Niagara wines

By Rick VanSickle

It was the first time walking into The Foreign Affair winery in Vineland that I was not met by an exuberant Len Crispino or his wife Marisa.

The friendly founders of the oh-so-Canadian Foreign Affair sold their beloved winery to Corby Spirit and Wine Limited for $6.2 million last August. It was a rare day that one or the other wasn’t at the winery to pour new releases of their signature appassimento-style wines and tell their proud stories behind the wines.

The Crispinos’ dream — to make exclusively appassimento-style wines in Niagara — is now in the hands of Corby (though both Len and Marisa Crispino, seen below, are still involved with the winery as founders), and all indications are that the dream will live on for the foreseeable future.

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Said new Foreign Affair general manager Rae Gibson (very top photo with winemaker Barclay Robinson) during a recent visit: “We plan to stay true to the winemaking (at Foreign Affair). It’s a truly differentiated product that fits will with the Corby portfolio.”

Gibson, who has been with Corby for six years and has moved closer to Niagara with her husband and family, adds that her focus at the winery “is to get more people to know about the great (things) happening here. I think that what we do is challenge people’s perception of Niagara wines.”

The Vineland winery was the first to devote the majority of its wines made in a true Amarone (drying of grapes) style. While it was a dream for the likeable Crispinos to make appassimento wines in Niagara at the highest end of the quality spectrum, it was a polarizing decision in Niagara. It did not, however, deter dozens of other Ontario wineries to follow suit — maybe not to the extent Foreign Affair takes it, with 100% of the portfolio touched by dried grapes to some degree, from a minimum of 10% dried to 100% dried at the very top end of the portfolio.

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And, of course, not all varietals and blends made at Foreign Affair lend themselves to appassimento treatment. Would the Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, new Gamay and rosé wines be better off without the influence of dried grapes? Perhaps. But, for now (and maybe forever, I do not know) Corby is honouring the vision and passion of the winery’s founders Len and Marisa Crispino. That in itself is kind of cool, and to be respected, from a new Niagara winery owner.

Too many purchases in the last few years in Niagara have not turned out well. Foreign Affair is not one of those.

I sat down with Foreign Affair winemaker Barclay Robinson (above photo) and Gibson to get caught up on the portfolio at the winery. Here is what I liked.

Foreign Affair Enchanted 2017 ($17, Vintages, winery, 88 points) — The Sauvignon Blanc juice was re-passed over the appassimento skins and lees (ripasso style) for added complexity. The nose rocks with expressive gooseberry, jasmine, grapefruit, honeysuckle and citrus. It’s rich and flavourful on the palate with a range of gooseberry, lemon and grapefruit with underlying floral notes on a crisp, vibrant finish.

Foreign Affair Amarosé 2017 ($19, winery now, Vintages in July, 89 points) — The winery calls this “a first-of-its-kind partial-appassimento rosé. The appassimento part comes from 10% dried Chardonnay added to the mostly Pinot Noir. I have no idea how they come up with these complicated formulas, but I do mostly like the results. It shows a pretty pink/salmon colour in the glass with a generous nose of strawberries, melon and a squirt of citrus. It has a creamy feel on the palate and is richer than some rosés we’re seeing in Niagara but still, it has wonderful red berries and uplifting citrus accents on the finish.

Foreign Affair The Embrace 2016 ($18, winery only, 88 points) — A new wine from Foreign Affair that is made from a blend of 80% Gamay and the rest Cabernet Franc in a partial ripasso style, but no oak whatsoever. It has an expressive nose of plums, ripe red fruits, and hints of cassis. It’s a bit more complex on the palate with bold red fruits, plums, currants, subtle herbs and underlying earthiness.

Foreign Affair Pinot Noir 2013 ($35, winery, 91 points) — 20% of the Pinot for this wine was dried for the final blend, which then spent 20 months in French oak. It’s not like other Niagara Pinot Noirs and does not pretend to be. It’s a bolder, riper version that gets its complexity from the appassimento method of winemaking that is this winery’s signature. Once you understand that, you can appreciate this lovely bolder style wine with its nose of spicy red fruits, cloves, nutmeg, plums, bramble and cassis fruit. It cuts deep on the palate with complex flavours that run the gamut from dark cherry to juicy cassis and plums all backed up by layers of baking spices, solid structure and ripe tannins.

