Best Ontario wines

By Rick VanSickle

We have tasted an ocean of wines here at Wines In Niagara this year, the vast majority from the Niagara region. After poring over hundreds of reviews, we offer the Top 10 Most Thrilling Niagara Red and White Wines of 2016.

This is the 8th year for this list, an ever-evolving snapshot of the wines that each year stood above all the others. It is never our intention to claim this list is definitive because we could never taste every wine that was released in a given year. It is a subjective list that is culled from the wines that we have tasted, some re-tasted, and others even re-evaluated. All have been reviewed on Wines In Niagara and tasted in the 2016 calendar year.

Most Thrilling Niagara wines

The wines from top to bottom aren’t cheap — the average price per bottle from the Top 20 is $39.25, a big difference from the average price in 2015 of $49.60. The prices range from a high of $85 for a Bordeaux-varietal red to a low of $20 for a gorgeous single-vineyard Riesling.

The Most Thrilling Niagara Red and White wines of 2016 are listed here without their original score (because that does not matter for this purpose) but are presented in the order of their original score, because it had to be ordered somehow and that seemed convenient.

Please use this as a reference, nothing more, and as always, I would love to hear your opinions on what your wines of the year are (I like wine writer Michael Godel’s yearly take on his favourite wines now posted here at Godello). The wines here may or may not be sold out already and no wine was disqualified if it is already sold out.

The Most Thrilling Niagara
Red and White Wines of 2016

Both of our top wines of the year are not what you would expect. No Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc or Cabernet-Merlot, the usual suspects for what Niagara does best on the red wine side, and no Chardonnay or Riesling, arguably what Niagara does best on the white side in any given vintage. Oh, there is all of that on the list, but they did not factor into the two top wine decisions.

Drum roll here … the Most Thrilling Niagara Red Wine for 2016 is Malivoire’s Courtney Gamay 2013 and the Most Thrilling Niagara White for 2016 is the Hidden Bench Nuit Blanche Rosomel Vineyard 2014.

Gamay is fast becoming a staple in Niagara and Malivoire owner Martin Malivoire and winemaker Shiraz Mottiar are fully invested in keeping this as a signature wine style at the Beamsville winery and pushing it further and further. When I tasted this wine for the first time, I came to it late, and I’m glad I did. As it was the 2013 vintage, long ago sold out (in fact, even the 2014 vintage is long gone), it was tasted with just a little bottle age. It had evolved into this irresistible wine with all the parts in perfect harmony. It’s a Gamay that has just a bit more structure and complexity than other Gamays in the region because of aging in oak barrels, but ever so gently.

When I tasted it with Mottiar, above, I was floored by the flavours and supporting spice and roundness on the palate. If the future is bright for Gamay in Niagara — and it is — this should be the benchmark, the guiding light for a style that has so much potential. AND … it’s one of the least expensive wines available on this list. Did that factor into the final tally that made it Numero Uno on this red wine list? Perhaps, but not necessarily. Clear?

The Hidden Bench Nuit Blanche from what is one of the most exciting vineyards in Niagara — Rosomel Vineyard on the Beamsville Bench — is a joy to taste and drink with potential for further aging and evolution. It reminds me of great white Bordeaux but with that lovely Beamsville Bench minerality.

Hidden Bench is no stranger to this list. Owner Harald Thiel and winemaker Marlize Beyers are simply at the top of their game year-in, year-out and continue to raise the bar for Canadian wines with their estate vineyards — and the vines and wines are getting even better as they age and evolve.

Malivoire and Hidden Bench sit on top of our list, but there is plenty to choose from here.

The Most Thrilling
Niagara Red Wines of 2016

Red Wine of the Year

Niagara wines of the year

Malivoire Courtney Gamay 2013 ($26)
Perhaps the best, most complex and interesting Gamay being made in Niagara. This is wow wine even though Gamay purists will scoff at the fact that 20-30% of the fruit is aged in tight-grain French oak. But it works here beautifully. The expressive nose shows a range of plums, cassis and black cherry with toasted oak and spice notes. It’s juicy and spicy on the palate with hedonistic dark and red fruits and wood spice undertones. This is wow wine and there is no reason you can’t cellar this for bit (if you have any).

