By Rick VanSickle
It is that most agonizing time of the year when Wines In Niagara lays it all on the line and publishes the annual Most Thrilling Niagara Wines of the Year.
Is it a fun exercise? No. It’s an agonizingly difficult and heart-wrenching endeavor that can only lead to bitter disappointment and plenty of head scratching and maybe even remorse for the choices made below. But, hey! No one said this job was going to be easy.
This is the 9th year for this list, an ever evolving snapshot of the wines that each year stood tall above all the others. It is never our intention to claim these wines as the best Niagara has to offer. First of all, we could never taste every wine that was released in a given year and, secondly, would never make a claim that these are the best wines. It is a subjective list that is culled from the wines that we (Rick VanSickle and Michael Lowe) have tasted, some re-tasted, and others even re-evaluated. All have been reviewed on Wines In Niagara and tasted in the 2017 calendar year.
The 10 Most Thrilling Niagara Red and White wines of 2017 (plus the 10 Most Thrilling Sweet and Bubbly Wines and the 10 Most Exciting Canadian Wines Not From Niagara) 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 and, secondly, alphabetically, because it had to be ordered somehow and that seemed convenient.
A big thank-you goes out to Elena Galey-Pride, check out her profile here at Winestains, for her expertise and photography skills on the main photo at the top of this post. It was a struggle figuring out how to frame this unusual arrangement of six wines of the year, but Elena, that’s her above, nailed it with this shot.
Please use this as a reference, nothing more, and as always, we would love to hear your opinions on what your wines of the year are. 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 2017
Our most thrilling wines of the year for 2017 are from two grape varieties that do particularly well in the soil and climate of Niagara — Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and arguably from two terroirs that best show the complexity and personality of the wines chosen here.
Drum roll, please … the Most Thrilling Niagara White Wine for 2017 is the Bachelder Wismer Vineyard #1 Wingfield Block Chardonnay 2013 and the Most Thrilling Niagara Red Wine(s) for 2017 is the entire collection of 2014 Pinot Noirs from the Lowrey Vineyard in St. David’s. That includes Five Rows Craft Wine, Leaning Post, Bachelder, Fielding Estate and Adamo.
For me, the Bachelder Chardonnay, Thomas Bachelder’s top bottling from the Wismer vineyards, was a slam-dunk. It was the highest scoring Niagara white wine of 2017 on this website (and the highest scoring wine period), and while there were plenty of other Niagara Chardonnays that blew me away, this one stood out from the crowd. In all, five Chardonnays made the Top 10 list, Riesling was a close second at three, while Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc round out the Top 10.
The Lowrey Vineyard Pinots, as a group, was a more introspective choice for wine(s) of the year. It’s the first year I have been able to taste all five Lowrey Pinots from one vintage — 2014 — and review them all (an average score of 92 or slightly higher). The last ones tasted were the Leaning Post Lowrey in early December and the Fielding Lowrey also in December (though Michael Lowe reviewed it on this site earlier this year). While all expressions of Lowrey are slightly different in the hands of five different winemakers, there is a sameness that comes across from the beauty of this unique vineyard site.
It’s a vineyard that is steeped in history.
Located in the St. David’s Bench sub-appellation, the 5th generation Lowrey property is a 35-acre vineyard (the original five rows of Pinot Noir, above) that is the source for some of Ontario’s most prestigious wines made by accomplished winemakers.
The Lowrey family has farmed the area for five generations — everything from cherries, plums and pears to labrusca grapes.
It was only with the current generations, Howard and Wilma Lowrey and their son Wes, that vinifera was planted in the lower part of property they purchased from Howard’s dad in the early 80s. It was Karl Kaiser (below), co-founder of Inniskillin, who convinced the farming family to ditch the labrusca and turn to the emerging trend of vinifera (noble) varieties.
The first grapes planted were the original “Five Rows” of Pinot Noir Clone 115, made famous in 1993 by the Alliance project, the first joint venture between Canada and France with Inniskillin and Jaffelin of Cote D’Or, Burgundy. Winemakers Kaiser, who sadly passed away on Nov. 22, and Bernard Repolt collaborated from 1993 to 2007 on these VQA wines, which caused a stir back in the day for their quality, closely aligned to Burgundian Pinot and Chardonnay, and had a cult-like following.
Long-time Niagara grape grower Gerald Klose had this to say about the Lowrey Vineyard:
“Karl (Kaiser) believed in Pinot Noir here in Niagara,” he said. “The St. David’s bench area has a warm start to the spring, giving the Pinot Noir a head start. He was anxious for growers to plant … That’s why he said to (Howard) Lowrey ‘just give me five rows,’ ” said Klose.
