It’s hardly an exact science, evaluating wine never is, but every year I scan published reviews posted on this website to provide a list of Niagara’s Most Exciting Wines tasted in the calendar year.
It’s an agonizing exercise and fraught with danger, so I ask that you view this list in the vein it’s being presented, as just another Top 10 list that can be debated, used as a possible buying guide, a curiosity or simply disregarded completely. It is neither complete (I am not able to try every wine in Niagara) nor objective; it is a list based entirely on my tastes, my own subjective palate.
I have built this list, as I do each year, based on tastings from either attending a winery and being presented wines, samples sent unsolicited to my home, wines purchased at a winery or LCBO store or other ways that we discover wines: friends, restaurants or grand tastings at big wine events such as i4c or Cuvee.
The cutoff date for wines tasted was Friday, Dec. 20, which means a tasting this coming Saturday of Thomas Bachelder’s new wines and Southbrook’s top wines, both of which had appeared on this list in the past, will only be considered for the 2015 lists.
OK, now that all of that is out of the way, to the lists …
I present to you Wines in Niagara’s Top 10 White, Top 10 Red and Top 5 Sweet/Sparkling wines for 2014.
Note: This wines are presented in order of score and alphabetically after that. I only did five sweet or sparkling wines because tasting of both categories was limited in 2014.
The 10 Most Exciting White Wines of the Year
I was at a wine dinner in Toronto at Grano recently that featured some of Niagara’s top Rieslings over many courses of fine cuisine, engaged conversation and a healthy dose of Stuart Pigott, author of The Best White Wine on Earth: The Riesling Story.
The Rieslings presented on this night were some of the top examples made in Niagara, most of which I had tried and reviewed quite favourably. While all of the Rieslings were outstanding examples of terroir-driven wines, one got my full attention and stood out from the rest when I lifted the glass and sniffed inside. Not knowing which Riesling it was, I became immediately curious as I sipped its contents and found wave after wave of interesting flavours that were bolstered by spice and minerals. It soon became apparent that the Riesling that I was smitten with was the Cave Spring Cellars CSV Riesling 2012, a wine I had not tasted previously from a winery I have not visited to taste for some time (but I make a point of buying the CSV each and every year for review purposes because I feel it is a benchmark wine in Niagara and important to taste and compare every single vintage). At my first opportunity I bolted over to Cave Spring to buy a bottle and re-taste the wine.
Never has Cave Spring made such a complex Riesling, in my opinion, that transcends Riesling and brings it into an entirely new dimension. It is the kind of wine that you think of, dream of, long after you have tasted it. Even writing this I am drooling and longing for another taste. It emerged a winner from a bevy of great Rieslings that were sold in Niagara in 2014, six of which made my white wine list, and four of which were from the outstanding 2012 vintage.
White Wine of the Year
Cave Spring Cellars CSV Riesling 2012 ($30, 94 points) — I’ll just say it right here; this is up there with the greatest Rieslings ever produced in Canada, maybe THE best. The wine is grown in the limestone-rich rich Cave Spring Vineyard on a terrace of the Niagara Escarpment on the Beamsville Bench. It is sourced from the oldest (35- to 39-years-old) and lowest-yielding parcels at the estate. Because the vintage was warm the acids are slightly lower and the pH slightly higher and made with less residual sugar than in cooler vintages. It is an enthralling wine from start to finish with a nose of Asian pear, apple blossom, orange rind, lemon, lifted white flowers, stony minerality and bees wax. It is so beautiful on the palate with substance and electricity that transcends Riesling. I am not knocking Riesling with that statement, I love Riesling of all stripes, but this is just in a class all its own. The flavours range from pear and ginger notes to apple, apricot, anise and honeycomb. This beauty grabs you from the first sip with its range of flavours, subtle spices and mouth-watering acidity to the complex array of flinty minerals and nuances that build in intensity. It is lithe, yet assertive. It is succulent, yet focused. It is, in a word, seductive.
Hidden Bench Chardonnay Tete de Cuvee 2011 ($45, 94 points) — Such an alluring beauty and always vying for top Chardonnay made anywhere in Canada in any given year. Hidden Bench owner Harald Thiel combines the best of the Locust Lane and Rosomel Vineyards, applies 100% fine French oak, 25% new, 37.5% second fill and 37.5% third fill for 11 months with completion in stainless steel and neutral oak barrels. All the organic fruit is handpicked, meticulously sorted and whole bunch pressed. Malolactic fermentation occurred naturally and all barrels were stirred weekly during fermentation. It’s a mind-blowing experience, of course, like it is every year, but nonetheless a shock every time I taste the Tete de Cuvee and realize it can be done in Niagara or Ontario or Canada. I should learn to get over it. The poached pear aromas are joined by toasted vanilla and hazelnuts, a bit of marzipan enters the fray, and always that gushing Beamsville Bench minerality that gives the wine its sense of place, its complexity. It is so young with a glorious future waiting, but in the mouth it still shows a juicy yet vibrant core of stone fruit and perfectly balanced spice and minerals. It is complex and finessed and all leads to a long, delicious, refined finish.
