Special Report – 2019 Cuvée Tasting

The Best of the Best of Ontario

by John Szabo MS

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Cuvée is the annual Ontario wine industry event with a twist: For this one night only, it’s the winemakers who get to choose what they present to the trade and public, rather than marketing departments or inventory controllers. Organized by Brock University’s Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute (CCOVI), nearly 50 winemakers were on hand on March 23rd at the Scotiabank Convention Centre in Niagara Falls for the 31st Edition of Cuvée, each pouring two wines of which they are particularly proud, or satisfied, or excited about.

And there was also a record-breaking number of people in attendance; nearly 900 guests turned up to sample and celebrate Ontario wine, and taste unique culinary dishes from local chefs. “This is the largest event of its kind and the strong turnout of guests year after year truly showcases the importance of our grape and wine industry and the strong level of support it garners from our community,” said Cuvée manager Barb Tatarnic.

A number of awards and scholarships were handed out on the night, including the Tony Aspler Cuvée Award of Excellence, presented to the individual or institution that best furthers the aims and aspirations of Ontario’s wine industry. This year it was awarded to Doug Whitty and 13th Street Winery. Whitty is a third-generation Niagara grape grower and was the 2017 Grape King. As he called Whitty to the stage to receive the award, Tony Aspler credited him and 13th Street Winery with “enhancing the winery experience with art and sculpture and, of course, butter tarts.”

The other big award, The Winemaker of Excellence Award, went to Bruce Nicholson from Inniskillin, who, “was selected for his contributions to the industry, his commitment to excellence and his mentorship to winemakers across Canada.”

Sara, Michael and I were on hand to divide and conquer the Grand tasting – there were too many wines for each of us to taste through them all, so we split up the room. We found some exceptional new discoveries, excellent new vintages of established classics, and reconfirmed our fondness for particular vintages. With a few exceptions, most of the wineries on hand embraced the spirit of the event, pouring exciting bottles. Those who used it as an opportunity to push more commercial wines (insistent marketing departments) were notably less busy.

Following are our top five picks each, the best of the best of Ontario wine. We also asked each of the winemakers to describe in their own words why they selected the wine, to give you a little window into each winemaker’s world.

Almost 900 guests took part in the 31st annual Cuvée Grand Tasting Saturday, March 23 at the Scotiabank Convention Centre in Niagara Falls.

John Szabo’s Cuvée Picks

Rockway Vineyards Brut Cuvée ($32)
This is easily the best wine I’ve tasted from Rockway, a company that seemed to focus more on their golf club, than serious wine, that is until now. It’s also their first traditional method sparkling wine release, a blend of 2/3 chardonnay and 1/3 pinot given 32 months on the lees, properly toasty and autolytic, filled with brioche and lemon custard, complex and highly appealing – a fine addition to the growing lineup of quality traditional method Ontario bubbly.

Why the winemaker chose it: “It marks the inaugural release of sparkling wine at Rockway. As part of a narrowed focus in our winemaking, we plan for sparkling to play a key role moving forward. This wine is a true reward of passion and patience.” – David Stasiuk

Cave Spring CSV Riesling 2016, Cave Spring Vineyard ($29.95)
In my experience, the CSV riesling in warm vintages like 2016 really ages brilliantly, and this is one of the best yet, in the running for top riesling in the country.

Why the winemaker chose it: “The CSV Riesling is the flagship wine of our Estate, and the great 2016 vintage has produced a wine which should evolve and age well for 2 decades plus.” – Angelo Pavan

Karlo Estates 2017 Estate Pinot Noir ($65)
I find this estate pinot from Karlo to be immensely savoury and saline, succulent and juicy, a fine expression of County limestone. Ripeness is up a notch or two from the mean, though it still weighs in at just 12.5% alcohol – that’s County magic.

Why the winemaker chose it: “I thought it shows sense of place so well, beautiful fruit, good balance with that telltale County acid” – Derek Barnett

Creekside Broken Press Reserve Syrah Queenston Road Vineyard 2016 ($55)
2016 is another terrific vintage for the ‘Broken Press’, Creekside’s, and indeed Ontario’s, top syrah year after year since inception. Although no one sensible would recommend planting multiple acres of syrah in Niagara (it’s too cold), in this St. David’s Bench site it performs regular miracles.