“Lowrey had respect for Karl and planted the Pinot Noir. That’s how I remember it. We only had a few rows growing at Inniskillin. It was difficult at that time to convince growers to take a chance on Pinot Noir.”
Inniskillin purchased the Lowrey fruit until 1999, and today, after a few wineries have come and gone, is divided between Lowrey, Bachelder, Leaning Post, Fielding and, most recently, Adamo in Hockley Valley.
“History has shown there are differences not only in the appellation but also in each vineyard, even over our 35 acres,” Wes Lowrey said in a previous interview. “How could you not think there’s something to be explored there? Old family farms, old blocks will show such varietal characteristics that we have to explore them.”
With so many winemakers wanting whatever Pinot Noir they can get from the Lowrey Vineyard “it tells me that people are looking for single-vineyard wines in Niagara. It’s interesting that we have these little pockets where we can push forward terroir-driven wines. I just love seeing what Thomas (Bachelder) or Richie (Roberts) do with those grapes. It’s like a feather in your cap.”
Here are the five wines that make up the Most Thrilling Red of the Year, along with a comment about Lowrey Vineyard from each winemaker.
The Most Thrilling Niagara
Red Wine(s) of 2017
Note: It’s collectively five wines from the Lowrey Vineyard in St. David’s Bench.
Adamo Estate Winery Lowrey Vineyard Pinot Noir 2014 ($35)
Not everyone is lucky enough to get Pinot Noir from the Lowrey Vineyard in St. David’s, but this relatively new winery, which makes its home in the Hockley Valley, convinced the Lowrey family to part with some of their newer plantings and this was the result. Shauna White, vineyard and winery manager, was pouring this beauty at Cuveè, a silky and rich rendition of Lowrey fruit with purity of fruit and savoury goodness. One of the stars of the night.
Shauna White on Lowrey Pinot Noir
“The Lowrey Pinot Noir is very special, you can feel it when you walk the vineyard rows and see it in every vine. The location, soil, vine balance and especially the attention to every detail in the canopy management, for each vine, is expressed in the wines produced from here. I am blessed to be able to make wine from the Lowrey Vineyard.”
Bachelder Lowrey Vineyard Pinot Noir Old Vines 2014 ($45)
Lowrey Pinot reveals itself in myriad permeations from the few who share the fruit from this fascinating vineyard in St. David’s. Bachelder uses a gentle hand to shape his rendition. It’s a more berry-scented, prettier style on the nose with persistent red berries, bramble and fine integrated spice. It shows restraint on the palate with bright raspberry/cherry fruit, tightly woven fine oak spice with a mineral edge, lovely texture and length through a finessed finish.
Thomas Bachelder on Lowrey Pinot Noir
The evolution of Lowrey under the Bachelder label:
“Wilma Lowrey called me up in harvest 2011 and said: ‘We have 800 kg of the First Five Rows (’84/’88 Lowrey Vineyard Pinot Noir) for you.’
“Huh? … er … Wow!
“At harvest 2011, Mary (wife, Mary Delaney) and I had started doing Pinot for the Bachelder “Three Terroirs” project for the first time, and we had decided not to do Pinot in Niagara only because the cuvaison time of 15-20 days would potentially interfere with Pinot vatting times in Burgundy or Oregon. Although we love Niagara Pinot, it seemed wise to make only Chardonnay here. Until that fateful call from Wilma.
“… Making the Old Vine Pinot that Karl had begged Wilma and Howie Lowrey to plant back in the early 80s? … the vines that went into Inniskillin & Burgundy’s Jaffelin “Alliance” series? … The vineyard that inspired Vincor and Boisset to create ‘Le Clos Jordanne,’ the project that brought us here???
“Wow! 800 kg is barely two barrels, but I said ‘YES!’ on the phone to Wilma from Burgundy, and Mary went down to pick it with the family, and got it sorted and destemmed with Wes Lowrey, and safely into a blue fermenting bin. I got back in time to get the wild ferment going, and we have never looked back.”
On Lowrey Vineyard’s past and future:
“Karl Kaiser believed in the St. David’s Bench, and I have come to understand his reasoning over the years … the farthest bench from the lake, and yet poised between the Welland Canal and the Niagara River. At once one of the warmest sites and the coolest, nestled up against up against the protective Escarpment.
Old Vines, unsure clones, wide spacings, deep roots, stony-ex-Niagara-River-soils; it is all wonderful stuff!! :D
“Wes and his parents manicure these vines, and this ballet dancer of a vineyard has a core strength superior to that of a linebacker ;)
“Lithe, perfumed, elegant; rich, full, even decadent, truly Niagara’s Chambolle: it is a great honour — now more so than before with my mentor’s passing — to wrestle the best and truest expression of local terroir from this blessed terroir for every year that I am allowed to.’’