Charles Baker Picone Vineyard Riesling 2011 ($35, 93 points) — Picone Vineyard and Charles Baker have become synonymous with fine Riesling in Niagara. When these forces became one, a new breed of exceptional Riesling producer was born and Baker has been true to what the vineyard delivers each and every vintage since 2005. Picone Vineyard, owned by Chef Mark Picone, is a remarkable seven-acre vineyard and Baker purchases all the Riesling grown there. The vineyard is in the Vinemount Ridge sub-appellation, butting up against the Twenty Mile Bench on Moyer Road near Megalomaniac in Vineland. The vineyard benefits from its lofty, breezy perch on top of the Escarpment that keeps the fruit clean, dry and in pristine condition through harvest. The 2011 vintage is remarkable from the first sniff; rich, layered citrus fruit, savoury-herbal notes, a touch of jasmine and ginger, grapefruit, lanolin and that distinct wet stone note. The texture is gorgeous on the palate, broad and mouth-filling, but balanced out by racy-searing acidity. There is a richness to this wine and a fine vein of limestone minerality that melds perfectly to the juicy citrus and funky spice notes. This will evolve for a decade or more.
Ravine Vineyard Riesling 2012 ($28, 93 points) — This is always a distinct expression of Riesling because of a quirky low spot in the estate’s St. Davids Bench vineyard that promotes a small amount of botrytis (noble rot) that is blended into this wine. This may be the best Riesling yet from Ravine. Consulting winemaker Peter Gamble says about 17% of the fruit was botrytis-affected allowing a gorgeous note of wild alfalfa honey on the nose to go with citrus zest, apricot and quince notes. It is a textured Riesling on the palate and the wild honey notes play an important role in combination with lime, melon, quince and a subtle ginger note. It is off-dry but still has vibrancy from excellent acidity and such a clean and lush feel through the finish. Wow wine.
Thirty Bench Small Lot Steel Post Vineyard Riesling 2012 ($30, 93 points) — It is always the Triangle Vineyard Riesling that gets the most attention from consumers but, for me, I gravitate toward the Steel Post. It has the aging potential that I desire in Riesling and is always tight and austere in the beginning before it begins to reveal its true beauty. It is situated in the middle of the 22-acre Riesling, planted in 1983. It is pretty yet restrained on the nose with lime-apple fruits emerging and subtle pineapple, minerals and a funky-earthy note in the background. It appears drier on the palate than the other two Small Lot wines, even though the RS is similar (in the 14-15 g/l range). It has depth and firm structure on the palate and slowly reveals peach, apricot and lemon-drop notes that linger on the palate. The minerals will come with time when the layers begin to unfold. “Steel always has that precision,” says winemaker Emma Garner. “It’s like an arrow, tightly wound.”
Vineland Estates Elevation St. Urban Vineyard Riesling 2012 ($20, 93 points) — With this release of the Elevation St. Urban Riesling, Vineland has merged two classic bottlings at the estate into one. It is a beauty and, in my mind, the best St. Urban at this level I have tasted. Classic limestone minerality is the first note on the nose followed by grapefruit, citrus, and a touch of peach skin. It is simply gorgeous on the palate with fresh, pristine citrus-grapefruit, river rock minerality and light peach notes that are delivered on a taut and electric backbone of searing acidity. Power and complexity will serve this Riesling well for many years to come.
Fielding Estate Lot No. 17 Riesling 2013 ($28, 92 points) — Lot No. 17 represents the best of the best from the home estate’s Beamsville Bench vineyard. The 2013 vintage is a beauty with defined lime, citrus, grapefruit, apricot and river-rock minerality on the nose. The palate reveals pure lime zest, lanolin, peach and a basket of fresh citrus fruits all racing along a razor-sharp beam of acidity. Nicely concentrated, and finely balanced, this should age well for five or more years.
