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Rahim Mohamed: Why I couldn’t resist Alberta’s call

Commentary

Hub contributor Steve Lafleur recently penned a thorough, even-handed assessment of the ubiquitous “Alberta is Calling” campaign, written from the perspective of a young(-ish), urban white-collar professional with roots in southern Ontario (i.e.: essentially the campaign’s exact target audience). 

Lafleur, who lived in both Edmonton and Calgary before returning to his native Ontario two years ago, is uniquely suited to separate the wheat from the chaff. (Steve was notably unimpressed by the world-famous Calgary Stampede, which he dismissively brands a “two-week-long outdoor corporate party”).

While acknowledging several upsides of Alberta living—including reasonable housing costs, a robust job market, and abundant outdoor recreation opportunities—Lafleur ultimately concedes that Wild Rose Country just wasn’t for him. The province’s suffocating, smoke-filled summer air was, understandably, his breaking point. He also yearned for the connectedness, cross-border travel opportunities, and big-city feel of his old stomping grounds in Toronto.

Even as I applaud Lafleur for having the moxie to spurn Canada’s most thin-skinned province so publicly (the piece was predictably ratioed on Twitter), I must point out that he overlooks Alberta’s true special sauce: its cultural and demographic proximity to the United States. 

After spending most of my adult life in the states, I was forced to return to Canada this summer when my work visa expired. Distraught though I was, it was at least an easy choice for me to relocate to Calgary, which embodies the best aspects of a medium-sized American city. 

Allow me to explain.

Canadians are taught from a young age to view the Great White North as morally, culturally, and politically superior to its troubled neighbour to the south. Canadian social studies curricula, newscasts, and beer commercials all perpetuate the image of the United States as a grievously ill society, plagued by systemic racism, indiscriminate gun violence, and dysfunctional politics; a country where paranoid xenophobes cling to their guns and religion while the rest of the world passes them by.

This one-dimensional caricature of the United States obscures the fact that, for many young people, it is a more bountiful, more affordable and, frankly, more fun place to be than Canada. I saw this firsthand over a decade ago when I moved south to pursue graduate studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Accepting an offer to study at UNC was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I would have received a fine education at McGill or U of T, but I would never have experienced the UNC-Duke basketball rivalry—arguably the most heated blood feud in college athletics—from the trenches of Franklin Street. Nor would I be able to explain, in clinical detail, why North Carolina barbecue is far superior to the tripe that passes for barbecue in South Carolina (tl;dr: vinegar-based sauce > mustard-based sauce).

Our fight song is punctuated with the crescendoing lyrics “I’m a Tar Heel born, I’m a Tar Heel bred, and when I die, I’m a Tar Heel dead”. This is barely hyperbole.

As a UNC alum, I can instantly connect with a community of passionate Tar Heels in any major city in North America; a group of ready-made friends to meet up with each March for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, clad in our trademarked school colour (Carolina blue). It’s an alumni network matched by few universities in the United States—and precisely zero in Canada. 

Another advantage of UNC is its proximity to Research Triangle Park (RTP), North America’s largest centralized hub of science and technology firms. Former classmates of mine who washed out of academia now work well-paying jobs in RTP as data storytellers, user interface/experience designers, and artificial intelligence engineers; job titles that barely exist in Canada outside of a few major cities. (Raleigh, the Research Triangle’s largest urban centre, barely cracks the top 40 of U.S. cities by population).  

And North Carolina’s Research Triangle isn’t even particularly unique. Virtually every state boasts at least one up-and-coming city, replete with tech start-ups, dog-friendly craft breweries, and degree-holding, upwardly mobile millennials. Places like Boise, Idaho, Santa Fe, New Mexico and Lexington, Kentucky (another former hometown of mine). 

While young Canadians face a Sophie’s Choice-esque dilemma between affordability and livability, no such conundrum exists south of the border. There are plenty of spots in the states that are simultaneously hip and dirt cheap. I lived comfortably in the bohemian enclave of Carrboro, North Carolina on a $20,000 per year graduate student stipend. 

One of the first things I noticed in the United States was an unmistakably young energy; a spirit that’s every bit as invigorating as it is impossible to put into words. The median American is a still youthful 38 years old (three years younger than the average Canadian) and millennials, born between 1981 and 1996, now comprise the largest segment of the country’s population (Boomers are still clinging to numerical superiority in Canada). 

