Niagara Wine ReviewsTop Stories

Vintages wine release: A gorgeous Rielsing from Vineland Estates leads the parade Dec. 10; plus Sonoma, B.C.’s Fort Berens and Italian gems

Best Ontario Riesling

Whenever a wine lover asks me for a pure and definitive example of Niagara Riesling, I invariably point in the direction of the St. Urban Vineyard.

Surrounding the Vineland Estate property, that remarkable vineyard is strategically tucked away in the heart of the Twenty Mile Bench and showcases the Weis 21 Riesling clone (often referred to as 21b, due to a clerical error a long time ago), brought to Canada by the winery’s founder, Hermann Weis.

The first vines were planted in 1979 followed by more plantings in 1980 and 1981 to bring the total to 42 acres of Riesling with just a sprinkling of Chardonnay Musque. Hailing from the Mosel in Germany, Weis was an experienced grape grower who knew exactly what would grow successfully in the Niagara Region.

best Canadian wine

The original St. Urban blocks are still intact with about 60% of the original vines (the rest replanted as needed) spread across seven distinct sections, or “fields,” of the vineyard.

Winemaker Brian Schmidt bottles the St. Urban and Reserve Rieslings most vintages and often has special vineyard- and block-specific bottlings for the winery’s wine club members. These provide an exploration of the subtle differences in terroir shown by individual blocks influenced by sunlight, geography and age of vines. The commonality in all the St. Urban wines is a “tight, restrained and minerally-focused” profile with “racy acidity.”

Ontario Vineyards

It’s that combination of stone, and chalk and freshening acidity to go with a juicy core of lemon and lime, that defines Niagara for me, and every vintage St. Urban delivers without fail.

The 2015 vintage of what I consider a flagship wine at Vineland — the Elevation St. Urban Vineyard Riesling — leads the parade for LCBO’s Vintages release on Saturday, Dec. 10, the third (and last) of the Christmas releases.

Also in this report:

  • My picks from the Vintages release, including Chateau des Charmes, Featherstone and Tawse
  • New Wismer Foxcroft Chardonnay from 2027 Cellars coming
  • A Chardonnay from Sonoma’s Le Crema to add to your shopping basket
  • A selection of affordable Italian wines that could be coming our way
  • A tasty Italian Pinot Grigio on sale
  • A pair of new Henry of Pelham wines
  • A trio of red wines from B.C.’s Fort Berens Winery

Niagara Wines Released at Vintages Dec. 10

Vineland Estates Elevation St. Urban Vineyard Riesling 2015 ($20, 92 points) — The price just never goes up on this classic Niagara Riesling — a very good thing for consumers. Ask Schmidt what he does to achieve the level of success he does with this single-vineyard Riesling year after year, he just shrugs: “It’s just the vineyard.” It is sourced from Fields A and D from St. Urban and made just a touch drier (33 g/l as compared to 40 g/l) than the previous vintage. It is a waterfall of freshness and energy on the nose with zesty lime, grapefruit, touches of mango, green apples and chalky minerality. It’s pure and chiseled on the palate, showcasing the inherit acidity of the vintage, with dominant lemon-lime zing and subtle pear, apple and tropical fruits. It is bright and lip-smacking good from sniff to swallow. If you love Riesling, this is your paramour.

Good Canadian wineChateau des Charmes Estate Bottled Brut Sparkling ($14 for 375 mL, 88 points) — The 50-50 blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir was recently disgorged after three years on the lees. It is made the traditional method. The nose shows lemon, toast and citrus that’s bright yet elegant. The tiny bubbles pop on the palate with creamy but fresh lemon, lime, pear, apple fruits all lifted by bright acidity. Great value sparkler in a handy half-bottled format.

Featherstone Joy Premium Cuvee Sparkling 2012 ($35, 92 points) — A traditionally-made, 100% estate Chardonnay sparkling wine that lives up to its name — pure joy. The nose shows a balanced melange of pear, citrus, fresh baked bread and yeasty-toasty notes. It’s fresh and lively on the palate with a persistent bubble that highlights the pear, lime and lemon fruits that are bursting with flavour and vitality. This is a bubbly that is en pointe, with poise, balance and razor sharp acidity.

