By Rick VanSickle/Publisher of Wines In Niagara
This past summer I was witness to the chaos that is a Thomas Bachelder blending session. The mad scientist winemaker flipped through barrel samples of single-vineyard Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays taking mental notes as he zipped from one oak barrique to the next.
He was giving each barrel its own distinct name and was well down the path to his final vision for his single-vineyard wines and the blend for his regular cuvee that is a result of whatever doesn’t go into the top wines.
He, of course, is a master blender, one of the best in the country and his Thomas Bachelder wines are no strangers to the top of this list for both his Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs.
Bachelder (above, top) shares similar traits to that of J.L. Groux (above), also a master blender as the long-time winemaker at Stratus Vineyards. The Niagara-on-the-Lake winery has a top-down theory that requires identifying the very best barrels from 11 different red varieties and seven different white varieties grown at the estate to establish the top Stratus Red and White each vintage. From there, the rest of the wines are crafted, only after the best assemblage for the Red and White have been meticulously established.
Stratus, as well, is a regular on this list. See this video on Groux’s approach to making the wine at Stratus:
My Wines In Niagara White Wine of the Year for 2015 is the Bachelder Wismer Vineyard Chardonnay 2012, while the Red Wine of the Year for 2015 goes to the Stratus Red 2012.
It was an easy choice as both wines were the highest scored by me in their categories and I can comfortably stand by my decision for this list of the Top 10 Most Exciting White Wines, Red Wines and Sparkling Wines for 2015.
This is my 7th year of creating this list. It is never my intention to claim the list is definitive because I could never taste every wine that was released in a given year. It is a subjective list that is culled from the wines that I have tasted with a big question mark reserved for the wines I just never got to taste. And there are always some very important wines that I missed.
The wines on this list may or may not be sold out already and no wine was disqualified if it is already sold out.
The wines from top to bottom aren’t cheap — the average price per bottle from the 25 wines listed here is $49.60.
So, please use this as just reference, nothing more, and, as always, I would love to hear your opinions on your wines of the year.
White Wine of the Year 2015
Bachelder Wismer Vineyard Chardonnay 2012, Niagara ($45, 94 points) — Such a gorgeous nose of elegant poached pear, flinty minerality, gorgeous oak spice, vanilla toast, apple and citrus. While very young and tightly wound (at the time of my first tasting) the fruit still shows persistence as it unfolds on the palate revealing its pear, baked apple and citrus/lemon peel flavours with wonderful understated spice notes through a long, glorious finish. This is a Chardonnay you can enjoy for years to come. By the way, the Saunders Vineyard Chardonnay 2012 scored 92 points, so don’t overlook the sister wine to the Wismer.
The rest of the Top 10 Whites
Le Clos Jordanne Claystone Terrace Chardonnay 2012 ($40, 93 points) — Claystone comes from the western part of the vineyard where the proportion of clay and limestone is well suited to the climate. There is often a longer hang time for the fruit at this site, allowing the Chardonnay to achieve optimal ripeness while maintaining natural acidity. This is quite tight at the moment but still reveals attractive and elegant poached pear, brioche, lemon, nougat, saline minerality and fine oak spice. It opens up on the palate with green apple, citrus, pear and spices with lovely texture, minerality and a vibrant finish. This is just getting started, cellar 5-10 years.
Pearl Morissette Cuvee Dix-Neuvieme Chardonnay 2012 ($35, 93 points) – Still closed on the nose (at the time of my tasting) but beginning to show the future with citrus, apple-pear, grilled pineapple, lemon chiffon, lanolin and spice aromas with an interesting reductive note. It’s generous and lush on the palate and builds as it opens up with a range of fruit flavours and a nutty note on the finish.
Southbrook Vineyards Poetica Chardonnay 2012 ($50, 93 points) — The poetry for the 2012 Poetica label is from Canadian author, poet, and Academy Award-nominated actor Chief Dan George. “I’m looking for elegant wines that get bigger (with age),” says winemaker Ann Sperling. She turns to Bordeaux for inspiration in her red Poetica and Burgundy for the Chardonnay. The 2012 Poetica Chardonnay is as beautiful a wine as I can remember from Southbrook. It has a nose of ripe pear, toasted cashew, baking spices, citrus and a subtle reductive note. It is seductive and textured on the palate with creamy, rich fruit and toasted vanilla and spice that’s lifted by vibrant acidity through the finish. The wine is whole cluster pressed with the clear juice sent directly to French oak barrels, 15% new, for 14 months.