Hidden Bench Nuit Blanche Rosomel Vineyard 2012 ($40, 92 points) — And there it is again, Rosomel Vineyard; it shines brightly on the Beamsville Bench, the vineyard built and nurtured by Roman Prydatkewycz and now in the hands of owner Harald Thiel who tends to it with loving care. I can’t help but think of Prydatkewycz, now with the Vineland Estate team, every time I sip one his former vineyard’s wines now owned and made by Hidden Bench. Such a gentleman, such a brilliant viticulturalist. The 2012 Nuit Blanche is gorgeous, a blend of Sauvignon Blanc (95.5%) and the rest Semillon, that lovely grape that suffered so greatly during the terrible winter of 2014. There is grapefruit, melon, hay, baked apple, gunflint and layers of fine oak spice on the nose. On the palate, there is an integrated concentration of fruit with a lovely kiss of cream and spice, yet it is young and needs time to impart its greatest pleasures. It will come, oh, it will come.
Leaning Post Chardonnay Foxcroft Vineyard 2012 ($35, 92 points) — Former virtual winemaker and now owner of the bricks and mortar Leaning Post in Winona, Ilya Senchuk sources his fruit for this Chardonnay from Fox Croft Vineyard, two rows away from where Thomas Bachelder sources his fruit, and four rows down from where Kevin Panakapka (2027 Cellars) gets his. Primary fermentation (almost 6 weeks) took place in barrel, followed by full malo fermentation. Once fermentations were completed, the wine remained in French oak barrique (35% new, 65% 4-year-old) for 12 months. This is a contemplative Chard with a mélange of ripe pear, citrus and spice against a background of limestone minerality. It has some weight on the palate, with ripe fruit in tandem with butterscotch cream, minerality and a long, smooth finish. Senchuk has embraced the warmth of the season but found balance with the acidity.
Malivoire Mottiar Vineyard Chardonnay 2011 ($30, 92 points) — A beautiful Chardonnay, fermented with wild yeast in older oak barrels, and a showcase for the Mottiar vineyard with a nose of pear, lime, grapefruit and tangerine fruits with chalky minerality and light toast and spice. It shows verve and maintains a crisp edge on the palate to go with apple, pear, citrus fruits, intriguing minerality and light spice. Delicious stuff.
The 10 Most Exciting Red Wines of the Year
While I have not tasted the current vintage Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs from Thomas Bachelder’s tri-regional project he labels under his name (I will Saturday), including his top single-vineyard offerings from Niagara, it is hard to keep him off this list completely.
Bachelder is the winemaker for Domaine Queylus, a relatively new winery owned by a collection of wine lovers from Quebec who set out to make top wines from what they feel Niagara does best, including Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and red meritage blends (which also just happens to be what these gentlemen like to drink).
I tasted the full range of Domaine Queylus wines this past summer in bottle and in barrel with Bachelder, his assistant winemaker Kelly Baker and one of the owners Gilles Chevalier. This is an impressive start-up with some serious juice right of the gate.
The show-stopper was the Domaine Queylus Pinot Noir Grande Reserve 2011, a blend of the best barrels in the cellar, pulled together after trials undertaken to assemble the most elegant, harmonious and complex wine possible from the classic vintage of 2011. The grapes are from two of the estate’s vineyards, one in Lincoln Lakeshore and the other in Beamsville. After one whiff, I knew something special was going on and as I sniffed and sipped this beautiful wine it was apparent a new star was born in Niagara.
Red Wine of the Year
Domaine Queylus Pinot Noir La Grande Reserve 2011 ($60, 93 points) — To quote winemaker Thomas Bachelder, “it’s like Grace Kelly just walked into the room.” Perhaps sip with this Mika song playing in the background. Such a gorgeous and complete Pinot with aromas of black cherry, field raspberries, toasted vanilla and nutmeg with a subtle floral note. It has beautiful concentration of red currants, cherry, raspberry, oak spices and pure elegance from sip to finish. Such depth and complexity all delivered on a lovely bed of firm tannins. One to lay down for a few years.
The Foreign Affair Gran Q 2010, Niagara ($150, 93 points) — This is Foreign Affair owner Len Crispino’s dedication to Giuseppe Quintarelli (now deceased), Valpolicella’s most famous maker of Amarone wines. Quintarelli is his hero, the one who inspired him most to follow his path in Niagara. He and his wife Marisa flew to Veneto unannounced to see if they could talk to Giuseppe about making Amarone wines in Canada. Crispino was granted a meeting with the winemaker but arrived a half hour late because the winery is unmarked along a secluded road. Once he found the home and winery of Giuseppe he was made to wait a half hour (the amount of time he was late) before he got a few words. “He told me to ‘follow my dreams and you’ll get what you want,’ ” laughed Crispino. The Gran Q, made from 100% dried grapes, is one of the biggest wines I have tasted from Niagara, made from grapes (Cab Franc, Cab Sauv and Merlot) dried for an average 90 days. The wine was aged for 24-28 months in 80% new French oak. The nose is astonishing; gobs of black currant compote, rich, thick cassis, leather, graphite and sweet spices. The whopping 17.5% alc on the palate is backed up by luxurious, sweet and complex dark fruits, well-defined tannins and an array of spices that echo on the finish. Drink heartily, but serve with grilled red meat.
