Ontario’s Cuvee 2013: Winemakers Pour Their Best; by Sara d’Amato and Janet Dorozynski

Ontario’s Cuvee 2013: Winemakers Pour Their Best and Experts Deliberate on Niagara’s Cabs & Merlot

Sara d'Amato

Sara d’Amato

At the time winter should be yielding to spring, Ontario marks its most star-studded annual wine event, Cuvée. This is the time Ontario winemakers showcase the wines in which they take most pride at a black tie gala event held at the Fallsview Casino in Niagara Falls and subsequently at the tasting bars of the participating wineries themselves over the weekend. It is a night when all facets of the industry mingle and eager wine enthusiasts benefit from all of the fanfare and excitement. Janet Dorozynski and I were both present this year, and we are pleased to collaborate and share our experiences with you here.

_MG_0509This year marked the 25th anniversary of Cuvée, and with it came significant changes to the event. In the past, award-winning Cuvée wines were chosen by the winemakers themselves in a blind tasting competition held prior to the gala. This year, the awards were done away with in favor of a ‘Grand Tasting’ format: the participating winemakers were asked to choose their favorite one wine to showcase at the event. The new format was overwhelmingly well received and, I think, made for a more interesting event. The presentation of one wine from each of the wineries allowed for a much more intimate and memorable experience for guests.

Since 1989, Cuvée has brought media, aficionados and winemakers together to experience the best the province has to offer, or at least the pride of the winemakers. It also allows us to meet the stars behind the bottles, dressed to their nines, and gives us perspective into the personalities that make up our Ontario wine culture. This year, 42 Ontario wineries participated in the event and, in addition to the Dairy Farmers of Ontario, 9 chefs each cooked up three creative and wine-friendly dishes to inspire tasters.

_MG_0497Interestingly, the wines chosen by the winemakers seemed extremely varied both stylistically and varietal-wise. The only small theme seemed to be in the realm of chardonnay – the chosen varietal showcased by six producers. Although there is nothing particularly surprising about having this many chardonnays presented, the styles had a distinct commonality in their restraint and purity of fruit. As chardonnay drinkers become more sophisticated, this nervy, stripped down style or, at least, the use of winemaking techniques to support natural flavours as opposed to enhance or manipulate them is both progressive and pervasive among regions world-wide in even the most commercial of offerings. Ontario is no exception, and the majority of chardonnays were both surprising and refreshing.

Sara’s Top Cuvée 2013 Picks:

Megalomaniac Proprietor’s Reserve Cabernet Franc 2008
John Howard Cellars of Distinction
$44.95 from the winery, Winemaker: Sue-Ann Staff

This was the first wine I tasted of the evening and I remained most impressed by its ability to endure on my palate throughout the course of the night. When carefully grown and then sensitively treated, cabernet franc has the ability to stun the senses. Cool and wet best describes 2008 and was best suited for the Burgundian varietals of chardonnay and pinot noir. However, with carefully managed hang time, and a dry end to the season made for some exceptionally aromatic and expressive cabernet franc such as this wow-me of an example.

Ravine Vineyard Reserve Chardonnay Barrel Select, Unfiltered 2009
$40 from the winery, Winemaker: Shauna White

Young but certainly not inexperienced and with a talent for winemaking in her genes, Shauna White is keeping Ravine Vineyards’ offerings dynamic and exciting at a generally affordable price point. This chardonnay boasts real elegance and restraint and because it did not go through malo-lactic fermentation it retains its freshness and purity of fruit quite distinctively.

Jackson-Triggs Niagara Estate, Delaine Vineyard Syrah 2010,
$32.95 from the winery, Winemaker: Marco Piccoli

The Delaine vineyard site has been producing high-quality fruit under its name since 2001. It is planted with several varieties but what I have found is consistently most exciting is their peppery syrah. There is definitive elegance in this cool climate style that expresses itself so uniquely in Niagara. Not to be missed.

Janet’s 90+ Picks from Cuvée 2013:

Château des Charmes Equuleus, Paul Bosc Estate Vineyard, 2010
$40.00 from the winery, Winemaker: Paul Bosc

The founder of Chateau des Charmes, Paul Bosc Sr, is a devotee of Arabian horses, with Equuleus being the Latin term for little horse. This tribute wine is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (50%) and equal parts Cabernet Franc and Merlot. It’s fleshy and a tad flashy, and definitely shows the depth and concentration of the warm 2010 vintage in Ontario. Rich dark fruit and notes of cocoa mingle nicely in this well-balanced, well-made wine. Ready to race now or cellar for 8+ years.