Ontario sparkling wineTawse Spark Limestone Ridge Sparkling Riesling 2014 ($20, 88 points) — Organic and biodynamic farming, traditional method and aged 12 months on the lees, the nose shows creamy/toasty notes of citrus and lemon, ripe apple and some swirling mineral notes. It’s bright and juicy on the palate with a lively mousse and leans toward citrus fruit and minerals through a fresh finish.

best ontario riesling

Featherstone Black Sheep Riesling 2015 ($17, 91 points) — This is the “signature” white wine made at the farm. Out of a 6,000-7,000 case production, up 2,800 cases are Riesling, so “this is a big deal for us,” says co-owner Louis Engels. “We could make Riesling all day long. It is simplicity at its best.” Featherstone’s Riesling has always maintained a style that is consistent vintage to vintage with alcohol below 10%. The nose shows a bright profile of lime, grapefruit, sherbet and apple in a fresh and vibrant style. It is light and refreshing on the palate with a playful tug of sweet and tart citrus and orchard fruit on the palate. Lovely balance and clean through the finish.

Chateau des Charmes Old Vines Cabernet/Merlot 2012 ($22, 90 points) — The 2012 vintage in Ontario is the gift that keeps on giving, especially from mature vines such as those from the Chateau des Charmes estate. The nose shows a rich broth of black cherries, currants, sweet barrel spices, cocoa and leather notes. It’s ripe and rich on the palate with soft tannins and full-on cherry and cassis with integrated spice notes. Showing a lot of balance already. Good wine, good price.

best Ontario red winesHenry of Pelham Estate Cabernet/Merlot 2012 ($25, 91 points) — Henry of Pelham does a lot of things right from the grapes that grow best in Niagara, and, in particular, the Short Hills Bench sub-appellation, but red blends from Bordeaux grapes in warm vintages is certainly one of its strong suits. I am convinced, now that I have seen most of the 2012 reds released, that this warm vintage was just about perfect for Niagara’s “big” reds — the blends from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. This mid-tier red blend from the above grapes is just getting better in the bottle and still has a long way to go. Such a lovely, rich and enticing nose of blackberry, kirsch, cassis and oak barrel spices. It rocks on the palate, gorgeous, layered dark fruits, rousing spices, melting tannins and everything starting to harmonize beautifully. Exceptional value for a top Niagara red.

Niagara Pinot NoirTawse Growers Blend Pinot Noir 2011 ($25, 91 points) – A gorgeous nose of pure and pretty cherry, currants, small wild berries and raspberry with seamless, integrated spices. Simply delicious in the mouth with rich and savoury red fruits, spice and smooth, silky tannins. A joy all the way through the finish.

Flagship store only

  • Creekside Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2013 ($27)

Also released at Vintages Dec. 10
but not reviewed

  • Dillon’s Small Batch Distillers Vermouth ($20)
  • Contrabrand Sparkling Rose ($21)
  • G. Marquis Silver Line Ice Rose Sparkling ($30)
  • Kew Soldier’s Grant 2013 ($19)
  • Organized Crime Chardonnay 2013 ($19)
  • Stratus White 2013 ($38)
  • Megalomaniac Sparkling Personality 2015 ($50)
  • Tawse Limestone Ridge North Estate Bottled Riesling 2014 ($24)

A good California Chardonnay
to consider from LCBO release

best Sonoma chardonnayLa Crema Sonoma Coast Chardonnay 2014 ($30, 92 points) — Le Crema has a Canadian connection. Winemaker Elizabeth Grant-Douglas began making wine at a young age in the basement of her childhood home in Niagara Falls. It was there that her parents made wine from grapes grown in her father’s hobby vineyard in their back yard. It is here that Grant-Douglas learned about viticulture first-hand as she helped tend the vines.

Grant-Douglas, pictured below, would later be part of the first graduating class of Brock University’s Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture program.


Always fascinated by the unique challenges of making wine from grapes grown in cooler climates, she began her career working in several Niagara wineries including Inniskillin, Chateau des Charmes and 13th Street, before heading to Washington and, finally, the Sonoma Coast where she joined La Crema as an enologist in 2001, was named winemaker in 2010 and was promoted to director of winemaking in 2013.

This Sonoma Coast offering shows an attractive nose of lemon, baked apple, ripe pear, butter, vanilla and sweet barrel spices. It’s open-knit on the palate with wonderful texture and a juicy core of creamy pear, apple, peach and elegant oak spices all lifted by zesty citrus notes on the finish. Lovely Chardonnay.

