Canadian wine

By Rick VanSickle

It has been a very tough year for The Old Third’s Bruno Francois and Jens Korberg.

The co-owners of the tiny Hillier winery in Prince Edward County, producers of some of the finest Pinot Noir in the country, have gone through an emotional roller coaster as Francois has been battling T-Cell Lymphoma cancer with regular chemotherapy sessions in Toronto. It has put the winery, which is essentially a two-person operation, behind on everything while Francois recovers.

Bottling has been behind, the meticulously-tended vineyard isn’t being cared for like Francois would like (a hired hand even quit mid-way through the season), the retail store has been open sporadically throughout the busy summer crush, but somehow Francois and Korberg have been able to hold it all together as they deal with this unpleasant ordeal surrounded by family, friends and the spirit of The County community.

Ontario wine

From all this heartbreak, came some joy this past weekend as Francois and Korberg were married on Saturday with a large gathering of family and friends there to share in the nuptials.

It would appear that Francois and Korberg have put the worst behind them and can come back stronger than ever to do what they do best — make kick-ass Pinot, Ontario craft cider and County Cabernet Franc in one of the prettiest settings in Ontario.

County wine

My wife Maureen, above, and I paid a visit to The Old Third a couple of weeks ago while on our way to Ottawa. It was my second trip to the winery this summer and in stark contrast to the earlier visit when Francois’s diagnosis and treatment was in the early stages of uncertainty.

We spent some time with Francois and Korberg as they toured us around the beautiful barn where they sell and make their wines.

Francois looked well, minus his hair and worried he would lose his eyebrows due to the chemo treatments, but in good spirits compared to last time I saw him when he could barely walk upright (back then he had no idea what was wrong with him).

Prince Edward County wine

He climbed stairs effortlessly as he showed us another the gorgeous space under construction in the upper level of the barn. He talked of a full recovery, of the success of the chemo and was optimistic he would be cancer-free and able to get back to what he loves doing — making outrageously wonderful wines. On Monday of this week he posted this to his Facebook page:

“Just saw my lymphoma specialist and my CT scan results are amazing according to him! All the cancer masses in my marrow are gone. My bones are healing! There is talk that my chemo cycles may be cut short. My nightmare has come to an end and this sword of Damocles gone. The cancer has gone to hell where it belongs!!!”

The retail and tasting facility was hopping and the new Pinot Noir 2015 was disappearing as quickly as Korberg could hand label them.

Francois proudly poured both the Pinot and new Cabernet Franc (which was not bottled when we were there) while we chatted. The Pinot was magical, and as we sipped, my wife and I marveled at the aromas and taste of this exquisite wine. The Cabernet Franc, now bottled and for sale, was also astonishingly delicious and charming, revealing The Old Third balance and depth it has quickly become known for.

We made our purchases, said our good-byes and headed on our way to Ottawa.

Not being able to make it to the wedding, we watched on social media as the photos clogged my feeds — a joyous occasion with laughing, love and hope.

On their wedding day, we cracked the first bottle from our haul, the 2015 Pinot Noir. It was even better than we remembered. The absolute best Pinot Francois has made in the short history of the winery.

We start this report with a review of The Old Third Pinot Noir 2015. We also have a preview of three Cave Spring wines from Niagara hitting LCBO shelves, plus recommendations from the Canadian wines being released Saturday at Vintages and two quirky wines — a new pétnat (pétillant naturel) sparkler from Niagara and North American’s only Aligoté made right here in Niagara — that wine lovers might want to try.

The Old Third

Ontario Pinot Noir

The Old Third Pinot Noir 2015, Prince Edward County ($49, 94 points) — The vineyard is planted with high quality Pinot Noir clones, 114, 115, 459, 667, 777, 828 all grafted on Riparia Gloire in high density 4-foot 4-inch rows and 3 foot inter-vine spacing. The first commercial harvest was autumn 2008. The first thing you notice is the vibrant and bright cherry red colour of this young wine, then the aromas of perfumed violets and muted potpourri followed by super-charged and penetrating cherries, bramble and cranberry that intermingle with cassis, red licorice and seamless, integrated fine oak spice. Francois is a purist and adds nothing to his wine that doesn’t need to be there. He wants the vineyard to tell the story and shuns any amount of sulphur that isn’t absolutely necessary for the preservation of the wine. The delivery on the palate is like velvet, such smoothness and texture then purity of cherry fruit that’s deep and lingering, all supported by a mixture of cassis, small wild berries, subtle oak spice and minerals. It is perfectly balanced with fine-grained tannins carried on a long, long finish. This is attractive now with decanting, but will only get better with 2+ years of cellaring and a long life after that. A truly magnificent Pinot Noir, one of the best I have tasted from Canada.

