Niagara Wine Reviews

A look back on 2002 Niagara Cab-Merlots

It happens so rarely, especially with Niagara wines.

A tasting of over 30 Cab-Merlot blends, from a fantastic back vintage, critically assessed by a collection of sommeliers, wine writers, winemakers and just plain fans of local wine.

It’s rare because Niagara wineries aren’t in the habit of keeping a lot of back inventory for future tastings. In fact, some of the bottles gathered for the tasting were the very last the winery had in their cellars.

The idea for the tasting originated with Christopher Wilton, a wine educator and representative from the wine agency the Small Winemakers Collection, and Will Predhomme, senior sommelier at Canoe Restaurant in Toronto. Both Ontario wine lovers were curious about the 2002 vintage, a hot, dry season that produced intense, big reds with massive tannins. The question was: Would the fruit and tannins ever come into balance?

Cab-Merlot from 2002 vintage cover the bar at Canoe

The 2002 vintage was similar to 2010 and 2007 and was one of the first really hot years that got winemakers excited. But many winemakers got a little too enthusiastic and didn’t quite know how to deal with all those overly aggressive tannins, leaving the wines disjointed, some like sandpaper in the mouth, and not appealing to drink in their youth or as they aged.

A taster samples a Niagar 02 Cab-Merlot at Canoe. What a view!

But others, after a blind tasting of an incredible array of 2002 Cab-Merlots at Canoe Restaurant recently, were fabulously rich, ripe and holding up nicely after eight years in bottle.

Craig McDonald, winemaker at Hillebrand and former winemaker at Creekside, said following the tasting that the winemakers who employed tannin management made the best wines in the 2002.

“I would think the tendency was to over-oak the wines in 2002. It was a warm year, the first big one we had, with lots tannins showing and it’s still prevalent in the fruit,” he said.

“There are some wines (from 2002) that are showing really, really well and have a long way to go and there are ones that are past it.”

Which was the most striking revelation of the tasting. Some blends, consisting of varying degrees of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, were absolutely gorgeous while others were well beyond drinking now.

Some of the tasters at the Cab-Merlot event at Canoe.

McDonald said that winemakers learned from 2002 and know better how to deal with overly aggressive tannins from hot vintages. “It’s not just about ripe fruit and buying good (oak) barrels and calling it a day,” he said.

McDonald explained that big tannins don’t necessarily make great wines. “It’s about extraction (not overdoing it), time on the skins, fermentation temperatures and those types of things.”

Here are some of the winners from the Cab-Merlot 2002 vintage:

Peninsula Ridge Reserve Cabernet Reserve 2002 (4 stars) — A nose of cherry, blackberry and lovely integrated spice. Very fine on the palate with red fruits, firm tannins and balanced oak and spice. The question is: Will the fruit out-run the tannins?

Henry of Pelham Speck Family Reserve Cab-Merlot 2002 (4.5 stars)— One of the highlights of the tasting. A gorgeous nose of bramble, cherry, toasty spice and vanilla. It’s beautifully put together on the palate with wild red fruits, balance and power. Can age for a few more years and improve.

Vineland Estate Cab Merlot 02

Vineland Estate Reserve Cab-Merlot 2002 (4 stars) — The nose is starting to fade on this red blend but the fruit is alive and well on the palate with layered cherry and wild berry flavours and a nice chocolate note on the finish. Drink up if you have any kicking around.

Jackson-Triggs Delaine Vineyard Cab-Merlot 2002 (4.5 stars) — A real surprise from this vineyard which, in 2002, was newly planted. The nose is all about jammy, rich plum-blackberry fruits with soft oak-vanilla undertones. It’s rich, ripe and bursting with black cherry flavours on the palate. Simply divine.

Chateau des Charmes Equuleus 2002 (4.5 stars) — A big jammy cherry nose with oak, vanilla and spice neatly stitched in. The wine on the palate delivers layered fruits on a firm, tannic backbone that shows promise for further integration with time. Like a grand cru Bordeaux, it will age gracefully and improve.

Vineland Estate Rosomel Vineyard Meritage 2002 (4.5 stars) — Cherry fruit, medicinal and earthy notes on the nose of this intriguing red. It’s about at its peak right now with juicy and layered fruits, fabulous spice and length on the palate.

Peninsula Ridge Arcanum 2002 (4.5 stars, still for sale at the winery, $40) — Drinking beautifully right now with a meaty-earthy nose with red fruits, spice and oak notes. In the mouth it shows intensity with persistent red and black fruits that are totally integrated with the oak and spice.

Some of the other Cab-Merlots that impressed the tasters included the Thirty Bench Benchmark Red 2002, Trius Red 2002, Kacaba Proprietors Reserve Meritage 2002 (still for sale at $120 per bottle and aged in oak for five years), Southbrook Poetica 2002, and Maleta Meritage 2002.