Peninsula Ridge freshens its wine portfolio

Jonathon Kuhling, GM at Pen Ridge.

There’s a sense of renewal at Peninsula Ridge Estates, the stunning Beamsville winery that stands as the unofficial gateway to Niagara wine country.

With a new winemaker more focused on the approachable style of Peninsula Ridge wines, a new $200,000 bottling line, and a well-priced second label called Top Bench to join the VQA competition in the $15 category at the LCBO, the winery has started a new chapter in Niagara.

Most exciting is the state of the art bottling line that will allow Pen Ridge to enclose their wines in either cork or screwcap at a pace of 30 bottles a minute.

With the Top Bench wines — a red and white blend — set to hit LCBO shelves this June, the winery is expecting to eventually double its production to 30,000 cases. The first vintage of Top will include 1,500 cases of both the red and white.

The label for the new Top Bench Red at Peninsula Ridge.

On a recent tour through the spotlessly clean winery and barrel cellar, with newly appointed general manager of Pen Ridge, Jonathon Kuhling, and assistant winemaker Sean Palmer, the pair were excited not only about the prospects for Top Bench but also for the wines currently in tank and barrel.

Peninsula Ridge has always had a well-rounded portfolio of wines across all price points. You get the feeling the portfolio will be trimmed down and more focused on reds that “show more fruit and are made for earlier drinking.”

Kuhling said the switch from winemaker Jean-Pierre Colas, now at 13th Street, to Jamie Evans will result in “some change” to the portfolio but “we’re trying to preserve the style.”

Kuhling and Palmer offer up a sample of the new Top Bench White 2009 — a blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Gewurztraminer. The wine is fresh and fruity with peach, apple and a touch of lychee and spice.

The Top Bench Red 2009 — a blend of Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir — is a mélange of dark fruits and soft tannins that’s quite tasty and easy on the palate.

“We definitely want to work on the price-value relationship,” Kuhling said. “We can line them up against other wines around the world and we’d fit right in.”

Jonathon Kuhling with some of the Pen Ridge wines.

Kuhling, along with Pen Ridge owner Norm Beal, said the new concept wines, with their striking labels and screwcap tops, are aimed at younger consumers who are buying up local wines in the $15 category at an alarming rate and it’s starting to show in sales at the LCBO with an 18% increase in VQA wines year over year.

After the June LCBO launch, Kuhling said he’d like to roll out the Top Bench wines to other provinces.

Here are reviews of the some of the wines we tried and liked at Pen Ridge:

Peninsula Ridge AJ Lepp Vineyard Pinot Gris 2010 ($18, spring release, 4 stars) — An expressive nose of sweet and ripe tropical fruits, mango and melon. It’s round and fleshy on the palate and loaded with fruit flavours.

Peninsula Ridge Dubois Vineyard Gewurztraminer 2009 ($25, winery only, 4.5 stars) — A well made Gewurz that balances this big juicy grapefruit, mandarin orange and lychee flavours with a decent measure of fresh acidity. A hint of must to go with exotic spice on the finish. Very fine.

Pen Ridge Reserve Gewurztraminer.

Peninsula Ridge Vintner’s Private Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2009 ($25, winery only, 4 stars) — Pen Ridge excels with this grape at all price points. This top drawer example, with just a touch of oak influence, combines powerful topical notes with citrus and melon on the nose. It has gorgeous mouthfeel, almost elegant, with rich layers of fruit and a touch of spice.

Peninsula Ridge Reserve Syrah 2007 ($25, winery, 4.5 stars) — Surprisingly, this Syrah from the hot 2007 vintage shows mid-weight on the palate a balanced approach on the nose and in the mouth. Lovely dark fruits, pepper spice, oak and earthy notes through the long finish.

Peninsula Ridge Vintner’s Private Reserve Merlot 2006 ($42, winery, 4.5 stars) — A big, meaty, smoky, spicy nose with red and dark fruits. It’s a muscular wine in the mouth with firm tannins, layered fruits and spice. Can still be cellared for a few more years.

