brut Rosé. In the summer, a nice dry sparkling rosé is exactly what the doctor ordered for me. Even a little kiss of sugar is ok – as long as it’s got that fresh acidity and it’s clean and focused. That’s the type of bubbles that I like to drink in the summer!

Still Thirsty for More?

Check out our full “Sparkling Spotlight” post on Trius Winery!

Craig McDonald

For more on Craig (and to buy his sparkling wines) visit Trius Winery.