Experience VQA Wines of Ontario
By John Szabo, MS
with notes from Michael Godel, David Lawrason and Sara d’Amato
Last week the annual Taste Ontario event saw a record number of wineries participate, closing in on 50 out of the Province’s 165 or so (including fruit wineries). But virtually all of the top names were in attendance pouring current releases, mostly from the latest trilogy of strong vintages, 2014-15-16, giving a comprehensive snapshot of the province’s wine industry. In this report the WineAlign crü share their top new releases.
The roster of excellent wines and wineries continues to grow in Ontario, as the latest round of Taste Ontario showed. Reliable names like Bachelder, Cave Spring, Flat Rock, Hidden Bench, Malivoire, Norm Hardie and Tawse, continue to perform at the top level, though competition stiffens. Low(er) profile 2027 Cellars is a name deserving of greater recognition for quality and certainly value (if only the quantities weren’t so small), while newcomer Adamo Estate is making hugely impressive wines from their first vintage, 2014, from a collection of top Niagara vineyards. We’ll soon see the first releases from their ‘home vineyard’ in Hockley Valley as well. Derek Barnett, ex-Lailey and current Karlo Estates winemaker has a new personal project called Meldville Wines to watch. The Grange of Prince Edward has taken a qualitative turn with their latest releases highlighting the County’s stony terroir, and the Good Earth Vineyards’ wines have moved from perfectly serviceable on the cooking school’s patio to worthy of much wider attention. Ontario: Yours to Discover indeed.
Ontario: Recap of Current Vintages
2014 – Many will remember the brutally cold winter of 2014 (Polar Vortex!), which saw widespread damage to vineyards, reducing yields for the vintage. In some cases, varieties that are marginal for the southern Ontario climate at the best of times were pushed to near-extinction, especially cold-sensitive grapes like semillon, sauvignon blanc, syrah and merlot. Call it a Darwinian natural selection. Harvest also started about 10 days later than normal following an unusually cold spring and late start to the season. Site and vineyard management were critical this year, clearly separating the good from the mediocre. In sum, 2014 is a vintage for Burgundian varieties – chardonnay and pinot noir – more than Bordelais, although cabernet franc proved its suitability once again. Riesling always performs, as does gamay. The best wines have attractively slim lines and vibrant acids, more stony and savoury than fruity. The top bottles and should age well.
2015 – 2015 was a year of extremes: another polar blast in February (Mean temperatures were about eight degrees below normal for the month) led to a cold spring, relatively normal April and May, and unusually wet June and drought-stricken July. It was not a happy year for grape growers; unpredictability is a recurring nightmare. But just as the vintage looked grim, superb weather in the late summer and into fall allowed grapes to reach an excellent degree of maturity over a long season, with plenty of time for flavor to develop. While not universally excellent, 2015 is nevertheless a reliable year for the full range of classic Ontario varieties, offering plump and flavourful wines with ample fruit. Even tough grapes like viognier reached impressive levels of concentration. From what I’ve tasted, these are wines to enjoy over the near term.
2016 – It’s of course early to make any blanket judgments, but 2016 was by all accounts an excellent vintage. A mercifully mild winter was followed by a long, hot and exceptionally dry summer. The main concern was drought stress, though this is easily dealt with by targeted irrigation. Grapes were picked at perfect ripeness and in pristine health. The first wines to reach market show excellent ripeness and fruit intensity, and will offer a great deal of pleasure right out of the gate. I look forward to tasting more 2016s.
WineAlign Buyer’s Guide: Ontario
13th Street Winery NV Cuvee Rose, Niagara Peninsula ($27.95)
John Szabo – The latest addition of the 13th Street Rosé NV is in the similar house style, which is to say deeply coloured, more of a light red with bubbles than rosé, and notably ripe, showing even lightly dried/oxidative red fruit with an autumnal character. This is substantial sparkling wine to be sure, with fine length and depth, one I’d serve at the table rather than as an aperitif.
2027 Cellars 2014 Wismer Vineyard Foxcroft Block Chardonnay, Twenty Mile Bench, Ontario ($22.95)
John Szabo – Here’s a terrific value chardonnay from the premium Twenty Mile Bench sub-region of the Escarpment, one of the hotspots for the variety in Ontario. I love the restraint and elegance of this wine, with just a gentle touch of old wood spice, but mostly appealing, steely-stony character, citrus and green apple/pear, sharp acids and great length. The cool climate finesse and deft, minimalist winemaking touch go a long way here, and for $23, you’d be hard pressed to find similar poise in most other places on planet earth.
