Walking past the rows of Semillon and Malbec vines, pruned and stripped bare of their bounty for another vintage, Lake Ontario comes into view and shimmers in the sunlight from a high vantage point on the shoreline of what is the northern frontier of the Lincoln Lakeshore appellation in Niagara.
A white gazebo stands alone, just beyond the last row of vines, where many young men and women have exchanged their vows in this gorgeous setting to begin their new lives.
Legends Estates Winery is only a short detour off Ontario Street in Beamsville but easy to miss. While most of the Beamsville wineries are south of the QEW, nestled up to the Benchlands, Legends is only a short jaunt north of the highway situated beautifully in the lowlands on the shore of Lake Ontario, one of two wineries in Niagara with the lake as its border (the other is Konzelmann in Niagara-on-the-Lake).
I had not visited Legends, for whatever reason, until recently. It’s one of those wineries that hasn’t been top of mind for me. Preconceived notions can play tricks on your mind. I mean, really, what’s in a name?
I had no idea that Legends referred to the Lizak family’s tradition of hard-working fruit farmers who built their business from the ground up, slowly transforming nectarine and peach plantings into grape vines.
The boutique winery was born in 1999 with Paul guiding the enterprise of 200 acres of fruit and grapes.
The name Legends had evoked, for me, Wayne Gretzky, Arnold Palmer and Babe Ruth and I had half expected posters of the great legends of sport to adorn the boutique’s walls. Add to that the winery’s Diva and Truth or Dare brands, it’s easy to see why one can be confused.
But you can’t judge a winery by preconceived notions. And how wrong I was to do just that.
And Legends is about quality, with a reserve tier of reasonably priced wines that are impressive in their youth and improve gracefully with time.
Yes, I am kicking myself now to have somehow missed Legends in my Niagara wine travels.
The Lizak family has 25 acres of vines planted to grapes on the estate (as well as plums) but has a total of 72 acres in total grape production when including other vineyards they own in the same appellation.
They grow Petit Verdot, Shiraz, Pinot Gris, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Semillon, Gewurztraminer, Malbec and Sauvignon Blanc. They once grew Pinot Noir and Riesling but lost the vines in the devastating winter of 2003 and decided to not replant those varieties (I hope they change their mind, both the older vintages of these grapes are fabulous). The production runs from 15,000-18,000 cases of wine annually. Table wines in several tiers, sparkling wines, fruit wines, a combination of fruit and table wines, and sweet wines are all made at Legends by winemaker Serge Papineau.
I ask him what’s foremost on my mind, those Diva wines and what I had perceived as a lifestyle brand clearly aimed at young, single females looking for a cool concept wine to drink while sitting around with the gals.
Nothing could further from the truth, except, perhaps, the fact that it’s aimed at the female wine drinker.
Diva is a label of love, a celebration of women and their “outstanding talent and energy.” Proceeds from each and every bottle sold, benefits Women’s Place of South Niagara, an organization that offers support, counselling and safe shelter for abused women and children within Niagara.
“I have a big heart for Women’s Place. I want Diva to do well so people (women and children in trouble from an abusive relationship) know where to go and what to do,” Lizak says. And because of that, he’s thinking of rebranding the tier so it’s better understood on the label, which features a high heel that is in reference to the annual “Walk a Mile in Her Shoes” event in Niagara that is also in support of Women’s Place. Not everyone, especially outside of Niagara, is familiar with the symbol and thus can be confused by the message.
The wines in the tier include a white blend of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc, a Malbec Rose, and a unique red blend of Malbec and Merlot all available at the LCBO and winery for $15.
Legends teamed with renowned tattoo artist Paulin for the creation of the Truth or Dare wine label, a unique, vibrant (sexy might be a better word) bottle concept, showcasing tattoo-inspired artwork on a trio of VQA wines.
Paulin, owner of Studio 123, has had his artwork showcased and praised globally, including appearances on television programs such as Live with Regis & Kelly.
The label designs for Truth or Dare wines mirror the fresh, forward nuances crafted by Legends winemaker Papineau.
Geared for drinkers in the 19 to 35-year-old category, the tier features three signature wines: Truth, a white blend sheathed in a vibrant green bottle, Dare, a red blend, and a sparkling Rose, also known as “Love Potion.”
Lizak tells me a funny story about “Love Potion.” If you notice the bottles at the LCBO those words “Love Potion” are covered up because, as the LCBO in its infinite wisdom, told Lizak: “It promotes sexual prowess.”
But at the heart of the Legends portfolio is a unique lineup of reserve wines that include Malbec, Merlot, Shiraz, Petit Verdot, Sauvignon Blanc, and Semillon.
Lizak pours a glass of his 2006 Semillon, the first vintage he made this wine. Although it’s all gone now, he recently found a case in his cellar and wanted to show me how it has progressed.
