Monthly Archives: October 2010

A Late Start to the British Columbia Grape Harvest

Note: This is a report prepared by the B.C. Wine Institute on the grape harvest in British Columbia.

After a tumultuous summer, the British Columbia grape harvest is underway across the province, and, despite the hardships of Mother Nature, the grape quality is fantastic!

The 2010 harvest was off to a late start with the first grapes being picked the week of September 15; two weeks behind harvest last year. Although the majority of BC wineries started picking after September 24, some have not even begun to bring in fruit, giving 2010 the distinction of one of the latest harvests on record.

By all accounts, it has been a precarious year for vintners in BC, proving that we truly do test the limits of cool-climate viticulture. Cynthia Enns, Proprietor of Laughing Stock Vineyards in Naramata aptly described vintage 2010, “welcome to the reality of cool-climate grape growing. We push the limits and are now facing the realities of Mother Nature.”

Despite the cooler-than-normal temperatures and higher levels of precipitation this growing season, the hot, dry weather at the end of September was a slight comfort to grapegrowers and winemakers. Temperatures at the end of September were as much as 10 degrees above normal, though a few weeks of ripening are still needed around the province.

In the North Okanagan, the 2010 harvest at Quails’ Gate Estate Winery began on October 4. Winemaker Grant Stanley indicates that, “field sampling of early ripening varietals, Marechal Foch, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, have indicated that there are good, ripe flavours and relatively moderate sugar levels combined with  good acidity. A very late budburst and cooler than average spring provided many challenges in the vineyard with early shoot thinning followed by aggressive crop thinning after fruit set. This work has resulted in our vines carrying the smallest crop through to harvest than ever before, and we will be rewarded for our efforts with good ripeness across all varietals in this cool year.”

Sandra Oldfield, Winemaker at Tinhorn Creek Vineyards in Oliver, has completed 30% of their harvest, “our whites are harvested and we were lucky enough to have no rot in our vineyards. With delicious, mature flavours, this looks to be a really good year for white wines.” The red harvest certainly looks to be more harrowing, as heat-units drop and temperatures dip closer to zero explains Oldfield, “we have just brought in the first of our Merlot and the quality is exceptional and we will have all of our Merlot and Pinot Noir in within a week. Late-ripening varietals like Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc still require a few weeks, even in the South Okanagan.”

In the Similkameen valley, those wineries that have not yet begun their harvest expect to do so after Thanksgiving weekend. Ann Heinecke, Winemaker at Crowsnest Vineyards, and her team began their harvest on October 5 with Pinot Auxerrois, but the remainder of their crop won’t be harvested until the end of October.

Similar stories are being told in the Lower Mainland with early-ripening varietals being harvested.  Vista D’oro Winery in Langley started their harvest on October 4, bringing in some excellent quality Marechal Foch, and Neck of the Woods Winery in Langley has brought in their Siegerrebe, but the remainder of their harvest won’t begin for at least another week.

On Vancouver Island, Mark Holford from Rocky Creek Winery is hoping that the warm weather continues. Their harvest began this week with Ortega, and although they expect Siegerrebe to be picked in the upcoming week, Holford will wait as long as possible for his Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir to ripen, anticipating that harvest will continue until early November.

Despite the challenges presented this year, vintners agree that vintage 2010 will still produce some outstanding wines and, although there may be slightly less of it to go around, it will be a particularly good year for white wines.

For the latest harvest updates, follow @winebcdotcom and #BCharvest2010 on Twitter.

Touring Niagara: Part I, the Golden Mile

My Niagara, Part I of IV parts:

By Rick VanSickle

At last count, there were over 75 wineries in the Niagara Peninsula. Even for me, who lives here, you just can’t get to each and every one of them comfortably in a year.

A view of Lake Ontario from Hidden Bench
A view of Lake Ontario from Hidden Bench

In fact, living in the heart of Niagara wine country for four years and visiting extensively before that, I still have not been to every single winery despite my best effort. And it’s my job to visit and write about the wines of Niagara.

Wine country is an addictive experience. Once you visit, you want more. After you get comfortable with tasting and exploring in wine country you keep coming back. Even if you live here, it becomes part of a healthy lifestyle of enjoying locally produced wine and all that comes with it: the food, the beauty, the people.