Why the winemaker chose it: “We love to pour Broken Press Syrah at Cuvee because of the “surprise!” effect: red wine of a style and quality that Niagara is not supposed to be able to produce” – Rob Power

Fielding Estate Bottled Cabernet Franc 2016 ($39.95)
This hails from Fielding’s Tufford Road vineyard in the deep clays in the Lincoln Lakeshore sub-region, in what has by now established as a sweet spot for Cabernet Franc. The warmth of the vintage comes through in the sweet, ripe, red berry character, still youthful, showing only a touch of the variety’s inherent herbal nature.

Why the winemaker chose it: “(Glad to hear you liked the CF (legitimately my favourite)!) Among other varietals, Cabernet Franc is finding its groove in the Lincoln Lakeshore sub-appellation, where there are well-established vineyards making expressive wines with restraint, texture and balance. I chose this wine for Cuvée (rather than the biggest/boldest wine from our cellar) to help shed light on what wine style I think might be best suited to this oft-overlooked area!”- Richie Roberts

Michael Godel’s Cuvée Picks

Trius Syrah 2017 ($25.95)
The vines from Craig McDonald’s syrah (and viognier) are tied to cuttings from the plants that today give fruit to the Creekside Broken Press and this 2017 is not unlike that wine. The structure is impressive, from stored energy and tannin that both cushions and insulates the fruit. Terrific effort and one of Niagara’s best.

Winemaker Craig McDonald chose to highlight this syrah at Cuvée because of the inextricable ties to his friend and colleague Rob Power at Creekside Estates and in how it’s connected as a whole to the greater industry that is Niagara.

Queylus Tradition Pinot Noir 2016 ($31.95)
Kelly Mason’s 2016 pinot noir is from fruit picked “crazy early” out of two vineyards, La Colline and Mountainview. It’s a wine of vintage, a winemaker and two plots of vines that fell into grippy comfort together. You need to taste this.

Kelly Mason chose two wines from 2016, her cabernet franc and this pinot noir. Why? Because she’s really proud of the results and so pleased with the great vintage with which she had to work.

Thirty Bench Sparkling Riesling ($34.95)
This second Thirty Bench Sparkling Riesling is non-vintage dated though the Niagara-on-the-Lake grapes were picked on September 18, 2015 and those from the Thirty Bench vineyard on September 23, 2015. To say this is structured from bubbles would be the Cuvée understatement.

Emma Garner poured her bubbles because quite frankly speaking this is her new love. That she is choosing to use her signature grape variety as the conduit makes perfect sense.

Karlo Estates Estate Grown Chardonnay 2017 ($45.00)
If a Prince Edward County example has ever been this aromatic I can’t say but this 2017 has lived and will continue to live the dream. Cracker juice here, tight, taut, direct, precise and refined

Derek Barnett has made what are arguably two of the better Prince Edward County chardonnay and pinot noir in that region’s short history. Why wouldn’t he showcase them at Cuvée?

Big Head Raw Syrah 2017 ($65.00)
Never before have we encountered syrah this way in Ontario. “Wow that syrah is crazy,” tasters are heard to exclaim and yet you can see how much they relish the experience. As I do, without knowing why, except for the fact that in its big headedness this is a very balanced wine. Some way, somehow.

Andrzej and Jacob Lapiniski take risks and push boundaries like no one else’s business. Showing off their Raw Series (syrah and chenin blanc) simply follows the nature of their attitude and their work. Fascinating wines to say the least.

Sara d’Amato’s Cuvée Picks

Queenston Mile Vineyard Blanc de Noirs 2015 ($50.00)
Sara d’Amato – From one of the newest boutique wineries in Niagara, but not new to grape growing with 20 years of viticultural experience on their 50-acre site. Made from 100% pinot noir vinified in the Traditional Method, this pale copper hued Brut offers an inviting nose of fresh baked bread, cherry blossom and a hint of balsam fir. On the palate it presents itself as dry, well-balanced, fresh and nervy. Due to 26-months of ageing on its lees, a toasty note compliments the fresh citrus fruit and a deliciously austere personality.