And one to watch for down the road:

Peninsula Ridge Norm Beal Vineyard Syrah 2010 — We tried this astonishing Syrah in barrel and were blown away by the developing flavours. It’s pure Rhone style with meaty fruits, pepper and lavish spice. Watch for it.


New pinots from Lailey, and some 13th Street gems

Chances are, on any given day of the week, you’ll find Derek Barnett pouring his wines for anyone who comes through the doors at Lailey Vineyard or in the barrel room tinkering, blending, tasting.

Derek Barnett from Lailey in a photo taken last summer.

And if the winemaker isn’t at Lailey, it’s likely he’s on the road somewhere exposing his wines to as wide an audience as he can.

I don’t think you’ll find anyone as passionate and hard working as Barnett or as visible on the wine circuit. He’s the kind of guy who likes to sell his wines person to person, so they understand exactly what they are getting.

And that means a bottle of hand-crafted wine made from estate (or from trusted grower) grapes, most of which comes right from the vineyards you can see out the back windows of the winery.

On a recent trek through the wine country, I popped into Lailey to taste whatever was new on the shelves (or just recently bottled).

Of course I ran into Barnett who was only too happy to pour.

Here’s what I liked of the current or upcoming vinatages:

Lailey Vineyard Lot 48 Pinot Noir 2009 ($60, April release, 5 stars) — It’s a bit unfair to review this young wine that’s only recently been bottled, but I only see upside for this stunning Pinot made from purchased Bench fruit. Lot 48 is only made by Barnett is the very best vintages and loyal Lailey customers have already purchased 30% of the wine through a “futures” program. This is wonderful stuff. Pure cherry, vanilla spice and toasty oak on the nose. But the true pedigree of this wine shows itself on the palate. Such a ripe core of red fruit and wonderful silky texture in the mouth, with perfect spice and oak nuances. Interesting all the way through the finish.

13th Street Cuvee Rose.

Lailey Vineyard Brickyard Pinot Noir 2009 ($35, April release, 4.5 stars) — The Brickyard is small estate, sustainably farmed vineyard that showcases perfectly both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Only 140 cases of this wine were produced and you may want to be at Lailey when it’s released. What a fantastic Pinot! Pretty aromatics that show fresh-picked cherries, raspberries and touches of pomegranate, spice and subtle oak tones. It’s just so silky smooth on the palate with forward red fruits and integrated spice already. A beauty.

Lailey Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009 ($25, winery, 4 stars) — Even this entry level Pinot, a blend of several vineyards, is a superb example of Lailey’s craftsmanship with this grape. A nose of cherry-cranberry fruit, cloves and vanilla. Again, classic Pinot texture in the mouth with gorgeous red fruits and generously spiced from sip to swallow.

Lailey Vineyard Meritage 2008 ($25, winery, 3.5-4 stars) — Almost equal amounts of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvingon and Cabernet Franc. Of course, not as thick and concentrated as the 2007 Meritage (which cost $35) but a nice red nonetheless. The nose shows currants, wild berries and spice which carry to the palate. A nice food-friendly red with juicy acidity and delicious fruit flavours through the finish.

13th Street Gewurz

Lailey Vineyard Riesling 2010 ($18, April release, 4 stars) — A bit unfair to review this young wine, but it was impressive for a warm vintage Riesling. Shows good freshness on the nose with floral, tropical, citrus notes. On the palate the crisp citrus-lime fruits are complimented by stony minerality. Will be a fine Riesling when ready.


I also dropped in on Peter Bodnar Rod, sommelier and sales-marketing manager for 13th Street Winery, to taste some 2009 releases. Here are a few I can highly recommend.

13th Street Cuvee Rose NV ($25, winery only for now, 4 stars) — A lovely traditional method sparkling wine with pretty strawberry and cherry fruits on the nose to go with light toasty notes. It’s fresh on the palate with a vigorous mousse and bright, freshening acidity.

13th Street June’s Vineyard Unoaked Chardonnay 2009 ($20, winery, 4 stars) — This is the first vintage for this single-vineyard Chard, fashioned after the wines of Chablis. Shows fresh green apple and a touch of citrus on the nose. Lovely mineral note to go with the crisp apple flavours.