Fielding Estate Lowrey Vineyard Pinot Noir 2014 ($40)
A taut, austere Pinot that shows restrained cherry, raspberry and hints of plum at present. Youthful tannins need time to soften, but the fruit should carry through. Give it a couple of years to come together. (Michael Lowe’s notes)
Lighter in colour, with pretty, delicate aromas of wild raspberry, cherry and a certain savouriness and spice. It’s certainly earthy and brambly with a range of red reds, anise and spice and, as noted above, tannins need to soften a bit. Cellar this and be rewarded (Rick VanSickle’s notes)
Richie Roberts on Lowrey Pinot Noir
“I’ve been working with the Lowreys with a number of varieties dating back to 2010, but was fortunate enough to secure some of their Pinot Noir starting with the 2014 vintage.
“There’s a lot of things working in simpatico that make the Pinot Noir from that vineyard unique. A lot of things that encompass the notion of terroir come together in the Pinot Noir from that vineyard. The location of the vineyard, the soil, the drainage, airflow, aspect, vine age, all help develop and ripen Pinot that can be quite different from one vintage to the next, but always with characters unique to that site. The Lowrey family has been farming the land for generations and are in tune with every vine in there. On top of that, they’re just about the nicest people you’ll ever meet. They are true stewards of the land and are working towards the same goal as the winemakers making Pinot Noir from their vineyard. As a winemaker you’re always looking at vineyards and offering your perspective or opinion a lot. With that vineyard, I usually keep my mouth shut … Wes and Howie (Lowrey, son and father respectively) know that land better than I ever could.
“Certainly, added on top of these factors, there’s the historical significance of the vineyard and the Pinot vines there. Making Pinot from that plot of vines make you feel like you’re a part of Niagara’s quality winemaking roots.
“All that’s left is for us lucky winemakers who work with their fruit to guide what we’re given from that vintage, into bottle. It’s a privilege to make wine from the Lowrey’s Pinot Noir.”
Five Rows Craft Wine Pinot Noir 2014 ($55)
For Lowrey’s version of his portion of the original five rows of 33-year-old Pinot Noir, he puts the wine in French oak for two years, only 20% new oak. The 2014 vintage wasn’t kind to red varietals, but Pinot was less affected than the Bordeaux varieties. It was late ripening and tough decisions, including aggressive thinning, had to be made on the fly. It shows a lighter red colour in the glass with aromas of brambly raspberry, violets, earth, beetroot, savoury cherry, mushrooms and elegant spice notes. It’s tight at this stage but forgiving, with medium tannic structure, brambly red fruits, mineral notes, complexity and length through the finish.
Wes Lowrey on Lowrey Pinot Noir
“I believe, through the guidance of Karl Kaiser, the Clone 115 vineyard was planted in the perfect spot for Niagara Pinot Noir. The terroir is equal parts nourishing (clay-loam and limestone) and punishing (hot and humid), a combination that has led to the optimal amount of vine struggle over the years. The deep-rooted, old vines show a remarkable ability to thrive in extreme vintages and are amazingly resilient after the initial onset of breakdown. These factors combine to give us terroir-driven, aromatically unique, balanced and ageable Pinot Noirs.”
Leaning Post Lowry Vineyard Pinot Noir 2014 ($42)
Winemaker Ilya Senchuk has been working with Lowrey fruit since 2009 and prefers a deft touch with the oak treatment to allow the fruit to do most of the talking. He ages the wine in a combination of 35% new oak, 35% year-old oak and the rest pretty close to neutral barrels. The nose shows subtle underbrush, red and dark berries, integrated spice notes and vanilla accents. It picks up some bite on the palate with red fruits, cassis, earthy nuances, savory spices, bramble and a silky smooth delivery that has length on the finish. A pretty Pinot with some complexity as well to go with it.
Ilya Senchuk on Lowrey Pinot Noir
“I think what is most interesting is just how transparent each wine is. What I mean is that I find for whatever reason, that Lowrey Vineyard has a very specific set of flavours that seem to cut through vintage, winemaker, winemaking treatments and even block. No matter who seems to make the wine, or when we pick, or how it’s made I find I can pick Lowrey out of a lineup of wines quite easily.
“That’s the essence of terroir. I do find the greatest differences do come from clones and vine age, so the wines that Wes, Thomas and I make are quite different from the newer clones that are used for Fielding and Adamo. But even so, after a few years in bottle, I find they all revert to tasting like Lowrey Vineyard, but not like any other vineyard in Niagara.