One of Canada’s most well-respected winemakers, Rob Power describes the inspiration behind his Blanc de Noirs Cuvée: “While I love the lean delicacy of blanc de blancs, trad method blanc de noirs brings the silky mouthfeel and weight of Pinot Noir into the mix, making a fuller-bodied yet still elegant bubbly style.”

Trius Syrah 2017 ($25.95)
Sara d’Amato – Winemaker Craig McDonald is no stranger to syrah and understands its sensitivity to Niagara’s climate, he says: “We see less and less Syrah these days since it didn’t fare well over the recent winters in Niagara, but we have a few growers with choice locations that made it through. I have always believed that this variety does well here and wanted to let people know Trius is in the game!” As a firm believer that syrah has a notable place in the canon of Niagara grapes, I was delighted to taste this typically local example from the hot and wet vintage that was 2017. Delicately spiced and perfectly ripe yet not at all jammy. Notes of black pepper and violets charm and compliment the fleshy and mouth-filling palate. A well-balanced cool climate syrah co-fermented with a touch of viognier for an aromatic lift.

McDonald explains what makes this syrah his pick for Cuvée: “Spicy, leathery Northern Rhône-like characters with a sweet heady perfume from the Viognier make this wine stand out.  Even rarer is the Syrah made co-fermented in wood vats and aged in 2000L foudres. ‘17 is an underdog vintage that will be extremely age worthy.  The cool summer saved by the hottest and driest Fall in record means wines with elegance, structure and a chiselled tension that bode well for the future.”

Burning Kiln Sparks 2017 ($26.95)
Sara d’Amato – Produced in a Cuvée Close Method (i.e. bubbles come from fermentation in vat and not bottle), this sparkling rosé is a result of pinot noir with skin contact. Fresh and zesty with a slight hint of tannin adding to the tang on the palate. Orange, lemon and cherry skin pop on the palate that is full of verve and zest. Very dry and refreshing with a low dosage.

Winemaker Lydia Tomek noted that 2017 was the first vintage that Burning Kiln produced all of their wines using estate grown fruit and that is was a classic for Niagara. She says: “In 2017, our Pinot Noir block produced both a rosé wine and a rosé sparkler. In the case of Sparks we hand-picked and whole cluster pressed 85% of the block and the remaining 15% was crushed and cold soaked for 10 hours before press. This provided a touch of colour and extra depth and berry tones. The intention was to make a competitively priced bubbly and have it on the market for summer without compromising quality and elegance. We wanted a drier, crisper mouthfeel that had those creamy red berry characteristics and but also carried those lovely toasted nuances we achieved from a longer secondary fermentation and lees contact (second fermentation in Charmat Tanks for 80+days and bottled with no dosage).”

Alvento South Wind Rosé 2018 ($20.15)
Sara d’Amato – Alvento Winery and its 13.4 acres of vineyard has re-opened under the direction of the Zhang family with Marc Pistor (also of Fogolar) as head of winemaking. This perky, stylish and perfectly dry rosé offers a nervy and steely palate with relief from flavours of pink grapefruit, cran-cherry, peach and rose. A delightful alternative to pricy Provençal rosé.

Pistor recounts: “Working on the revitalization of Alvento has been exciting. When we discussed which of our new wines we wanted to have for Cuvée, the Rosé was an easy choice. The warm vintage revealed a fruity and expressive base from the Pinot Noir portion, and the Riesling component lent a surprising richness. With a drier rosé I am focussed on mouthfeel. Sometimes that takes time in the cellar but this wine was looking excellent very young and so it was our first release.”

Jackson Triggs Grand Reserve White Meritage 2017 ($24.95)
Sara d’Amato – A classic Bordelaise blend of sauvignon blanc (80%) and semillon (20%). A short period of skin contact adds to the wine’s structure and intensity. Notes of white grapefruit, fresh honey, white flower, beeswax and bright herbal notes make up the compelling range of flavours on the palate. Fresh and balanced with great purity and substantial character.

And that’s a wrap on Ontario. For now.

See you around the next bottle.

John Szabo, MS