Ontario wine

By Rick VanSickle

The first couple of weeks leading up to the grape harvest in Niagara are full of angst, hope, trepidation, pride and (every so often) heart break.

Note: Also in this Ontario wine report, The wines of Five Rows Craft Wine  and a new Grape King appointed 

As the grapes make their wonderful journey through veraison, the multi-coloured bunches plump and juicy from the onset of ripening, it is only a matter of time before the first grapes are picked and harvest is in full gear.

Niagara wine

For me, as a wine writer, it’s the time of year to pop in on winemakers as they assess their grapes and predict both harvest dates and quality of the haul. Once the harvest begins, you just get out of their way for the next month or two.

There is no one out there that has a bad thing to say about the 2018 harvest so far. Mostly only sparkling grapes have been picked, but some other early ripening whites are starting to come off the vine.

Barring the unpredictable, it’s going to be an awesome harvest.

I was on a casual drive through Niagara wine country when I sent a text to Brian Schmidt, winemaker at Vineland Estates and go-to source for me on many things to do with local wine and grape harvests.

This was our exchange:

Thursday, Aug. 23, 9:30 a.m.

Me: Are you at the winery today? I’m on a cruise looking at grapes.

Schmidt: I am in the vineyard. Come on by.

Me: On my way.

Schmidt: Let me know when you arrive … I am in the Cab Franc (vineyard) at Bo-Teek.

Me: OK, I’ll drive that way.

Schmidt: Do you know where the warehouse is at Bo-Teek?

Me: Yep.

Schmidt: I am there now.

Canada wine

As I arrive, he has set up an impromptu tasting (see Schmidt’s photo above) on top of a green electrical transformer box to go with a vineyard tour to check on the grapes in the Bo-Teek Vineyard, part of the estate’s main holdings.

I have to admit, I have tasted wine in a lot of amazing and abnormal places, but never before on top of an electrical transformer. As we swirl, smell, sip and spit (sorry for that photo below taken by Schmidt) I’m trying my best not to spill anything for fear of getting electrocuted. Schmidt is unfazed.

Reminds me of a song …

Here’s what I liked from our transformer tasting:

Vineland Estate Pinot Meunier Bo-Teek Vineyard 2017 ($25, 90 points) — Even though Pinot Meunier is not the easiest of grapes to grow in Niagara, Schmidt adores making it into wine. The 2016 version of this had a bit more colour and riper fruits, but I do like this lighter style with its fragrant nose of fresh cherries, raspberries, red plum, cassis and a light touch with the oak spices. It’s fruit-laden and fruit-dominant on the palate with a bevy of red berries, subtle spice, soft tannins and a firm acidic backbone to keep it perfectly fresh to the end. A really nice sipping red.

Vineland Estate Cabernet Franc 2017 ($15, 88 points) — In many ways, this is Schmidt’s defining wine each vintage. I have written here many times that it is the measure of the vintage at Vineland Estate, the one wine you can judge a portfolio by, or at least get a feel for all the wines that come before and after it. This is the entry level Cab Franc at Vineland, but gets the full attention of Schmidt, the one he frets over and the one he pours no matter who you are when you taste with him. It is always a reflection of the vintage as very little is done to “trick” it up. So, a leaner style than the 2016 vintage with a nose of expressive cherry, raspberry, garden herbs, light spice and bramble notes. The juicy red fruits melt into the herbs on the palate with soft tannins and high-toned acidity to keep it lively through the finish. Just a nice glass of every day red wine at a great price.

Vineland Estate “Not So Orange Wine” 2017 (price not available, Christmas release, no score yet until it’s ready for release) — This skin-fermented St. Urban Vineyard Riesling was left on the skins and lees for 108 days (one batch) and 212 days (second batch). Schmidt has pushed it as far as it can go and it is starting to pick up a little more of a light copper colour now that it is in bottle. He decided to do a “coarse” filter on the final product with a bit of SO2 at bottling. It smells and tastes relatively clean, not a lot of reductive notes (but some) with notes of apple, peach cobbler, tangerine, herbs and minerals that are gaining more definition as it ages.

Five Rows Craft Wine

I tasted the coveted Five Rows Craft Wine bottlings from the St. David’s Bench late this year and nowhere close to when it would help consumers with their buying decisions. Even by the time I tasted the wines the Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc were already sold out with everything else heading in that direction.

Just under 1,000 cases of wine spread across six varietals —Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc — are made every year with most of the wines spoken for by wine club members or those who know by now to order early in the spring when the call goes out.

I tagged along to a tasting of the wines with a friend of mine, a wine club member, and we were well taken care of by Wilma Lowrey and Wes Lowrey (the winemaker and son of Wilma, and pictured above).

Five Rows Craft Wine Riesling 2017 ($35, 91 points) — Such a lovely floral/mineral note here on the nose of this St. David’s Bench Riesling with lime, lemon, peach and grapefruit chiming in. Mouthwatering acidity is the key on the palate with a range of citrus, mineral and peach/apple flavours.

