Canadian Wine Insider – February 2021

Less Well-Known Canadian Wineries Worth Your Attention (Part One)

By David Lawrason

Last October and November the WineAlign ‘crü’ tasted almost 900 wines submitted for The Guide to Canada’s Best Wines. The top wines by style and varietal category were published in the Guide to Canada’s Best Wines and all the wines were reviewed by at least three critics. Almost 4,000 Canadian wine reviews were added to the database during this exercise!

The top wines in most of the major categories were dominated by Canada’s larger, longer established wine companies, or wineries already known to be playing to the highest standard with certain styles. And thank goodness for that, because if our biggest, best funded and most experienced wineries were not flying the flag of quality, we would not have much of an industry to talk about.

Left to Right: Janet Dorozynski, John Szabo MS, Michael Godel, Sara d’Amato, David Lawrason

As I tasted through flight after flight, three days a week for about six weeks – not tasting blind – something unexpected began to happen. Certain less well-known wineries emerged with impressive scores, not just with one grape or style, but often over a handful of categories. They were not necessarily “new” wineries, but they were wineries that tend not to figure prominently in buzz-worthy conversations in industry and sommelier circles. Often due to small production and lack of marketing reach.


So, I decided then and there that at some point I would highlight them. I don’t want this exercise to be interpreted that somehow “smaller is better”, or that less-well known is “cooler”. Or even that these wineries are even somehow “underdogs”. They are simply less well known on the increasingly crowded national landscape and worthy of our attention.

Two other caveats here for consumers. This tasting called for Canada’s best wines, thus the country’s most expensive wines, so prices tend to be high and it is not necessarily a place to find bargains. Second, some wineries did not submit wines for this exercise, which may be a reason a winery you might expect to appear does not appear.

So here are sketches of eight wineries, listed alphabetically, with their region of origin, province and top performing wines presented. Full reviews from each can be searched at WineAlign by following the links. Another eight will follow in March.

Adamo Estate Winery, Hockley Valley, Ontario

As a self-proclaimed ‘small batch’ winery well off the beaten path in the Hockley Valley near Orangeville north of the GTA, Adamo remains a discovery for many, but never forgotten once discovered. The location is one reason, the wines are the other. Planting of the organically farmed vineyards began in 2012 at about 500 metres (one the highest altitude sites in Canada) atop the limestone-based Niagara Escarpment which at this point extends north toward the Bruce Peninsula. While the vines matured, passing winter under thermal blankets, winemaker Shauna White established her pedigree by dabbling with small lots from prime Niagara sites like Wismer and Lenko. Kelowna-raised she had worked in Chablis, Oregon, Australia, B.C. and Niagara before taking up her post at Adamo in its earliest days. Some of her expensive small lot Niagara batches scored big in the Guide to Canada’s Bests Wines (GCBW) but I was more intrigued that the black label Hockley estate wines fared so well – with Estate Pinot Noir 2018 and Estate Chardonnay 2018 hitting 90pts, and the Estate Riesling 2019 scoring 89. They are light in frame, elegant and textural, if only lacking some depth that vine maturity will gradually bring. Visiting the winery and staying at the nearby Hockley Valley Resort, sold in 2019 by the Adamo family to Sunray Group hotel chain, is the best way to encounter the wines.

Garry Oaks Estate Winery, Salt Spring Island, B.C.

Founded in 1999, Garry Oaks was the second winery in what is now British Columbia’s Gulf Islands VQA appellation in the eastern lee of Vancouver Island. The former sheep ranch was transformed into a bucolic ten acre terraced, south facing, gravelled site overlooking the Burgoyne Valley, featuring rare, wide limbed Garry Oak trees. It was purchased in 2016 by Nalini Samuel, a Texas businesswoman with commercial real estate and hospitality interests. She hired winemaker Geoff Jejna from Pentage in the Okanagan and the wine quality has spiked, showing light bodied, but fine, firm, tension and minerality. Only four varieties are planted, and all four showed well in the GCBW tasting. The Gewurztraminer 2018 was my standout with 90-91 ratings (and a gold medal at the BC Lt Governor’s Awards last year). The Pinot Noir 2017 achieved three 91 point ratings, with the Pinot Gris 2018 rating 89-90 pts, and the Zweigelt 2017 ranged from 87 to 89 pts. Production is confined to the 10 acre site so it’s barely available in Victoria let alone anywhere else in Canada. You’ll have to order from the winery or ferry to Salt Spring Island one day. But caution if you do that you may never come back!

Megalomaniac Winery, Vinemount Ridge, Niagara Peninsula, Ontario

The self proclaimed “sassy” marketing around Megalomaniac has been a peeve for me, deflecting from what were, until recently, average wines. John Howard’s showpiece on Cherry Ave on the brow of the Escarpment was founded in 2009 and expanded and embellished in 2015. In 2016, Sebastien Jacquey, the refreshingly humble native of Burgundy and France-schooled oenologist was smartly hired to right the ship. He had come to Niagara in 2007 to work at Le Clos Jordanne, becoming head winemaker until that venture corporately imploded in 2015 (since successfully revived). At Megalomaniac he has worked with Niagara College grad and internationally trained Chris Frey, and the wines have found technical prowess, polish, acuity and charm. Cabernet Francs lead the charge with Reserve Cabernet Franc 2017 racking up big 92-93 pts from the panelists, and Frank Cabernet Franc 2018 not far behind with 90-92pts. The expensive Reserve Cabernet Merlot 2017 drew mixed reviews 89-93 points, while the less expensive Big Mouth Merlot 2017 88-90 and Avante Garde Gamay 2018 88-89pts, proved very good.

