John Szabo’s Annual Fizz Report 2016

by John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

The annual Fizz Report 2016 edition has lots of surprises and newcomers. After having tasted through about 60 wines specifically for this report, and countless others over the last year, I’ve whittled it down to the very best in several categories: Charmat method including Prosecco, Cava, VQA traditional method, and other traditional method wines, ranging from $15 to $50. All are currently available in either the LCBO or consignment – so what will you be toasting with this holiday? Research shows that it will undoubtedly be bubbly.

But first, oyster lovers will want to read up on the 2nd annual great oyster and wine pairing held at Rodney’s Oyster House in late November. The best bivalve molluscs from coast to coast were paired up with Ontario’s finest wines by a panel of serious foodies and winos. Now that’s a great party idea. Read “The Great Canadian Oyster and VQA Ontario Wine Pairing” for the details on what to serve.

Fizz Report: Ontario Bubbly Comes Up Rosy

The biggest surprise in fizz this year was the explosion of locally made sparkling wines. Virtually all serious producers are now in on the game, and the quality is astoundingly high. For this report I tasted Ontario wines in blind flights with top bubbles from around the world, including champagne, and saw them consistently outperform benchmark household names. But this shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. Ontario’s decidedly cool climate and long growing season allow for that oft-irreconcilable duality of fully developed flavours AND high acid/low potential alcohol to co-exist, the critical basis for great sparkling wine, finessed and flavourful.

Trius Brut Henry Of Pelham Cuvée Catharine BrutWhile the quality of well-established local classics like Henry of Pelham’s Cuvée Catharine and Trius’s Brut is as high as ever (and always recommended), the breath and depth of the Ontario sparkling wine offering has expanded exponentially, now nearing 80 labels. According to the VQA, the number of sparkling wine producers has more than doubled in the last four years, from 19 in 2012 to 41 this year (out of about 165 wineries). And considering that the majority focuses on traditional method sparkling – 70% of production – there are very likely several more in the game but not yet on the radar.  The traditional method requires a long end game, with wines aged for many months, up to several years, before release.

It’s clear that the province’s vintners, and local researchers, are betting large on bubbles. The Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute (CCOVI) at Brock University in St. Catharines has emerged as a global leader in sparkling research, and has received a specific grant to study production techniques. Last year CCOVI held a full educational symposium on the subject, a first in Canada, to further production. More informally but no less important, a group known as the Fizz Club, composed of Ontario sparkling winemakers, meets regularly to continue the evolution of sparkling production, including reconnaissance missions to other regions.

So, if you can detach your psychological perception and expectation from the sensory experience (i.e. don’t taste the label, taste the wine), you’ll get as much pleasure out of a glass of top notch local bubbly as you would from any but the truly best champagnes (and much more cheaply). The future of Ontario bubbly is definitely looking rosy.

John Szabo’s Fizz Guide


Prosecco is one of the biggest Italian success stories of the last twenty years, with exports continually increasing, seemingly without end. Ontario is clearly smitten; a search of the LCBO database turns up 77 wines (read my August 2016 regional report here). And among those permanently available, quality and price line up nicely in the  NV Mionetto Prosecco Brut, DOC Treviso ($18.15). I appreciate the persistent effervescence, elegant texture and lingering persistence, as well as the bright, fresh aromatics in the typical regional register of green apple and pear with a floral lift. Concentration and length are above the mean. LCBO# 266023.Masottina Prosecco Conegliano Valdobbiadene Extra Dry Mionetto Treviso Prosecco Brut

If you want to kick it up a notch in quality and complexity in the same category, opt for the NV Masottina Prosecco Conegliano Valdobbiadene Extra Dry ($26.60). Established shortly after WWII, this family enterprise counts 75 hectares in the westernmost commune of the Conegliano-Valdobbiadene DOCG, origins of glera’s broadest and generally fruitiest expression. This estate (entry) cuvée offers solid concentration, and a nice mix of fruit and chalky minerality on an essentially dry frame (the drier side of extra-dry), balanced and complete. Consignment, 6 btl/cs, via TWC.

Other Charmat Method

Undoubtedly the most shocking reveal of the blind tasting was the NV Barefoot Bubbly Pinot Grigio Sparkling ($14.45). For such a large, commercial (successful) brand, this is actually quite impressive. Yes, it’s quite sweet, in the medium-sweet category (45 g/l), but there’s plenty of winey, grapey, ripe orchard fruit flavour. And for the money, it delivers a lot of joy and will please widely. But it’s for the party, not the sophisticated dinner. LCBO #216952.