Foreign Affair Conspiracy 2016 ($20, Vintages Essential with new vintage at the end of April, 90 points) — This punches way out of its weight class and one wonders how Foreign Affair can produce a ripasso-style wine this good at this price. A portion of the Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot was re-passed over the skins and lees of appassimento red grapes and then aged for nine months in oak. 2016 was a hot and sunny vintage and that is reflected mostly in the quality of the Bordeaux varietals in Niagara, such as this wine. It shows a ripe and rich nose of blackberries, dark cherries, spice and jammy currants. It’s full-bodied and ripe on the palate with anise, cherry, currants, Espresso bean, lavish spice notes and evident tannins. Can drink now with grilled red meats or cellar 5+ years. Good value wine for savvy shoppers.

Foreign Affair Dream 2015 ($30, Vintages June 9, 90 points) — 15% of the juice from this Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot blend comes grapes that were dried for four months appassimento style. The finished wine then spends 16 months in oak barrels before final blending and bottling. It is complex and expressive on the nose with aromas of figs, blackberries, sweet spices, leather/cedar, tobacco, anise and dark cherries. It’s a densely coloured wine in the glass and unfolds on the palate in layers of dark fruits, leather, eucalypt, licorice and a range of wood spices all supported by ripe, assertive tannins. Laying this down for at least two years is a must to give it time to all come together. If you can’t wait, try decanting it for at least two hours.

Foreign Affair Temptress 2015 ($45, released in May, 92 points) — 25% of this blend of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot and Petit Verdot is dried appassimento style and aged in oak and light lees for 18 months. Very dark in the glass with a chocolaty nose of thick currants, blackberries, oak spices, vanilla, smoke and some cherry/raspberry accents. It’s a big, bold and juicy wine on the palate with a range of smoky dark fruits, spice, plums and cocoa notes that show depth and power all shrouded in a firm cocoon of ripe tannins. Cellaring (or decanting if drinking now) is a must.

Foreign Affair Apologetic Red 2015 ($70, 92 points) — This is made from 100% Cabernet Franc with 50% of the grapes dried appassimento style for two months before pressing and the final blend aged in French and American oak (40% new) for 18 months. So, a big, heady nose of figs, black currants, kirsch, leather, blackberries, mature red fruits and a range of barrel oak spices. It has incredible depth of fruit on the palate, from dark cassis and currants to fortified cherry/raspberry notes with added Espresso bean, spice, anise, a mélange of integrated herbs, smooth tannins and a long, long finish. A very big wine that will need in the cellar.

Foreign Affair Cabernet Franc 2010 ($110, 93 points) — This was the signature wine in founder Len Crispino’s appassimento lineup, the wine all others lead to. He always envisioned Cabernet Franc as the top candidate for his drying racks. Every single grape that went into this wine was dried for 100-plus days and was aged in for 27 months in French oak barrels. It then spent five years in bottle before being released now. This may be the last 2010 wine from Niagara released this late (though I’ve said that before and have been wrong). By the way, this tips the scales at a hefty 16.5% abv, so not for the squeamish or those looking for a nice sipper before dinner. This is serious stuff that requires a big leather chair, a decanter and, as the tech sheet says: “A cigar, or sitting by the fire.” The aromas on the nose of this behemoth teem with thick, juicy waves of black currants, figs, kirsch, savoury herbs, cigar-box cedar, toasty vanilla, campfire smoke and rousing spice notes. It is a substantial wine on the palate but as generous as it is, it still shows rather nicely at this point in its short evolution. The flavours range from jammy cherry/currant compote to rich blackberries and raspberry bramble with notes of sweet tobacco, dark chocolate and thick spices all delivered on a plush bed of tannins. The finish lasts forever and suggests a very long life ahead for this wonderful wine. P.S. A label refresh on this top wine would go a long way to setting it apart from the rest of the class.

Foreign Affair Marisa 2015 ($50 for 375 mL, winery, 91 points) — This is 100% appassimento Riesling is made in the recioto style and finished at 130 g/l. Robinson calls this ode to Marisa Crispino “Sauternes meets late harvert Riesling.” It is a sweet treat with a nose of grilled pineapple, lime soda, citrus, golden raisins and wild honey notes. It’s rich and sweet with flavours of marmalade, ginger, pineapple, honey and layers of lime/citrus that keep it relatively fresh through the finish.