Tawse Robyn’s Block Chardonnay 2012 ($46, 93 points) — This is the premier Twenty Mile Bench site for Tawse’s extensive Chardonnay program. The vines, farmed organically and biodynamically, are 32 years old and the wine is barrel fermented with wild yeast and is aged for 12 months in French oak, 20% of which is new. The 2012 version follows the incredible 2011 Robyn’s Block, my white of the year in 2014 and rated 94 points. This is very close to that, though a much different wine from the warmer 2012 vintage. It has a complex and heady nose of creamy Asian pear, elegant barrel spices, baked apple and intermingling minerals. It’s young still, but starting to reveal it’s beautiful palate of poached pear, toasted barrel spices, vanilla and profound minerality. It has length, finesse and verve through a long, luxurious finish. Simply delicious and well suited for your cellar.
Lailey Old Vines Chardonnay 2012 ($40, 92 points) — From vines planted on the property in 1978, this Chardonnay is aged in 100% French barrels, 30% of which is new oak. It has a gorgeous nose of pear, citrus and apple fruit with lovely marzipan, vanilla and elegant spice notes. The texture is amazing on the palate, with everything in perfect harmony from the pear and apple fruit to the creamy vanilla notes. It’s like silk through the finish and still very, very young. Buy, hold and enjoy for five+ years.
Stratus White 2012 ($44, 92 points) — The white assemblage from winemaker J.L. Groux is a blend of 43% Chardonnay, 42% Sauvignon Blanc and 15% Semillon. The Chardonnay was picked early, a departure for Stratus, and the wine was aged for 624 days in French oak, 28% of it new. The nose reveals a nice melange of pear, subtle citrus and apple, with creamy-spicy notes that speak to the fine oak aging. The elegance of this blend shows on the palate, a taut and gracious white that reveals its layers slowly; the poached pear, the lanolin, the lemon meringue pie, the minerality and spice. Lovely texture and verve keeps it galloping effortlessly through the finish. Wait for it, cellar a few years.
Thirty Bench Small Lot Triangle Vineyard Riesling 2013 ($30, 92 points) — The Triangle Vineyard was planted in 1980-81 and the 2013 vintage is finished with nearly 17 g/l of residual sugar. The nose shows bright grapefruit, green apple, ginger, lanolin and a lick of tangerine. Garner calls this a “show-boater” for its immediate appeal. It shows velvety texture on the palate with an array of showy citrus fruit, honey, a subtle vein of slate minerality and touch of ginger spice all balanced by firm acidity.
Trius Showcase Ghost Creek Riesling 2014 ($25, 92 points) — Winemaker Craig McDonald brought the 2006 version of this wine to an old Riesling tasting earlier in 2015 and it was gorgeous with age on it. The wine had gained some weight to give it a waxy-lanolin feel and complexity with the earthiness of the Ghost Creek terroir just beginning to emerge. I think it’s fair to say that the Showcase Ghost Creek Riesling deserves to be in the conversation with other top Niagara Rieslings. The 14 version has a gorgeous nose of bright citrus, ginger, a floral note and a mineral component that you don’t find in a lot of Niagara-on-the-Lake Rieslings. It’s rich yet tangy on the palate with citrus rind and grapefruit with complexity and layers of minerals and spice. The wine was finished with 20 g/l of residual sugar, a departure from current vintages, but hides it well with a racy core of acidity. Should age beautifully. We had it with Chef Frank Dodd’s salmon and crab rillettes and it was amazing.
Vineland Estate Reserve Riesling 2013 ($30, 92 points) — Winemaker Brian Schmidt takes his inspiration from the Mosel for this top Riesling from the estate. I guarantee no one else comes close to matching this style in Niagara. The nose reveals lime, ginger-jasmine, river-rock minerality, acacia blossoms, quince and a subtle white peppery note. It has some unctuousness to it, some texture, with concentrated and juicy fruits and deep, earthy mineral notes. You get the sense that this wine is just beginning to give of itself and there is much more to come. Buy and hold for 5+ years.
The Red Wine of the Year 2015
Stratus Red 2012 ($44, 94 points) — The newest top red from Stratus is a remarkable blend of 29% Cabernet Sauvignon, 26% Merlot, 26% Cabernet Franc, 13% Petit Verdot, 3% Malbec, and 3% Tannat that chimes in at a respectable 13.8% alcohol. Off the top, no red wine at Stratus can top this in any vintage; it is the culmination of all the hard work that has gone into the top-down program at the slick and stylish Niagara-on-the-Lake winery. The nose, even in its youth, shows dense and highly aromatic black currants, blackberries, plums, cassis and then oak spices, clove-cinnamon notes and charred vanilla toast. It is so lush, so persistent on the palate, yet it is defined by the richness and purity of the dark layered fruit that is bolstered by lavish spice, grippy tannins and a finessed feel through a long, velvety finish. It is big, no doubt about it, at this stage, but has the power, complexity and grace to reward with 10-20 years in the cellar. A beautiful wine.