13th Street Gewurztraminer 2009 ($20, winery, 3.5 stars) — Sweet perfume, lychee, grapefruit and spice on the nose of this smartly priced Gewurz. Shows decent acidity on the palate, often lacking in Niagara Gewurz, and retains the rich flavours you want from the variety. Made in a dry style.

13th Street Gamay Noir Sandstone Vineyard Old Vines 2009 ($28, winery, 4.5 stars) — A n expressive nose of earthy blueberry-bramble fruit with cassis and lavish spices. The fruits explode on the palate and everything is all balanced out by firm acidity. 13th Street is one of the few wineries in Niagara that excels with this varietal.

13th Street Syrah 2009 ($28, winery, 4 stars) — A very young Syrah with bold dark fruits backed up by black peppercorns and oak-inspired spice. The palate reveals rich, ripe blackberry fruits, a touch of cherry and spice on a firm bed of tannins. Buy, cellar and hold for a few years.


Cab Francs from 08 a delightful surprise

The Cabernet Francs from the somewhat difficult 2008 growing season in Niagara have turned out to be a delightful surprise.

Peller Signature Series Cab Franc 2008

While many wineries declassified a lot of their top Bordeaux varietal fruit, or simply cut down on yields and/or dropped prices on the 2008s, many are proving to be well worth the buy.

The best are sumptuous with classic cool climate Cab Franc flavours in a leaner style than wines made from warmer, drier vintages. They aren’t built for long-term drinking but are perfectly delightful upon release or with a couple years of cellaring.

A recent sweep through Niagara found some excellent examples from the 2008 vintage. Here’s what I liked:

Lailey Cabernet Franc 2008 ($30, 4 stars) — Very small production (97 cases) of this followup to the completely different 2007 version. The fruit was taken from the ripest, oldest blocks in the estate vineyards and yields drastically cut back. As winemaker Derek Barnett explained, it’s more Chinon (Loire Valley, France) in style than anything else. It’s lean and elegant with crushed red berry fruits, lovely texture, integrated spice and balance.

Peller Estates Signature Series Cabernet Franc 2008 ($38, 4.5 stars) — Peller only made one Signature Series red wine in 2008 and this is it. The fruit for this Cab Franc spent 20 months in 50% new French and American oak. It shows wonderful black cherry and currant fruit on the nose to go with vanilla, a touch of roasted herbs and spice. Love the fruit on the palate but still shows restraint and elegance.

30 Bench Small Lot Cabernet Franc.

Thirty Bench Small Lot Cabernet Franc 2008 (4 stars, $40) — From hand-picked estate fruit that was barrel-aged in 100% French oak for 18 months. The nose is all about mocha-blackberry-cherry, vanilla, cassis preserve and cigar-box cedar. On the palate the rich fruits meld nicely with the charred oak, roasted vanilla bean and plush tannins.


Touring around Niagara recently I found some interesting wine and food combinations and some delicious new wines being poured. Here are some highlights:

Hidden Bench riesling with raclette.

Hidden Bench Estate Riesling 2008 ($26) served with Raclette — How exciting to run into the owner of Hidden Bench, Harald Thiel, at his winery with apron on making his special raclette from Niagara Gold cheese made at Upper Canada Cheese Company (which he also owns). And what a glorious pairing with the peach and citrus notes of this wonderful everyday Riesling.

Niagara Gold is an Oka-style semi-soft, washed rind cheese with nutty, earthy, buttery flavours that are amplified when melted and served with double-smoked pork loin and Yukon Gold potatoes.

Baco Noir and bacon at Sue Ann Staff winery.

Sue-Ann Staff Estate Baco Noir 2008 ($16) paired with a “manly” slice of Belgian chocolate dipped bacon — Yes, the heavens collided at Sue Ann’s winery with three of my most favourite things in the world all coming together in one taste sensation. And what a treat it was to sip the smoky, meaty Staff Baco and chase it with a hunk of crispy bacon slathered inBelgium chocolate, a creation made by Toute Sweet Ice Cream and Chocolate. Dreams do come true.