“I think it’s one of the few terroirs in Niagara that has been explored enough by good winemakers over enough vintages to at least make a statement that it is unique and good.”
The Rest of the Top 10 Thrilling
Niagara Red Wines of the Year
Creekside Lost Barrel Red 2010 ($75)
Where to start with this mythical beast? Rearing its head from the dark reaches of the cellar for only the fifth time in 18 years (other vintages are 2001, 2002, 2004 and 2007), the “accidental” Lost Barrel is one of those most curious of experiments that has now become the most collectible wine in The Creek’s arsenal. The blend, as far as anyone can remember, is predominantly Syrah and after that every red varietal that’s grown or sourced from the estate. The exact quantities are unknown. When racking red wine barrels, Creekside winemakers routinely combine the lees (the yeast and grape solids which collect on the bottoms of the barrels) from them. A barrel typically has 4-5 litres of cloudy wine left in the bottom after racking — this wine is tipped into a bucket and transferred to another barrel along with all other ‘‘tippings’’ from the racking and left to settle and clarify for a whopping six years. The barrel essentially is sent to the far reaches of the cellar to get lost until someone remembers it’s there. It’s a jarring beast in the glass with plenty of sediment to deal with, which only builds with time. The nose is a complex and intricate mix of fortified cherries, meaty darks fruit such as plums, blueberries and currants with a rich and savoury spice bath. The uplifting aromatics are as confounding as they are irresistible. It is a big, tannic monster that will need time to soften, but underneath that wall is a powerfully thick and rich red/dark fruit bomb with attractive minty eucalyptus, caramel, clove, truffle, cracked black pepper corns with a creamy texture that caresses the entire palate. This is all backed up by firm acidity and warm alcohol that will give it the stuffing (much needed!) to allow you to sock it away in your cellar to get lost for awhile before you even think of finding it again for a few years. A big wine, with an unusual upbringing, that somehow works. But be patient.
Hidden Bench Rosomel Vineyard Pinot Noir 2015 ($58)
One of the last wines tasted in 2017 and a wine that simply can’t be omitted from this list. It won’t even be released until the spring and I suspect it will be even better at that point than the 93 points I am giving this win now. This is the first single-vineyard Pinot Noir bottling from the estate’s famed Rosomel Vineyard, which, like all Hidden Bench wines, is 100% organically certified. It is such a beautiful and pretty Pinot with a nose of raspberry/bramble, tart cherry, strawberries, perfumed spices notes, and a range of earth and mineral accents. It reveals complexity and structure on the palate with savoury red fruits, plush/ripe tannins, integrated oak spices, and length through the finish. A true beauty that will be quite comfortable in the cellar for 3+ years.
Rennie Estate Super G 2014 ($100)
You can dismiss Graham Rennie for wanting to craft these big, bold wines in Niagara where the trend is to build more finessed, delicate wines that highlight the cool climate of Niagara. But, that would not be true to what he truly likes to drink and serve his friends and family. Truth is, Rennie loves highly concentrated Amarone style wines; big, seductive wines that have both power and concentration. When he decided to expand from wine grower to producing his own wines with winemaker Shiraz Mottiar, it was Amarone he looked to for his inspiration and set out to find a way to dry his grapes appassimento style in Niagara to get the concentration and complexity he wanted from his Bordeaux varietal red grapes. He is of the firm belief that you can replicate the air-drying grape process used in Verona and apply it to better grapes in Niagara from a premium growing site. “You should be able to make better wines,” he says. The Super G is the pinnacle of that thinking, the best expression of his site, from the top Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, 100% of the fruit dried for 86 days, picked at 22 Brix and dried to 27.6 Brix (30% weight loss), then tucked away in all new French oak barrels for 22 months and finished at 16% abv. This is Rennie wine, the essence of Rennie. So, redundant to say it’s big, but it’s BIG; a showy and concentrated nose of black current jam, blackberries, cherries, graphite, earth, tar, bramble and a crazy array of barrel spice notes. It’s so tight right now and needs time, but vigorously swirl that baby and the power reveals itself on the palate with waves of bountiful dark fruits, kirsch and raspberry accents, and a wall of tannins assertive enough to curl your tongue until the next sip. This wine was built for the long haul. The beauty inside is only beginning to show itself; those fine oak spices, the sweet tobacco notes and the mélange of lush fruit. But, let’s face it, this needs time to bring all those moving parts into harmony, at least 5+ years. Then you’ll enjoy a hell of fine wine, inspired by tradition and built from innovation.