Five Rows Craft Wine Sauvignon Blanc 2017 ($35, 92 points) — Among the most consistent and expressive Sauvignon Blancs in Niagara, and the second varietal to sell out at the small winery each spring and early summer (Pinot Gris is first). Winemaker Wes Lowrey has never changed the style that consists of some oak aging and fermenting. “My philosophy is to let the terroir speak,” he said during our tasting earlier this summer. It has an exotic and aromatic nose of spicy pear, fresh cut grass, grapefruit, herbs and gooseberries. It has that beautiful texture on the palate that Lowrey seems to nail each vintage with just the right amount of oak and acidity to keep everything in balance. The flavours echo the nose and everything just feels fresh, lithe and pretty all the way through the finish.

Five Rows Craft Wine Pinot Noir 2015 ($55, 92 points) — When you own one of the most coveted Pinot Noir vineyards in the region, and share the fruit with four other buyers, you pay special attention to detail here. Lowrey gets his fruit from the original five rows 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 Karl Kaiser 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 dedicated following.

For Lowrey’s version of his portion of the original five rows of 34-year-old Pinot Noir, he puts the wine in French oak for two years, only 20% new oak. It has a lighter colour in the glass than previous vintages but packs a punch with penetrating notes of cherries, raspberries, vanilla spice, toast, beetroot and bramble/loam notes. It is elegant and gorgeous on the palate with earthy red berries, cranberries, cassis, evident but smooth tannins with depth and polish through a long finish. Can cellar 5+ years.

Five Rows Craft Wine Syrah 2015 ($55, 93 points) — This is exactly the style of Syrah I love — a nose that is chock full of smoked meats, charcuterie board, barnyard and perfumed with savoury spice yet lovely fresh red berries, blueberries, cassis and anise, too. It all comes together on the palate with a perfect balance of meaty, spicy, fruity and balancing acidity. Really nice Niagara Syrah.

Five Rows Craft Wine Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 ($55, 89 points) — The nose shows bright red and dark fruits, forward spice notes and some meaty/earthy accents. It’s quite thick and rich on the palate with savoury fruits, decent spice notes and high acidity to keep it fresh on the finish. Should age well. Cellar 3+ years.

All hail the new Grape King

The Grape Growers of Ontario crowned Chris Van de Laar (above) of Niagara-on-the-Lake the 2018 Grape King this week.

“We are thrilled to have Chris serve as the 2018 Grape King and act as the ambassador for our industry for the next year,” said GGO chair Matthias Oppenlaender. “The Van de Laar family has over 60 years of grape growing experience, and the industry will benefit from Chris’s involvement.”

Said Perry Wilson, director, agribusiness and agri-food at Farm Credit Canada: “As we see tremendous growth in Ontario’s grape and wine industry, the long-standing Grape King award is a testament to the industry’s strength and the hard-working, innovative people who make it a success. FCC congratulates Chris Van de Laar on being named this year’s Grape King. His exemplary work and dedication to the family farm make him a natural ambassador for Ontario grape growers and the province’s wine industry. We wish Chris and his family continued success.”

The title of Grape King carries the distinction of being chosen based on vineyard management and knowledge of the industry and serves as a representative for Ontario’s grape and wine industry at events across the country, starting with the Mayor’s Grape Stomp on Sept. 22 and in the 67th annual grande parade on Sept. 29 at the Niagara Grape and Wine Festival.

The selection of a Grape King is part of Ontario’s history and an annual tradition that dates back to 1956.  While the regalia has changed from a crown and cape, the king wears a chain that carries the names of all of the kings that came before including Chris’s father, 1985 Grape King Peter Van de Laar.

“As a third-generation farmer in Ontario, two of whom have now been crowned Grape King, Chris is experienced in all aspects of grape growing and will be an asset to the industry as its representative,” said Debbie Zimmerman, CEO of the Grape Growers of Ontario.

The original Van de Laar family farm on the Niagara Parkway was purchased in 1952 by Chris’s grandparents, Dutch immigrants Peter and Catherine. The fruit market, which the family has operated for the last 66 years and is well-known for selling high quality local produce, has many regular customers that have been buying their fruit from the Van de Laar’s for generations. Chris’s dad Peter worked and then owned the farm for most of his life along with Chris’s mother, Cathy. Peter was a pioneer in the grape industry having planted some of the first vinifera varietals in the area.

Since buying the farm in 2005, Chris has expanded the operation with the purchase of three additional properties and now farms more than 110 acres of premium grapes that go into Arterra Wines Canada’s Inniskillin and Jackson Triggs brands.

Chris and his high school sweetheart Laura have a daughter, Erica, who is in her final year of Law School at Western University and son Nathan who may follow in the family farming tradition.