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Crushing it at Cuveé 2017: The wines, the food, the awards, the crowds, oh my!

Best Ontario wine

By Rick VanSickle
The Cuveé folks crushed it this year — I mean literally CRUSHED IT. Once those doors opened to the paying guests at 7:30 p.m. at the Scotiabank Convention Centre in Niagara Falls all bets were off.

It was a mad dash for anything they could find to drink or eat. Lines immediately began forming, long lines, I might add, to get at the chefs’ creations while wine kiosks were bustling with eager consumers with their outstretched arms jostling for a pour of whatever was going.

The crush of people, someone told me approximately 800 of them but it felt like double that, filled every inch of that exhibit hall. You could barely get from A to B in a straight line; you had to circumnavigate with the skill of a sailor and then do it again and again. I have the bruises to prove it!


Top Ontario wine
Note: This photo is from Cuveè 2016, but you get the idea on the crush of people.

Success can be both a blessing and a curse. And after years of various incarnations, Cuveé has found a formula that is working so well that it needs to rethink where it’s held — there just isn’t enough space for all those human beings to fit comfortably.

Organized by Brock University’s Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute (CCOVI), the popular event exposes participants to a fairly well-curated collection of Ontario wines while raising thousands of dollars to fund academic scholarships and research.

“Not only does Cuvée showcase VQA wines to consumers,” said CCOVI Director Debbie Inglis, “it helps Ontario students and our grape and wine industry by supporting important research and scholarships.”

I should not complain too much about the crowds. Media is let in an hour and half before the masses so they can “quietly” go about their business of tasting the wines in relative peace and quiet (thank-you for that). And since my job is the wine part, that’s what I did (Wines In Niagara’s Michael Lowe, who will report on this event soon, had a much tougher job as the food wasn’t served until the guests were let in the room and trying to get a taste of everything was not an easy task).

Ontario wine
The night’s most expensive wine at $120.

Ninety minutes to swirl, sniff, taste and spit seems like enough time … until you start running into people like winemaker Thomas Bachelder, or Donald Ziraldo, or Jeff Hundertmark or, you name it, and then time is up. Once your 90 minutes are up and the tidal wave of guests rushes in, all you can do is find safe ground and stake your claim.

I had a plan for this year’s event: look for wines I have not tasted and bypass those I have or will be tasting in the very near future. After all, there were 48 Ontario VQA wineries (the Ontario part is a bit of a stretch as there were only two wineries, Adamo Estate Winery and Pelee Island Winery that weren’t from Niagara) and each one was allowed to bring a red, white and sparkling wine, a potential of 150 wines to try. Not practical or doable even for the thirstiest of tasters.

So, off I went on the mission as planned.

I do like the format of Cuveé. Each winery provides what they feel are their showcase wines no matter the price at the high or low end. The most expensive wine on offer was from The Hare Wine Company called Noble Red, a 100% appassimento style Cabernet Franc 2013 that clocked in at $120 a bottle (one dollar more than the Inniskillin sparkling Cabernet Franc Icewine). The least expensive was the Pelee Island Chardonnay Reserve Retro 2014 at $11.75.

There were quirky wines and a lot of wines you’d expect from key wineries, but overall a fairly delicious selection of wines that was representative of what Ontario, Niagara in particular, does best.

Here are my Top 10 highlights
of the night (oh, hell, let’s make it 11)

Cuvee 2017

Megalomaniac My Way Chardonnay 2015 ($25)
I wasn’t too sure about the fit with winemaker Sébastien Jacquey — he of the now-dead Le Clos Jordanne — and the all-out boogie-woogie wines of John Howard’s Megalomaniac. But if this Chardonnay is any indication, some wonderful wines are ahead. Fresh, fragrant, finessed with a deft touch of oak, My Way is a gorgeous Chard built in a similar style to those wonderful Le Clos wines of yesteryear.

