Ontario Wine Report – January 2015
What’s New Niagara?
by David Lawrason
In mid-January I embarked on a long-overdue, four-day Niagara tour to better familiarize myself with the newer and most promising wineries on the Bench (plus Two Sisters in Niagara-on-the-Lake). It had been at least two years since doing the rounds. I was also partaking of icewine during the Niagara Icewine Festival, and dropping in and out of a role as an unofficial host to a group of sommeliers from the UK, Hong Kong and Montreal. Why are all sommeliers so young?
There is lots coming up, but if you want to skip right to a winery of interest click on a link below.
Icewine First and Foremost?
The personal highlight of my icewine activities was actually picking icewine grapes, for the first time in my life. In fact, it was the first time I had “harvested” grapes of any sort, shattering a 30-year resolution not to partake – as a critic – of any part of the commercial wine production process. (Once a movie critic has made a movie can he or she be a critic?). Not picking grapes is a rather silly threshold of course, but imagine my relief when I discovered these were not real ice wine grapes (they were only partially frozen), and the whole exercise was a photo-op for the visiting sommeliers. Nor did it occur in the dead of night, but during the golden glow of a sunset that the photographers seem to have dialled in. I was spared the real deal.
It all transpired in a vineyard owned by third generation grape grower Trevor Falk in the Niagara Lakeshore appellation. When we followed our picking bins into his press house I was stunned to find sixteen large basket presses installed largely for the icewine. They were still caked with the gooey pressed skins of the recent harvest and the air was sweet with fruit. The scale of it all shattered my romantic notion of shivering souls hand-cranking tiny presses outdoors to extract precious vials of juice. But on the other hand, it was an impressive display of efficiency and attention to detail. Icewine grapes need to be picked at an ideal temperature (which narrows the time window) and pressed almost immediately before grapes thaw – thus the need for rapid and high volume processing. But the scale of this press house also served to remind me how important icewine is to Ontario. We are, after all, numero uno in the world.
Trevor Falk supplies icewine juice to Andrew Peller Limited, and so the icewine experience continued later that evening at Peller Estates Winery where the group enjoyed a five course dinner by Executive Chef Jason Parsons. All but one course was paired with icewine! There was a frozen beet and goat cheese salad paired to riesling icewine; wild boar lasagna paired to Peller Estates Ice Cuvée Rosé; icewine infused Blue Benedictine cheese with vidal icewine; and finally – the classic and my favourite – chocolate and cabernet franc icewine for dessert! It was gustatory tour de force, although we did feel sugar heavy by end of it all. I guess the icewine infused marshmallows we roasted over an open fire at minus 15C didn’t help. (Lesson, one experimental icewine pairing while entertaining is a great idea, but maybe not a whole meal)
We Really Make Wine Here?
Meanwhile, back to those sommeliers. It was informative to be informing off-shore palates who have little concept of Ontario wine, other than icewine (which some were serving in their London restaurants). The portrait we present to visitors is telling of how we really see ourselves, and our message is focused very much on what a difficult, almost absurd wine region Ontario is. We have a summer growing season like central France or northern Italy – a decidedly moderate (not all that cool) situation. But our seasons are totally unpredictable year to year and especially in the autumn. Some are cold and dreary (2014); most are very humid, and some are healthy, spry and warm (2012). There is actually no median here – no average Niagara vintage. And that is very challenging to our winemakers, and to consumer appreciation of our wines.
But the real story is that our winters can be dastardly cold – like no other wine region on Earth. A –minus 27C freeze-out ‘event’ overnite Jan 13/14 puts the 2015 vintage into question. The prolonged deep freeze of 2014 virtually erased less winter hardy merlot, syrah and sauvignon from the vintage, and reduced yields of all but the hardiest varieties planted in the most protected sites. It’s hopeful to say that global warming will improve the situation, but recent evidence points to climate change unleashing extreme and fluctuating events for which there is no adequate preparation.
Yet Ontario is pressing on, and has all kinds of potential. Let the rest of Ontario’s recent story be told via the new wineries that have opened in the past year or are still to open. Here is who I visited, with links to some of the most interesting wines I tasted.
