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On hallowed ground: Tasting Inniskillin’s Niagara wines with winemaker Bruce Nicholson

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By Rick VanSickle

Just stepping onto the hallowed grounds of the historic Inniskillin Estate Winery in Niagara brings thoughts of what the original owners had to go through to get Ontario’s first winery licence in 1975.

It was the first licence granted since 1929 and marked the beginning of the modern wine industry in this province, fought hard for by Donald Ziraldo and Karl Kaiser after Ziraldo took a leap of faith the year before and planted Inniskillin’s first vinifera vineyard consisting of Riesling, Chardonnay and Gamay, which was first harvested in 1977.

Those three grapes formed the heart of what would be Inniskillin’s philosophy of producing premium wines from premium grapes grown in the Niagara Peninsula.

The site of that 30-acre original vineyard is located on Line 3, across from the existing winery and was purchased in 1978 by Albrecht Seeger and his family who still operate it.

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The original winery site was Ziraldo Nurseries, formerly the farm owned by Colonel Cooper in the 1800s and was named for his Irish Regiment, the Inniskilling Fusiliers. Inniskillin derived its name from this early history and the connection to the land.

Inniskillin moved from the original site to the existing Brae Burn Estate, grapes were planted and the new winery was built where there were once cornfields. Brae Burn is Gaelic translating to “hill stream” — the hill referencing the Niagara Escarpment and the stream is referencing the Niagara River.

There have been many accolades for Inniskillin since those heady early days, but none more important than the winery winning the most prestigious award in the wine world at Vin Expo, France in 1991 — the Grand Prix d’Honneur for Kaiser’s 1989 Vidal Icewine. This was the major turning point thrusting Inniskillin, and Canada, into the international limelight and clearly establishing credibility as a serious wine producer as well as lifting the profile of Canadian wines at the same time.

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Inniskillin’s original owners would go on to become part of Vincor Canada, the largest wine company in Canada, which in turn was purchased by Constellation Brands, a major U.S. wine company, which in turn sold the Canadian assets to the Ontario Teacher’s Pension Plan just last year and is now called Arterra Wines Canada.

In 2006, Ziraldo and Kaiser left the winery they founded but their names will forever be attached to Inniskillin as pioneers who helped shape the modern wine industry in this country.

Even on this day, as I arrive to visit and taste with Inniskillin winemaker Bruce Nicholson, from out of the vineyards pops Ziraldo with young winemaker Fabian Reis. The man, the legend, is never far from his roots and he’s always willing to help whoever needs it.

Ziraldo was assisting Reis with his new wine project called Ferox.

Inniskillin’s wines are now in the hands of Nicholson, who I first met during his long career in the Okanagan Valley. He arrived at Inniskillin, and his hometown of Niagara Falls, in 2007 to run the wine program after Kaiser left.

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He’s a skilled winemaker, always crafting clean and varietally-correct wines from the quality grapes Inniskillin farms themselves or purchase from trusted growers.

He and I share a similar philosophy about food and wine, not one shared by everyone. It is this: Food and wine should be shared together but it’s just not that crucial to be overly zealous about what wine goes with what food.

“Food and wine is one of the great pleasures in life,” Nicholson says. “You love the people you’re with, the food you’re eating and the wine you’re drinking … that’s all that really counts.”

He has no qualms about pairing perfectly matched food and wine, but he also knows that someone will always be happier with their favourite wine served with whatever food is on the table. “Drink what you like, if that’s what you enjoy, do it,” he says.

Exactly! I’m sorry, but if I’m mid-way through a fabulous bottle of Chardonnay and the steak just happens to be ready, I’m not switching to a big, bold Merlot just because conventional wisdom says I should. Drink what you like, eat what you like and enjoy the people you’re with. So simple!

OK, enough preaching.

Here’s what I can recommend from the new releases tasted with Nicholson.

Inniskillin Klose Vineyard Riesling 2016 ($25, 89 points) — An impressive nose of lime, peach, grapefruit, minerals and white pepper notes. It’s racy and dry on the palate with succulent fruit and an interesting vein of minerality through a bright, vibrant finish.

Inniskillin Discovery Series Barrel Fermented Sauvignon Blanc 2016 ($23, 89 points) — A nose of grapefruit, pear, spice and subtle herbaceous and grassy notes. It’s feels fresh on the palate with juicy fruits, integrated spice and racy acidity to keep it all in balance.

Inniskillin P3 Discover Series 2016 ($20, 90 points) — An interesting blend of Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc that shows a slight copper colour in the glass. It has a robust nose of apples, citrus and spice with hints of rhubarb and cherry fruit. It’s dry and spunky on the palate with lovely texture and complex array of fruit flavours. A different kind of wine that some how works.

Inniskillin Discovery Series Legacy Pinot Gris ($35, 91 points) — The Gris is sourced from the historic Montague Vineyard and is picked as late as Nicholson can keep the fruit healthy in the vineyard. It is a fragrant wine with melon, poached pear, baked apple, toast and spice from a touch of oak aging. It has wonderful texture on the palate with bold pear, apple pie and melon flavours to go with that integrated spice.

Inniskillin Reserve Viognier ($24, 90 points) — From the estate’s Braeburn Vineyard, the nose is bold and forward with notes of pear, apricot and melon. It has an oily texture on the palate, built slightly off-dry with layered fruits that go on and on through the finish.

Inniskillin Montague Vineyard Chardonnay 2014 ($25, 89 points) — A lovely nose of pear, peach, citrus and elegant spice notes. Drinking really nice right now with everything working in perfect harmony — pear, toasted oak spice and freshening citrus zest on the finish.

Inniskillin Canadian Oak Aged Chardonnay Icewine 2015 ($80 for 375 mL, 93 points) — Nicholson sources the white oak for this unique Icewine bottling from a forest just north of Brantford, Ont. The nose is amazing for its range of sweet tropical fruits, sweet citrus rind, peach, apricot and vanilla/caramel notes. It’s super-charged honey sweet and delivers rich apricot, peach compote, pineapple and poached pear that’s succulent and unctuous on the palate but balanced somewhat by fairly decent acidity. This is an exotic treat that will impress lovers of Canada’s most famous wine style.