 The Rest of the Top 10 Reds

Top Ontario wines 2016

 Hidden Bench La Brunante 2012 ($85)
This flagship Bordeaux-style red from Hidden Bench, a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Cabernet Franc from the three estate vineyards is the last Brunante you will see until at least the 2016 vintage. None was made in 2013, 2014 and 2015. It has an aromatic and rich, concentrated nose of black currants, anise, plums, graphite and toasted oak spices. Such power and depth in the mouth with penetrating dark fruits, barrel spices on point, plush tannins and a sturdy frame that will carry this wine for a decade or more.

Top 10 Niagara red wines of the year

Big Head Biggest Red 2012 ($49)
Yes, sold out long ago, but worthy of this list because it is quite an accomplishment. It’s full-on appassimento from a blend of 30% each of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot with 10% Petit Verdot. The nose shows a mass of concentrate blackberry, cherry and plums with a heady mix of barrel spices. The palate reveals gobs of lip-smacking cherry, cassis and currants with grandma’s raspberry jam and spice forever. It’s a super-concentrated fruit bomb with extreme length on the finish and the stuffing to improve for 10, maybe 20 years.

Foreign Affair Temptress 2012 ($45)
It’s a blend of 54% Cabernet Franc, 28% Cabernet Sauvignon, 11% Merlot and 7% Petit Verdot with 35% of the grapes dried and finished with 15.6% alcohol. The nose is expressive with notes of sweet cigar box, spice box, concentrated blackberry, currants, blueberry and sweet herbs that just don’t quit. Such power on the palate with super-charged black currants, anise, blueberry pie, cocoa, licorice and spice box all propped up by a wall of firm, ripe tannins. This is all about power and tannic structure and is designed for the cellar. There is an exciting future for this wine in five or 10 years. A beauty.

13th Street Essence Syrah 2013 ($45)
Oh, so good, and even better, in my opinion, than the sensational 2012 vintage. Winemaker JP Colas, above, puts all the fruit for this Syrah, sourced from the Wismer Vineyard on the Twenty Mile Bench, in used French oak barrels. Three of the barrels see no sulphur at all and the other four get only a low dose of SO2. Such a thought-provoking and exciting nose of cured and grilled meats, cracked black peppercorns, concentrated cherry, boysenberry, blueberry pie, earth, black currants and garrigue. This is a wild, untethered Syrah loaded with personality on the palate. It shows rich and spicy red and dark fruit that is all propped up by firm tannic structure and bright acidity that lends an air of elegance to the finish. A thing of raw, classic beauty.

Rennie Estate G 2013 ($55)
An appassimento-style blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc that’s dried for up to 106 days. The grapes are picked early to ensure “clean” fruit at 22 Brix and then sent to the drying chamber where 30% of the fruit is lost to dehydration. Winemaker Shiraz Mottiar is looking for higher Brix of 28 or so without fruit breakdown and then the fruit is aged for 20 months in 40% new French oak barrels. The alcohol is about 16% abv. “This wine is more about fruit, balance and power,” Mottiar says. It is powerful in every way. The nose reveals rich cherry pie, raspberry compote, crushed black currants, graphite, forest floor, kirsch, dried herbs, bramble and toasted oak spices. It’s unfair to drink this now, with that mass of ripe, firm tannins, but underneath there is a range of saturated and highly extracted red and dark fruits to go with expressive vanilla-nutmeg-caramel spices, anise/licorice notes and earth that’s all a little disjointed at the moment. Wait for it, five or 10 years, or throw a huge hunk of beef of the BBQ and enjoy. It should be noted that the step above this from Rennie, the Super G, is even more powerful and concentrated than the “regular” G, but I have not reviewed the wine in an appropriate fashion.