Michael Godel – The ability of Craig Wismer’s Foxcroft Block to gift fruit, regardless it seems of vintage, is one of Niagara’s great stories. Even more special is how it allows each producer to own it and create value from differentiation. I really think Kevin Panagapka’s Wismer takes more risk than other Foxcroft efforts and they are numerous.
David Lawrason – Great value here in a lovely, crisp, mineral Chablis-esque chardonnay, but with well managed wood toast and spice. Classic cool climate apple and citrus as well. Really comes together well, and shows very good to excellent length.
Sara d’Amato – Winemaker Kevin Panagapka sources fruit from the warmer vines of the Foxtrot Block in the Twenty Mile Bench sub-appellation to produce this full but fresh chardonnay. The virtual 2027 project focuses on three grape varieties only: chardonnay, pinot noir and riesling and uses the facilities of Featherstone winery to turn these meticulously cared for grapes into wine. An impressive value not to be missed.
2027 Cellars 2016 Wismer Vineyard Foxcroft Block Riesling, Twenty Mile Bench ($22.95)
John Szabo – Still in embryonic stage, this riesling nevertheless shows considerable aromatic promise made from evidently ripe and fully developed grapes, with intense citrus-lemon-lime-tangerine and peach-apricot aromas. The palate is expectedly tightly wound, with very firm and sharp but ripe acids balanced by a pinch of residual sugar, all layered on a light, 10% alcohol frame. Yet flavour intensity is high and length is excellent – this has some genuine stuffing and concentration. Give it time; best 2018-2026.
Adamo Estate 2014 Willms Vineyard Oaked Chardonnay, Niagara-on-the-Lake ($31.00)
John Szabo – The thick, heavy glass bottle states the intentions of this wine: ambitious to be sure. And the wine inside delivers, with significant intensity and flavour development, not to mention concentration, in a in a sensibly crafted, somewhat understated style, with fruit sourced from the excellent Willms vineyard (part of the well-known Sandstone vineyard that has been yielding great wines for 13th Street for over two decades). Wood influence is noted (40% new barrels used), but a very elegant expression only gently toasty, with more appealingly nutty-cashew flavours than rustic caramel or coffee bean. And fruit, too, is significant, very ripe in the Niagara-on-the-Lake style, and attractively floral, too. But it’s the wet stones on the back end that takes this to the next level of serious chard drinking. Best 2017-2024.
Adamo Estate Winery 2014 Pinot Noir Lowrey Vineyard, St. David’s Bench ($34.75)
John Szabo – From the historic Lowrey vineyard, which includes some of the first pinot plantings in Ontario in the early eighties, this new bottling from Adamo (made by winemaker Jonas Newman of Hinterland in PEC and finished by current winemaker Shauna White), is a fine representation of this site, which requires delicate handling in the winery. It’s a classy, typically pale garnet-coloured, earthy, old world style pinot with plenty of flavour in the pot pourri and dried red berry spectrum, while the palate offers very fine-grained, delicate, elegant tannins and succulent acids, and fine lingering finish. For fans of complexity and finesse overall.
Sara d’Amato – Calabrese proprietor Mario Adamo and founder of Hockley Valley Resort began planting in Mono near Orangeville several years ago and hasn’t looked back. Twenty-five acres of gamay, chardonnay, riesling, pinot noir, merlot and vidal have now been planted to the Hockley Valley Hills against what many would consider all odds. The grapes, under the direction of vineyard manager and winemaker Shauna White, are not yet old enough for production but will be slowly incorporated into the wines in the very near future. For now, the winery focuses on vineyard specific sites in Niagara such as this pinot noir from Lowrey vineyard that impressed me with its finesse, its exuberant floral aromatic character and firm structure.