Vineland Estates Reserve Cabernet Franc 2015 ($50)
For the Reserve Cab Franc, Winemaker Brian Schmidt only uses neutral oak barrels for aging up 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.
Kacaba Terrace Vineyard Syrah 2014 ($30)
Terrace Vineyard is one of the two original blocks of Syrah planted in the Kacaba Vineyard dating back to 1998. The wine is aged in a combination of French and U.S. oak for 12 months. The nose shows classic aromas of smoked deli meats, a floral note with raspberry-cherry, red currants, sweet cedar, saddle leather, barrel oak spices and pepper. It has lovely mouth-feel with a gorgeous range of red fruits, smoke, spice, crunchy black peppercorns with length through the finish.
Pillitteri Exclamation Winermaker’s Select Cabernet Franc 2012 ($68)
This is near the top of the Pillitteri tiering and where winemaker Aleksandar Kolundzic gets to play with the best of his Cabernet Franc. “This is where art comes into play,” he says. “I taste each individual barrel and my top four end up here.” It is a beautiful and structured Cabernet Franc with a powerful and penetrating nose of savoury cherry, raspberry, bramble, earth, red currants, vanilla toast and rousing spice notes. It’s concentrated and packed with flavour on the palate with both red and dark fruits, ripe tannins, structure and a finish that lasts for days. Can cellar 5+ years, it’s a beauty.
PondView Bella Terra Meritage 2013 ($45)
The blend for this estate’s top wine is 40% each of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc with the rest Merlot. It is bottled unfiltered. The nose is thick and juicy with blackberries, cherries, intense spice notes, currants, earth, bramble and sweet tobacco. It has wonderful mouth-feel and energy on the palate with lavish dark fruits, cocoa bean, cigar leaf, baking spices, ripe tannins, structure and tangy acidity on the finish. One to cellar 5+ years.
Trius Showcase Pinot Noir Clark Farm 2014 ($30)
Winemaker Craig 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.
Two Sisters Senza 2015 ($49)
Winemaker Adam Pearce prefers to call this 100% Cabernet Franc “low intervention” rather than a “natural” wine even though no sulphur has been added, no additives, no filtering and no fining. Depending on your definition of natural, this is close. Only the fact that the vineyards are not organic and two new French oak barrels were used for aging keeps this from being a natural wine in the strictest of definitions. Regardless, it is a beautiful wine with a lovely reductive, campfire note on the nose to go with red plums, mulled cherry, meaty notes, herbs and a complex array of savoury red fruits. “I wanted to make something quote, unquote, geeky,” Pearce says. He has achieved that in spades. It’s remarkably meaty, earthy and savoury on the palate with thick, rich black fruits, polished tannins, earth and layered spices that is all together complex, wild and untethered through a long finish. To drink and enjoy in the short term … but hard to resist seeing how at least one bottle ages for a year or two.
The 10 Most Exciting Niagara
White Wines of 2017
White Wine of the Year
Bachelder Wismer Vineyard #1 Wingfield Block Chardonnay 2013 ($45)
This was the last wine tasted in a long night of tasting and talking with Thomas Bachelder at his home this past spring, but it was jarring. A superstar in the making, one of the finest Chards Bachelder has made — and that’s saying a lot. It is tightly wound, yes it was, at that moment, but the limestone minerality and salinity speaks to the soul of this specific block that Bachelder chose for his top Niagara Chardonnay in 2013. Such aromatics, even at this early stage, suggests the best is yet to come. Pear, apple, for sure, a vein of fresh citrus and all intertwined with the subtlety of fine oak spice and flint. It’s deep, layered and seductive on the palate, a pure and exhilarating Chardonnay that never shows too much of any one component and stays in perfect balance all the way through the finish. Um, wow!
The Rest of the White Wines of the Year
Five Rows Craft Wine Sauvignon Blanc 2016 ($35)
This is simply a gorgeous wine, made in a style that is the complete opposite of racy, zippy and lean New Zealand savvy and projects more toward Bordeaux with barrel aging in older French oak barrels giving the wine complexity and depth. A few Niagara wineries are making this style of Sauvignon Blanc: Stratus, Trius, Vineland Estate (Elevation), Ravine, Hidden Bench (Nuit Blanche) and Creekside, to name a few, all to great success. This one, in the heat of 2016, is a beauty. A nose of tropical fruit, grapefruit, subtle herbs and a complex array of fine, elegant spice notes. It’s creamy and complex on the palate with ripe grapefruit, tropical fruits and spices that maintain balance from the natural acidity Lowrey’s vineyard achieved in spite of the heat.