The rest of the Top 10 Reds
Bachelder Lowrey Vineyard Niagara Pinot Noir 2012 ($45, 93 points) — One of the finest vineyards in Niagara for Pinot Noir, especially if you can acquire even a bit of the coveted original five rows on the property, which Thomas Bachelder does. The Lowrey Pinot is extroverted, with a ballsy nose of mulled red fruits, cassis and lavishly spiced notes. It has far-reaching depth and power on the palate with integrated cherry-cassis-raspberry fruit mated to gritty tannins and length through the finish. Showing some balance with room to integrate further. Buy, hold and wait.
Creekside Unbroken Press Syrah 2012 ($43, 93 points) — The “Un” in the Unbroken means no Viognier and a later pick of the grapes by about a week. The nose shows black currants, smoke, sweet cedar, grilled meats, kirsch, pepper and a lifted floral note. It’s weighty and bold on the palate with wild and integrated fruit, bramble and rousing spices to go with firm, overt tannins that will all together need time to soften and integrate. This is one of the attractions to Creekside’s top Syrah, how well they age and come together with time.
Pillitteri Riserva Famiglia Cabernet Franc 2010, Niagara ($78, 93 points) — This is made in the appassimento style with the grapes dried for 26 days and the wine aged in French oak for 24 months. It shows powerful, concentrated aromas of dark fruits, smoke, sweet tobacco, bramble and forest floor. It is big on the palate, at 15% alcohol, with smoky dark fruits, plums and spice in a persistent attack that shows length through the finish. This is just beginning to show its stuff, so cellar 10-15 years.
Rennie Estate “G” 2012 ($55, 93 points) — The flagship wine from Rennie, it’s a blend of Merlot (50%) and equal amounts of estate Cab Sauv and Cab Franc and made in the appassimento method. The grapes are “slow dried” in a specially designed drying chamber made in consultation with the Vineland Research Centre. The chamber features humidity, temperature and airflow controls and results in no mould whatsoever in the process. The grapes for “G” were dried for 103 days resulting in 50% loss of yield. Average Brix at time of picking was 21.7 and 27.9 after drying. This is as lavish and showy a red wine as you’ll find in Niagara with big, concentrated layers of black currants, cherries, raspberries, earth and spices that come at you in waves. It is a mouthful at the moment, huge tannins, bountiful red and dark fruits and barrel spices that are complex and tight and need time to all integrate properly. If you have the patience, wait for it, this will be a nice addition to your cellar.
Southbrook Vineyards Poetica Red 2012 ($55, 93 points) — The red version of Poetica is a blend of Cab Sauv (46%), Cab Franc (26.5%), Petit Verdot (26.5%) and a touch of Merlot. Such a wonderful and expressive nose of rich, meaty blackberry, cherry and a complex array of oak spices. This has structure and grip with lovely red and dark fruits that build on the palate and meld with an array of spices and firm tannins. Needs time to integrate but the rewards will be worth waiting for. This could very well turn out to be a benchmark red for the vintage in Niagara.
Tawse Cherry Road Pinot Noir 2013 ($60, 93 points) — This Twenty Mile Bench estate Pinot is always my favourite of the extensive red program at Tawse. It’s aged in oak for 18 months in 40% new French barrels. The nose is quite expressive, yet delicate, with cherry, raspberry, violets, subtle earthiness, mushrooms, underbrush and spice. I love the feminineness of this Pinot, even with the red-fruit-laden palate there is still a show of restraint. It is complex and finessed with underlying earth, supple tannins and length through the finish. It’s quite beautiful, delicate, nuanced, layered and tantalizingly teasing.
Thirty Bench Benchmark Red 2012 ($60, 93 points) — Benchmark is the best of the best from the red wine program at Thirty Bench, comprised of 39% Merlot, 10% Cab Franc and 51% Cabernet Sauvignon. Winemaker Emma Garner selects the best fruit from the best barrels for this wine that spends 24 months in oak. It is tight on the nose and will need time to open up completely but shows rich black cherry, plums, blackberries and lovely barrel spices. This has it all on the palate, a meaty, bold blend that shows layers of red fruits, currants, spice and firm, grippy tannins. It has lovely texture and length through the finish. Age 10-15 years.