Mirabel Vineyards, East Kelowna, Okanagan Valley, B.C.
Doug and Dawn Reimer (of Winnipeg based Reimer transportation company) moved to this southeast Kelowna property in 2006, built a grand Tuscan villa home and began living the dream, eventually planting their south facing, fairly steep, eight acre site to pinot noir and chardonnay. They sold fruit at first to prominent pinot producers Foxtrot and Meyer Family, and their first wines were made at the Okanagan Crush Pad facility in Summerland. But they have now moved in house with Kyle Temple at the helm, formerly at neighbouring Tantalus. It is a pinot noir/chardonnay operation with rose and sparkling adjuncts. The Chardonnay 2018 turned in solid 92 pt ratings across the board. The pink wines were also impressive with Rose of Pinot Noir 2019 scoring 89-90pts and the debut Blanc de Noir 2016 hitting 91-92 pts. The Pinot Noir 2017 was a bit more controversial for me due to some VA but others scored it 90-92.

Organized Crime Winery, Beamsville Bench, Niagara Peninsula, Ontario

Founded on the scenic upper slopes of the Beamsville Bench in 2006 by Jan and Krystyna Tarasewicz, it would take almost ten years for the winery with the unusual name (see for that whimsical story) to realize the potential of its great site. The breakout happened at the 2019 National Wine Awards of Canada when all seven wines entered took medals, including a platinum, two golds and three silvers that propelled Organized Crime to the 4th Best Performing Small Winery in Canada (Number 2 in Ontario). The quality transformation began with arrival Niagara College grad Greg Yemen in 2014 and his appointment as winemaker in 2016 after working two years alongside consultant Ross Wise. He now oversees the 27 acre vineyard, the picking and the meticulous hand crafting in the cellar to let the fruit and elegance of the clay limestone site express. Submissions to the GCBW tasting in 2020 showed the previous success was no fluke. The Cuvee Krystyna Chardonnay 2019, scored 90-91pts, as did the $21 Limestone Block Chardonnay 2018. The amber shaded skin contact Pinot Gris 2019 scored 90pts across the board. The intriguing Wild Ferment Riesling 2019 scored 89-90, with the Break In Pinot Noir 2019 a notch lower at 88-89. I think they are among the best value wines in Niagara.

Pentage Winery, Skaha Bench, Okanagan Valley, B.C.

Pentage was remarkable in the GCBW tastings for its wide range of wines and the fact that all were two to three vintages older, which gave them a very fine sense of equilibrium, complexity and integration. When your wine cellar sits within a 5000 sq ft natural granite cave you use it to advantage and age your wines in bottle for one to three years before release. That notion drew marine engineer Paul Gardner and his wife, Julie Rennie, to the 23 acre bench above Skaha Lake south of Penticton in 1996. In two neighbouring estate sites they planted a wide range of varieties, giving Pentage a broad and eclectic portfolio of 24 labels. Three of its four whites achieved at least one 92 rating: Chardonnay 2014  and  Riesling 2014 scored 90-92 pts, while the intriguing Roussanne/Marsanne 2015 registered 89-92pts. The Gewurztraminer 2017 scored 89-90pts. Pentage has a rep for its syrah, with the 1999 Syrah being its debut bottling at a time when syrah was new to the Okanagan. The Syrah 2015 scored 90-91pts, as did Hiatus Blend 2014 which combines an amazing nine different varieties, including tempranillo.

Tightrope Winery, Naramata Bench, Okanagan Valley, B.C.

Given its history of entering and winning medals at many awards competitions since its first vintage in 2012, Tightrope has become well known in B.C. but remains “new” to the rest of the country. In the 2015 and 2019 National Wine Awards it emerged as a contender in the Best Small Wineries category. And in the 2020 GCBW tastings it fared well again, especially with its now maturing red blends. Founded by Graham and Lyndsay O’Rourke, an athletic couple wanting to raise a family and work together in the Okanagan, they purchased and converted a seven acre apple orchard in Naramata in 2007, after studying oenology and viticulture together in New Zealand. Lyndsay is the winemaker and Graham tends the vines. The dips, rises and different aspects of their small site led to planting seven varieties, including Italy’s barbera. The now maturing big reds most impressed me with both Equipoise 2016 and Vertigo 2017 scoring in the 90-92pt range. The Pinot Noir 2017 and Syrah 2017  both weighed in with 89-90 ratings. Whites entered included Sauvignon Blanc Semillon Thomas Vineyard 2019 and the Pinot Gris 2019 scoring 88-90 pts.

Vignoble Camy, Eastern Townships, Quebec

Vignoble Camy is a bold initiative by world travelled wine lovers Fred Tremblay Camy and Isabelle Leveau. They founded Vignoble Camy in the warmest zone of the Eastern Townships, just 10kms from the American border south of Montreal, near the northern arm of Lac Champlain. Planted in 2012 to chardonnay, pinot gris and pinot noir only (no hybrids) the site sits on limestone gravel from the ancient Champlain Sea. With assistance from Niagara based consultant Kelly Mason (Domaine Queylus, The Farm) they are fashioning serious if pricy, taut and mineral wines that show real pedigree. With only three wines entered in GCBW, Vignoble Camy did not stand out for breadth of its offerings but the for the keenness of their chardonnay and pinot noir. Vignoble Camy Chardonnay Reserve 2018 racked up 89-91 scores while the Pinot Noir Reserve 2018  scaled 90-92pts. The rest of Canada needs to start paying serious attention to the Quebec arrival.

Watch this space in March for a continuation of Canada’s most impressive under-the-radar wineries.

Go to the complete Guide to Canada’s Best Wines.

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