Fielding Estate Chardonnay Musque 2010 ($17, 3.5 stars) — Great to see some early wines from the ripe and hot 2010 vintage starting to arrive. Chardonnay Musque is a fun spring-summer wine with ripe aromas of spiced apple, peach and melon. It’s round and juicy on the palate with fruit salad flavours and a touch of sweetness.

New Fielding Estate Rose.

Fielding Estate Rose 2010 ($16, 3.5 stars) — A fun wine that’s a blend of four different red varietals. Aromas and flavours range from cran-cherry and tangerine to apple and fresh strawberries. A perfect, slightly off-dry, summer sipper.

Ravine Vineyard Gewurztraminer 2009 ($22, 4.5 stars) — Stunning Gewurz from this small St. Davids winery. It starts on the nose with beautiful pear, grapefruit, lychee, spice and honey notes. It’s broad and caressing on the palate with a lovely sweet combination of fruit, honey and spice that’s balanced, and not all over the top, through the finish.

Ravine riesling.

Ravine Vineyard Riesling 2009 ($28, 4.5 stars) — This partially botrytis-affected Riesling is dangerously good. Thankfully, it’s finished with barely 10% alcohol so when you go to refill your glass over and over, you can do so without feeling too guilty. What a fabulous wine! It gushes with honeycomb, peach, lime cordial and melon that carries on through the palate. A truly unique wine that tops the previous great Rieslings made at this property.

Thirty Bench Small Lot Merlot 2008 ($40, 4 stars) — The nose is just a tad closed at the moment but shows soft red berries, plum, cedar and spice. On the palate the fruits open up with blackberry and cherry mingling with vanilla, mocha and oak. Elegantly styled Merlot.


First look at agenda for Tastecamp Niagara

TasteCamp in Niagara is fast approaching. An international group of bloggers will invade Niagara wine country, on both sides of the border, to learn all they can about the wines made in our region. The date’s been set, hotel rooms put aside at White Oaks Resort and Spa and an agenda (subject to change) developed with the co-operation of many wineries in Niagara.

Here are the highlights for TasteCamp Niagara 2011

The vineyards at Chateau Des Charmes.

TasteCamp Niagara Schedule

May 13-15, 2011

Friday (May 13) 12 :00pm – Lunch and Grand Tasting of Niagara-on-the-Lake wineries at Château des Charmes.

Château des Charmes is one of the oldest wineries in Niagara, and the first one to plant entirely with vinifera in the late 70s. Paul Bosc, the estate’s founder and/or other members of the family will talk about the beginnings of the Niagara region’s modern winemaking era and lead a tasting of estate wines. This will be followed by lunch and a walkaround tasting involving several NOTL wineries.

3 PM – Winery visit, Niagara-on-the-Lake

Hillebrand Estate Winery: A chance to catch up with one of Niagara’s most awarded winemakers, Craig McDonald, and taste through some fascinating wines. Three other wineries,StratusLailey and Thirty Bench will also be pouring at Hillebrand. This stop will begin with a wild ferment focused tasting and discussion led by Craig McDonald, followed by a free-flow tasting where TasteCamp participants can wander between each of the 4 winery stations.

5 PM – Settling in at the White Oaks Resort and Spa.

A block of rooms has been put aside. This is an excellent resort, centrally located in Niagara with a full gym and spa.

6:00 PM — Walk around tasting of InniskillinJackson Triggs and Le Clos Jordanne.

Icewine will be part of the focus of this event, being held in a special room at the hotel. Arranging for a special guest to talk about a bit about Niagara’s roots.

8 PM – Dinner at Ravine Estate Vineyards

Winemakers Ann Sperling (Southbrook Vineyards) and Peter Gamble (Ravine) will give a talk about the Niagara-on-the-Lake area of the Niagara region, where the focus is more on Bordeaux varieties. Both work organically and biodynamically, allowing them to provide an enlightening talk about the possibilities of organics in the Northeast, where many say it is “impossible” to do so.

Saturday (May 14)

Will have bus transportation for the day, sponsored by Ontario Wine Country.