It’s such an idyllic lifestyle. Good wine, made from the blood, sweat and tears of local farmers and highly skilled winemakers, just tastes better when paired with regional food.

But if you can’t live here, the next best thing is visiting and getting to know what’s available as new wines are released throughout the year.

While I haven’t been to every winery (don’t worry, I will get there!), I make it part of my weekly routine to visit as many as possible given time restraints. Of course, I have my favourite spots, where everything comes together from the wine to the friendly winery staff to the spectacular views and incredible food.

What follows is Part I of four tours, or well-traversed routes in wine country, that I can highly recommend.

PART I:

The Golden Mile

I’m not really sure if it’s a mile or not, but from the bottom of Mountainview Road, off of King St. in Beamsville going south, to the end at Fielding Estate Winery, what I call the Golden Mile, is about as good as it gets in Niagara for a quality concentration of wineries, far away from the glamour of the mainstream wine route.

If you make it from top to bottom in a day of tasting, you have sampled some of the best wines Niagara has to offer on the Beamsville Bench and you’ve barely put a dent in your gas tank.

I find myself travelling this road a lot. It’s not too far off the QEW (exit Ontario St. in Beamsville, go south to King St., turn right and then left at Mountainview) and traffic is never an issue.

Some legendary wines are made on this golden stretch of heaven — Thirty Bench single vineyard Rieslings, Hidden Bench’s Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays and Rieslings, Rosewood Estate’s mead wines as well as some very fine reds, and finally, when you’ve reached the top, the wines of Fielding Estate.

Here are the highlights of a tour worth taking:

Rosewood Estates Winery:

What: Rosewood Estates Winery and Meadery
Where: 4352 Mountainview Road, Beamsville
Tastings: Wednesday to Sunday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Winemaker: Natalie Spytkowsky
Website: Rosewood

Rosewood Merlot.

Rosewood Merlot.

Rosewood is the first winery along Mountainview and a great place to start your Golden Mile trip. The winery is focused on table wines, especially Riesling, a rare 100% Semillon, and the delicious just released reds, as well as mead, or honey wine, from flower nectar collected by honeybees on the estate.

Make sure you try: Rosewood Merlot Reserve 2008 — This is a naturally fermented wine and made in limited supply (only 77 cases) from estate fruit. A gorgeous Merlot with a nose of black cherry, wild berry, Espresso, vanilla and a nice touch of eucalypt. It’s all about the wow factor in the mouth with generous cassis, mature cherry and plums playing in harmony with the oak, spice and fine tannins. A structured and firm Merlot built for aging.

Thirty Bench Wine Makers

What: Thirty Bench Wine Makers, part of the Peller family of wines since 2005.
Where: 4281 Mountainview Road, Beamsville
Hours: Sunday to Friday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Winemaker: Natalie Reynolds
Website: Thirty Bench

Grapes on the Bench.

Grapes on the Bench.

Thirty Bench may be owned by a big winery but it’s all about the intimate surroundings here and the personal attention visitors get from the friendly and attentive staff. The winery is clean and has a pretty view of the vineyards through the all-glass walls. While it’s all about the three single-vineyard Rieslings that are some of the finest in Niagara, that’s not say you shouldn’t give the other wines a taste.

Make sure you try: Thirty Bench Small Lot Wood Post Vineyard Riesling 2008 — Another Riesling from the 2008 vintage that topped its counterpart from the previous year. Thirty Bench is a Riesling specialist with a gorgeous trio of single-vineyard wines made each year. It’s hard to single out just one them but I keep coming back to the Wood Post. It has just the right mix of white peach, orange-melon, sweet citrus and mineral that I love in Niagara Rieslings.

Angels Gate Winery:

What: Angels Gate Winery
Where: 4260 Mountainview Road, Beamsville
Tastings: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Sunday.
Winemaker: Philip Dowell
Website: Angels Gate

Angels Gate

Angels Gate

This beautifully situated winery was only recently discovered (at least by me!) for one reason or another. I was blown away by the view from the outdoor patio, the growing collection of affordable wines and the friendly staff.

There’s a lot to like here — Pinot Noirs, Rieslings, Merlots, Chardonnays and, recently, an eclectic lineup of sparkling wines. Also a solid late harvest collection. Everything is reasonably priced.