Cave Spring Cellars

Niagara’s Cave Spring Cellars is launching two new varietal wines into the LCBO’s VQA wine section this September and will also release its popular Blanc de Blancs Brut NV in the important Vintages Essentials portfolio at the same time.

The launch date for all three wines — a Pinot Gris, Cabernet Franc and sparkler — is Sept. 10.

Cave Spring’s trio of wines:

Niagara wine

Cave Spring Cellars Pinot Gris 2016 ($17, 89 points) — Cave Spring winemaker Angelo Pavan first worked with Pinot Gris in 2004, and in the past half dozen years has identified the grape for portfolio extension based on its consistent quality and yield in the vineyard. Having experimented with fruit from several areas of the Peninsula, Pavan settled on the Lincoln Lakeshore sub-appellation to begin planting Pinot Gris based on the area’s terroir and microclimate. Indeed, he knows this appellation well, as the winery itself has 12 ha (29 ac) of vineyard holdings within its boundaries. The Gris sees 12 hours of skin contact and sits on the lees for three months. It has a lovely nose of melon, grapefruit, honeysuckle, pear and a hint of spice. It has a creamy feel on the palate with rounded notes of pear, citrus and honeydew melon in a rich, generous style.

Cave Spring Cellars Cabernet Franc 2015 ($18, 89 points) — In winemaker Pavan’s words, “there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Cabernet Franc is the Bordeaux variety best suited to Niagara’s terroir. With the right work in the vineyard and cellar, Niagara Cabernet Franc as a mono-varietal can reach the highest level of vineyard expression when compared with the other Bordeaux varieties.” Given Cave Spring’s success over the past decade with varietal Cabernet Franc throughout Canada, the U.S. and overseas, consumer interest in the grape appears to be very high. As Pavan notes, “Cabernet Franc’s relatively low profile on the world wine stage gives us as winemakers a unique opportunity to define Niagara’s red wine terroir on its own terms, without slavishly imitating better known regions or varieties.” The nose shows a bright range of cassis, cherry, cedar cigar-box, cloves and cinnamon. The cassis fruits shines on the palate with a herbs, licorice, savoury spices, earth and freshening acidity. A very nice Cabernet Franc at a hard-to-resist price point.

Cave Spring Cellars Blanc de Blancs Brut NV ($30, 90 points) — Winemaker Pavan launched Cave Spring’s sparkling wine program in 2002, working with several grape varieties including Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Riesling. He was, however, always a fan of the great Blanc de Blancs wines of Champagne, struck by their rare combination of finesse, transparency and power. By 2008 he was convinced that similar results were possible from Cave Spring’s Niagara Escarpment vineyards. The evolution of the 2004 Chardonnay cuvée brought him to this realization, and as the years went by it was clear that the Blanc de Blancs style stood head-and-shoulders above the other contenders, whether blended or varietal in composition. This cuvee is a blend of estate 60% Chardonnay and 40% Chardonnay Musque, aged sur lie for 45 months and is made in the traditional method. It has an elegant nose of lemon, brioche, green apple, limestone minerality and grapefruit. It has a fine and vigorous mousse on the palate, lovely texture and verve with a nutty, fresh profile of citrus, apple, biscuit and vibrant energy through the finish. A lovely and versatile sparkler for celebrations or with raw oysters, lobster bisque, battered shellfish, sushi, quiches/omellettes and grilled seafood, smoked duck.

