Buyer’s Guide to VINTAGES September 18th Release

John Szabo’s VINTAGES Review September 18th: Ontario

** Please note: As all WineAlign staff and writers will be in BC at the 2021 National Wine Awards of Canada over the next two weeks, we will be unable to taste the wines from the October 2nd VINTAGES release. We will be back for the October 16th Release **

By John Szabo, with reviews from David Lawrason, Sara d’Amato and Michael Godel

Debate rages among winemakers, commentators and consumers over which should be Ontario’s flagship white variety: riesling or chardonnay. Both perform admirably in the soils and climate of southern Ontario, from the value to the premium end of the spectrum, and in a wide range of styles. They’re both among Ontario’s most sustainable varieties in the fullest sense of the term, and, well, the best ones are flat out delicious. The VINTAGES September 18th release, with a feature on Ontario wines, includes two highly compelling examples that add weight to the riesling side of the scale, both rated comfortably into the 90s by all of us here at WineAlign. For additional context, listen to Sara’s and my deep dive into Ontario Riesling and Chardonnay in two separate episodes of our Wine Thieves podcast, in which we get straight to the heart of the matter with some of Canada’s finest practitioners of each grape ( and often both grapes). In the end, it’s ok not to choose. Also read on for a brief history of Ontario riesling. From the rest of the release, the crü has found plenty to recommend in both the classic genre – Barolo, Bordeaux, Chablis, Rhône Valley, Napa – to terrific value from the Corbières, to exciting, revolutionary styles from high-elevation Mendoza and coastal Chile.

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Riesling: A Natural Fit

Ontario’s cool-climate wine growing regions enjoy special status as some of the few areas outside of northern Europe where Riesling could be called a signature grape variety. Riesling makes up 15% of all VQA Ontario production by volume, second only to chardonnay, and the Niagara Peninsula is home to vineyards that are now over 40 years old, among the oldest in the province.

It’s perfectly logical that riesling would have been among the first vinifera varieties to be considered for planting in Ontario in the early 1970s, when the modern industry as we know it started to grow. As native labrusca grapes lost favour and more and more eyes turned to Europe for inspiration, riesling’s origins in Germany, also a decidedly cool area that paralleled to some extent the conditions in Ontario, sparked strong belief that the variety could perform well, and importantly, survive Canadian winters.

According to the Penachettis of Cave Spring Vineyard, Jack Shoemaker planted some of the first riesling vines in Ontario in the mid-70s. The Shoemaker Vineyard was a 10-acre site planted to a myriad of hybrid and vinifera varieties, including chardonnay planted in 1974 and Riesling in 1975, adjacent to Cave Spring’s original 1974 plantings to the east on the Beamsville Bench bordering with today’s Malivoire estate vineyard. Cave Spring purchased the Shoemaker vineyard in the late 1990s and today often use that heirloom Riesling parcel for their top-end CSV cuvée.

“The clonal material of that Riesling is unknown”, says Tom Penachetti of the Shoemaker plantings. “Though we assume it to have of Geisenheim origin (likely 239). It was definitely not Weis 21 as the clone was not yet available in 1975.”

VQA Ontario Riesling

The Clonal Mystery

And here’s where one of the enduring Niagara insiders’ mysteries originates. Riesling plantings took off in the late-1970s and early 1980s with the arrival of the so-called Weis clone riesling 21, which today accounts for the majority of riesling vineyards in Ontario. The Weiss family are nursery operators and winegrowers in Germany’s Mosel region, and recognized the potential for Riesling in Ontario early on, as well as for a new export market for their vines. Today the clone is widely known in Ontario as “21B”; Vinetech, the major local supplier of grapevines to the Ontario wine industry, lists “Riesling 21B as a product. Yet the clone was originally registered by the Weis family as Riesling clone Weis 21. Without the ‘B’, according to Penachetti, who is married to Anne Weis, daughter of Hermann Weis and sister of Nik, current generation at the helm of the St. Urbans’s Hof winery. “Neither Anne nor Nik know why the B came to be added”.

Riesling Without a “B”

Tom’s older brother Len Penechetti, president of Cave Spring Vineyard, “loosely recalls that the plant tags in the early days may have had a B on them. Perhaps it was a marking by Agriculture Canada for separating lots within a shipment somehow. Regardless, the clone is and always was registered as Weis 21. To be honest I thought it was simply 21 and not Weis 21; plenty of confusion to go around!”, says Tom.