_MG_0151Stratus Vineyards Stratus White 2009
$44.00 Vintages, Winemaker: J-L Groux

Niagara’s take on white Bordeaux with a twist. The Stratus White 2009 is a blend of Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Viognier and Gewurztraminer. Each of the components are aged in oak, which brings richness and texture and imparts a subtle vanilla cream spiciness to a palate of peach, apricots and tangerine flavours. Medium bodied, with vibrant acidity and a lingering toast and spicy finish. Exotic and charming.

Lailey Vineyard Winery Impromptu 2010
$45.00 from the winery, Winemaker: Derek Barnett

This is Lailey Vineyards flagship red that is only made in exceptional vintages, which 2010 was for reds in Niagara. Predominantly Syrah (75%), with equal parts Malbec and fragrant Petit Verdot, come together in this enticing package. Ripe, with fine supple tannins and balanced acidity, this is a fine and elegant medium-bodied wine. Can be drunk now or kept for 5 to 7 years.

Thomas Bachelder Wismer Chardonnay 2010
$44.95 Vintages, Winemaker: Thomas Bachelder

A brilliant wine from one of Niagara’s star winemakers, with fruit sourced from one of Niagara’s viticultural sweet spots, the Wismer vineyard. Complex and creamy, with stone fruit flavours, the acidity is crisp but balanced, with a generous, textured mouthfeel and a long, lingering finish. A true masterpiece.

The Experts Tasting: Getting a handle on Bordeaux Reds

Janet Dorozynski

Janet Dorozynski

The Expert’s Tasting at Brock is by invitation only and a highly anticipated event for the Ontario trade, media and wineries. The event is organized and hosted by the Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute at Brock University and focuses on a different theme or grape variety each year, in order to dig more deeply into the state of vinous affairs of the region.

This year’s focus was “Bordeaux reds”, and while never a huge proponent of Ontario Bordeaux reds, save for Cabernet Franc, I have to say that I was presently surprised by what we tasted. While Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are more difficult to get consistently ripe and right in Ontario, Cabernet Franc is more suited to cooler climates and has been doing better throughout the years.

The tasting was divided into five flights, with the first four focused on a varietal or stylistic theme related to Bordeaux red varieties.  The flights were presented by winemakers and principals, many of which were CCOVI graduates, with themes centered on popular songs. Most of the wines were current vintages or releases from Ontario, with a few older vintages along with ringers from Napa and Bordeaux thrown in to keep us on our toes.

The Merlot flight was entitled R.E.S.P.E.C.T, since it usually doesn’t get much, in which we tasted some good examples from Malivoire Wine Co. (Stouck Vineyard 2010 Merlot) along with the Trius Clark Farm Merlot 2010. 

_MG_0403During the Mothers of Innovation flight for Cabernet Franc, we learned about the grapes regal lineage and how it, along with Sauvignon Blanc, was parent of the noble Cabernet Sauvignon. This was my preferred flight of the tasting with the highlights being the Stratus 2008 Cabernet Franc, which was harvested on December 8, 2008, alongside the Peller Estates 2010 Cabernet Franc from the Four Mile Creek sub-appellation, which was rich and intense with extraordinarily great structure. 

In the We Are Family flight for Bordeaux blends, we once again tasted a Stouck Vineyard wine from Malivoire, this time the 2010 Cabernet Merlot, which seems to illustrate that there is something special about both this grower and site in the Beamsville Bench.  We also tasted the Hidden Bench Terroir Cache from 2010 and 2007, along with the Henry of Pelham Speck Family Reserve Cabernet Merlot from 2002 and 2007, all of which showed that Ontario Bordeaux blends from good vintages can and do age well.   

In Flight Four, with a nod to the Who’s Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy, we tasted a range of big and plush textured reds from the Cabernets (Sauvignon and Franc), along with a few blends and the Foreign Affair 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, with fruit from low yields (2 tonnes per acre) and containing 25% appassimento grapes, grapes that are dried prior to fermentation and a style of wine which we are seeing more often in Ontario. 