8 AM — Board bus. Coffee and pastry on board.

8:30AM – Vineyard walk and terroir tasting at Tawse Estate Winery

The idea here is to show some of the detailed work on their various vineyards and blocks to showcase the differences between the cuvées they draw from these blocks. Tawse has an extremely focused portfolio of organic and biodynamic, vineyard-specific wines. Winemaker Paul Pender is a wonderful speaker and can demonstrate the differences in terroir.

10 AM — Board bus and head to Vineland Estate Winery

10:30 AM – Vineyard walk/winery visit, lunch and grand tasting at Vineland Estate
This visit will start with a tour of the famous St. Urban vineyard, one of the oldest in the region, followed by a tasting of St. Urban Riesling and other Vineland wines. Lunch will follow, buffet style, with a grand tasting focusing on wineries from the Bench area of the Niagara region.

2 PM — Back on the bus.

2:30 PM – Vineyard walk and tasting at Flat Rock Cellars

Flat Rock Cellars is one of the most progressive wineries in Niagara. It was first in the region to bottle the entire production in screwcap and has just launched its first crown-capped sparkling wine. Flat Rock has a solid portfolio and Ed Madronich, president of the winery and of the Wine Council of Ontario, will present more details about the region and Niagara wines in general.

4 PM —Bus back to the hotel

6 PM — Back on the bus for dinner

6 :30PM – BYO Dinner, Treadwell Farm to Table in Port Dalhousie.

There is an allowance of two bottles of wine per adult at the Canadian border, without taxes, so bringing wine from the US is not an issue here. This will allow us to keep the BYO tradition going. Corkage is being waved at Treadwell, and you can also get some of the finest Niagara wines here.

Sunday (May 15)

8:30 AM – Depart for the U.S. side of Niagara

10:00 am – Brunch and Grand Tasting of Niagara USA wineries at Carmelo’s Restaurant in historic Lewiston, NY.

Carmelo’s Restaurant is the most influential farm to table restaurants in Western New York. Chef Carmelo Raimondi is known for his locally inspired menus that build on traditional Italian culinary principles using fresh local ingredients while offering the best wines of the region.

1:00 pm – Arrowhead Spring Vineyards & Winery

Duncan and Robin Ross will walk you through their vineyard where they practice sustainable viticulture and pour barrel samples from the 2009 and 2010 vintages. Arrowhead Springis the only winery in Niagara USA region growing Syrah and Malbec.

2:15 pm – Freedom Run Winery

Visit one of the most unique tasting rooms in the country, as Freedom Run provide a tour of its production area and pour barrel samples of their 2010 vintage reds, including experiments with wild yeast fermentation and appasimento-style wines. With their first estate wines, Freedom Run has already received a 90-point Wine Spectator score for their 2007 Estate Cabernet and an 88-point Wine Spectator score for their 2007 Estate Pinot Noir.

“Want to participate in Tastecamp Niagara 2011?”

All participants must operate a wine blog or website dedicated to providing content on wine.
Please email a letter to Lenn Thompson indicating why you would like to be a participant at Tastecamp.
lenn [at]

Cuvee winners announced at gala event: Full list

Note: Cuvee 2011 unveiled the winners of the wine awards at a gala celebration in Niagara Falls Friday night. Here is the news release along with a list of all the winners:

Niagara Falls, ON, March 4, 2011 — The highly anticipated results of the prestigious Cuvée Wine Awards were announced in Niagara Falls this evening during the Cuvée Gala, known as the “Oscars” of the Ontario wine industry.

The Cuvée Wine Awards are the only awards in Canada where the winning wines are chosen by the winemakers.  The judging process upholds strict criteria for the award winners and the wines selected for pouring at the Gala. This year, 50 winemakers tasted over 270 wines from 62 wineries to determine the winners.

Each participating winery enters its four best wines into the competition and can also present two wines distributed through the LCBO to compete in the Best LCBO Red Wine and Best LCBO White Wine categories.

Wineries sell the coveted award winning wines at their winery boutiques over the Cuvée weekend, where they traditionally sell out within a matter of days.  Consumers can shop for these wines and experience special tastings during Cuvée En Route, the weekend passport program that takes place at participating wineries Friday March 4 through Sunday, March 6.