Best Canadian wine

Coyotes Run Red Paw Chardonnay 2015 ($25)
Fantastic to see Coyote’s Run winemaker David Sheppard in top spirits. The veteran winemaker, heading into in his 33rd vintage this year, is working with the new owners at the St. David’s Bench winery and couldn’t be happier with the new arrangement, which allows him a bit more freedom with the portfolio (look for a cool new label design coming out soon). He was pouring his very tasty single vineyard Red Paw Chardonnay, a rich and spicy rendition with creamy pear and apple fruit.

Adamo Estate Winery Lowrey Vineyard Pinot Noir 2014 ($35)
Not everyone is lucky enough to get Pinot Noir from the Lowrey Vineyard in St. David’s, but this relatively new winery, which makes its home in the Hockley Valley, convinced the Lowrey family to part with some of their newer plantings and this was the result. Shauna White, vineyard and winery manager, was pouring this beauty at Cuveè, a silky and rich rendition of Lowrey fruit with purity of fruit and savoury goodness. One of the stars of the night.

Thirty Bench Wine Makers Double Noir 2015 ($19)
Winemaker Emma Garner blends Gamay Noir (60%) and Pinot Noir (40%) and employs French oak aging for this wonderful red that shows fresh raspberry, wild berries, undergrowth and subtle woodsy spice and tannins. A tasty lighter-style red for summer drinking.

Stratus Vineyards Cabernet Franc 2013 ($38)
There was a lot of buzz about the change in direction with the new vintage of Sauvignon Blanc from winemaker J.L. Groux, a move toward a fresher SB with virtually no oak. I just never got back to their booth to try it. But I did enjoy this Cabernet Franc, even in a weaker vintage like 2013. Everything I like about Niagara CF is in this wine — red fruits, herbs, fresh tobacco, cedar and light spice notes with evident tannins but a supple feel on the palate. Classic, it never grows old.

Chateau des Charmes St. David’s Bench Vineyard Merlot 2014 ($30)
Make no doubt about it, Merlot is hard to do in Niagara, but Chateau des Charme’s St. David’s Bench Vineyard seems to excel with this variety. This is a ripe rendition with bold red fruits, sweet oak spice and smooth through the finish.

Aure Wines Blanc de Noir Sec 2015 ($20)
This sparkling wine is made from Gamay grapes made in the Charmat method and pops on the palate with ripe apple, citrus and a touch of red fruits. Totally fun and refreshing sparkler.

Ravine Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2015 ($35)
Assistant winemaker Ben Minaker was pouring this beauty from the St. David’s Bench winery. 50% of the fruit is from the estate, the rest from Niagara-on-the-Lake. It’s a rich and ripe version of CF with lovely dark fruits, integrated spice with savoury spices, licorice and well structured. Grippy tannins at the moment will calm down with a bit of time in the cellar.

Inniskillin Niagara Estate Sparkling Cabernet Franc Icewine 2015 ($119)
Winemaker Bruce Nicholson told me at Cuveè if he were to serve the queen any wine from his portfolio, this would be it — and not just because it’s extremely difficult to make. It is simply a joy to drink with its vibrant red fruit flavours, crackling bubbles and sweet notes that are balanced perfectly by the acidity. This is a real treat and a rare style in the world of wine.

Creekside Estate Winery Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2013 ($27)
Not many wineries would employ 100% French oak (50% new) to a Sauvignon Blanc, but the adventurous winemakers at Creekside have always marched to a different drummer. Assistant winemaker Yvonne Irving was pouring this Friday night. Such a delicious white with ripe flavours of pear and grapefruit that stands up to the barrel spice notes with just hints of herbs and grassy notes in the background. A succulent and serious style of savvy.

Stoney Ridge Estates Winery Excellence Merlot 2015 ($25)
Winemaker Jeff Hundertmark was very busy zipping around Cuveè getting caught up with old friends (above with Coyote’s Run winemaker David Sheppard) but took a bit of time to show his top Merlot. Chock full of red berries, cassis and spice, this is a medium-bodied Merlot, easy-drinking with zippy acidity and forward fruit notes.