_MG_0625The last flight – “If You Don’t Know me by Now” – was a  “Wine Options” flight, where each table has to guess the variety, vintage, region, producer for each of the five wines poured. Wine Options is an antipodean specialty, first started by Australian Len Evans after a Chateau Thabilk tasting in Sydney, and is always an exciting and humbling finale to the Expert’s Tasting.

To some extent, many of the wines tasted reconfirmed what I’d already thought about Bordeaux reds – they can be very good but are vintage and site specific in Ontario. I must admit that I was pleasantly surprised by a number of the blends and Cabernet Sauvignon, though overall, the highlight for me was the Cabernet Franc flight, which seems to reinforce the place for this earlier ripening grape in the region and the reason why many view it as a core variety for both Ontario and Canada. 

Janet’s 90+ Picks from the Expert’s Tasting

Peller Estates “Signature Series” 2010 Cabernet Franc
$40.20 from the winery

A Cabernet Franc with good depth and structure. Aromatic, with red berry and cedar notes, with a touch of grilled red peppers on the nose. Medium to full bodied, with balanced acidity and present and slightly grippy tannins. Long finish. Would be a good match for grilled lamb.

Malivoire Wine Co. 2010 Cabernet Merlot ‘Stouck’
$29.95, Vintages

A limited edition Cabernet Merlot release from Malivoire, with fruit from Beamsville Bench wine grower Dan Stouck. Very deeply coloured, with an intense nose of dark fruit and berries, spice and coffee, which is complemented by richness and depth on the palate. Medium to full-bodied, with good grip and a long intoxicating finish.

Sara’s 90+ Picks from the Expert’s Tasting

“The Temptress” Foreign Affair Winery 2010
$44.95 from the winery

The impressive power delivered by the appassimento style (or drying of the grapes in order to increase concentration) which has become ever popular in Ontario, can yield impressively rich results that make it difficult to determine the origin of the wine, especially during warmer vintages. The results can easily vary from hot and sweet to dry and concentrated. Although not always a fan of this bombshell of a style, this particular version made from a large proportion of merlot was undeniably impressive. When results such as these can be achieved, it is extremely pleasurable to concentrate them.

Hidden Bench Meritage “Terroir Cache” 2007
$45.00 from the winery

Substantial but showing restraint, this plump, lush and sensuous wine is just beginning to show signs of maturity. A smoky, dried leaf flavour helps quell the power of the fruit and adds character and refinement to the blend. Well-crafted and quite indicative of the aromatic potential and length that can be produced by a Bordelaise blend in Niagara.

Henry of Pelham Speck Family Reserve Cabernet Merlot 2002
$50.00 from the winery

This was a bit of a contentious wine in the tasting; some believing it lacked substance and others took issue with its notable maturity. However, I couldn’t’ help but appreciate its charm and distinctive flavours that still remained. Notes of pepper, fruit spice, dill and graphite along with delicate floral notes that still shone through despite its evolved state are surely a testament to the graceful longevity of which is there good potential in Niagara.

_MG_0446A panel of experts from winemakers, to educators, to sommeliers were involved in selecting the wines for these flights, which were designed to help us understand the roles that individual Bordelaise varietals play in our unique climate. Indeed, they were very helpful in illustrating several key points, including the fact that earlier ripening varietals such as cabernet franc and merlot have particularly important roles in our climate, as they provide a certain insurance that they will ripen in most years. In a cooler year, cabernet sauvignon risks being rained out, or can remain hanging on the vine into the winter before fully ripening. Cabernet franc’s aromatic contribution to the blend is distinctly apparently in our Ontario style, which is complemented by merlot’s lushness and even structure as was demonstrated in the first flight.

These flights also provided good illustrations of the ageabillity of our Bordeaux blends, as several examples that Janet mentioned previously, showed remarkably well, especially those dating back to the warmer vintage of 2002. Harmonious, balanced, and refined, there were great similarities here to French Bordeaux of a similar age, which I have tasted as of late.

There were at least as many conclusions as wines served that could be drawn from this enlightening and academic tasting regarding the potential for these challenging wines in Ontario. One thing was made resoundingly clear, however, and that was that these wines are worth are effort and our closer examination.

For more reviews of wines presented at Cuvee 2013, follow this link: Cuvee 2013 Wines.

Photos courtesy of: Robert Nowell, www.robertnowellphoto.com