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Heat, glorious heat for Niagara harvest; plus top Vintages picks, Vineland’s new “amber” wine and a boxed wine that’s easy to love

Niagara wine

By Rick VanSickle

Ontario is in the thick of it now, a furious rush to bring in the grape harvest for another year.

What was shaping up to be an underwhelming vintage, due to a cool and wet summer, took a stunning turnaround in the last week of the season with a late burst of heat and sun that shows no signs of cooling off well into autumn.

One winemaker in Niagara who I talked to last week called the about-face “a miracle.”

Ontario wine

Most wineries were bringing in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay for sparkling wines with the early-ripening whites to follow. Newly installed Hidden Bench winemaker Jay Johnston (above) was processing some Pinot Noir for the Beamsville Bench’s rosé program on Friday as harvest got underway there and then noticed he brought in some young vine estate Chardonnay on Saturday.

On the Twenty Mile Bench, Vineland Estate’s Brian Schmidt and his crew were still doing final prep work on a remodeled crush pad and getting ready to crush a load of Baco Noir.

It was similar story around the Niagara Peninsula: Winemaker Richie Roberts was processing early-ripening white varietals at Fielding Estate (below), Ravine’s Marty Werner picked sparkling grapes early Friday and Chateau des Charmes did the same on the St. David’s Bench. Picking will continue for most wineries late into November with the Bordeaux varieties left to hang out there as long as possible or before frost makes the call for them.

Wine in Niagara

Everywhere I went on Friday the smell of fermenting grapes was in the air. It is that most glorious time of the year that’s made all that sweeter when it’s 30 C plus out there.

Today’s tasting report focuses on Ontario wines showing up at Vintages stores Saturday. There are some stunning wines to be had, including Southbrook’s sensational Poetica Chardonnay (only available at an LCBO Pop-Up in Toronto), a couple of Thomas Bachelder’s top wines, Hidden Bench’s delicious Fumé Blanc, a 2027 Cellars Pinot from the famed Lowrey Vineyard and a 2012 Cab/Merlot from Henry of Pelham that is a beauty.

But first a couple of Niagara wines recently tasted that caught my attention.

Amber alert

One of Canada’s first VQA-approved “Orange” wines under the new category is the Vineland Estate Chardonnay Musque St. Urbans Vineyard 2016. Winemaker Brian Schmidt avoids the whole “Orange” wine thing by simply calling it by its varietal on the label and letting the colour of the wine speak for itself. In smaller print on the label it says: “skin fermented white wine,” which is exactly what it is, an ancient method of making white wine that is enjoying a Renaissance. In this case it is in contact with the skins for 58 days, which is where the orange/amber hue comes from … and the tannins.

The review

Best Ontario wine

Vineland Estate Chardonnay Musque St. Urbans Vineyard 2016 ($30, winery only, 89 points) — As mentioned above, a skin-fermented white with skin contact for 58 days and finished at 12.5% abv. Shows a pale-ish amber colour in the glass then bold and intense aromas of pulpy orchard fruits, orange rind, leesy notes, melon, tangerine and raw almonds. It has an earthy/funky profile on the palate with maturing apples, citrus pulp and light tannic structure to go with melon, grapefruit and a soft underbelly that messes with your perception of what a white wine is. Winemaker Brian Schmidt, above, obviously agonized over the style of this wine, trying to come up with a recipe that wasn’t too far on the funky side but true to the minimalist interventionist nature of these new-again wines. He suggests drinking it a Bordeaux style glass as opposed to a Pinot Noir glass to better express the aromas.

Fielding Estate Long Weekend Chardonnay/Pinot Grigio 2016 ($45 for 3 Litres, 87 points) — OK, listen up. The bag-in-a-box wines of today are nothing like those boxed wines your mom and dad (and by mom and dad, I mean me) used to buy for the camping trip. Technology has ended the days of your wine tasting like cheap plastic when poured from a box over a weekend of sitting in the sun. Fielding Estate applies new technology to its popular and fun Long Weekend brand of value wines for this 3-litre box of Chardonnay/Pinot Grigio with nary a hint it came from a bag in a box. The price of $45 for the equivalent of four bottles works out to around $11.25 per bottle. That’s value, considering a 750 bottle costs you $14. I tasted this the only way it should be tasted, in a Govino (plastic) glass on the deck with the sun shining brightly. It opens easily to reveal a sturdy pouring spout that you just squeeze and the wine pours freely into the glass. You can leave the box on the deck or put it in the fridge and pour from there. It’s quite handy. The wine on the nose shows ripe peach, apple and citrus notes that all together is fruit forward and fresh. On the palate it’s fruity, fresh, clean and fun with a ripe array of orchard fruits and a zesty finish. Crowd-pleasing, practical, affordable and fun … not sure you need much more for what its intended occasion is — every day living by the pool, deck, cottage or camping.