Domaine Queylus Grand Réserve Pinot Noir 2013 ($60)
The Grande Réserve is a blend of the two best terroirs in the cellar, chosen to produce what winemaker Thomas Bachelder, above, calls “the most elegant, harmonious, complex and ageable wine possible.” It’s made in the personality of a fine Cru Burgundy Pinot with the essence of Niagara. So, lots of funk and earth with savoury red fruits and elegant French oak spice. It’s complex with barnyard notes on the palate and a vein of minerality. It’s both lithe and complex through the finish with racy acidity to keep everything fresh and lively.

Tawse Van Bers Vineyard Cabernet Franc 2012 ($50)
Sadly, this is the last vintage of this wonderful Franc sourced from the Creek Shores sub-appellation and made by winemaker Paul Pender, above. So lovely on the nose with brambly red fruits, forest floor, toasted barrel spices, stewed herbs and red plums. This is serious Cab Franc with rich and savoury red fruits, lovely oak spice, firm tannins and the stuffing to improve for a decade or more. A real treat.

Chateau des Charmes Paul Bosc Vineyard Pinot Noir 2014 ($35)
It’s been a while since this wine has been produced — the fruit was declassified in 2013, 2012 and 2011. It was worth the wait. Let it open up, it will reveal a complex nose of pretty, yet assertive, black cherries, strawberries, licorice, earth, loam, violets, cassis and elegant oak spices. It is silky on the palate with a range of red fruits, beetroot and lovely barrel spices all perked up by that racy cool-climate acidity. A beautiful Pinot.

Henry of Pelham Estate Cabernet-Merlot 2012 ($25)
Henry of Pelham does a lot of things right from the grapes that grow best in Niagara, and, in particular, the Short Hills Bench sub-appellation, but red blends from Bordeaux grapes in warm vintages is certainly one of its strong suits. I am convinced, now that I have seen most of the 2012 reds released, that this warm vintage was just about perfect for Niagara’s “big” reds — the blends from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. This mid-tier red blend from the above grapes is just getting better in the bottle and still has a long way to go. Such a lovely, rich and enticing nose of blackberry, kirsch, cassis and oak barrel spices. It rocks on the palate, gorgeous, layered dark fruits, rousing spices, melting tannins and everything starting to harmonize beautifully. Exceptional value for a top Niagara red.

The Most Thrilling
Niagara White Wines of 2016

White Wine of the Year

Hidden Bench Nuit Blanche Rosomel Vineyard 2014 ($40)
Yes, as good as everything is at Hidden Bench, this was the star at my annual tasting of owner Harald Thiel’s portfolio. When Thiel says this version of his left-bank white Bordeaux-inspired blend of Sauvignon Blanc (96%) and Semillon is “one of the best Nuit Blanches we have made,” he’s not exaggerating. It is simply one of the best whites he has made. Period. This is ravishing on the nose with heaven-scented spice, baked apple and grapefruit, figs, pear and grassy-fine herb notes. This is simply gorgeous in the mouth, multi-layered, highly structured, polished and elegant from the tip of the tongue to the finish. Such verve and elegance driven by creamy fruit, fine oak spices and complexity that will reward further pleasure with time in the cellar.

 The Rest of the Top 10 Whites

Thirty Bench Small Lot Wood Post Riesling 2014 ($30)
Wood Post sat out the 2013 vintage as a single-vineyard offering with winemaker Emma Garner making a “Wild Cask” Riesling from a blend of estate Riesling instead. The Wild Cask is back for 2015, with Triangle Vineyard taking a break. I’m glad Wood Post has returned, this is the vineyard I am drawn to because it’s so damn good every time I taste it and it ages beautifully. The nose starts slow but builds as you swirl it in the glass and opens up to citrus and apple notes with fine minerality and salinity. It’s fully realized on the palate, a lush offering with some weight and power that drives the ripe range of fruits and leads to a long finish with lovely, defining minerals. A generous offering with electric energy. A beauty.

