Niagara wines

By Rick VanSickle

You can pretty much put a nice little bow on the 2017 Niagara Grape Harvest; for all intents and purposes, it’s over.

A few wineries may have some of their toughest red grapes still hanging out there (JL, we’re looking at you), but the vast majority of grapes are safe inside Ontario wineries and well on their way to a happy fermentation followed by a long nap in stainless, concrete or wood barrels.

All that’s really left out there are the late harvest and icewine grapes, which winemakers and growers hope gets wrapped up by Christmas.

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On a jaunt through Niagara wine country last Friday, Vineland Estate winemaker Brian Schmidt, above, was assessing the vintage as the last of the red grapes were being processed last week. Tasting tank samples of the Bo-Teek Vineyard Cabernet Franc from 2017, it certainly appears any concerns about ripeness in the fruit evaporated with what many are now calling the “miracle” fall heat wave that helped save the vintage, at least for red varietals.

The tank sample was stunning; ripe, concentrated and clean with beautiful colour.

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Then Schmidt showed me his latest science project from 2017: A tank full of gooey gunk with a hard surface that gives way to a sloppy, porridge-like core of quickly decaying Riesling grapes.

It really is something to behold (see video below).

Digging for Gold at Vineland Estate from Rick VanSickle on Vimeo.

For his second “skin-fermented white wine” at Vineland (the current 2016 version is made from Chardonnay Musque and currently in the retail store), Schmidt turned to late-picked Riesling from his beloved St. Urban Vineyard that he will let ferment on the skins under a hardened oxidized top layer of grapes.

As Schmidt dug through the upper crust of the Riesling for the first time, I asked him what he was doing (because I had no clue what the hell he was doing!)

“Digging for gold, Rick … digging for orange.”

It reminded me of that old Beverly Hillbillies theme song:

Come and listen to a story about a man named Jed
A poor mountaineer, barely kept his family fed
Then one day was shootin at some food
And up through the ground came a bubblin’ crude
Oil, that is
Black gold, Texas tea

Except this isn’t crude, it’s Riesling; fresh, vibrant and alive under that rigid lid. As we taste it, with the consistency (and look!) of pea soup at this stage, it was shockingly delicious with sweet and creamy fruit driving the profile and fierce acidity keeping it fresh and lively.

Who knows where this wine is going and what it will become. The “orange” wine category is still a niche market, says Schmidt, and will always be made in small quantities, at least at Vineland Estate. Though there was enough interest from the first vintage in 2016 that he’s doubled production for the 2017 Riesling.

I also tried a couple of new wines being released at Vineland the first week of December. Those reviews are below, along with a number of recommendations for Niagara wines from the second big Christmas release of wines at Vintages stores on Saturday.

Pair of Vineland Reds

Vineland Estate Elevation Cabernet 2015 ($28, released at winery first week of Dec., 91 points) — The blend is 80% Cab Franc (Schmidt’s favourite grape, by the way) and the rest Cab Sauvignon all from the estate’s Bo-Teek Vineyard (Twenty Mile Bench). The wine spends 16 months in neutral oak barrels. It has a nose of ripe wild berries, bramble, cherries, black currants, subtle spice and cedar. It shows purity of fruit on the palate with juicy red berries, cassis, anise, integrated herbs, spice and a smoky note that’s all delivered on a silky smooth finish.

Vineland Estates Reserve Cabernet Franc 2015 ($50, released first week of December, 93 points) — For the Reserve Cab Franc, Schmidt still only uses neutral oak barrels but ups the time spent to 18 months. This is the top expression of his favourite grape and the result is a fabulous treat for Cab Franc lovers. The nose is ripe and fulsome with purity of black currants, cassis, underlying cherry, leather, vanilla bean, cocoa and herbs that come at you in waves. On the palate, it perfectly demonstrates how a wine can straddle that line between fresh and ripe with concentrated blackberries, currants, cassis followed by herb, anise and spice accents in a textured, complex style from beginning to end. This is a beautiful wine that is drinking really fine right now but can improve in the bottle for 4+ years.

Vintages release Saturday

It’s time to stock up for the holidays and Vintages is making that easy with a series of jam-packed wine releases for the season. Here are our picks from the local wines, broken into sections.

Icewines

Chateau des Charmes Vidal Icewine 2015 ($47 for 375 mL, 92 points) — A nose of peach compote, honey, tangerine and citrus. It’s thick, unctuous and luxurious on the palate with velvety texture that shows off the ripe peach, honeycomb and apricot flavours. A very well made icewine with a whopping 280 g/l of residual sugar that finds balance from the bright acidity.

Henry of Pelham Cabernet Icewine 2015 ($40 for 200 mL, 92 points) — Made from 100% Cabernet Franc frozen-on-the-vine grapes picked at 36 Brix and fermented/aged in stainless steel tanks. The nose shows intense brambly raspberry, strawberry, rhubarb and cherry notes. It’s silky, unctuous and layered on the palate with wonderfully sweet and luxurious cherry/strawberry fruits, subtle herbs and lifted by generous acidity to keep it somewhat balanced on the finish.