For pure, fruity fun in a bottle, go with the sommelier’s favourite, Hinterland’s 2016 ‘Ancestral’, VQA Ontario ($25). Made from pure PEC-grown gamay in a method similar to the ancestral style, which is to say bottled while still fermenting, this latest version is a shade drier than the 2015, though still medium-sweet. It’s vibrant, frothy, and just plain delicious with its candyfloss and strawberry shortcake flavours. Yet it’s also savoury and acid enough to keep from cloying and tiring the palate. Not intended to be an intellectual experience, just honest enjoyment. Winery Direct, contact Hinterland.

Barefoot Bubbly Pinot GrigioHinterland’s 2016 Ancestral460 Casina Bric Brut Rose Collezione N8 Sparkling Nebbiolo

Among the most impressive and unexpected discoveries was the Gianluca Viberti ‘460 Cascina Bric ‘ NV Brut Rosé Collezzione Nº8 ($29.99). If you can imagine, it’s a pure nebbiolo in the Charmat method made from cru Barolo vineyards – unique to say the least. Whatever the inspiration, it’s a lovely, very pale pink, delicate and fragrant wine, bright and crisp, very dry. I like the mix of tart red fruit and citrus, and floral blossoms, while acids are sharp but ripe, savoury and integrated. A fine sparkling for the table. Consignment, Stem Wine Group.


Cava is another huge category. Among the entry-level Cavas at LCBO, the Freixenet NV Cava Carta Nevada ($12.25) is a solid option for everyday bubbly, large gatherings or Sunday morning mimosas. Aromatic intensity is modest, but the palate offers more than respectable flavour intensity balanced between the toasty character of lees ageing and an intriguing, fruity, orange peel twist. LCBO# 216887.

Freixenet Carta Nevada Cava Agustí Torelló Mata Cava ReservaAgustí Torelló Cava Trepat Rosé Reserva 2013

For more serious Cava, however, look no further than one of my all-time favorite producers, Agustí Torelló Mata. This family-run enterprise is at the top level, exceeding all minimums set out by appellation authorities. The 2012 Cava Reserva ($28.45), for example, is aged for longer than vintage champagne (4 years), resulting a highly complex, full, round, intensely flavoured wine with terrific length. If you love the toasty-biscuity, nutty and honeyed flavours of mature sparkling, this is for you. It might just change your impression of the entire Cava category. Equally impressive, and even more festive, is Torelló Mata’s 2013 Cava Trepat Rosé Reserva ($31.28), an explosively fruity rosé made from the rare trepat grape, macerated for just a few hours. It delivers terrific flavour intensity and depth, balancing fruit and toasty character. Both available in consignment, 6 btl/cs, via TWC.

VQA Ontario Traditional Method, Crisp & Fruity

Aussie Philip Dowell has evolved into a sparkling wine specialist, producing bubbly for both Angel’s gate and KEW Vineyards. The latest release of the Angel’s Gate 2012 Archangel Chardonnay Brut, VQA Beamsville Bench ($28.95) is the best yet in my view, aromatically shy, but the palate delivers a wallop of flavour: lovely pure and crisp citrus fruit, green apple and apple blossom in a true blanc de blancs style. A relatively modest fourteen months on lees puts this more on the fruity, less biscuity side of the spectrum, which, considering it also comes across as very dry and crisp, makes it a fine aperitif option. Winery and LCBO#: 227009.

Angels Gate Archangel Chardonnay 2012 Kew Vineyards Tradition 2012 Hidden Bench Natur Zéro 2011

Also made by Dowell, the KEW Vineyards 2012 ‘Tradition’ Methode Traditionelle, VQA Niagara Peninsula ($29.95) is the most complete of the estate’s five different sparkling bottlings. About ¾ pinot noir with the balance in chardonnay and pinot meunier, it’s well balanced, round and full, with gentle autolysis/white chocolate flavours mingling comfortably with citrus. Length is very good to excellent. Winery.

Hidden Bench makes its debut in the sparkling category with the excellent 2011 Natur Zéro Dosage, VQA Beamsville Bench ($45). Like all HB wines, it’s made from estate-grown fruit, pinot noir and chardonnay, offering serious depth and richness, anchored purely on extraction, not sugar. I love the fullish, creamy-sharp, full flavoured palate, crunchy, fresh and crisp, bone dry. Winery.