At Vintages Saturday

Southbrook Poetica Chardonnay 2013 ($50, only available at an LCBO Pop-Up until Oct. 15 at 600 King Street West in Toronto and the winery, 93 points) — The pedigree of this top-notch wine is indisputable, it is simply part of Niagara Chardonnay royalty. The sub-app is Four Mile Creek, fruit is farmed organically and biodynamically and French oak aging is in 70% new barrels (17% a year old, the rest neutral) for 11 months. Simply gorgeous, a terroir-driven nose of profound flinty minerality, ripe pear, apple skin, lemon and fine integrated oak nuances. Pure elegance on the palate, a lithe and impeccably balanced Chardonnay that brings a range of pear, apple and citrus together with hazelnut, lovely spice notes and minerals. There is freshness on the long finish and an overwhelming sense of grace with each sip. Well done.

Read more about this wine and the poetry behind it here

At all Vintages stores Saturday

Hidden Bench Fumé Blanc Rosomel Vineyard 2015 ($29, 91 points) — This 100% Sauvignon Blanc sees 100% French oak, 93% neutral, fermented and aged in barrel for 7 months then racked to concrete egg (43%) and stainless steel tanks for 4 months before bottling. Hidden Bench owner Harald Thiel calls it more of a “Loire” style, then new world, with a nose of gooseberry, grapefruit, melon, subtle herbaceous notes and integrated spice notes. It has good weight on the palate with a well-balanced range of fruit and spice and plenty of zip through the finish. A certain flintiness plays nicely in the background of this well made savvy.

2027 Cellars Queenston Road Vineyard Pinot Noir 2013 ($28, 92 points) — Winemaker Kevin Panagapka calls 2013 vintage “the best Pinot year I’ve seen.” He’s always preferred the more masculine style of Pinot in Niagara, this from St. David’s Bench, and has left the 2013 in barrels longer (18 months) and increased the percentage of new oak (40%). It’s wild fermented and unfined but he did filter the wine. It has deep, rich aromatics of black cherry, earthy raspberry bush, concentrated cassis and a range of stylistic oak spices. It has grippy tannins and structure on the palate with earthy red fruits, a full range of barrel spices, with plenty of depth and power. This is a Pinot built to last five-plus years.

Henry 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.

Other Ontario wines being released Saturday, but not reviewed:

• Coffin Ridge Back From the Dead Red 2015 ($19)
• Quai de Vin Ehrenfelser 2016 ($19)
• Trius Barrel Fermented Chardonnay 2015 ($20)
• Cave Spring Riesling Icewine 2014 ($50 for 375 mL)
• 2027 Cellars Falls Vineyard Riesling 2016 ($19)
• Cave Spring Estate Bottled Chardonnay Musque 2015 ($17)
• Coffin Ridge Bone Dry Riesling 2015 ($17)
• Smoke and Gamble Reserve Cabernet/Merlot 2015 ($25)
• Tie Merlot 2014 ($18)

At Vintages flagship stores only:

Bachelder Wismer Vineyard #1 Wingfield Block Chardonnay 2013 ($45, 94 points) — This was the last wine tasted in a long night of tasting and talking with Thomas Bachelder at his home this past spring, but it was jarring. A superstar in the making, one of the finest Chards Bachelder has made — and that’s saying a lot. It is tightly wound, yes, at this moment, but the limestone minerality and salinity speaks to the soul of this specific block that Bachelder chose for his top Niagara Chardonnay in 2013. Such aromatics, even at this early stage, suggests the best is yet to come. Pear, apple, for sure, a vein of fresh citrus and all intertwined with the subtlety of fine oak spice and flint. It’s deep, layered and seductive on the palate, a pure and exhilarating Chardonnay that never shows too much of any one component and stays in perfect balance all the way through the finish. Um, wow!

Bachelder Lowrey Vineyard Old Vines Pinot Noir 2014 ($45, 92 points) — Lowrey Pinot reveals itself in myriad permeations from the few who share the fruit from this fascinating vineyard in St. Davids. Bachelder uses a gentle hand to shape his rendition. It’s a more berry-scented, prettier style on the nose with persistent red berries, bramble and fine integrated spice. It shows restraint on the palate with bright raspberry/cherry fruit, tightly woven fine oak spice with a mineral edge, lovely texture and length through a finessed finish.