Make sure you try: Angels Gate Mountainview Merlot 2007 — A shockingly good Merlot with ripe red fruits, light toast and interesting spices on the nose. It shows elegance and finesse on the palate with red fruits, spice and oak all working in harmony. Delicious.

Hidden Bench:

What: Hidden Bench Vineyards and Winery
Where: 4152 Locust Lane, Beamsville.
Tastings: 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m daily (11 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the winter)
Winemaker: Marlize Beyers
Website: Hidden Bench

Hidden Bench

Hidden Bench

Just off of Mountainview Rd. and well worth the detour. Hidden Bench specializes in super premium, single-vineyard Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling. The tastings are bit more expensive than other wineries but you might want to shell out to taste the 2008 Roman’s Block Rosomel Vineyard Riesling, 2009 Felseck Vineyard Gewurztraminer, Terroir Cache Red Meritage, Nuit Blanche 2008, a Sauvigon Blanc-Semillon white blend, and 2007 La Brunante, made in only two vintages as a blend of the best of the best red varieties. It will be money well spent.

Make sure you try: Hidden Bench La Brunante 2007 — Is this the class of 2007? Could this be the wine of the year? Only two vintages of this extraordinary wine have ever been made. The other was 2005. Only 2,200 bottles were made from the finest Bordeaux grapes grown in the three estate vineyards with fruit cropping at less than a tonne per acre (hence the $85 price). There are a lot of platitudes to heap on this wine, so let’s just start by saying it’s a huge red with a nose that doesn’t quit giving concentrated currants, blackberry, mocha, oak and spice notes. The fruit rages on the palate with tar, leather, velvety texture, ripe tannins and length on the finish all adding to this immense, highly concentrated wine.

Fielding Estate Winery:

What: Fielding Estate Winery
Where: 4020 Locust Lane, Beamsville
Tastings: 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily
Winemaker: Richie Roberts
Website: Fielding

Fielding Winemaker Richie Roberts.

Fielding Winemaker Richie Roberts.

There’s a reason this winery is one my favourites in Niagara — everything about Fielding Estate Winery speaks to Niagara. Its owners, the wines, the winery … all quintessential Niagara.

The wines produced there are some of the most personable and distinct local wines you’ll find anywhere in Ontario. And owners Heidi and Curtis Fielding work hard to make sure they bring their exceptional wines to the people of Niagara. Young, dynamic winemaker, Richie Roberts, is masterful at putting together a collection of wines that speak to the vintage, crafting wines that are best from what Mother Nature delivers. Diversity is key to the Fielding portfolio — great Riesling, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Viognier, and the full spectrum of reds.

This is the perfect place to end the Golden Mile trip with the best Muskoka chairs in Niagara on the back patio with a view all the way to the CN Tower.

Make sure you try: Fielding Estate Syrah 2007 — A riveting red for fans of Rhone-style syrah with aromas of roasted meats, blueberry, wild berry, leather, smoke, creosote and game that comes at you in wave after wave. The dark fruits on the palate are joined by mint, licorice, tar and smoky notes. This is a wild, spicy and exotic red that needs decanting for several hours and perhaps some time in the cellar.

End note: If time permits, you can also check out Organized Crime, EastDell Estates and the new Good Earth wineries, all within spitting distance of the other wineries listed above.

Winemaker McDonald takes the reins at Hillebrand

When it was announced this summer that the tandem winemaking team of Craig McDonald and Rob Power from Creekside were splitting up it came as a shock to everyone.

Hillebrand winemaker Craig McDonald in the vineyard.

Hillebrand winemaker Craig McDonald in the vineyard. Photo courtesy of the St. Catharines Standard

After all, the tight duo had consistently racked up awards for their winemaking skills at competition after competition. Together they raised the bar in Niagara for quality, well-made wines that showed off the skill of the winemakers and offered up some needed irreverence and innovation in the process.

“I was content to stay at Creekside,” said McDonald over a wonderful lunch at his new gig at Hillebrand and essentially the entire family of Peller wines in Niagara. “This came out of left field. I just couldn’t say no.”

For McDonald, heading up the winemaking operations and vineyard management at Hillebrand and overseeing the winemaking operations at Thirty Bench, Peller Estates, Trius and even the blended wine program, was a game changer.

He instantly became one of the most powerful winemakers in Niagara, responsible for more than 25% of all the grapes grown in the Peninsula.