Trius Showcase Red Shale Cabernet Franc Clark Farm Vineyard 2012 ($45, 93 points) — Beginning with the 2012 Showcase reds, winemaker Craig McDonald has chosen to present his wines all unfiltered. “Every time you filter a wine you filter something out,” says McDonald. He’s also chosen to age this wine in mostly used oak barrels for 18 months. This is the superstar of the vintage for his red wine program. An enthralling Cab Franc with a deep, rich nose of fragrant red fruits, raspberry bush, earth, light spice and a lifted floral-herbal note. It shows succulent red fruits on the palate, chewy tannins, roasted Espresso beans, earthy-savoury notes and integrated spice with bits of anise and licorice. Nothing overdone here, just a smooth and delicious Niagara Cab Franc that has a bright future ahead.
Fielding Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 ($30, 92 points) — A very difficult variety to work with in Niagara but 2012 offered a warm reprieve to achieve optimal ripeness. The nose shows rich barrel spices against a background of ripe blackberries, cherries, bramble, earth with nothing overdone. It’s structured with fine tannic grip on the palate and shows delicious currants, blackberries and cherries with an array of oak barrel spices. Very fine, with both balance and finesse. Cellar worthy.
The Top Five Sparkling Wines of 2015
Inniskillin Sparkling Vidal Icewine 2014 ($80 for 375 mL, 94 points) — What a sensational treat from winemaker Bruce Nicholson. Sparkling icewine is extremely difficult to make with few wineries attempting the style, but Nicholson has perfected it. The nose is a gorgeous mélange of orange marmalade, honeycomb, peach and mango. It has a rousing mousse on the palate to go with sweet, compoted fruits, fresh and delicate notes of pineapple, tangerine and peach and a luxurious texture that’s accentuated by the tiny bubbles that tickle the palate through the finish. A rich, exotic treat that is well worth the high price.
Trius Showcase 5 Blanc de Noirs 2009 ($65, 93 points) — When I first tasted this, a year ago before it even had a name, I was thoroughly impressed. Retasting it with McDonald has only confirmed my initial notes. This is one hell of sparkling wine. It is a blend of 70% Pinot Noir from the Lawrie Vineyard (Four-Mile Creek) and 30% Pinot Meunier. It spent five years on its lees with only a tiny amount of sugar added to the dosage. “There was no playful tinkering with this,” McDonald says. “I wanted to show what five years (on the lees) can do in Niagara.” It has a gorgeous light copper colour and an expressive nose of melba toast, light red fruits, violets, brioche and strawberry cream. It has a lively mousse and an array of complex red fruits with touches of earth and creamy notes that are silky and delicate through the palate. In just a short year in bottle the toasty/bready/yeasty notes are joined by lovely marmalade and citrus rind flavours. Such a beautiful sparkling wine made in a near bone-dry style.
Featherstone Cuvée Joy 2011 ($35, 92 points) — A traditionally-made sparkler made from 100% estate-grown Chardonnay. This such is a delightful, yes, joyful, wine with a nose of brisk lemon, baked apple, toast, citrus and interesting yeasty-bready notes. Perfect tiny bubbles tickle the palate with a lovely melange of citrus, toast and creamy notes all lifted by wonderful, refreshing acidity.
Henry of Pelham Cuvee Catharine Carte Blanche Estate Blanc de Blanc 2010 ($45, 92 points) — This top sparkling wine from HoP, always one of the very best vintage sparklers made in Niagara, is made from 100% estate Chardonnay grown on the Short Hills Bench. About 20% of the fruit is barrel fermented and secondary fermentation in the bottle is followed by 54 months of aging on the lees. The nose is lemony with notes of biscuit, toasted vanilla, saline minerality and brioche. The palate reveals a lively bubble with lemon-citrus, toasty-yeasty notes, orange peel, and subtle earthiness on a luxurious, silky and vibrant finish. Such a beautiful and thought-provoking sparkling wine that can age gracefully in the cellar.
Creekside The Trad2 Reserve 2011 ($29, 91 points) — Trad2 or Son of Trad, or Trad(2), take your pick, is the offspring of Trad the First. Trad2 was aged three years on the lees (compared to two) and disgorged in March. The blend is 55% Pinot Noir and 45% Chardonnay from the estate’s Queenston Road Vineyard with a low dosage (6 grams of residual sugar). It has an attractive nose of brioche, toast, citrus, orange peel and bright apple-mineral notes. On the palate there’s a fairly robust mousse, with citrus, grapefruit and toasty, mellow flavours through a long finish.
Previous Wines of the Year