Flat Rock Cellars Nadja’s Vineyard Riesling 2015 ($25)
Nadja’s Vineyard is situated at the highest point of the Flat Rock estate vineyards planted in 2001 to a select clone from Mosel, Germany, on top of a solid bed of limestone. This is always one of the Niagara’s top Rieslings. This vintage is a beauty with a vibrant, expressive nose of lime and lemon zest, river-rock minerality, honeysuckle and a subtle ginger note. Such mouth-watering acidity on the palate with layered citrus fruit, wild honey notes, lanoline and minerals all carried on a racy, tingling and fresh finish. Lay this down for 10+ years, if you dare.
Southbrook Poetica Chardonnay 2013 ($50)
The pedigree of this top-notch wine is indisputable, it is simply part of Niagara Chardonnay royalty. The sub-app is Four Mile Creek, the fruit is farmed organically and biodynamically and French oak aging is in 70% new barrels (17% a year old, the rest neutral) for 11 months. Simply gorgeous, a terroir-driven nose of profound flinty minerality, ripe pear, apple skin, lemon and fine integrated oak nuances. Pure elegance on the palate, a lithe and impeccably balanced Chardonnay that brings a range of pear, apple and citrus together with hazelnut, lovely spice notes and minerals. There is freshness on the long finish and an overwhelming sense of grace with each sip. Well done.
Tawse Quarry Road Vineyard Chardonnay 2013 ($35)
I freely admit to being drawn to mineral notes in Chardonnay — they add dimension and complexity to the experience. This version of Quarry Road has that in spades; a flinty/chalky/gun smoke quality that flows effortlessly from nose to palate and combines with fine oak nuances to form the backbone of this elegant Chard. With the mineral component, look for poached pear and a range of orchard fruits on the nose and underlying barrel spice notes. It is magical on palate with those flinty, chalky, almost smoky mineral notes that integrate so well with the depth of pear and apple skin and elegant spices. This is a highly structured Chard but still shows grace and nuance that will just improve with age. Bravo.
Two Sisters Chardonnay 2016 ($54)
A real winner here. Sourced from the oldest Chardonnay vines in Ontario from Daniel Lenko’s superb Beamsville Bench vineyard. Winemaker Adam Pearce hand picks the grapes, uses whole-cluster pressing with 60% of the fruit wild fermented. Simply gorgeous Chardonnay that has that distinctive Lenko style, which is seductive, vivacious and rich with notes of poached pear, baked apple, vanilla toast and sublime minerality and spice notes. It has weight and viscosity on the palate with a leesy presentation to go with orchard fruits, flinty minerality, toasted spice and vanilla and a finish that goes on forever. It’s all lifted by citrus acidity through the length of the wine. This will age beautifully.
Big Head RAW Chenin Blanc 2016 ($45)
This one shocked me. The bottle had been open for a week and was still rocking. The botrytised affected Chenin took nearly 10 months to begin fermenting naturally in concrete and a year to complete the journey. The fruit was picked at 24.6 Brix and finished at 3 grams/litre of residual sugar. The nose teems with poached pear, rich orchard fruits, honeycomb, ginger, jasmine and toasted almonds. It has depth and power on the palate with layered pear notes, mango, ginger, Mandarin orange and citrus rind that is altogether ripe yet nearly perfectly dry and fresh on the finish. A wondrous, thought provoking wine.
Henry of Pelham Speck Family Reserve Chardonnay 2016 ($30)
Intense nose on this top tier Chardonnay from the Short Hills Bench. Look for spiced apples, mineral notes, creamy pear and just a touch of citrus on the edges. Gorgeous mouth-feel with freshening acidity highlights a range of orchard fruits, toasted barrel spice and swirling minerality. It’s balanced and poised now but can cellar 3+ years.
Ravine Reserve Riesling 2015 ($35)
So, this is Riesling from the famed (and a bit mysterious) estate vineyard just behind the winery and restaurant, that slopes into a hollow where the Riesling grapes achieve anywhere from 17 to 20% botrytis every vintage. It’s finished with 30-40 g/l of RS, spends six months on the lees and has 9% abv. It’s a style that’s “a lot more elegant and subtle,” says winemaker Martin Werner, and always unique among its peers. It’s a beautiful Riesling, one that should be cellared among the great Rieslings of Niagara. Such a unique nose of white peach, marmalade, citrus, mineral and wild alfalfa honey notes. The wine is robust and textured on the palate, with rich, ripe fruits in an off-dry style that combines minerals and seductive apricot, quince and touch of ginger that is moderately balanced by the acidity the 2015 vintage delivered.
