Niagara red wines

By Rick VanSickle

After tasting a fair amount of Niagara red wines from 2015, there are some truths to be told about them.

Note: Recommendations for Niagara wines released this Saturday at Vintages stores are list below this post

They are, as a whole, finessed, vibrant, tangy and balanced cool-climate reds built for the dinner table, which is exactly what you want from a wine. What we are talking about here are classic red wines made with the Bordeaux varieties — Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc — not Pinot Noir and Gamay and single-variety Franc (which all benefitted from a relatively perfect growing season, if you can forget about that brutal winter).

In all, 2015 red wines fared much better than 2014 red wines, despite both vintages suffering through some of the most severe winter conditions seen in Ontario. Yes, yields were down and many vines were lost to winterkill, but there was a sigh of relief that at least yields recovered somewhat from 2014 and harvest conditions were normal to good. The 2014 vintage, for Bordeaux reds in particular, suffered a double whammy — devastation in the vineyard and a poor overall growing season.

Tasting the 2015 reds today, and most recently a couple of weeks ago at Pillitteri Estates Winery, I was struck by the differences between what Niagara produces in an average to good vintage (this website rated 2015 seven out of 10 stars) versus what warmer/hot seasons produce.

Pillitteri winemaker Aleksandar Kolundzic (above) calls 2015 a vintage he likes to work with for the bigger reds because of the natural acidity, the freshness and finesse. He hates acidifying (adding acid to wines) and made his Bordeaux-grape varietal wines in all tiers at the winery in 2015, even with slightly lower yields than normal. He’s considering not making his top two tier reds — the Exclamation and Reserva Famiglia — from the 2016 vintage, which was hot, hot, hot and had many winemakers in Niagara drooling over the ripeness factor of the harvest.

In 2014, Pillitteri made the bold move to declassify (read the full story here) all the red grapes into two entry-level wines — a new Market Collection Red blend and a Market Collection Cabernet/Merlot because Kolundzic didn’t feel the grapes were worthy of the upper tiers.

Kolundzic values balance and finesse over bigger and softer and found that across the board with the 2015 reds, which he made at every level.

The winemaker is hoping for even bigger things in subsequent vintages from his red wine program. Pillitteri is in the midst of finishing up a massive winery expansion behind the facility on Niagara Stone Road.

The fire engine red wine facility will also house a tourist component where guests can witness via sky walk the entire process for making wine at Pillitteri with a bird’s-eye view of the operation. There will also be new lab offices, a barrel cellar and room enough to bring all the old stainless steel fermenters inside and provide the space for a series of new Bulgarian fermenters (three different types) that have just been purchased and sit wrapped in plastic outside the facility right now.

On a tour of the new facility, Jeff Letvenuk, marketing manager at Pillitteri, said: “We’re really trying to focus on education, on how wine is made.” The winery is aiming for the May long weekend to open the doors to tourists.

As for the red wine program, Kolundzic hopes to take the “bursting at the seams” 120,000 case production to 150,000 cases with the new red wine facility. “This will allow us to maintain the quality of red wines we’re making now.”

Here’s what I liked of the newly released 2015 reds we tasted recently:

Carretto Series

Pillitteri Estate Cabernet Merlot 2015 ($20, 89 points) — This is from the estate’s mid-tier Carretto Series using only estate grapes and a consistent style year to year (when it’s made). It shows a nose of pretty red fruits, bright berries, oak spice and underlying cassis/black currant fruit. It’s smooth on the palate with juicy and savoury red fruits, plums, vibrant acidity, licorice, a touch of mint and spice.

Pillitteri Estate Syrah 2015 ($28, 90 points) — Previously Pillitteri directed all its Syrah grapes into the icewine program, one of the most varied and deep sweet wine portfolios in the country. Kolundzic decided for 2015 to make this gorgeous dry Syrah. It has a peppery nose of savoury/meaty red fruits and spice. It shows rousing spice and cracked black peppercorns on the palate to go with meaty dark fruits, figs and black cherries all delivered on a smooth bed of tannins and medium + acidity to keep it lively. Nice Syrah.

Pillitteri Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 ($28, 88 points) — A nose of ripe black and red fruits with a range of bold spices. On the palate, the black cherry fruits are joined by plums and blackberries, with full-throttle barrel oak spices all delivered on a bed of firm tannins and vibrant acidity through the finish. Can cellar 5+ years.

Pillitteri Cabernet Franc 2015 ($28, 90 points) — I love the savoury nose on this classic Cabernet Franc with bright red fruits, touches of herbs, spice and anise. This is vibrant, finessed and loaded with a range of red fruits, spice and herbs on the palate.

Exclamation Series

The Exclamation Cellar Series wines are crafted from top estate grapes and are considered a part of the family’s reserve series of wines. Only the Reserva Famiglia series of appassimento wines are made at a higher level. The labels are stunning and were inspired by the 23 stainless steal chairs that are displayed in the barrel cellar at the winery. The chairs themselves were commissioned by owners Gary and Lena Pillitteri to symbolically tell the story of the Pillitteri family.