Having a Field Day

Ontario Pet-nat

First Fruit Field Day Pet Nat 2016 ($25, limited supply at Leaning Post winery, 88 points) — Ryan De Witte is the assistant winemaker at Winona’s Leaning Post winery and makes just one wine under his virtual label First Fruit. This pétnat (pétillant naturel) sparkling wine is what I would call an off-the-beaten-track blend of Gewurztraminer and Muscat Ottonel from the Wismer vineyard in Niagara. It was whole cluster pressed into tank, bottled by hand with nothing added (including sulphur) to provide a natural, cloudy and wholly geeky sparkler that failed to get by the VQA tasting panel. “It’s cool,” says De Witte, “it’s all fun.” He’s certain that his next vintage will find favour in a different category as he learns the ins and outs of the VQA tasting procedure. Without VQA approval, he’s not making much money on this wine, but is happy with the results. Pét-nat wines are made by taking still-fermenting wine and bottling and capping it (crown cap) to allow the fermentation to complete in the bottle. It’s what De Witte calls “real bubbles.” I have no idea what goes through a winemaker’s mind when he/she decides to combine Gewurztraminer and Muscat, two highly aromatic grapes, but the result is certainly unique. It shows a cloudy, light copper colour in the glass with aromas of earthy grapefruit, ginger in spades, lychee nut, guava and Asian spice notes. There is slight tannic feel on the palate with juicy and complex notes of lychee, grapefruit, ginger, exotic tropical fruits and a firm acidic backbone. This is not a wine for everyone, but for adventurers and natural wine fans, it’s definitely an experience not to be missed. We don’t see a lot of winemakers go rogue like this, so I applaud the effort here.

A rare gem

Chateau des Charmes Aligoté 2016 ($16, LCBO, grocery stores, winery, estate boutiques, 89 points) — As far as Chateau des Charmes is aware, this is the only winery in North America that grows and makes a single varietal bottling of Aligoté every vintage. The grape is commonly associated with Burgundy where it’s made into a dry single-varietal wine or blended with Chardonnay to make Crémant de Bourgogne. Chateau des Charmes has found success with this when made into a dry, unoaked wine and has decided to plant several more acres at the estate in St. David’s. It has a lovely and zesty nose of melon, peach skin, green apples, ginger and subtle tropical notes. It’s deliciously fresh on the palate with an array of orchard fruits, just a hint of ginger and minerality on the finish.

Three recommendations from the
Saturday release of Canadian
wines at Vintages:

Cuddy by Tawse Chardonnay 2013 ($25, 90 points) — A nose of Bosc pear, apple, elegant oak spices and toasted vanilla. It is nicely put together on the palate with bright orchard fruit, lovely balancing spice and plenty of freshness through the finish.

Okanagan wine

JoieFarm A Noble Blend 2016, Okanagan Valley ($26, 88 points) — The blend is 38% Gewurztraminer, 37% Riesling, 11% Pinot Blanc, 8% Pinot Auxerrois and the rest Muscat. Made in the spirit of Gentil, a traditional Germanic varietal blend made in Alsace, this is a friendly and fresh white with a fragrant and exotic nose of lychee, grapefruit, tropical fruits, nutmeg and cinnamon. It’s vibrant on the palate with a touch of honey sweetness to go with an array of exotic fruits, spice and perky, balancing acidity through the finish.

Vintages preview

Featherstone Black Sheep Riesling 2016 ($17, 90 points) — This wine is “our bread and butter,” Featherstone co-owner Louise Engel says, and their most popular. Six black sheep, the inspiration for the wine’s name, arrived from Penny and Andrew Oliver of Willow Haven Farm in nearby St. Ann’s in late June “to begin their summer job” of trimming the lower leaves on the estate’s grape vines. The Riesling is pretty consistent year to year with a nose of lime, grapefruit, peach and minerality. It feels dry on the palate despite some RS, with bright lemon-lime, apple and river-rock minerals that carry through the refreshing finish.

Other Canadian wines released, but not reviewed:

PondView Vidal Icewine 2015 ($20 for 200 mL)
• 13th Street June’s Vineyard Riesling 2015 ($20)
• Palatine Hills Neufeld Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2015 ($20)
• Reif Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2016 ($15)
• Rosewood Unoaked Chardonnay 2015 ($18)
• 16 Mile Cellar Rebel Pinot Noir 2012 ($23)
• Chateau des Charmes St. David’s Bench Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($30)
• Smoke & Gamble Cabernet/Merlot 2014 ($20)
• Vieni Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 ($20)
• Megalomaniac Pink Slip Rosé 2016 ($20)
• Fern Walk Pinot Gris 2015, B.C. ($18)
• Gray Monk Cabernet/Merlot 2013, Okanagan ($21)

Flagship stores only:

• 2027 Cellars Wismer Vineyard Fox Croft Block Riesling 2016 ($23)