In any case, feel free to correct Ontario winemakers if they add “B” to the riesling discussion. But more importantly, expect more tightly wound citrus fruit and wet stone character from riesling made with the Weis clone, relative to the riper, more stone fruit character of the Geisenheim or the Alsace clone 49, also planted in Ontario. The German connection also explains the local tendency to model after the Germanic style of riesling, which is to say low alcohol, high acid wines with a pinch of residual sugar to balance. Yet the majority of producers have been moving to drier and drier styles, as the vines age, flavour concentration grows, climate warms and tastes change.

One of the early local proponents of the Weis clone was a gentleman by the name of Lloyd Carmichael, who was the grower liaison in the late ‘70s for now-defunct Jordan Wines, one of Ontario’s largest wineries at the time and to whom the Penachettis sold their fruit in the early days. Carmichael was also the owner of the original 13th Street vineyard, located on 13th Street Louth, just north of Fourth Ave. in today’s Creek Shores sub-appellation. He encouraged growers with appropriate sites to plant Riesling and specifically the Weis clone, as it had just come available through Hermann Weis’ agent, Dieter Gutler. Vineland Estates and Marian Hill vineyards were developed between 1979 and 1981 in partnership with German investors affiliated with Hermann, which is the origin of Vineland’s celebrated St. Urban’s riesling vineyard, named for Hermann’s Mosel property back in Germany, from where the Weis clone originates. Gutler, for his part, purchased and planted the Kew vineyard, including the Weis clone that he represented, during the same period. **

The 1976/77 importations of the Weis 21 clone also ended up at the vineyard of Paul Stefanik, who had a 10-acre vineyard on the Beamsville Bench very close to the Kew site at the corner of RR 81 and Aberdeen Road, which is the eastern urban boundary of Beamsville. Stefanik was one of the early vinifera pioneers and his vineyard was highly praised by Carmichael. Cave Spring purchased riesling and other grapes from Stefanik in the early vintages of winery. Ken Dyck, of the Dyck family who founded Cattail Creek in Niagara-on-the-Lake, also planted small parcels of Weis riesling in 1976 or 1977.

The legacy of many of these original sites, and many since discovered, make up a big part of the Ontario riesling story, and give rise to some of the province’s top examples. Vines that have spent forty years in the same spot naturally adapt to their particular conditions, resulting in more naturally balanced wines, with greater depth and concentration. For more on the sub-regional differences in wine styles within the Niagara Peninsula, listen to Wine Thieves episode 42: VQA Ontario Riesling. And be sure to use the WineAlign wine search function to find the best rieslings currently on offer.

** Correction: an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Dieter Gutler operated “Kew vineyard for the original German investors”. A WineAlign reader pointed out this correction: “I worked in the Kew vineyard in 1981 before I flew to Germany to study viticulture & Oenology in Geisenheim. Just a small point that was mentioned: Gutler really did not operate for German investors as it was his & his wife’s Ingrid’s property. In googling Dieter I saw that Ingrid his wife passed away 20th March 2021. In the obit it says: “Ingrid and Dieter owned and operated Kew Vineyards in Beamsville for over 20 years.” – Arthur

Vintages Buyer’s Guide September 18th: Ontario wines

Charles Baker Picone Vineyard Riesling 2017

Charles Baker Picone Vineyard Riesling 2017, Niagara Peninsula, Ontario
$38.95, Stratus Vineyards
Michael Godel – The succulence in the acids over top juicy, juicy fruit and this great entanglement is majestic and dignified. My goodness Charles, I think you’ve done it.
John Szabo – Evolving now, Baker’s Picone vineyard riesling has shifted into a world of petrol products, dried and caramelized fruit flavours, citrus and orchard, apple and pear, dried mint and lemon zest. The palate remains extremely well balanced, with a pinch of sugar balanced by firm-ripe acids, growing more gentle and approachable with age. Genuine intensity and length are on offer.

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That’s all for this report. See you around the next bottle. Please note that reviews of the subsequent Oct 2nd release will be delayed by about a week as our entire team heads west to judge the National Wine Awards of Canada in Penticton.  The office will be closed September 28th to  Oct 11th.

John Szabo, MS

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Szabo’s Smart Buys
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