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Pillitteri’s bold $10.95 solution: A Niagara red wine ready to take grocery stores by storm

Niagara red wine

By Rick VanSickle

Niagara’s Pillitteri Estates Winery has taken a bold step toward expanding its retail capabilities with a dramatic strategy for a grocery- and market-only wine.

With the quality of 2014 red grapes not being up to snuff, by Pillitteri standards, the winery saw an opportunity to re-evaluate how it determines quality throughout the tiers that range from entry level right up to the signature Riserva Famiglia wines that can cost up to $100 a bottle.

“We’ve set standards for Brix (sugar content) at harvest for internal quality,” explains Jeff Letvenuk, marketing manager at Pillitteri. “We’re dedicated to selling vintage wine and declassifying if necessary. We don’t think every year deserves to be a vintage year.”

In Pillitteri’s estimation, based on Brix, 2014 was one of those years. So all the red fruit at the estate, what is usually a 28,000 case production, was declassified into two wines — a new Market Collection Red blend and a Market Collection Cabernet/Merlot.

“It’s pretty drastic,” says Letvenuk, “but that’s our strategy going forward.”

The timing for the new declassified reds was perfect for the winery. When the decision was made by the family, grocery stores were just starting to sell wine after the government to wrestle some control from the LCBO. They saw an opportunity to jump into the new retail stream with both feet and came up with the Market series of wines priced to compete at the entry level with anything from anywhere on the shelves in that category.

Best Ontario wine

The Market Red is priced at $10.95 and benefits from a blend of the best red grapes grown at Pillitteri, oak aging and some appassimento grapes because the decision to declassify was made after the 2014 harvest and winemaker Aleksandar Kolundzic, above, treated all the fruit as if it was destined into all the tiers.

The amount of fruit in 2014 was drastically down from previous years, pretty much half of what was produced in 2012, because of the winter-kill that vintage (and the following vintage).

The Market Red, which may be the best $10.95 red wine I have ever tried from Niagara at that price-point, is all destined for grocery stores and markets while the Market Red Cabernet/Merlot will go to grocery stores, as well, but some will be available at the winery retail store.

Pillitteri, which sells wine in 39 countries around the world, is a firm believe in a more open retail environment in Ontario, and with this new strategy, has signalled that it is willing to do whatever it takes to be a part of its success.

Here’s what I can recommend from a tasting with Kolundzic at the winery recently.

Ontario red wine

Pillitteri Market Collection White 2015 ($11, grocery stores, markets, winery, 86 points) — This white is a blend of Riesling, Vidal and Gewurztraminer, all estate fruit, of course, with a fresh and fruity nose of citrus, apple blossom and tropical fruits. That all follows to the palate with a zesty finish to boot.

Pillitteri Market Collection Chardonnay 2015 ($13, grocery stores, markets, winery, 87 points) — Nothing too complicated here, just a nice nose of apple, pear, cream and subtle spices. It’s round and pleasant on the palate with balancing acidity to keep it fresh on the finish.

Pillitteri Market Collection Red 2014 ($11, grocery stores, markets only, 88 points) — It’s rare that I would write about or review an $11 red wine from Niagara — it’s just so hard to compete at this level against so many regions in the world that has consistently riper fruit, higher yields and cheaper labour to make a wine in the under $12 category. But when you de-classify all your red grape production, good things happen. This isn’t a wise decision for every vintage, but I believe it was smart to tackle grocery stores with a great product like this out of the gate. It’s essentially a Meritage blend (Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc) with 45% of the fruit spending time in oak barrels. It has a pretty nose of black cherry, cassis, red fruits and light spice. It is quite smooth on the palate and flavourful with cherry, cassis and oak spice all nicely integrated and ready to rock right out of the gate. Show me a better Niagara Bordeaux blend at this price? Challenge on.

Pillitteri Market Collection Cabernet/Merlot 2014 ($13, grocery stores, markets, winery, 87 points) — For me, the Market Red bests this wine, which contains more of the appassimento and barrel-aged fruit. But still, a pretty good effort for $13. The nose shows a range of darker fruits including currants, plums and blackberries with toasted vanilla and spice. The fruit is sweeter on the palate with cassis and currants and a smooth finish.

Ontario wines

Pillitteri Cabernet Franc 2013 ($25, winery, 88 points) — An herbaceous nose of savoury spices, red fruits, cedar, vanilla and a touch of cassis. It has a range of herbs and savoury spice notes on the palate with red fruits and high acidity to propel it through the finish.

Pillitteri Cab/Merlot 2013 ($17, winery, 87 points) — A leaner style due to the vintage, but solid red fruits of raspberry and cherry with a touch of black currants and lightly spiced. A bit more richness and ripeness on the palate to go with red fruits, toasted vanilla spice and energy through the finish.

Pillitteri Exclamation Winermaker’s Select Cabernet Franc 2012 ($68, winery, 92 points) — This is near the top of the Pillitteri tiering and where winemaker Kolundzic gets to play with the best of his Cabernet Franc. “This is where art comes into play,” he says. “I taste each individual barrel and my top four end up here.” It is a beautiful and structured Cabernet Franc with a powerful and penetrating nose of savoury cherry, raspberry, bramble, earth, red currants, vanilla toast and rousing spice notes. It’s concentrated and packed with flavour on the palate with both red and dark fruits, ripe tannins, structure and a finish that lasts for days. Can cellar 5+ years, it’s a beauty.

Note: I also tasted a possible blend of the Pillitteri Riserva Famiglia Cabernet Franc 2013 ($78), the very top tier of the estate’s wine program. While 2013 wouldn’t typically yield a top red, this is interesting with a perfumed and nuanced nose of juicy red and dark fruits and fine oak spice. It’s layered and interesting from beginning to end. Pretty sure this will make it to bottle. Watch for it.