It reminded me of Hunter Valley Semillon, the way it has aged and transformed from a fresh and citrus-laden wine into a waxy, lime and lemon beauty that is so gorgeous and interesting from to nose to palate. The ’06 had a slightly oxidized quality to it, and more pronounced a day after opening, but certainly shows the potential of this grape in Niagara.
I was also impressed with Lizak’s selection at the winery for back vintages. Bins with 2002 Riesling, Pinot Noir reserve from 2002, Gewurztraminer from 2002 and a stunning 2003 Riesling Reserve, the last vintage ever made at the winery, are scattered about the tasting room. The wines were generally holding up quite nicely and consumers can purchase them, some at bargain prices, in the boutique.
Here are some other Legends wines I tasted and liked:
Legends Truth or Dare *Love Potion Sparkling Rose NV ($17, LCBO, winery, 87 points) — Chardonnay-based Methode Cuve Close sparkler with Merlot blended in. It’s made in a simple Prosecco style wine with a nose of red fruits and subtle sweetness. The palate reveals tasty cherry fruit with soft bubbles. *Though feeling pretty good after just a couple of sips, I’m quite certain my “sexual prowess” was not altered by this wine. But, in name of science and to test the LCBO theory, I will try a whole bottle and see what happens.
Legends Diva Malbec Rose 2009 ($15, 86 points) — A rose made in the traditional style with meaty red fruits of strawberry and rhubarb fruit on the nose. It’s lush on the palate but balanced out with good upfront acidity to lift the ripe red fruits.
Legends Diva Red 2010 ($15, LCBO, winery, 87 points) — A blend of Merlot and Malbec with aromas of berries, plums, cherry and light spice notes. Very easy drinking red, with good ripe fruits that bring a tinge of sweetness to the palate.
Legends Liazk Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc Reserve 2010 ($19, winery, 89 points) — Such a lovely nose of spicy tropical fruits, grapefruit, melon and citrus that’s bolstered by creamy and sweet spices from oak aging. It’s lovely on the palate with a round texture, opulent fruit, a touch of mineral and all that wonderful, yet nuanced oak-influenced spice. An elegant style of Sauvignon Blanc.
Legends Malbec Lizak Vineyard Reserve 2007 ($19, winery, 89 points) — Lizak has always grown Malbec on his property simply because “I like it.” He says it ripens quite well in his lakeside vineyard that is warmer than other areas of the Lakeshore-Lincoln appellation because of the lake effect that offers up five to 10 degrees more heat during the growing season. Not that the 2007 growing season needed any help. The nose shows smoky plum fruit, violets, earth-loam and blueberries to go with supporting spice and toasty oak notes. It’s quite ripe on the palate, rich and textured and showing wonderful structure to go with lovely black fruits, spice and surprising plush tannins. One to cellar for a few more years.
Legends Merlot Reserve 2007 ($18, winery, 91 points) — Now, this is something. A bold offering with plum and cherry fruit then layers of roasted meats, Espresso, tar, earth and, yes, even chocolate notes on the nose. It shows depth and character on the palate with ripe, jammy fruits mingling with exotic spice from a combination of French, Hungarian and U.S. oak. Another one for the cellar or drink now with grilled red meats.
Legends Petit Verdot Reserve 2007 ($20, winery, 90 points) — Not many in Niagara are making a 100% Petit Verdot (Stratus comes to mind), but Lizak is a believer in this grape that’s usually a blender for Bordeaux-style reds. But in a hot vintage in Niagara, it can hold its own quite nicely. It’s dense in the glass with a nose of raspberry, kirsch, blackberry, leather, sandalwood and spice. It has grip on the palate, and needs to integrate a bit more, with lush red fruits, toasty vanilla notes, pepper and a range of spices. To cellar for 10 years or more.
Legends Riesling Reserve 2003 ($45, winery, 92 points) — Lizak was proud to pour some of his older vintages to show how well his wines age. Of particular note was this reserve Riesling from 2003, the last time Lizak made a Riesling. He still has a few cases for sale at the winery. It is a gorgeous wine with grapefruit, peach, petrol and mineral notes on the nose to go with just a kiss of honey sweetness. It still has vibrant acidity on the palate and layers of mature fruits with the mineral-petrol elements just starting to take over. I loved the sweet-tart finish. If you want to taste well-aged Niagara Riesling, here’s a great place to start.
Note: I also tasted the Legends Pinot Noir Reserve 2002 ($30) and bought a bottle of the 2002 dry Riesling to take home and try. The Pinot is just starting to dry out but still had a little fruit to go with spice, roasted coffee bean and toffee notes. The dry Riesling was a wonderful buy at $10, with still vibrant fruit and a playful, lip-smacking play of sweet and tart fruit. I’m going back for more.