States now fight tooth-and-nail to attract this sizeable rump of twenty-and-thirtysomethings, who’ve started to flex their political muscles in recent election cycles. The influence of millennials (and, increasingly, Gen-Z) can be felt across every facet of American society; spanning cities, popular culture, workplaces, and politics (millennial pols Pete Buttigieg and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are both tipped as favourites to win the Democratic presidential nomination in 2024).

This brings me back to Alberta which, outside of the territories, is the only place in Canada where millennials outnumber baby boomers. (The median Albertan, like the median American, is a spry 38 years old). It is, as Hub contributor Howard Anglin wrote, a place that “bristles with the uncompromising vigour of youth and the entrepreneurial impatience of the newcomers who are drawn to it”. To wit, it is the only place in Canada that even remotely resembles the vibrant, millennial-dominated spaces I fell in love with over the decade I spent living in the United States.

Alberta is also Canada’s most meritocratic province; a place where one need not be born into the right family to have a shot in life. It’s no coincidence that Calgary gave Canada its first Muslim mayor and Edmonton its first Muslim member of parliament (Calgary Forest Lawn MP Jasraj Singh Hallan is likely to become Canada’s first-ever non-white finance minister if the Conservative party wins the next federal election). Indeed, Alberta is a place where elbow grease will trump family name every time. 

Alberta is often compared to Texas due to surface-level similarities but, in my view, it more closely resembles a rapidly growing purple state somewhere in the middle of the country. Accordingly, Calgary could be one of any number of medium-sized cities in the Upper Midwest or Great Plains. 

Calgarians are a remarkably welcoming bunch. Many of us, after all, were once newcomers ourselves (often quite recently). We’re always game to strike up a chat with a stranger; even if the conversation invariably turns to business (pro tip: never leave the house without a stack of business cards). Calgarians, by and large, have mastered the art of appearing superficially friendly while internally calculating how much personal utility they can squeeze out of each new acquaintance—the line between socializing and networking is non-existent here. 

Much has been written about Alberta’s cultural similarities to the American (Wild) West, but Alberta’s demographics are really what makes it feel more American than the other provinces. Alberta is young, hungry, and dynamic in a way that parallels Utah (median age 31), North Dakota (median age 35), and the surprisingly cool Nebraska (median age 37). 

Alberta certainly isn’t for everyone, but it’s undoubtedly the best place to live in Canada if you’re an ambitious thirtysomething who knows the exact number of days you have left to make a Top 40 Under 40 list (1,335 in my case).

Alberta is calling, just not on a rotary phone. Go West, young man—while you’re still young enough to crack Avenue Calgary’s rankings.

Malcolm Jolley: The lesser-known Cabernet that is worth your while

Commentary

Cabernet Franc is an orphan grape, meaning whatever varieties bred together to make it ages ago have disappeared into extinction. Perhaps, a thousand or so years ago, it was with this knowledge that Cabernet Franc set about having children of its own, like Merlot and most famously Cabernet Sauvignon, the latter being the lovechild of a dalliance with Sauvignon Blanc. And like all good and devoted parents, Cabernet Franc has been by and large happy to step back and see its widely planted progeny find success and renown in the world of wine.

Cabernet Franc is likely best known as one of the grapes in a Bordeaux blend, or Meritage blend from California. For a viticulturist, Cabernet Franc’s main talent is its ability to ripen early, or at least earlier than most other red wine grapes. In the pre-global warming climate of the mid to late twentieth century, this would have been particularly valuable in Bordeaux, where the vignerons could at least count on it to ripeness over a cool growing season. Further north in the cooler Loire Valley, its ability to ripen early made it the overwhelmingly dominant red wine grape.

Cabernet Franc does well in another cool climate that’s close to my home, the Niagara Peninsula and the other wine-producing regions of Southern Ontario. It responds well to the limestone soils of the Niagara Escarpment. At Thirty Bench, winemaker Emma Garner’s Cabernet Franc from the Beamsville Bench is among the most prized-after Niagara reds, while Norman Hardy’s Cab Franc from limestone-riddled Prince Edward County doesn’t get the attention of his Pinot Noir, but is a perennial fan favourite, for those that know.