Winemaker Craig McDonald with the freshly harvested Sauvignon Blanc

Winemaker Craig McDonald with the freshly harvested Sauvignon Blanc

And he’s got some big boots to fill. Former senior winemaker at Hillebrand, Darryl Brooker, who took a job at CedarCreek Estate Winery in the Okanagan Valley this summer, left his mark on Niagara and the Peller family of wines with a skilled touch in the winery. Both Trius and the more vineyard-focused Showcase series improved immensely under his watch.

While McDonald has nothing but praise for Brooker, he has ideas of his own and will draw on that energy and creativity that made Creekside such a great brand.

That means a lot of new techniques to “push the limits” of some of the brands — especially the Showcase tier.

McDonald’s ideas run the gamut from working with more wild yeasts, to oak-aged Sauvignon Blancs (a specialty of his), to multi-variety fermentation, to introducing a small-batch program of interesting lots from any given vintage, to new plantings and creative experimentation.

Grapes waiting to be picked at Hillebrand

Grapes waiting to be picked at Hillebrand. Photo courtesy of the St. Catharines Standard

He’s already planting Viognier with an eye toward a stronger Shiraz (another grape McDonald loves to work with) program at Hillebrand. And just recently McDonald picked a super-ripe (25 brix) Gamay from 2010 that he wants to bottle.

It’s within the Showcase line where McDonald’s creativity will really shine. “I want to give it a nudge, take it a little left of centre,” he said. “It’s my playground.”

McDonald hasn’t had a lot of time to think about his new job. Brooker left for his job in May and McDonald started in July. His first job was visiting the hundreds of vineyards Peller either owns or has grower contracts with. He still hasn’t visited them all.

And then there’s the early and very exciting 2010 harvest that snuck up on everyone.

McDonald hasn’t stopped since the day he started and with grapes coming in by the truck load, he’s working, along with his winemaking team, from 6 a.m. to midnight to get the harvest in and crushed.

As we ate lunch at the Hillebrand Winery Restaurant, McDonald was constantly asked to make snap decisions on the tonnes of Sauvignon Blanc grapes that were coming in for harvest. The trucks were lined up and the winemaking team was sorting through the bins and deciding which grapes would go into which brand.

It’s a precise dance of timing and decision-making that will determine the quality of the 2010 wines through all the tiers. McDonald kept a cool head while directing traffic and answering questions from a reporter.

Craig McDonald checks a tank sample of Hillebrand wine.

Craig McDonald checks a tank sample of Hillebrand wine.

An early harvest is showing off the best of the McDonald’s new wine team. Hillebrand had already been picking for two weeks in early September and the bulk of the pickers hadn’t even arrived for the harvest.

“Everyone is pitching in and making it work. It’s a team approach, we’re all equal here.”

McDonald has been “dealt a great hand with this vintage,” one of the best anyone can remember. But it came quickly with everything ripening at once.
“You need to shoot from the hip,” he said. “It’s exciting, we’re running on adrenalin.”

Here’s what we enjoyed at the Hillebrand Winery Restaurant, served with a tasty Lake Huron char filet with sweet pea and mascarpone ravioli, Chardonnay Blue Bay mussels, VanKempen bok choi and fresh-cut garden cilantro pesto crafted by Chef Frank Dodd:

Trius Sauvignon Blanc 2009 ($14, 3.5 stars) — A nice summer Sauvignon Blanc with lemon-lime, grapefruit and some fresh-cut grass notes. With juicy acidity, it’s perfect with summer salads and light dishes on the patio.

Trius White 2009 ($20, 4 stars) — Trius has always been about the art of the blend and Brooker made this as a counterpart to the popular Trius Red. It’s a blend of Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer and Riesling, some of it barrel fermented. Gorgeous aromas of apple and tropical fruits to start. It has some grip on the palate to go with rich apple-melon flavours. Perfect with the fresh-caught char.

Hillebrand Showcase Ghost Creek Riesling 2009 ($25, 4.5 stars) — What a nice Riesling, and an unexpected pleasure from Niagara-on-the-Lake (not usually noted for its minerality in Riesling). It’s made in a German Mosel style with only 7% alcohol and nice honey-dipped sweetness. The fresh lemon-lime-mineral profile is driven by firm acidity and perfect balance. The honey notes are derived from a touch of botrytised fruit in the vineyard.

Enjoy!