Pearl Morissette Estate Winery
3953 Jordan Road, Jordan,
Visit and Taste – phone for appt, (905) 562-4376, no tasting room (yet)
Buy – phone winery, very rarely at LCBO Vintages
Every once in a while I am challenged to rethink what I have learned over 30 years as a critic. It can be uncomfortable to be challenged, but it is essential. Perhaps to forestall being challenged it took me more than three years to meet with François Morissette, a Canadian-born, Burgundy–trained winemaker who came back to Niagara in 2007 to undertake this project financed by Toronto developer Mel Pearl. There has always been, until now, something reclusive and precious about Pearl Morissette – no highway signs, or tasting room, and a website that makes you peer inside for information. And an upper priced, idiosyncratic wine portfolio and style clearly not aimed at the average punter.
This may change this spring with the opening of a new facility that includes a tasting space, and the eventual roll-out of a less expensive line (as all premium Ontario wineries have had to do one day in order to actually sell wine in this market). This actually represents great news in terms of helping us understand what Niagara is, and what it can achieve. Because I tasted some of the most captivating wines of my Canadian tasting career at Pearl Morissette in January. And the UK sommeliers in the room that day were equally animated, even shocked, by the tasting as well.
François Morissette is actively and eruditely challenging many of the precepts upon which the Ontario wine industry has been built. To randomly pick some ideas: he challenges notions of grape ripeness (it’s all about skin ripeness not sugar levels); of sensory perception (aroma and flavour don’t matter only texture); of regulation (he has taken on the LCBOs VQA tasting panel on national TV after they ‘blackballed’ his riesling as being atypical, three times). He has been cast as a rogue, and god-forbid, a natural winemaker. Which he claims not to be because he uses sulphur when required. “Natural wine must still be good wine” he says, and I couldn’t care less whether the wine is orange” (which results from using little or no sulphur)
His outspokenness, intellect and ethos make many in Ontario’s mainstream uncomfortable. Just as he is uncomfortable in Ontario’s restrictive regulatory and retail environment. But he is sticking it out and doing what he can because he loves the winemaking challenge Ontario delivers and he believes it can be a great region among the world’s best with certain grapes – including chardonnay, riesling, cabernet franc and gamay. In the end he really only cares about making wine his way, and defends his freedom to do so. Here are a couple of examples of wines that deserve your attention.
Address: virtual for now
Visits: contact 905.932.3942,
Buy: LCBO Vintages, Saverio Schirelli Agencies 416.253.4974
If you thought François Morissette was hard to pin down, get ready for the nomad – Thomas Bachelder. He is a wandering oracle in wine world – full of ideas and observations and creative next projects. But he is not without a focus – making memorable chardonnay, and to a lesser extent pinot noir, in Niagara, Burgundy and Oregon. His family and heart lie in Niagara, but he has but not put down real commercial roots anywhere – although Oregon is sounding as though it is the most attractive option business-wise. For now he is making his wine in an old fruit processing shed above Beamsville, that does not have a tasting room or retail license (he can sell to restaurants). Thank goodness his “basic” chardonnay is a Vintages Essential.
Born and raised in Montreal Thomas was a wine writer before becoming a winemaker in the early 90s. We travelled together as correspondents for WineTidings in that era. But he forsook writing for making wine, working years in Burgundy and Oregon before being hired as the winemaker for Le Clos Jordanne in Ontario in the early 2000s. He guided that ground-breaking Burgundy-inspired joint venture between Boisset and Vincor Canada until soon after it was taken over by Constellation Brands in 2009.
Since then he and his wife Mary Delaney have traipsed between Niagara, Oregon and Burgundy making a series of wines that emphatically show the differences in terroir, and in vintage. His top Niagara chardonnays come from two sites, the Saunders Vineyard on the Beamsville Bench and the Wismer Vineyard from Twenty Mile Bench. The next evolution may be bottlings from upper and lower reaches of the large Wismer site – he is currently following separate barrels of each.
