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Sparring over vintage variation plus Strewn’s new summer released


I appreciate the enthusiasm of winemakers who view every vintage through rose-coloured glasses. I really do.

There are no bad vintages, according to the eternal optimist; only different ones. Good wine can be made in every single vintage come frost, cold, hail, heat, rain or ladybug infestation. I get it.

But, the fact is, we do not live in Napa Valley here. This is not Barossa. There’s a reason we grow more than just Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz every vintage. We have that most wonderful of challenges called vintage variation.

Let’s take the 2008 vintage in Niagara, for example. Horrible year for Bordeaux varieties. The Cab Sauv, Merlot and Cab Franc just never ripened. But the Chardonnays and Rieslings were superb.

In 2009, it was almost the same, but add Pinot Noir (and even a few Cab Francs and Syrahs) to the excellent category.

And 2007? Wonderful, rich, concentrated Bordeaux-style reds that are still improving in bottle. Earthy, meaty Pinot Noirs (not to everyone’s taste, but well made wines). But the Chardonnays, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminers and other whites (some Rieslings made it through the extreme heat in decent shape) are toast by now, the fruit just evaporated leaving a stressed out, flabby mess behind (if you have any in your cellar still, well, you won’t be impressed). Too much heat, too much vine stress and just overall a poor year for white wines.

In many ways, 2010 is like 2007 but I’m finding the whites not nearly as flabby as in 2007. They are delivering a great deal of pleasure in their youth.

And 2011? Well, it seemed like it would be all doom and gloom with the deluge of rain in mid to late September but it hasn’t turned out that way. Those who kept their fruit clean and picked at the right time have turned out some delicious white wines and, so far, some of the reds, such as Gamay, are looking pretty good. It might not be the disaster we once thought.

I was discussing vintage variation during the Strewn summer wine release event recently.

marcWinemaker Marc Bradshaw (seen at the right) who has the biggest pair of rose-coloured glasses in the world (and I say that in the most respectful manner), was pouring his delicious new 2011 whites when the subject of good vs. bad vintages came up.

Bradshaw’s argument is that a good winemaker can make great wine even in a poor vintage. I disagreed with that. He or she might be able to make BETTER wine than another winemaker, but he or she cannot turn bad fruit into good wine. It’s just not possible.

He later promised to show me some examples and typed up this missive on Twitter (he goes by @tooeasytiger) for me after I had left the tasting:

“@rickwine also need to hunt down some (examples) of “when poor vintage meets good winemaker” to make a believer of you! remember – NO BAD YEARS”

To Bradshaw I say (and, again, with a great deal of respect): Good luck with that. But I’m certainly up to the challenge.

In my own cellar from the weak red vintage of 2008 I have one bottle. Lawrence Buhler, then winemaker at Peller Estates (now at Colio), pulled a rabbit out of his hat with a brilliant Signature Series Cabernet Franc from 2008. But he did it by cropping the vineyard down to insane levels and hand-sorting individual berries to leave only the plumpest of the plump, the best of the best. He could do that with Peller’s top cuvee because it’s a signature wine and failure wasn’t an option.

strewnFor most, it just isn’t practical, especially with smaller production wineries.

I say this to Bradshaw: Show me a great 2008 red wine from Niagara and I’ll show you someone who lost their shirt making it.

The smart wineries (who could do it) took their top red juice from 2008 and sent it right down the line to lesser labels and blends (I’ve never seen so much rose made in a vintage such as 2008). It’s called declassifying and it’s a must option in a region such as Niagara where vintage variation is a way of life.

Bradshaw is a good sport, passionate about what he does and certainly a great voice for Niagara wines. Sparring with him on vintage variation is good sport, but I was at Strewn to taste his new wines, the 2011 aromatic whites.

The place was packed. The tasting room, cooking school, restaurant, retail store and special wine release hall were all busy with fans of tasting and buying wine.

Bradshaw and owner Joe Will are committed to making terroir-driven wines from their gorgeous setting along Lakeshore Road in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

The tiers are clearly defined and include the Collectors series (superior quality and unique wines that are in limited supply), the Terroir series (super-premium wines made from the highest quality grapes, and not necessarily made every year) Premium series (good wines that represent the greatest variety), TwoVines series (introductory wines that have a broad appeal and are very affordable) and, of course, the Dessert series (sweet wines including Icewines).

Strewn is located in a gorgeous 1930’s-era, and now gloriously restored, cannery that’s been converted into a winery.

Here’s what I enjoyed from the tasting with Bradshaw (all at the winery now):

Strewn Terroir Riesling 2011 ($17, 88 points) — A fresh and fruity nose of citrus, peach and green apple. I love the balance on the palate. It feels dry even though it’s finished with some residual sugar. The flavours range from zesty citrus to subtle tropical fruits with a grapefruit twist on the finish. Summer wine.

Strewn Terroir Fume Blanc 2011 ($19, 89 points) — Bradshaw was “over the moon” with his first Fume Blanc (essentially, oaked Sauvignon Blanc). It’s made in very small quantities (45 cases) and was aged in 100% new Canadian oak and French oak. Quite expressive aromas of pear, tropical fruit, vanilla, sweet spices and smoke. Great feel in the mouth to go with juicy citrus-tropical fruits, oak spices and a firm acidic backbone. The fruit rises above the oak through the finish.

gewurzStewn Terroir French Oak Chardonnay 2010 ($25, 90 points) — Aged in 100% French oak for 10 months, this top Chardonnay from the estate displays vanilla, toffee, pear, apple and layers of toast and spice. It’s delicious on the palate with apple-caramel, buttered toast and butter cream, yet juicy and still fresh through the finish. This fine-textured Chard could stand a couple years of cellaring.

Strewn Terroir Gewurztraminer 2011 ($18, 87 points) — A nose of lychee, rose petals, grapefruit, clove and cinnamon. It’s made in a bone-dry style but the ripeness of the fruits gives the impression of some sweetness. Just a good, solid and honest Gewurz.

Strewn Terroir Sauvignon Blanc 2011 ($18, 88 points) — An herbaceous style SB with kiwi, garden herbs, tropical fruit and grapefruit aromas. It’s made in a very dry, edgy style with zesty grapefruit-citrus notes to go with cut grass and herbs. The essential thirst-quencher.

Strewn Cabernet Rose 2011 ($13, 86 points) — A nice summer sipper with strawberry-cherry aromas and flavours that are balanced and refreshing on a hot summer’s day.