Vineland Estates Elevation St. Urban Vineyard Riesling 2016 ($20)
St. Urban is one of the most important Riesling vineyards in Ontario. It has history, a proven track record, distinct terroir from block to block and produces top-notch Riesling each and every year at various levels. Elevation is one tier down from the Reserve, but, for me, this defines the wines from Vineland Estate and the winemaker, Brian Schmidt. It’s such a beautiful vineyard both esthetically and for its rich vein of limestone that forms the foundation of the wine’s personality no matter the vintage. The nose shows bright, vibrant lime zest and citrus, apple skin, summer peach and stony minerality. Just wow on the palate, an initial blast of lemon-lime then honey crisp apple and peach, then waves of wet stone that is all perfectly balanced by racy acidity that runs through the core. Delicious now, but worth laying down a few bottles to see how it matures.
Top Five Most Thrilling Niagara
Sweet or Sparkling Wines of 2017
Big Head Riesling Icewine 2014 ($108)
Nothing fancy here in terms of winemaking other than wild fermentation that took 12 months to complete and reached 217 g/l of residual sugar, but, wow, what a gorgeous icewine. A nose of compoted apricot, candied lemon/lime, grilled pineapple, marmalade and crème brulée. Such a beautiful and textured icewine with a velvety, luxurious and unctuous feel on the palate and a range of sweet, yet surprisingly not cloying, tropical fruits, honeycomb and candied citrus rind that explodes in the mouth. One of the best sweet wines I’ve tasted to date this year.
Inniskillin Canadian Oak Aged Chardonnay Icewine 2015 ($80 for 375 mL)
Winemaker Bruce Nicholson sources the white oak for this unique Icewine bottling from a forest just north of Brantford, Ont. The nose is amazing for its range of sweet tropical fruits, sweet citrus rind, peach, apricot and vanilla/caramel notes. It’s super-charged honey sweet and delivers rich apricot, peach compote, pineapple and poached pear that’s succulent and unctuous on the palate but balanced somewhat by fairly decent acidity. This is an exotic treat that will impress lovers of Canada’s most famous wine style.
Ravine Botrytis-Affected Riesling 2016 ($48 for 375 mL)
So, this sweety, crafted from a greater concentration of boytritis-affected grapes, reaches 110 g/l of RS, a truly sweet wine. This is a decadent offering dripping in honeycomb, peach, tangerine and candied citrus notes that just feels delicate and lithe on the palate. It’s honey sweet and silky, voluptuous in fact, with texture and polish from start to finish. For all it’s beauty right out of the gate, this will be a blockbuster if left to age for five or more years. A wonder.
Flat Rock Cellars Riddled Sparkling 2010 ($30)
This is a traditionally made 100% Chardonnay sparkler that is aged on the lees for 5+ years in bottle before disgorging last spring. It’s fermented and aged in neutral oak barrels prior to blending and tirage in the spring of 2011 with a dosage of 12 g/l is added for balance. All that and finished with a cool crown cap for easy access. Not a lot of wineries are going to all this trouble for a well-made sparkling wine, but we have started to see a lot more of them as the category gains traction with consumers. It possesses a lovely nose of brioche, yeasty-toasty notes, soft lemon, creamy apple and mineral notes with a mousse that starts vigorously then mellows into a gentle bead. It is fresh, lively and complex on the palate with pear and apple flavours, bright and zesty citrus and electric acidity driving the back end.
Henry of Pelham Cuvée Catharine Carte Blanche Estate Blanc de Blanc 2012 ($45)
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.
The 10 Most Thrilling Canadian Wines
tasted in 2017 Outside of Niagara
The Old Third Pinot Noir 2015, Prince Edward County ($49)
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.
Culmina N° 003 En Coteaux Riesling 2016, Okanagan Valley ($35)
From the estate’s Stan’s Bench on the Golden Mile Bench in the Okanagan comes this tantalizing Riesling. This is all about opulence and style with an intense and generous nose of peach, pear, Mandarin orange, apricot and earthy minerality. It’s texturally beautiful and layered with orchard fruits and mineral accents on the palate and laced with pure honeycomb that finds a nice balance with the natural acidity. Medium-sweet Riesling with style and sophistication.
Culmina Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($39)
This big, rich red is packed with ripe blackberry and plum with notes of smoke, tobacco, spicy cedar and vanilla. A complex wine that is lush and beautifully textured with good length on the palate. If you can’t wait another 5-8 years of cellar time, decant it for a couple of hours and let it envelop the senses. (Review by Michael Lowe)
Hinterland Sacrament 2011, Prince Edward County ($50)
A blend of 50% Pinot Noir and 50% Chardonnay that sits on the less for five years. Such a gorgeous nose of lemon, brioche, smoky minerality and pear that comes at you in layer after layer. It’s elegant and brisk on the palate with a persistent mousse. This is all about complexity of flavour, texture and energy through the finish. A sophisticated bubbly that will reward with time in the cellar. A beauty.