Proceeds from Cuvée Weekend go to the Niagara Community Foundation and are used in its work with community groups across the region.

Cuvée Awards 2011

Red Wine / WINNER

sponsored by Scott Laboratories

Thirty Bench Wine Makers

Small Lot Cabernet Franc 2007

Limited Edition Red Wine / WINNER

sponsored by Sun Media Niagara Publishing Group

Megalomaniac — John Howard Cellars of Distinction

Sous Terre Cabernet Merlot Reserve 2007

White Wine / WINNER

sponsored by Scott Laboratories

Riverview Cellars Winery

Gewürztraminer 2009

Limited Edition White Wine / WINNER

sponsored by Vines – Sun Media Niagara Publishing Group

Creekside Estate Winery

Queenston Road Vineyard Reserve Viognier 2009


EastDell Estates Winery

Black Cab 2009

LCBO White Wine / WINNER

Jackson Triggs Niagara Estate

Black Series Sauvignon Blanc 2009

Sweet Wine / WINNER

sponsored by Bruni Glass Packaging Canada

Inniskillin Wines

Riesling Icewine 2008

Limited Edition Sweet Wine / WINNERS


Riesling Icewine 2008 1ST PLACE

Stoney Ridge Cellars

Gewürztraminer Icewine Barrel Fermented Barrel Aged 2009 2ND PLACE

Sparkling Wine / WINNERS

13th Street Winery

Premier Cuvée NV 1ST PLACE

Henry of Pelham Family Estate Winery

Cuvee Catherine Rosé Brut NV 2ND PLACE

Hillebrand Winery

Trius Brut NV 3RD PLACE

Chardonnay / WINNERS

Niagara College Teaching Winery

Dean’s List Chardonnay 2009 1ST PLACE

Pondview Estate Winery

Barrel Fermented / Aged Chardonnay 2009 2ND PLACE

Riesling / WINNERS

Twenty Twenty-Seven Cellars

Fox Croft Vineyard Riesling 2009 1ST PLACE

Cave Spring Cellars

Riesling CSV 2008 2ND PLACE

Gewürztraminer / WINNER

Riverview Cellars Winery

Gewürztraminer 2009

Sauvignon Blanc / WINNERS

Creekside Estate Winery

Creekside Estate Vineyard, Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2009 1ST PLACE

Five Rows Craft Wine of Lowrey Vineyards

Sauvignon Blanc 2009 2ND PLACE

White Assemblage / WINNER

Stonechurch Vineyards

Quintet White 2009

Pinot Grigio / Pinot Gris / WINNER

Five Rows Craft Wine of Lowrey Vineyards

Pinot Gris 2009

Viognier / WINNER

Creekside Estate Winery

Queenston Road Vineyard Reserve Viognier 2009

Cabernet Sauvignon / WINNER


Cabernet Sauvignon Terroir 2007

Cabernet Franc / WINNERS

Thirty Bench Wine Makers

Small Lot Cabernet Franc 2007 1ST PLACE

Kacaba Vineyards

Reserve Cabernet Franc 2007 2ND PLACE

Meritage / WINNER

Henry of Pelham Family Estate Winery

Reserve Cabernet Merlot 2007

Merlot / WINNER

Hillebrand Winery

Showcase Merlot ‘Carlton Vineyard’ 2007

Red Assemblage / WINNER

Nyarai Cellars

Veritas 2007

Syrah/Shiraz / WINNERS

Jackson Triggs Niagara Estate

Delaine Vineyard Syrah 2007 1ST PLACE

Stonechurch Vineyards

Syrah Reserve 2007 2ND PLACE

Tony Aspler Cuvée Award of Excellence / WINNER

sponsored by Tony Aspler

Bill Redelmeier of Southbrook Vineyards:

For selflessly promoting the Ontario wine industry in London and New York. (Bill organized and arranged for Ontario Chardonnays to be blind-tasted by leading wine writers in Toronto to select the best to be shown to the trade and wine press in London and New York).

Cuvée Award of Excellence in Viticulture / WINNER

sponsored by BASF Canada Inc.

Kevin Donohue, Colio Estate Wines Inc.