Cave Spring Cellars 2014 Chardonnay CSV, Beamsville Bench ($29.95)
John Szabo – Cave Spring’s 2014 CSV chardonnay is a very clean and precise, firm and fresh wine, with very little oxidative character at this stage, and minimal oak influence. The palate is nicely pitched and mid-weight, with a fine mix of wet stones, citrus, pear and apple flavours, and the merest splash of salted caramel on the back end. Great length. Tidy wine, best after 2018. Tasted March 2017. 2018 2026
Creekside Estate Winery 2015 Iconoclast Semillon/ Sauvignon Blanc, Niagara Peninsula ($22.95)
John Szabo – Iconoclast because this is not a typical Niagara blend (to say the least), yet Rob Power from Creekside has made a specialty out of this style, sauvignon especially. The 2015 works very well, marrying the riper side of sauvignon with the green fig and honeydew melon character of semillon on a balanced and lightly oaked frame. This is drinking well now, or should develop over the next 1-3 years and hold into the early ’20s.
Domaine Queylus 2013 Cabernet Franc Tradition, Niagara Peninsula ($24.95)
David Lawrason – Domaine Queylus is more focused on chardonnay and pinot, but their Bordeaux varieties show nicely. This has a lovely Bordelais/St.Emilion/right bank ambiance to it, with very good complexity and structure and excellent length.
Fielding Estate 2015 Cabernet Franc, Niagara Peninsula
Sara d’Amato – An expressive cabernet franc, fully ripened but offering an ethereal texture and a delicacy that may at first be mistaken for simplicity. The tapestry of flavours undulates on the palate progressively and persistently in a fully satisfying fashion. Here is a unique and refined style of cabernet franc that should be perpetuated by Niagara producers.
Flat Rock Cellars 2015 Chardonnay Twenty Mile Bench ($18.95)
John Szabo – This should be on your radar as a premium house pour, as it has very broad appeal without alienating the serious aficionados in the crowd. There’s a vague impression of sweetness mostly from ripe 2015 fruit (not residual sugar), but it’s enough to fatten up the palate and develop flavours that flirt with the tropical fruit spectrum. Cool climate freshness and balance are still on display, alongside a lovely savoury-salty note. Tidy all around, especially for $19.
Good Earth 2015 Viognier Niagara Peninsula ($24.95)
John Szabo – Viognier may not be a core local variety, or even one recommended for planting in most parts of the Niagara Peninsula, but the Good Earth has managed to produce a compelling version in the warm and generous 2015 vintage, neatly capturing the variety’s aromatic effusiveness. I appreciate the rich florality, the heavy violet perfume, the medium-full body balanced by ripe, succulent acids. As far as aromatic whites go, this is satisfying and then some, ready to match with full, rich, lightly spiced foods – I’m thinking southeast Asian curries with plenty of coconut milk and heavy aromatic herbs.
David Lawrason – Winemaker Ross Wise has moved to the Okanagan and the on-coming Phantom Creek project, but he has left a legacy of very fine 2015 wines at Good Earth. This is one of the best viogniers ever produced in Ontario – with generosity, balance and classic viognier aromas. The riesling and cabernet franc also excel.
Good Earth 2015 Pinot Noir, Niagara Escarpment ($24.95)
John Szabo – A pale, perfectly light and fragrant, elegant pinot noir designed with food in mind, with light tannins and vibrant acids. Yet there’s actually significant depth and flavour intensity here, not to mention length, making this a fine value in the new world context. Very tidy; best 2017-2020
Marynissen 2014 Platinum Sauvignon Blanc, Kasper Vineyard, Niagara Lakeshore, Niagara-on-the-Lake
Sara d’Amato – It is with regret that I have not tasted more from the historic Marynissen Estates as of late, especially since the sale of the winery in 2012 to Canadian and Chinese investors. The winemaking is under the guidance of prolific winemaker Gordon Robert who is crafting stylish wines such as this Platinum series sauvignon blanc sourced from the Niagara Lakeshore sub appellation known for its long growing season and an abundance of sunshine. There is a great deal of New Zealand character to this appealing wine that offers lifted tropical aromas and zesty acidity.
Malivoire 2016 Rose Moira, Beamsville Bench ($24.95)
John Szabo – Another terrific vintage for this pure single vineyard pinot noir rosé from Malivoire, the 2016 delivers a rich palette of aromas and flavours on a bone dry frame. I particularly enjoy the stony, non-fruit character, and the savoury, succulent acids. It has excellent length and depth overall, surely one of the top rosés in the country. Drink or hold this for a year or two for even greater complexity – this is a rosé that should also age well.