Released, but not reviewed

  • Chateau des Charmes Riesling Icewine 2014 ($67 for 375 mL)

Sparkling Wines

Featherstone Joy Premium Cuvée Sparkling Rosé 2015 ($30, 90 points) — This 100% Pinot Noir traditionally made sparkler was kept on the lees in bottle for 12 months and disgorged in the fall of 2016. A perky mousse with notes of cherry, raspberry, cranberry and light toasted notes. The cran-cherry flavours are boosted by good vibrancy on the palate and a subtly sweet note on the finish.

Henry of Pelham Cuvée Catharine Carte Blanche Estate Blanc de Blanc 2012 ($45, 92 points) — Made in the traditional method from 100% Chardonnay grapes grown at the estate’s Short Hills Bench vineyard. Secondary fermentation in bottle is followed by a further 60 months of aging on the lees. Always one of the top sparklers made in Niagara. It shows a rich golden colour in the glass with a nose of brioche, lemon curd, fresh baked bread, baked apple, toast and mineral. It has an energetic mousse and a vibrant entry on the palate with lovely toasty but fresh flavours of apple, citrus, pear, lemon and vanilla toast that is all together an elegant, rich, deep and layered sparkling wine. A beautiful thing.

Peller Signature Series Ice Cuvée Sparkling Rose ($36, 92 points) — Peller has perfected the art of blending in a dosage of about 15% of Vidal icewine to traditional method sparkling wine (made with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes). The result is a decadent bubbly with crisp apple, tropical fruits, bread yeast, vanilla and sweet aromas. It’s lovely on the palate with a smooth texture, apricot fruit, apple and citrus all delivered with a nice, sweet wet kiss of wild honey. This is a non-vintage wine that maintains the style vintage to vintage.

Tawse Spark Limestone Ridge Sparkling Riesling 2015 ($21, 88 points) — Organic and biodynamic farming, traditional method and aged 12 months on the lees, the nose shows creamy/toasty notes of citrus and lemon, ripe apple and some swirling mineral notes. It’s bright and juicy on the palate with a lively mousse and leans toward citrus fruit and minerals through a fresh finish.

Also released, but not reviewed

  • Contraband Sparkling Chardonnay ($20)
  • Contraband Sparkling Riesling ($19)
  • Contraband Sparkling Rosé ($21)

White Wines

Henry of Pelham Estate Chardonnay 2016 ($20, 88 points) — Henry of Pelham never fails to deliver a delicious Chardonnay at all price points. This “estate” version is sourced from the winery’s Short Hills Bench vineyards and has an elegant nose of apple, pear, spice and underlying lemon accents. The pear and apple notes on the palate are married to lovely oak spices and kept lively with racy citrus acidity through the finish. A solid Chard at a great price point.

Tawse Sketches of Niagara Riesling 2015 ($19, 90 points) — Zingy lime, orange blossom, citrus rind and ginger notes on the nose. It’s a polished Riesling with good balance and a playful tug of sweet-tart citrus and tangerine fruit on the palate with hints of ginger and minerals. Very nice Riesling.

Also released, but not reviewed

  • Cave Spring CSV Riesling 2015 ($30)
  • Charles Baker Picone Vineyard Riesling 2014 ($35)
  • Fielding Unoaked Chardonnay 2016 ($15)
  • Hidden Bench Estate Chardonnay 2015 ($30)
  • Tzafona Cellars Cold Climate Unoaked Chardonnay 2015 ($23)

Red Wines

(released, but not reviewed)

  • Domaine Queylus Tradition Pinot Noir 2014 ($30)
  • Nomad Wanderlove 2013 ($20)
  • Reif Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($26)
  • Stratus Red 2013 ($48)
  • Tzafona Cellars Cold Climate Cabernet Sauvignon KP 2014 ($30)

Wine Country boutiques

(These wines are available at Wine Country boutiques around Ontario)

Cave Spring 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 Cabernet Franc 2015 ($18, 89 points) — In winemaker Anelo 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.

Also released, but not reviewed:

  • Stoney Ridge Excellence Pinot Noir 2015 ($30)
  • Palatine Hills Riesling 2015 ($16)
  • Vineland Estates Elevation Cabernet 2014 ($28)
  • Vineland Estates Vidal Icewine 2015 ($48 for 375 mL)

Flagship Store exclusives

(only available at Flagship Stores)

Tawse Laundry Vineyard Cabernet Franc 2013 ($32, 90 points) — Expect classic varietal aromas and flavours in this broad-shouldered Franc — blackberry, plum and blueberry are the big players here along with some cedar, black pepper and a touch of mint. The palate is juicy and lush with a dark berry core and savoury finish showing some lingering vanilla. This is a big, well-structured wine and a good value for the price. (Michael Lowe review)