2027 Cellars Aberdeen Road Vineyard Chardonnay 2013 ($30)
So, owner/winemaker Kevin Panagapka dials “everything” up a notch for this Beamsville Bench Chard — 18 months in French oak and full malo — that is sure to turn a few heads. The nose is gorgeous with penetrating notes of ripe apple, citrus, poached pear and a range of elegant oak spices. It is broad and complex on the palate with rich and creamy fruit, toasted oak spices and length through a long finish. The acidity is maintained to lift the range of fruit and help this wine sustain its integrity. Wonderful stuff here.

Ravine Vineyard Reserve Chardonnay 2013 ($40)
The fruit for this superb Chardonnay was picked purely to preserve the acidity. So, an early pick with oak aging in 30% new French barrels for 18 months. Such a beauty with a nose of rich and pure pear, Meyer lemon, toasted almond, vanilla and a range of exciting barrel spices. It is pure elegance on the palate with saturated fruit and well-integrated spice already. There is persistence from the pear/apple fruit but meticulously balanced out by the laser sharp acidity. That’s winemaker Martin Werner and assistant winemaker Ben Minaker in the photo, by the way.

Trius Showcase Ghost Creek Riesling 2015 ($25)
Wow. Winemaker Craig McDonald keeps upping the standard on this benchmark Riesling from the Four-Mile Creek sub-appellation. Such a beautiful nose of lime, mineral, lemon, salinity and sweet apple notes that grow in intensity. It is beautifully balanced between sweet and tart citrus, apple and that ever-present vein of river-rock minerality. All that and gorgeous vitality and freshness through the finish. Much more room to grow if you cellar properly.

Ravine Vineyard Reserve Riesling 2015 ($35)
Ravine’s Riesling is unique in that a tiny pocket of the vineyard, on the downward slope, achieves 20-40% botrytis every vintage. The 2015 version is astoundingly delicious. The nose opens up with a wild honey note and combines grapefruit, lime, apple and summer peach. On the palate, the layered sweet honey notes are balanced out by freshening acidity to go with a range of lime, citrus and crisp apple all delivered on a lingering finish. Very nice, very different Riesling.

Domaine Queylus Réserve Chardonnay 2014 ($35)
A persistent and mineral-driven nose of poached pear, citrus and flowers with subtle butterscotch/caramel spices. It’s clean and fresh on the palate, spice held in check, with pure orchard fruits that come at you in layers of pleasure. Lingers on the finish and hints at a long life in the cellar for further development.

Peller Estates Signature Series Sauvignon Blanc 2014 ($30)
Spectacular savvy with a nose of lime, pear, kiwi and grapefruit that also boasts elegant oak spice notes. It’s crisp yet maintains a semblance of gracefulness with rich layers of pear, citrus, guava and integrated spice notes with just a hint of herbs. Made from grapes with extended hang time, wild fermented and extended lees contact.

Flat Rock Nadja’s Vineyard Riesling 2015 ($25)
Nadja’s is a statement wine from this Twenty Mile Bench producer that gets better with each vintage. There is lime, peach, honeysuckle and bright citrus on the nose all playing a supporting role to the profound minerality imparted by the vineyard. It’s a beautiful Riesling on the palate. It’s rich and layered with intense lime, peach and apple flavours balanced out by freshening acidity and river-rock minerals.

Vineland Estates Elevation St. Urban Vineyard Riesling 2014 ($20)
Winemaker Brian Schmidt draws from the best parcels of his beloved St. Urban Vineyard, planted in 1979, for the Elevation Riesling. With the 2012 vintage all but sold out and the winemaker taking a pass on the 2013 vintage at this level, consumers will nonetheless be impressed with this wine. It has such a beautiful nose of lime, minerals and wisps of grapefruit and honey. It shows complexity on the palate and builds in momentum showing wet stone and citrus/lime zest with a dollop of honey sweetness. But, still, there is the kick-ass freshness from the lively acidity that keeps everything in balance.

Previous Top Wines of the Year

2015 Most Thrilling Wines

2014 Most Exciting Wines

2013 Most Exciting Wines

2012 Most Exciting Wines

2011 Most Exciting Wines