Looking back to France, the wines of the Loire Valley are best known in export markets like ours for the whites; especially for Sauvignon Blanc and particularly for the relatively far eastern regions of the valley, Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé. Further down the river, towards the Atlantic, roughly between the old medieval cities of Tours and Angers, is where we find the red wines, nearly all of them from Cabernet Franc vines.

The great commercial advantage enjoyed by the winemakers of Bordeaux is its deep water harbour, which made for easy exports to Britain, the Low Countries, and eventually North America and beyond. While the Loire has the port of Nantes, once the capital of seafaring Brittany, the importance of the Loire to its winemakers ran the other way: it was historically the river itself.

The Loire is France’s longest river, and it makes a long arc from its source in the Massif Central to the Atlantic. About midway, at Orléans, the river is only 120 kilometres to Paris. The bulk of the wines of the Loire, especially the reds, have always been bound for the capital and its bistros. This is in part why you see relatively few Loire Cabernet Franc bottles in Canada, at least outside of Quebec: the Parisians and fellow Northern French drink most of it.

When compared to its Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot offspring, Cabernet Franc is often described as lighter, with more red than black fruit notes. Sometimes it’s also described as a bit more fragrant. As with all vinous things, the exceptions to these rules are multiple and a concentrated Cab Franc from a warm year (which seems to be every year now in Europe) can be just as rich and complex as any red wine. Still, the Loire Valley Cabernet Francs tend to show good, bright and lively acidity, which places them firmly in the camp of the vins gastronomiques.

Great wine pairing seems to be a chicken and egg game. Did the wine find the food, or the food the wine? Or if it isn’t, a third way of explanation would be to say they are symbiotic: most of the classic ones seem to involve matching the wines of a place to its foods. The Loire Valley is sometimes called the garden of France, as just about any French ingredient can be found, grown, or raised there. And, like the wine, a lot of it ends up in Paris.

There are lots of red wines that pair just fine with bistro fare—which is to say popular—foods of France, but there is a strong argument to be made that a typical Loire Valley Cabernet Franc is versatile enough to go with just about all of them: light enough for seafood or for white meats like sweetbreads, but also big enough for anything from calf’s liver to duck confit to good old steak frites. In this way, there are few home-cooked meals chez moi that wouldn’t welcome a glass of the lighter Cabernet.

All of this is why I was delighted to find a bottle of the 2018 Saumur-Champigny Lieu Dit Les Poyeux on the shelves of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario store near me. The French wine term lieu dit can be literally translated to “place said”, but might be more accurately (and poetically) transposed as “the place we call”. Les Poyeux is a hillside vineyard a little south of the Loire near the town of Sauzur-Champigny, which is famous for its caves.

Since before recorded history, those caves have been carved out of the soft yellow chalky limestone the locals call tuffeau. Lightweight, it’s easy quarry and ideal for floating up or down a river to build so many cathedrals, abbeys and fairytale castles, like the big one nearby at Saumur. It’s also fantastic at letting vines grow long roots deep into it, in search of water and minerals dissolved therein. Of all the red wine regions of the Loire, Saumur-Champigny has the most tuffeau, which makes wines that are paradoxically both soft and deep in flavour.

The Les Poyeux is made by a co-operative begun in the 1950s, named after two of its founding farmers: Marcel et Robert. Like a Clos in Burgundy, individual farmers claim particular rows at Les Poyeux, and the co-operative happens to have six there that contribute to the wine. In concert, the farmers leave their Cabernet late on the vines, typically picking well into October, then the must is left to macerate on its skins for 22 days, to bring out a brooding, blackberry fruited wine despite its light strawberry nose. Mixed into this is the telltale Loire Cabernet Franc note of pencil shavings. Also, it’s $19 a bottle.

The Marcel et Robert 2018 Saumur-Champigny Lieu Dit Les Poyeux is a great deal, and there are many other great Loire deals to be had, if you are lucky enough to be in a market with an allotment of it, now and again. Of course, there are lots of more expensive, and more sophisticated, Saumur-Champigny Cabernet Francs out there, mostly sold by the case to restaurants or collectors. And also wines from neighbouring regions like Chinon and Bourgueil that are worth checking out if you can find them. The upshot is that the red grape that made it in the Loire when it was too cold for much of anything else to work is having a bit of a moment in warmer times, and more often than not it’s worth a try.