Canada’s largest wine region is just a province over, yet Canadian wines are curiously absent from many of Edmonton’s restaurants. When they do appear, it’s usually only a bottle or two.
So when The Butternut Tree opened in 2017 and launched an all-Canadian wine list to complement its menu of exclusively Canadian ingredients, it was making a bold – and potentially risky – statement. Chef and owner Scott Downey approached the wine list with the same philosophy as his food menu: He wanted to showcase the best of Canada’s rich agricultural bounty. Before he returned to Edmonton to open the restaurant, he spent time in the Okanagan and started discovering some of the unique things happening in Canada’s wine regions.
“Because we are such a new wine industry here in Canada, we don’t have a lot of these rules and regulations that I think a lot of these other countries do,” he says. “All these vineyards, they can really plant any type of grape varietal on their lots, as well as they can produce wine in any way they see fit.”
Downey made sure there are plenty of familiar grape varieties and flavour profiles on the menu, but he also uses some of the oddities – like an oaked Pinot Gris – when they happen to pair very well with his food. He’s also tried to make compatible substitutions for wines that simply don’t exist in Canada, such as aged wines from centuries-old vineyards like Bordeaux, Burgundy or Barolo.
The Butternut Tree wasn’t the first restaurant in town to focus on Canadian wines. When RGE RD opened in 2013, its focus on regional Canadian cuisine made headlines. Caitlin Fulton, general manager and co-owner, says the current wine list is about two-thirds Canadian, down from about 90 per cent Canadian offerings when it first opened. Its selection of international wines grew as its cellar got deeper, she explains – it now carries about 100 different wines. (The Butternut Tree has just over 40 wines on its menu.)
Similar to Downey, Fulton focuses on Canadian wines to align with RGE RD’s all-Canadian ingredients. But it was also important that each wine, whether Canadian or not, comes with a story.
“I’d say the common thread is that the wines reflect the philosophy of our farmers, are sustainably produced, and have best practices in terms of their agricultural practices,” she says. “We wanted wines that reflected terroir. … So it’s not necessarily just showing what we can’t get in Canada or what isn’t represented, but it’s always about having the wine support the food, or reflect the place it’s from.”
Customers seem to have embraced the Canadian wine lists at both The Butternut Tree and RGE RD. However, both restaurants did field some questions and uncertainties from guests who were unfamiliar with Canadian wines.
“After we make our suggestions and find out what they are more familiar with, they’ve been quite happy with the bottles of wine that we can present them,” Downey says. “Then, moving forward, definitely after that first while, we’ve had a lot of people who have become very supportive and they love the fact that we have Canadian wines.”
Fulton recalls getting requests for things like the ubiquitous Malbec by the glass, which RGE RD actually does offer now – but it’s a Malbec from Canada.
“The majority of our guests are super happy that our wine list features such a great variety of Canadian wine,” Fulton says. “So that’s the most overwhelming feedback, is that yeah – they don’t see this kind of list everywhere.”