Pillitteri Exclamation Merlot 2015 ($50, 91 points) — These Exclamation wines and their highly attractive labels are only differentiated on the shelf by the shape of the bottle and the back label. The wines themselves are at the top of the hierarchy for the red wine program (excluding appassimento style wines). They are only made in the best vintages of Niagara, so none in 2014 and Kolundzic is considering not making it in 2016 because of the lack of acidity. All the reds in the series spend 24 months in French oak barriques, 40% of which is new oak. This Merlot has pretty, rich aromas of raspberry, cherry, cassis with nicely integrated oak barrel spices and caramel and toasted vanilla. It shows good structure on the palate with a range of red fruits, showy tannins, elegant spice notes, freshening acidity and length through the finish. Can cellar 5+ years to tame the acid and better integrate the fruit.

Pillitteri Exclamation Cabernet Franc 2015 ($50, 92 points) — This was the superstar of the 2015 red wine tasting at Pillitteri. Good, old reliable Cabernet Franc. At this level, she’s a beauty with a highly perfumed nosed of savoury and rich red fruits, stewed herbs and elegant spice notes. It is a thing of beauty on the palate with concentrated, savoury cherry/raspberry fruit, cassis, anise and barrel spice notes all lifted by that lovely Niagara acidity. This, too, can cellar 5+ years, but attractive right now.

Pillitteri Exclamation Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 ($50, 88 points) — Exclamation wines are built to cellar and will always show better with a bit of time in the bottle. The Cab Sauv will benefit most from time. The nose is tight but shows subtle meaty, spicy dark fruits with graphite and cocoa accents. It has a wall of firm tannins on the palate that will have to integrate with time, but under it all is a range of dark fruits — black currants, blackberries and anise — with thick and savoury spice notes that’s all propped up by racy acidity through the finish.

Christmas cheer madness continues
at Vintages stores Saturday

The big Yuletide barrage of wines continues on Dec. 8 with a fairly good collection of Niagara wines hitting shelves.

Here are a few of our recommendations:

13th Street June’s Vineyard Chardonnay 2017 ($22, 89 points) — June’s Vineyard has always been expressive and with winemaker JP Cola’s keep-in-simple Chablis background it was a given that he would make this unoaked Chardonnay a staple in his portfolio. He notes a “raw pottery, wet clay” profile year to year, while, for me, there is a certain savouriness to go with creamy pear, apple and some freshening citrus. It shows purity of fruit on the palate, some cream, minerals and lovely texture that’s all propped up by that ever-present Niagara acidity.

13th Street June’s Vineyard Riesling 2016 ($20, 88 points) — This is the only Riesling in the portfolio to show any signs of sweetness and even then it’s just a touch. It is fresh on the nose with cut citrus, green tea and ginger spice. That is all reflected on the palate against a background of racy acidity.

Flat Rock Cellars Riesling 2016 ($18, 89 points) — Loaded with grapefruit, lime and waves of minerality on the nose. It’s juicy and racy on the palate with grapefruit, lime and apple flavours with a touch of honey and gorgeous minerality.

Henry of Pelham Cuvée Catharines Carte Blanche Estate Blanc de Blanc 2013 ($45, 93 points) — Henry of Pelham’s top sparkler made from estate Chardonnay is barrel (20% of the Chardonnay fruit) fermented and then sits on the lees for five years before being disgorged. It is always one of Niagara’s top bubbles with an enticing nose of lemon chiffon, fresh-squeezed lime, chantilly cream, vanilla toast, brioche, fresh-baked bread, and baked apple pie. It has a vibrant, energetic feel on the palate with bright citrus and elegant apple notes that work well with the leesy/baked bread and brioche accents through the long, freshening finish. A beauty of wine.

The Organized Crime Pipe Down 2016 ($22, 89 points) — The Pipe Down is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and kiln dried Petit Verdot and was fermented with both wild and commercial yeasts with 10 months of aging in 20% new French oak barrels and the rest neutral. There is a bevy of red fruits, black currants, plums, kirsch and barrel spice notes on the nose. It’s juicy and rich on the palate with fruit forward flavours, complementing spices, decent tannins and structure and a smooth finish. Can cellar 4+ years.

Also released Saturday, but not reviewed:

• Charles Baker B-Side Riesling 2017 ($22)
• Featherstone Joy Premium Sparkling 2013 ($35)
• Magnotta Venture Series Starlight Sparkling ($26)
• The Foreign Affair Riesling 2013 ($24)
• The Tragically Hip Ahead By a Century Chardonnay 2017 ($20)
• Henry of Pelham Estate Cabernet/Merlot 2015 ($25)
• The Tragically Hip Fully Completely Grand Reserve Red 2016 ($25)
• Wildass Red 2016 ($20)