VQA Ontario Traditional Method, Toasty & Biscuity

I’ve found quality variable in the Château des Charmes bubbly portfolio, but the current edition of the NV Brut Sparkling Wine Methode Traditionelle, VQA Niagara-on-the-Lake ($23.95), recently disgorged, is another best-yet. And at this price, it’s the sharpest deal going. It’s generous and mouth filling, just off-dry, with evolved, mushroom and white chocolate flavours, a classy, complete, and well balanced wine all around with excellent length. Winery and LCBO#: 224766.

Tawse has jumped into sparkling with both feet, producing a wide range using the Charmat, and more frequently, traditional method, from single vineyards and blends, riesling, chardonnay and pinot noir under the “Spark” umbrella name. Out of the strong line up, I was most impressed by the quality/price ratio of the 2011 Spark Laundry Vineyard Blanc de Noirs, VQA Lincoln Lakeshore ($29.95). Four years on the lees gives it mature, lightly caramelized citrus flavours and evident biscuity/brioche character, though by no means is it tiring. Intensity builds on the palate into a cascade of creamy-tart red fruit in the classic pinot register. It’s a sparkling for the table. Winery.

Chateau Des Charmes BrutTawse Spark Laundry Vineyard Blanc De Noirs 2011Malivoire Bisous Brut

Malivoire is another recent entry into the sparkling market, with three different wines under the Bisous label. The smallest lot, and also the best in my view is the NV Bisous Brut Nature, VQA Beamsville Bench ($29.95). It’s precisely the same wine as the NV Bisous Brut (85% pinot, 15% chardonnay), but bottled without dosage. And in this case I find the fruit ripe and rich enough to dispense with unnecessary sugar, and focus instead on the lovely, maturing-autolytic flavours (caramelized lemon, lightly honey roasted nuts, white chocolate). There’s also great savory tension and acids on the palate, not to mention length. A classy, complete, accomplished bubbly all in all. You’ll have to check with the winery on availability; I suspect much of it has gone into Martin Malivoire’s personal stash.

Cave Spring has quietly been making some of Ontario’s best sparkling wine with little fanfare for many years now. Especially worth attention is the NV Blanc de Blancs Brut, VQA Niagara Escarpment ($29.95). It’s a highly complex, evolved sparkling chardonnay, fullish, smoky-toasty, with lots of autolysis character, and fine depth and length. It’s for fans of more mature styles. Winery and LCBO#: 213983.

And speaking of mature wines, the Grange of Prince Edward 2007 Traditional Method Brut, VQA Prince Edward County ($50), a 50-50 blend of estate-grown chardonnay and pinot noir from a breakthrough vintage for the county, has hit a beautiful stage of evolution. This bottling is part of a small lot that was held back for 5 years on the lees, and “late-disgorged”. It still has great balance and energy, tension and life on an essentially bone dry frame (just 4 grams of residual sugar), though it has shifted fully into the very autolytic spectrum of toasted wheat bread, roasted nuts and honey drizzled over caramelized citrus. It has excellent length, too. Winery.

Cave Spring Blanc De Blancs BrutThe Grange Of Prince Edward Traditional Method Brut 2007Benoit Gautier Vouvray Method TraditionelleFratta Essence Brut Franciacorta Sparkling 2008

And Yet More Bubbly from Europe

If you’ve read this far, you’ll be rewarded by the superb value, authentic and natural-feeling Benoit Gautier NV Vouvray Method Traditionelle ($21.55). Aged in cool, humid, Troglodyte caves carved from the appellation’s tuffeau limestone, this is mature, quite toasty and evolved sparkling chenin blanc. The palate is fullish, richly flavoured with a nice mix of honeyed, nutty, ripe orchard fruit. Classy and complex wine with great length. Consignment, Le Caviste.

And finally, Italy’s most famous sparkling wine region makes an appearance via the Antica Fratta 2008 Franciacorta Essence Brut ($46.00). The dosage (5 g/l) is just about spot on in this beautifully mature wine (90% chardonnay, 10% pinot noir), enriching and broadening the palate without sweetening. It’s lovely, toasty, creamy, genuinely complex and complete, with attractive honeyed, nutty, brioche and wheat bread character. Excellent length and depth. VINTAGES Shop online #464826.

Looking for a last minute gift? Consider a copy of my recently published insaniam opus, Volcanic Wines, Salt, Grit and Power. It’s available in a quality bookstore near you, and online everywhere. Google and ye shall find!


That’s all for this report. Wishing you all very happy holidays with plenty of good cheer. See you next year over a bottle of fizz!


John Szabo, MS


Beringer Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2012