Tawse Van Bers Cabernet Franc 2010 ($50, 93 points) – This is a doozer of a wine, a brilliant example of what can happen to this classic varietal if all the stars align. And align they did in 2010 for Cabernet Franc at this particular vineyard in the Creek Shores sub-appellation. This wine possesses a thick and rich nose of alluring field raspberry, warm summer cherries and anise all enticingly blanketed in spicy oak, earth and just a touch of wild herbs. The earthy flavours are married perfectly to the ripe red fruits, smoke, tar, anise and eucalypt. Ripe tannins emerge to offer structure and power and lead to a long, long finish. Enjoy this for many years to come.
13th Street Essence Syrah 2012 ($45, 93 points) — Winemaker J.P. Colas hits a home run with this warm-vintage beauty from the Wismer Vineyard, a funky, rock ‘n’ roll mass of roasted meats, black currants, boysenberry, earth, loam, saddle leather, campfire smoke and spice on the nose. It’s wild and untethered on the palate with dark fruits that mingle with earth, spice and tar that’s all lifted by racy cool-climate acidity. A big wine that needs a bit of taming in the cellar. Say five years to reap its rewards?
Daniel Lenko Meritage 2010 ($60, 92 points) — A late-release red blend that shows off the Lenko style brilliantly — a big, bold and long-lasting red that needs time to settle down to merge all the moving parts. This is well on its way with a beautiful nose of earthy black currants, cassis and blackberry fruits that show concentration and smothered in lavish oak spices and campfire smoke. The flavours on the palate range from cassis and currants to licorice, anise and vanilla oak. This is built on a solid foundation of tannins and needs to time to rectify all the moving parts. Hold or serve with grilled red meat.
Jackson-Triggs Delaine Vineyard Syrah 2012 ($33, 92 points) — A bold and attractive nose of bright red fruits, boysenberry, deli meats, white pepper and savoury spices. It has lovely smoky fruit on the palate including raspberry, cherry and blackberry, with a range of savoury spices, gorgeous texture and complexity through the long finish. This is textbook cool-climate Syrah from an excellent vintage. Very well done.
Leaning Post Keczan Vineyard Syrah 2012 ($42, 92 points) — Just how Ilya Senchuk likes his Syrah: Northern Rhone in spirit but pure Niagara in essence. The nose is complex with white pepper, cassis, savoury cherry, roasted meats and bacon fat. There is a rustic feel to this wine on the palate, like old-school Syrah, with smoky-peppery notes, cherries, bramble, herbs, currants and firm tannins that will melt away with a) a good prime rib roast or b) sock it away in the cellar for a few years. Lovely.
Ravine Vineyard Lonna’s Block Cabernet Franc 2012 ($40, 92 points) — This is the first vintage for the Lonna’s Block, and, my, what a beauty. A nose of warm cherry pie, loam, sweet tobacco, violets, cassis and toasted mocha vanilla. The palate shows lovey red and dark fruits, savoury spices, stewed herbs, dusty cocoa, bright acidity and a supple feel through the long finish. Simply delicious.
Rennie Estate “G” 2011 ($55, 92 points) — To make this complicated appassimento-style wine, Rennie picks his Merlot (50%), Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc (both 25%) at 21 Brix. The three varieties spend 70 days in custom drying racks (up to 35% loss of juice) to achieve a sweetness level of 29 Brix. The blend spends 18 months in a combination of new and old oak and is finished at 16.5% alcohol. To be perfectly frank, it’s a big, huge wine, and you need to know that right off the bat. It’s dark, almost opaque in the glass and throws off big aromas of crushed black currants, thick blackberry compote, caramel, oak spice, vanilla toast, forest floor and dried herbs. On the palate, it’s rich and weighty with an array of highly extracted fruit flavours including currants, plums, cherries, sultana raisins and bolstered by vanilla-nutmeg-cinnamon spices, earth and medicinal herbs. The tannins are evident, but not overly aggressive. In all, it’s a big, powerful wine with the fruit to stand up to 16.5% alcohol and enough acidity to offer some balance. A wine to hold for a few years to come.
