Szabo’s VINTAGES Preview – Sept 17th, 2016

Ontario Harvest 2016 Preview; Top Ontario Wines and International Smart Buys
by John Szabo, MS, with notes from Michael Godel and Sara d’Amato

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

If you’ve been following local wine postings, or are lucky enough to live in wine country, you know that harvest is already underway. This week I report on the progress: clement September weather has local vintners stoked about the potential for 2016. Several took time away from the sorting table to share their early-harvest thoughts. VINTAGES September 17th release also features Ontario, and the WineAlign crü picks their favorites, along with other worthy, winery-direct local bottles. A handful of smart international buys rounds it out, including a rare but lovely pinot noir, more South African value, an exciting grape you’ve never heard of from Spain, and a tidy red blend from one of my favorite Portuguese producers.

2016 Sun, Don’t Go Down On Me

Any winegrower will tell you that the last weeks and days before harvest can make or break it, so 2016 is by no means “in the books” just yet, despite a great deal of promise. Jay Johnston of Flatrock Cellars on the Niagara Escarpment has described it so far, as “a stellar growing season”. But as syrah specialist Rob Power of Creekside Estate reminds me: “What happens between Labour Day and Halloween calls the tune for Niagara. We’ve had good summers ruined by poor autumn weather, and conversely gone into September glumly and come out the other end with stellar fruit”.

But barring a sudden, disastrous shift in weather patterns, 2016 is looking sharp. “If the fall continues like it is now we will be in for a stupendous harvest” enthuses Paul Pender of Tawse, WineAlign’s Canadian Winery of the Year. Citizens of southern Ontario will recall the late spring and summer of 2016 as exceptionally hot and dry, following an unusually wet and generally miserable early spring, which was at times colder than winter. Such erratic weather must have given pause to even the most die-hard climate change skeptics.

Hot May weather sent vines into their growing cycle early: “Bud break was a week ahead of a typical year”, reports Keith Tyers from Closson Chase in Prince Edward County, “and the heat encouraged rapid growth”. Things were looking good from the start.

Later in the season heading into veraison – when grape skins change colour and begin to soften – the greatest concern was drought – the driest summer in 13 years of grape growing according to Tyers. A lack of water hampers ripening and reduces yields. Yet, “the rains did finally come”, Daniel Speck of Henry of Pelham tells me, “which was critical to sizing the fruit as well eliminating drought stress on the vines.”

More timely rains in an otherwise hot and dry August were also welcome: “The late summer rains were a godsend”, says Norm Hardie pointedly, who makes wine from both Niagara and Prince Edward County, “arriving just when pinot and chard were going through veraison.” Pender adds that the rain over the last three weeks has helped to plump up the clusters and push ripening.

Overall, growers are reporting healthy crops with few signs of disease (“super clean”, according to Pender), which is the arch-nemesis of Ontario wine growers. Yields are slightly higher than expected, though by no means excessive: “after the drought I didn’t expect the crop yields we are having. We’re close to the balanced, crop thinned yields we try to achieve each year”, says Shiraz Mottiar of Malivoire on the Beamsville Bench. Speck reports “a nicely sized crop of very high quality, much needed after two smaller than usual vintages in 2014/15.” It’s expected that moderate yields overall will also ensure above average concentration.

The Challenges

The continuing hot, sunny weather in September – Toronto announced several extreme heat advisories this past week alone – presents its own set of challenges. Chief among these is timing the harvest, as grapes ripen at record pace. “The key will be to get at [grapes] early and avoid overripeness and low acidities”, says Hardie, well-known for his early harvest policy.

But others agree: “These heat waves are ripening whites rapidly, and acidity levels are coming down fast”, Power tells me, though he was prepared. “We left more leaf area shading on clusters to try to hold them back a bit, which seems to be working”. Nevertheless, Creekside’s St David’s Bench Queenston Road Vineyard Viognier is well ahead of the ripening curve, looking like it usually does on October 1st (golden and translucent berries) on September 1st.

Creekside's Viognier in September

Creekside’s Viognier in September

Another battle is waged over simple harvest logistics, a quality factor rarely considered by consumers. “Our biggest challenge in a year like this is that different grape varieties, usually harvested over 8 weeks or so, will ripen around the same time”, says Speck. This can cause endless headaches for winemakers as they struggle to fit the jigsaw puzzle together. “Managing tank space will be the biggest challenge”, confirms Mottiar. Some grapes might end up getting picked slightly early or late out of pure necessity.

In the case of Henry of Pelham, the Specks added a new Bucher Vaselin press this year to manage the anticipated onslaught of grapes:  it doubles the amount of fruit we can handle”, Speck says. But not everyone will be as well prepared and equipped.

The Expectations

So what can we expect from 2016? Challenges notwithstanding, here are some forecasts from the folks who’ll be jumping on the grapes:

Norm Hardie, Hardie Wines: “While I think it will be a good year for early ripeners, the early start to the season and the current warm weather bodes very well for [later] Bordeaux varieties. Think 2012.”

Rob Power, Creekside: “I am excited by the way the reds are setting up ahead of schedule. Knock on wood.”

Keith Tyers, Closson Chase: “Lower yields will produce amazing quality

Jay Johnston, Flatrock Cellars: “Chardonnay is showing great concentration right now and the pinot noir crop is the strongest we’ve had since 2013. The wine will be rich and deep, as long as this favourable weather continues! Riesling is always reliable and handles all sorts of difficult conditions. As long as we start cooling down and can maintain acidity & structure, we will have a great vintage. It’s an exciting year for winegrowing in Niagara, and likely across all of Ontario’s regions.”

Shiraz Mottiar: “Chardonnay may be the best I have ever seen it. With thick golden skins, the clusters are beautiful, not too tight, balanced and consistent throughout the vineyard. And of course I am always excited by gamay as, time and time again, we get vibrant fruit no matter the weather.”

Emma Garner, Thirty Bench Winery: “The dry heat has left us in a great position to be harvesting some of the most thrilling reds since 2012. The hot temperatures will make riesling a bit of a challenge due to the potentially rapid decrease in acid, however the cool nights on the horizon and wise picking/pressing decisions will help create flavourful wines with intense focus and weight.”

If these predictions are even only half-true, accounting for inevitable winemaker hyperbole (positivism?), especially when a wine critic is asking for the information, it’s gearing up to be a brilliant year for Ontario wine. This means much to look forward to. Knock on wood.

Until then, here are the top, chardonnay-heavy Ontario picks from the September 17th VINTAGES release, plus an additional handful of highly recommended local wines available from the wineries and at fine restaurants near you.

Our Top Picks from the Sept 17th VINTAGES release:


Unlock our Top PicksIMPORTANT NOTICE: John’s top recommendations for the September 17th VINTAGES release are now only visible to our paid subscribers (Premium Members). Non-paying members will not see the recommendations until 30 days after publication. We have implemented changes around our VINTAGES content including a reduction in our annual Premium Membership rate, and the introduction of a new three-month rate. We would ask you to take a moment to understand why we are making these changes.

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“For the cost of a good bottle of wine we’ll help you discover hundreds of great ones.”

That’s all for this week. See you over the next bottle.

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John Szabo MS

From VINTAGES September 17th, 2016


Use these quick links for immediate access to all of our Top Picks in the New Release.

Szabo’s Smart Buys
Sara’s Sommelier Selections
Michael’s Mix
All September 17th Reviews

New Release and VINTAGES Preview

Editors Note: You can find complete critic reviews by clicking on any of the highlighted wine names, bottle images or links. Premium subscribers to WineAlign see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid members wait 30 days to see new reviews. Premium membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!


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