Niagara wine

By Rick VanSickle

For Peller Estates chief winemaker Craig McDonald, it’s been a busy few years.

And as the doors to the new Wayne Gretzky Estates Winery & Distillery — the company’s newest jewel in the family of estate wineries — now open after a two-week “soft launch” as of this week (with the grand opening slated for early June) maybe, just maybe, McDonald can relax a bit and enjoy his successes. It’s not likely, though. With the biggest winemaking job in the country (officially he is Vice President Winemaking at Andrew Peller Limited), overseeing all of the company’s wine assets from Ontario to B.C., there is little time for McDonald to sit back and soak it all in.

For the past three years, along with all his other duties, McDonald has been further occupied with helping Gretzky master distiller Joshua Beach with the wine barrel aging and blending of the unique whiskies being made at the facility.

Ontario whisky

“It’s been a labour of love for the last three years,” said McDonald during a sneak peek inside the 23,000-square-foot facility that is the first of its kind in the region, featuring both wine and distilling production.

“We’ve been exploring what barrels work best, what toast to use … it’s been exhausting, but quite a journey.”

Beach has long been a lover of spirits, and after university he decided to pursue his passion. He studied at Heriot Watt in Scotland where he completed his MSc in Brewing and Distilling at one of the best schools in the world. He then gained experience with brewing and distilling in Europe before returning to Canada to start a distillery in Vancouver with a partner.

Ontario wine

Ontario is home to him though. In Beach’s words, “now that I am back I couldn’t imagine a better place to be than at the Wayne Gretzky Distillery, making Canadian whisky that proudly bears the name of a true Canadian icon.”

The distillery is home to state-of-the-art distilling equipment, while the winery features a beautiful barrel fermenting and aging cellar and tasting room. The summer water feature next to the Great Lawn will become an ice rink in winter, complete with a ‘loonie’ buried at centre ice, dropped by The Great One Wayne Gretzky himself at the groundbreaking ceremony in September, 2015.

Guests visiting Gretzky can enjoy wine and whisky tasting bars, retail stores, tours and seminars throughout the day, and a VIP tasting room. Visitors can sample (and purchase) wine, whisky and grape based spirits that are only available at the estate and relax with light fare and cocktails on the patio at The Whisky Bar (opening in June).

Ontario whisky

During a “soft launch” of the new iconic winery Wines In Niagara got a first look inside the state-of-art-distillery, tasting rooms, retail shops and well-appointed tributes to Gretzky.

I was blown away by the design, not only by the magnitude of the facility but also how it’s tied so tightly to Gretzky right down to the pool behind the main buildings and memorable photos from Gretzky’s glory days in hockey and candid shots of him growing up and with his family — including his daughter Paulina and fiancé PGA star golfer Dustin Johnson.

Canadian whisky

The facility is really two buildings that are linked but technically divided (for licencing purposes) between the distillery and winery sides with separate tasting rooms and retail outlets for both products.

The tasting bars for both the distillery (with four products to try including the popular Red Cask No. 99 Whisky and the new Ice Cask Whisky, finished in Icewine barrels) and winery (full lineup of Gretzky branded wines) are now in full operation.

McDonald said Gretzky has been fully involved in the joint project with Peller that bears his name. “He’s been really interested in the whisky side of it,” he says. Whisky is cool right now. His kids love it.”

Prior to the tour of Gretzky, I sat down for lunch at Trius (right next door) with McDonald to taste through some new releases from the winery.

Chef Frank Dodd’s take on fish and chips: Lake Erie White Fish, Trius Brut Tempura, Celeriac Slaw, Pea Shoots, Duck Fat Fries and Malt Vinegar Aioli

Over a lunch prepared by Trius Chef Frank Dodd, McDonald poured a range of wines from his well-curated Trius portfolio, including the namesake wines and the Showcase line of wines where McDonald loves to play with vineyard-specific, terroir-driven varieties, wild fermentation and different oak treatments.