Stratus Cabernet Franc 2010 ($38, 92 points) — I love the maturity of this aged Franc from the warm 2010 vintage. The wine was aged for 578 days in French oak, 31% of which was new oak. The nose is expressive with cherry, raspberry, cedar, roasted herbs, intense spice and a lovely subtle floral note. Everything is in balance on the palate with delicious red fruits, tobacco leaf, spice and energizing acidity. It still has the tannic structure to provide pleasure for years to come.
Top Five Sweet/Sparkling Wines of the Year
2027 Cellars Queenston Road Vineyard Sparkling 2011 ($30, 93 points) — One of the finest sparkling wines I have tasted from Ontario (though I am a huge fan of zero dosage bubblies). It’s a 40-60 Pinot-Chard co-fermented blend that sat on the lees for two years with partial malo to “soften the acidity.” This is old school sparkling wine with a clean, fresh and pure nose of grapefruit, citrus, vanilla toast, biscuit and fresh-squeezed lemon-lime. The palate shows a tight, vigorous mousse and lovely citrus-lime-lemon and tangerine fruits that are carried on a laser-sharp beam of acidity. The pristine flavours echo endlessly on the finish. You want more. Simply add oysters and enjoy.
Tawse Riesling Icewine 2013, Niagara ($35 for 200 ml, 93 points) — This is one of the best Icewines I have tried in a long time. The beauty lies in the balance of this sweet wine, not an easy feat with super-sweet icewines. It shows incredible intensity on the nose with sweet tropical fruit, mango, papaya and candied citrus. There is freshness on the palate and depth of fruit in the peach, tropical notes and electrifying lemon and tangerine. All that sweetness is made fresh by wonderful balancing acidity.
Two Sisters Cabernet Sauvignon Icewine 2013 ($50 for 200 ml, 93 points) — It’s not every vintage that nature allows for a Cabernet Sauvignon icewine, but when it happens it creates magic. Niagara’s newest winery has an impressive portfolio of wines right out of the gate and this 2013 icewine from winemaker Adam Pearce is sensational. A decadent nose of pure strawberry extract, crushed currants and rhubard. It’s thick and lush on the palate with strawberry pie and rhubarb flavours that’s persistent and mouth-filling. There is enough acidity to provide vibrancy through the finish. Try this with dark chocolate for a mind-blowing treat.
Henry of Pelham Cuvee Catharine Estate Blanc de Blanc Carte Blanche 2009 ($45, 92 points) — The nose shows lemon, toast, brioche, minerals, green apple and baked bread all wrapped up in myriad citrus notes. It lights up the palate with zesty lemon zing, baked apple, quince with a crisp and laser-sharp beam of acidity. This is an electric sparkling wine that shows youthful exuberance with a tight, energetic mousse. Can age for five or more years. Gorgeous.
Chateau des Charmes Vidal Icewine 2013 ($26 for 200 Ml, 92 points) — A decadent nose of peach compote, apricot, tropical fruits and honey on a brilliantly golden robe. It’s unctuous without being cloying on the palate with peach preserve, apricot marmalade and honey-sweet citrus peel that builds in intensity in the mouth. Such a beautiful sweety that’s all balanced out by good acidity.
Previous Wines of the Year
The Most Thrilling Wines in 2013
The Most Thrilling Wines in 2012
The Most Thrilling Wines in 2011
The Most Thrilling Wines in 2010
With your mention of 30 Bench’s Steel Post Vineyard rieslings, I would suggest that the 2005 was, at least to that point in time (maybe a couple years longer), Niagara’s best-ever riesling. Did you ever have a chance to enjoy it ?
Bill, I did try it years ago. I think the argument for best Riesling ever made in Niagara would be interesting. Everyone’s idea of what constitutes great Riesling is so different, but there are a few Niagara Rieslings that seem to shine just a little brighter each and every vintage.
I’ve had the privilege of tasting many on your list, and some that are just too rich for my budget!!
However I couldn’t agree with you more about the Cave Spring CSV Riesling. I’ve been a fan (and buyer) of the CSV’s ever since the first vintage in ’99. It remains my favourite year after year.
Like you say, what is the “best” Riesling is always debatable, and since they are made in so many fabulous styles in Ontario, everyone will have their preferences. So like you, I decide on which are MY favourites, which is what’s important anyways!
I let my wallet speak for me, and I continue to return to the same wineries for my Rieslings: Cave Spring, Vineland, Calamus, Greenlane, Sue-Ann Staff, Thirty Bench, Tawse, and others.
I enjoyed this article very much. I am looking forward to tasting some of the best wines in Niagara. I want to wow some friends who love Brut Champagne and wonder if you can give me some Brut Sparkling wines from Niagara for me to wow my friends with.
Joe, See email I sent to you on some suggestions. Rick