3651 Sixteen Rd, St Ann
Visits – 905-562-7474
Purchase – winery 905-562-7474, occasionally at LCBO Vintages
The Thomas Bachelder nomadic quest continues at Domaine Queylus, a project launched by a group of Quebec investors who wanted to throw their weight at the idea of making world class pinot in Niagara – this after tasting Bachelder’s Le Clos Jordanne work. So they hired him to spearhead their project, joined by world renowned French viticulturalist Alain Sutre who assessed sites that Thomas sourced. One was a slam dunk, a small sandier hillside site in Twenty Mile Bench owned by the Neudorf family. It once provided the fruit for a Le Clos Jordanne bottling called “La Petit Colline”. The other site chosen was set in heavier red clay just below the escarpment on Mountainview Road in the Lincoln Lakeshore appellation. It was planted to chardonnay, pinot and cabernet franc, and in one block of blue clay similar to the soils of Pomerol, some merlot.
But where to build the winery? The latter site has a high water table and construction would have been too expensive. So Bachelder found and refitted a modern wine warehouse located way up and over the escarpment eight kilometres south of Vineland. Far removed from lake effect, it is a no-vine land. But he is considering planting winter hardy hybrids and perhaps vinifera that he would have to bury in winter (as is done in Prince Edward County). He has hired the talented Kelly Baker as the on-site winemaker – a CCOVI grad who had also worked at Le Clos Jordanne and in Napa. And this spring a tasting room will open in a large log cabin-style house on the property.
As to the wines, pinot noir is the main event – but they are not single vineyard editions. The owners are more interested in creating three tiers – Traditional, Reserve and Grand Reserve – which makes Bachelder’s task more challenging – selecting and blending the right barrels to fit the price points. The pinots do indeed get to a fairly high level for Niagara, but as you will see in one of the attached reviews I was also quite taken by the quality of the cab franc and merlot blends from the Lincoln Lakeshore site.
4245 King Street Beamsville ON, L0R 1B1
Visits: Opens May 2015
Purchase: Vintages occasionally, direct 905-563-9463 X 201, winerytohome.com
The busy stretch of the King St Wine Route between Vineland and Beamsville is home to wineries like Kacaba, Malivoire, Greenlane, Kew Vineyards and Back 10 Cellars, with north-south cross streets like Cherry Ave and Mountainview Road leading to dozens more. In May this increasingly busy and important neighbourhood gets its new hospitality focal point when Redstone Winery opens, complete with an ultra-modern 100-seat restaurant (that the strip desperately needs). Redstone is another project by Moray Tawse, bringing the same resources, organic/biodynamic viticulture and quality minded focus and team to bear. Rene Van Ede, with eight years at Tawse, is the lead winemaker of a projected 10,000 case enterprise that will have a varietal focus more than a terroir focus, and be positioned at generally lower price points that Tawse wines (20,000 cases).
Redstone occupies the site of the former Thomas & Vaughan Estates, a short-lived project that showed flashes of interest with cabernet and merlot blends – this due to the same red clay soils that inform the “Bordeaux reds” of Domaine Queylus (above). Indeed Redstone takes its name from this terroir, which is the basis of its successful Bordeaux reds as well. The Redstone pinot and brilliant whites are drawn from another Tawse-owned property called Limestone Ridge high on the Niagara Escarpment in Twenty Mile Bench (not far from Wismer on one side and Flat Rock on the other). Altogether, and before the winery even opens its doors, Redstone has chalked up a fine reputation, finishing 14th out of over 130 wineries entered in the 2014 WineAlign National Wine Awards of Canada.
Still in the heart of the King St. corridor, Kew Vineyard opened Sept 2013 with a tasting room and retail store situated in a classic if unique and utterly charming brick farmhouse. The spacious, warm tasting room with high top tables looks through French doors onto one of the great Bench vineyard vistas in Niagara. What’s more, some of the vines you see are historic – with riesling planted in 1975 by Herman Weis of Germany’s Mosel Valley. That block turns 40 this summer, one the oldest vinifera sites in Canada. It was joined by chardonnay in 1978, and since then the 50-acre site has been populated with pinot noir, sauvignon blanc and even an experimental smattering of marsanne, roussanne and viognier (Rhone white varieties which actually survived the frigid winter of 2014).