New Niagara Chardonnay from 2027 Cellars

best Ontario chardonnay

2027 Cellars Wismer Vineyard Foxcroft Vineyard Chardonnay 2014 ($23, could be in Vintages in March, 91 points) — Winemaker Kevin Panagapka applies oak aging (20% new) for 18 months and only partial malo for this version of his Foxcroft Vineyard Chardonnay. The nose shows poached pear, gunflint, baked apple, charming and elegant barrel spices and citrus on the edges. With gorgeous mouth-feel, look for charred-smoky notes on the palate which gives way to creamy pear, apple, vanilla/toast and baking spices all kept in check by freshening acidity through the finish. Should develop further.

Pair of Henry of Pelham red wines


Henry of Pelham Baco Noir Speck Family Reserve 2014 ($25, Vintages in February, 90 points) — The Speck Family Reserve version of the estate’s Short Hills Bench planting of Baco is only made when perfect conditions warrant it. The wine spends 18+ months in top American oak barrels. It’s thick and rich in the glass with a dark purple colour and a nose of ripe plums, highly extracted raspberries, bramble, herbs and savory spice and cedar cigar box notes. Concentrated red and dark fruits emerge on the palate and are punctuated by savoury herbs and spices and carried on a high-toned bed of tannins. Baco lovers will love this wine.

Henry of Pelham Estate Pinot Noir 2012 ($25, Vintages in February, 89 points) — A poised and polished Pinot with a raspberry, cherry and cranberry nose to go with subtle spice notes. Turns a bit more complex on the palate with red fruits giving way to darker tones, more evident spice and fine, silky tannins leading to a long(ish) finish.

Three red wines from B.C.’s
Fort Berens Winery


Fort Berens Pinot Noir 2014 ($26, 88 points) — From the estate’s Lillooet vineyard, the nose shows earthy red fruits, loam, leather, spice, raspberry and bramble. It has lovely mouth-feel and smooth tannins with cran-cherry, raspberry and spice notes on the palate.

Fort Berens Cabernet Franc 2014 ($25, 89 points) — A blend of Lillooet and Okanagan fruit with a savoury nose of red and dark fruits, licorice, herbs, spice and earth. It’s delicious on the palate with a ripe range of red fruits, black currants, moderate spice and vibrant acidity.


Fort Berens Meritage 2014 ($24, 89 points) — Another blend of Lillooet and Okanagan fruit that shows a smoky, spicy nose of cherry, raspberry, currants and earthy bits. It has medium body on the palate with a bold array of ripe fruit, integrated spice and lifted acidity to everything vibrant through the finish.

A tasty Italian Pinot Grigio at a great price

cq5dam-web-1280-1280Lamberti Santepietre Pinot Grigio 2015 ($12 until Jan. 27, LCBO, 87 points) — A nose of fresh white flowers, mineral, citrus and green apples. It’s delicious on the palate with flavours of crisp apple, citrus and subtle tropical fruits in a soft, pretty style.

A few Italian wines heading our way (maybe)

carlin_cvrsvs_vitaeFattoria La Torre Chianti Colli Sensesi DOCG 2015 ($14, 88 points) — A blend of Cabernet (10%) and Sangiovese (90%) with a lovely, perfumed nose that shows cherries, raspberries, bramble and integrated spice notes. Rather delicate in the mouth with soft tannins that don’t get in the way of the bright red fruits and eathy/spicy notes.

Fattoria La Torre San Gimignano Rosso DOC 2013 ($17, 88 points) — Quite intense on the nose with stark black currants, black cherries and barrel spice notes. This blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot shows some structure on the palate with evident tannins, rustic dark fruits, kirsch, licorice and lovely barrel spice notes.

Fattoria La Torre Sangiovese IGT 2015 ($14, 87 points) — A nose of mulberries, plums, soft raspberries and light spice notes in this 100% Sangiovese. It’s a fresh and fruity village wine with moderate spice and tannins for every day drinking.

Carlin de Paolo Barbera D’Asti DOGC “Cvrsvs Vitae” 2015 ($15, 88 points) — Made with 100% Barbera, the nose shows violets, cherry, licorice, meaty dark fruits, plums and freshness. It’s flavourful and bright on the palate, a simple and delicious red that punches outside its weight class.

Carlin de Paolo Piemonte DOC Rosso 2015 ($15, 87 points) — An unoaked blend of Barbera, Dolcetto and Bonarda with a nose of plums, red berries and violets. Soft on the palate with pure red fruits and made in a friendly, serviceable style.