JoieFarm Gamay 2015, Okanagan Valley ($26)
This is shockingly delicious, the best Gamay I have tasted this year from anywhere. It’s a serious version of this versatile grape, yet seems so effortless to drink. It shows beautiful brambly and savoury red fruits, plums, herbs and underlying, but not intrusive, oak spice notes on the nose. It explodes on the palate in a riot of red and dark fruits, layer upon layer of fleshy fruit, with complementing spice, bramble and herbs. It’s a Gamay that offers some structure, fine tannins and weight but implores you to enjoy it to the very end. This just works.
Vanessa Vineyard Meritage 2013, Similkameen Valley ($37)
A meritage blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot that spends 18 months in American and French oak barrels. The nose shows an intense array of black cherry, raspberry, black currants and interesting and elegant oak spices. It’s nicely balanced and integrated at this point with a smooth delivery on the palate showing equal parts red and dark fruits that are layered and melded to beautifully evolved tannins and spice. This is simply a gorgeous red wine with seamless integration, highly structured, good length and all propped up by firm acidity to give it a long life in the bottle. Cellar 10+ years.
Fort Berens Red Gold 2015, B.C. ($45)
My, oh, my. We don’t see a lot of appassimento style wines coming out of B.C., at least not at the pace of, say, Niagara, but it does make a lot of sense considering the drier climate and ability to air dry in the Okanagan vs. the more modern techniques employed in Niagara with innovative drying chambers built to mimic the more traditional methods. This is an ultra premium blend of 43% Cabernet Franc, 31% Cabernet Sauvignon and 26% Merlot from Similkameen and Okanagan valleys. 28% of the blend was made from Cabernet Franc grapes air dried for a month where the fruit lost 30% of its volume. Those berries were then fermented over a period of a month to allow for maximum extraction. So, a big wine, finished with a whopping 15.5% abv. It’s highly extracted on the nose with kirsch, black currant jam, graphite, lovely barrel oak spices and earthy notes. The range of ripe fruits hide the heat of the alcohol somewhat, but no denying this is a wine for lovers of big, bold reds. Look for an expressive range of red fruits, minerals, licorice, anise, currants and loads of spice with tannic structure and power through a long, lush finish that has a long future ahead. Cellar 5+ years.
Haywire Free Form White 2016, Okanagan Valley ($35)
This wine was made from Sauvignon Blanc grapes grown on Waters & Banks Vineyard. It was fermented using native yeast in stainless steel tanks where it aged on the skins for nine months. It was pressed and left to rest for an additional two months before bottling in August 2017. There is nothing added, nothing taken away in this natural wine and was finished unfiltered. The nose is all about the vibrant grapefruit, herbs, fresh-cut hay, citrus rind and lemon on the nose. Such gorgeous texture on the palate, and completely dry, with expressive grapefruit, lemon tart, interesting savoury herbs and grass, with waves of freshening citrus acidity. A thought-provoking and interesting white wine.
McWatters Collection Chardonnay 2014, Okanagan Valley ($31)
The fruit is from the Sundial Vineyard on the Black Sage Bench in the deep south of the sun-kissed Okanagan Valley. This is a prime example of a voluptuous and rich Chardonnay with a nose of buttered toast, grilled pineapple, soft vanilla, elegant spice notes, tropical fruits and citrus around the edges. It’s rich and buttery on the palate with concentrated pineapple, poached pear, an array of oak spices and a lingering blast of citrus on the finish to keep it fresh and lively. Classic Chardonnay made in a ripe and creamy style with elegance and grace.
Tinhorn Creek Oldfield Reserve Golden Mile Bench Chardonnay 2015, Okanagan Valley ($35)
Quite a few things going on here: A name change from Oldfield Series to Oldfield Reserve, an elegant new label makeover and a winemaker changeover fully and completely from CEO Sandra Oldfield to winemaker Andrew Windsor (and the winery since sold to the Peller family). This first solo flight on the Chard is one to be proud of. Such an interesting rendition of Oakanagan Chardonnay with a nose of creamy baked apples, lime, fresh pear, mineral/flinty notes (from subtle reduction) and toasted barrel spices. The mouth-watering acidity keeps this fresh and lively on the palate while a mélange of flavours, from pear to citrus, works well with the range of spice and minerals through a long finish. Might want to set this down in the cellar for a couple of years for further integration, but attractive right now.
Note: To see last year’s list of the Most Exciting Wines of 2016 (and links to previous years) go here