The Kew Family sold the property in 2010 to the group of investors that also owns nearby Angels Gate. Management of the winery was taken on by John Young with his daughter Lisa running the tasting room and retail. They installed Angel’s Gate winemaker and Aussie-trained, Niagara veteran Philip Dowell to lend his bring his experienced hand with Bench fruit to the venerable vineyard. Indeed something like François Morissette (above) I find his wines to be texturally rich and balanced as opposed to bright and sassy – although a new organic riesling in 2013 has plenty of snap. Besides the very good marsanne blend, Kew is making a mark with sparkling, including a rare 100% pinot noir Blanc de Noir, and their Tradition that includes pinot noir chardonnay and pinot meunier.
Back 10 Cellars
4101 King Street, Beamsville
Visit: Sat & Sun 11-5, or by appt 905.562.3365
Purchase: winery, www.back10cellars.com
And we remain on the King Street strip! Back 10 Cellars opened last summer with ten acres of cabernet franc, riesling, pinot noir and chardonnay. (There should be little doubt by now that these are solidly emerging as Ontario’s “core varieties). The fallow orchard and farmhouse were purchased in 2002 with planting on-going since that time. This “big leap” into commercial, boutique winemaking was the vision of Andrew and Christina Brooks, a young couple from Calgary. He is a sommelier who has studied and worked with Calgary’s well respected wine retailer Richard Harvey; and Christina worked in Calgary restaurants. When they moved to Ontario and began raising a family, they also started a winery touring company called Crush on Niagara.
Step by step they cleared and planted vines and waited for the day they could make wine – while getting advice from respected Niagara incumbents like Lloyd Schmitt and Featherstone winemaker David Johnson. Indeed the wines are still made at Featherstone and bottled on a mobile line. Christina has transformed the front rooms of the brick farmhouse bungalow into a lovely, family-style seated tasting room and retail space, while their family occupies the rest of the house. So far the wines (with production of less than 1000 cases) are sold only from the tasting room, but the riesling and cab franc in particular are very much worth the stop.
Two Sisters Vineyards
240 John Street East, Niagara-on-the-Lake
Visit – open daily
Purchase – Winery, www.twosistersvineyards.com
An edifice of considerable gravitas has risen on the leafy outskirts of Niagara-on-the-Lake, right next door to Peller Estates. From the thick Greco-Roman columns at the entrance, to the grand high ceilinged foyer and massive tasting room; Two Sisters is a showpiece designed to present the more glamourous side of winemaking to the throngs of tourists who come to “Canada’s Prettiest Town”. And it’s done with almost aristocratic Euro flair befitting the proprietors – two Italian sisters named Angela Marotta and Melissa Marotta-Paolicelli. Indeed the classy, yet warm family style restaurant called Kitchen76 best defines that ambiance – with an Italian menu by chef Justin Lesso, that centres on a massive pizza oven. (So yes I ordered pizza, but not before a great appetizer called Polpo, grilled octopus in shaved fennel and radish).
As to the wines, I have tasted the portfolio of whites and reds, but I have not yet toured the winery with winemaker Adam Pearce, a Niagara College grad who arrived from Pentage Winery in the Okanagan Valley, B.C., to make the 2013 vintage. The 2012 vintage and 2010 wines were made by Martin Werner, who has since moved to the head winemaking job at Ravine Vineyard. It appears that the reds are all from their home vineyards in the Niagara River appellation, reflecting the ripeness and richness of this warmer site, especially in the hot 2010 vintage. And they are quite pricey. The whites from various cooler sites, in my view, hit a higher note – and offer better value.
So that’s a wrap, and thanks for hanging in! There are still other new Niagara wineries to profile – Di Profio, Wescott, Aure, Vieni, and Honsberger – but we will save those for another day. What’s most heartening about the group profiled above is that people with passion, experience and money continue to see Niagara as a worthwhile investment, with real potential. Now if only we could get Queens Park back out of the distribution and retail channel so that these earnest investors and proud winemakers can get their wines more easily to market.
VP of Wine
Photos courtesy of Sherri Lockwood, Andrew Peller Limited
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