Here’s what I can recommend for the newly released and/or soon to be released wines.

Trius wines

Trius Dry Riesling 2015 ($15, 88 points) — A nose of lime, grapefruit, pear, apple skin and subtle minerality. It’s quite dry with puck-power on the palate, citrus-driven flavours and a crisp, vibrant finish.

Trius Devine White 2015 ($20, 88 points) — McDonald calls this his take on “Alsatian-style white blends.” It contains of combination of Pinot Gris, Riesling and Gewurztraminer with a pinch of Chardonnay. The nose has fresh aromas of apple, orchard fruits and apricots. It’s a lovely, dry expression on the palate but still ripe and rockin’ fruits that’s both refreshing and crisp through the finish.

Trius Sauvignon Blanc 2015 ($15, 89 points) — As far as McDonald is aware, the Trius SB is “the largest VQA bottling in Canada,” which is quite an accomplishment since the winemaker admits: “It’s a bit of a polarizing style, but I want it to be different.” Indeed, it’s a slightly reductive or “sweaty” savvy that’s highly aromatic with a nose of grapefruit, herbs, lemon-lime and just a hint of tropical fruits and spice from 10% oak treatment. It’s dry, fresh and austere on the palate and loaded with citrus, zippy-zesty lime and that underlying spice note. A very fine white wine at an equally delicious price.

Trius Showcase Clean Slate Wild Ferment Sauvignon Blanc 2015 ($32, 91 points) — This winemaker’s specialty gets McDonald’s full attention. The grapes are gently whole bunch pressed, then sent directly to barrel. Fermentation is started naturally in barrel with wild yeast. It’s aged ‘sur lie’ for 11 months in mostly neutral French oak barriques. It has a gorgeous nose of ripe passion fruit, grapefruit, pear and lime with a seam of spiciness that is fully integrated. It’s a riper, more voluptuous style of savvy on the palate with a rich and textured profile that reveals myriad flavours in layer after layer and finishes with a zippy blast of uplifting citrus zest. This worked brilliantly with Trius Chef Frank Dodd’s Smoked Icewine Salmon with pickled beet, red onion, caper, creamed cheese, potato croquette and pumpernickel soil and sea buckthorn curd. Heavenly match!

Trius Showcase Pinot Noir Clark Farm 2014 ($30, 92 points) — McDonald wants his Trius reds to be structured so they can age gracefully and develop in the bottle with a little cellar aging. “We want this to go the distance,” he says. This wild fermented Pinot spends three weeks on the skins after fermentation to build structure and colour. It has a gorgeous nose of black cherry, raspberry bush, cassis and earthy/spicy notes. It is highly structured and firm on release but still shows beautiful ripe fruits of cassis, raspberry and pomegranate to go with underbrush, toasted spice notes and depth of flavour through a long finish. Best to lay down for three years minimum.

Trius Gamay 2015 ($17, 89 points) — This is the second year for this wine. “It’s one of my personal favourite varieties,” says McDonald. “To me Gamay is that wine, a drinking wine that’s so versatile with food.” The winemaker ages the Gamay in about 20% new oak, less than the debut Gamay, but still provides a more sturdy rendition of this wine. It shows ripe plum and cherry notes that jump out of the glass with added cassis and spice notes. It’s highly gulpable on the palate with flavours of cherry and plums with a touch of spice and a rustic feel through the finish. Nice job here.

Trius Showcase Red Shale Clark Farm Vineyard Cabernet Franc 2014 ($45, 91 points) — McDonald describes this top-notch Cab Franc thusly: “It’s like a baby’s head on a velvet pillow.” In other words, wait for it, it needs time to grow up even though its melange of aromatic red fruits, black currants, herbs and toasted spice notes are attractive right now, it will deliver more goodness with a trip to the cellar for 4+ years. It pops on the palate, a rousing broth of red and dark fruits with added notes of tar, toasted spices notes and herbaceous undertones that is all supported by firm structure but smooth, rounded tannins. Buy, hold, enjoy.