Meldville 2015 Sauvignon Blanc Lincoln Lakeshore ($20.20)
John Szabo – From Derek Barnett’s latest solo venture, this sauvignon has delicious succulence and saltiness, a touch of VA to be sure, but it works nicely in the context. I like the stones, the absence of simple fruit, and the exceptional length. An original interpretation.
Meldville Cabernet Franc 2015, Lincoln Lakeshore ($27.00)
Michael Godel – This is precisely why Lincoln Lakeshore is the right place to be with the cabernet franc you love. This has great tension without being too firm, gritty or tannic. Though this celebrates the bright and the fruity it is not without enough structure to carry it forward five plus years.
Southbrook 2015 Pinot Noir Triomphe, Niagara Peninsula, Ontario ($29.95)
Michael Godel – Ann Sperling’s inaugural pinot noir for Southbrook makes swift, acumen accomplished first time work with Heather Laundry’s vineyard fruit. It won’t take long for this just recently released Triomphe to pirouette, assimilate and dutifully represent an unmitigated success for Sperling, in this her 11th vintage at Southbrook.
The Grange of Prince Edward 2013 Cabernet Franc Select, Prince Edward County, Ontario ($24.95)
John Szabo – This 2013 cabernet franc from the Grange captures the elusive nature of the County nicely, which is to say, ripeness on a knife edge, and firmness, minerality and savoury character to the fore. It’s certainly varietally correct, delivering plenty of herbal-green-savoury notes without being downright underripe, but also with a mineral depth that will keep the serious wine lovers coming back for another saline, saliva-inducing sip. Authentic wine. Best 2017-2022.
Michael Godel – An extra year has paid great compliment to Caroline Granger’s ’13 cabernet franc, a wine so much more closely connected to Chinon than most from Niagara and it really combines cool-climate with limestone geology, Leaving this in a pure and pleasurable state of cabernet franc grace.
David Lawrason – Cabernet franc is emerging as one of the real strong suits at the Grange, with a sense of cohesion, elegance and Euro earthiness that lifts it well. It is smooth, but dry with very good depth and warmth.
Thomas Bachelder 2014 Wismer-Parke Pinot Noir, Twenty Mile Bench ($44.95)
John Szabo – A pale and delicate pinot in the Bachelder style, focused more on dusty dried red fruit and pot pourri than sheer weight or density. This is toute en finesse as I’m sure the winemaker intended, fine and firm, succulent and savoury, with excellent length. Old wood plays its gently oxidative tune without contributing significant flavour. Drink now or hold into the early ’20s. Best 2017-2024.
David Lawrason – This is refined, elegant pinot is among the tops in Ontario. The real deal with classic cool climate cran-cherry with gentle toast, spice and evergreen forest floor earthiness. It’s light to mid-weight, streamlined and fresh.
Thomas Bachelder Pinot Noir Parfum 2014, VQA Niagara Peninsula, Ontario ($22.20)
Michael Godel – Parfum doles out the Bachelder perfume with great Beaune intent and whole bunch hints from this most celebrated 2014 Niagara pinot noir vintage.With thanks to “de-classified” Lowrey and Wismer-Parke vineyard fruit an ideal launching point progresses for the Bachelder way and encourages Le Parfum to set the stage for further investigative play.
Thomas Bachelder 2014 Chardonnay Mineralité, Niagara Peninsula ($22.00)
John Szabo – Lovers of fruity wines need not pull this cork. As the name implies, this is all about stones and non-fruit character, a tightly wound and restrained expression of Niagara chardonnay, nicely chiselled, finely etched. I like the incisive acids and the surprising depth and length. Chablis and Puligny fans will feel right at home with this. Best 2017-2024.
Westcott Vineyards Reserve Chardonnay 2015, VQA Vinemount Ridge, Ontario ($31.20)
Michael Godel – I don’t mean to skip forward and get ahead of Westcott’s aromatic propriety but knowing how a winemaker likes to celebrate texture and flavour sends me direct to a sip. That first taste reveals the sumptuousness of 2015 Vinemount Ridge fruit, ripe, savoury and fleshy peach-organized. If any Peninsula chardonnay were a drug that could lead to addiction, Westcott’s ’15 is the one.
See you over the next bottle.
John Szabo, MS