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A $14 red wine superstar from Niagara’s Reif Winery (and the rest of the portfolio is pretty damn good, too)

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By Rick VanSickle

Maybe it’s the big smile that crosses Roberto DiDomenico’s face every single time I taste with him in his elegantly appointed barrel cellar at Reif Estate Winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake that offers the biggest clue.

Or maybe it’s the pride the long-time Reif winemaker (top photo) takes in every pour, in every sip and every word he speaks about his collection of wines from top to bottom.

This man loves his job; of that there is no doubt. And you need look no further than the wines he makes for proof of that. DiDomenico captains a fairly large (by Niagara standards) portfolio of wine, upwards of 40,000 cases annually made from 70% estate fruit with the rest purchased from growers in and around Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Ontario wine

Many wines from a tasting I recently did with the winemaker at Reif were impressive, including the superb reserve 2016 reds (Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir) aging in barrels and the big appassimento-style wines, but it was his entry level Cabernet/Merlot from the 2016 vintage that was the superstar of this showing.

The Cab-Merlot is on the LCBO General List and offers incredible value at $14.75 and, for me, shows how far Niagara wines have come when it can produce fabulous juice at this price-point (tell me this can’t compete with anything else at the LCBO from anywhere in the world at $14) and not take away from the reserve program. It might not have been the highest scoring wine in the tasting, but when you factor in the quality to price factor, it sure was the most impressive. Making an entry-level wine at this price point and at this level of quality is fairly good indication of a winery’s overall performance that we’re starting to see with more than a few Niagara wineries (Vineland Estates, Chateau des Charmes, Pillitteri, Henry of Pelham, Organized Crime, Good Earth and Trius, to name a few).

Bravo, Reif.

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The portfolio at Reif is fairly deep and varied, from fresh Rieslings, Sauvignon Blancs and Chenin Blancs to kiln-dried Chardonnays and a red program that covers everything Niagara does best, including a robust kiln-dried (appassimentio-style) grape program. DiDomenico and Reif winery owner Klaus Reif even added a wine liqueur to the portfolio this year — Vinea, a Cabernet-based wine fortified with brandy.

Here’s what I tasted and liked from my tasting with DiDomenico.

Reif Riesling 2017 ($14, LCBO General List, 88 points) — This is Reif’s biggest seller at both the LCBO and the winery. It’s a fresh, fragrant wine with a nose of lime, grapefruit and white peach. It’s ripe and tasty on the palate with some sweetness but plenty of zippy/zesty acidity to keep it nicely balanced.

Reif Sauvignon Blanc 2017 ($16, 88 points) — Textbook Sauvignon Blanc with a nose of grapefruit, kiwi, subtle tropical fruits and hints of fresh-cut grass and herbs. It is wonderfully dry on the palate and fresh with a range of interesting gooseberry, wet hay, kiwi, grapefruit and grassy/herb notes on the finish.

Reif Estate Chenin Blanc 2016 ($20, 91 points) — Reif’s been growing a tiny parcel (one acre, 150 cases) of Chenin, a bit of a rarity now in Niagara, uninterrupted for 15 years. It is sensational but, unfortunately nearly sold out at the time of tasting it with DiDomenico. The pretty and expressive nose shows apple, pear, citrus and lovely floral notes. It has gorgeous texture and verve on the palate, a feat in itself considering the heat of the vintage, with a range of honeydew melon, apple, herbs, a squirt of lemon and mineral notes in a dry, refreshing style. Very nice.

Reif Gewurztraminer Reserve 2015 ($20, 92 points) — This Gew has skin contact for 24 hours and was aged on its lees with regular stirring to allow the wine to “gain a little more of the oiliness, more extraction, layers and weight,” says DiDomenico. The nose is gorgeous with exotic tropical fruits, grapefruit, lychee, nutmeg and wild honey notes and spice. It’s fleshy and has weight on the palate to carry a range of juicy, spicy fruit, lychee nut, golden honey and spice. A real treat.

Reif Kiln-Dried Chardonnay 2015 ($70, 90 points) — This may not appeal to everyone because of the fruit that was dried appassimento style in repurposed tobacco kilns for up to a month to concentrate the flavours and add complexity. DiDomenico even admits that he’s “not a big fan of drying white grapes, but Chardonnay is the one (white) grape you can kiln-dry, oak it, don’t oak it … it’s a winemaker’s grape; it can take molding.” On top of kiln-drying, the wine spends 24 months in oak before release and has just under 15% abv. So, it has rich, heady aromas of baked apple, poached pear, sweet oak spice, candied citrus and butterscotch notes. It’s a fairly thick and heavy wine on the palate with complex and mature flavours of fleshy pear, apple, grilled pineapple and a range of rich spices and a bit of heat on the finish. Oddly enough, this just might appeal to the “Anything But Chardonnay” crowd out there (just don’t tell them it’s Chardonnay).

Reif Cabernet Merlot 2016 ($14.75, 89 points) — As mentioned in the intro of this story, this is an impressive wine. Yes, it was a warm vintage and favoured the Bordeaux varieties, but still, to make a wine of this quality at this price point and to make 5,000 cases of it, is extremely impressive. You could easily make this your every day house wine and it would please nearly everyone you pour it for. Seriously. A beautiful nose of ripe cherries, berries, currants, plums and integrated spice notes. It has bright and ripe red and dark fruits on the palate, soft tannins, balanced spice notes and everything working in harmony through the finish. Nice job here.

Reif Reserve Shiraz 2016 ($27, 90 points) — A peppery, earthy and savoury nose that blends in blueberries, currants and some brambly red fruits and barrel spice notes. It’s smooth and soft on the palate with a range of spicy and savoury fruits, smoked meats, earth and racy acidity to keep it lively through the finish.

Reif Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2015 ($35, 89 points) — A bold nose of blackberries, anise, currants, spice and subtle earthiness. It has depth and persistence on the palate with a range of dark fruits, spice and earthy bits all propped up by bright acidity through the finish.

Reif The Magician Shiraz Pinot 2015 ($30, Vintages, 91 points) — This is one of the winery’s most popular wines. It’s the sixth rendition of The Magician, an unlikely blend of 80% Syrah and 20% Pinot Noir with both varietals dried in kilns for up to 4 weeks. The grapes were crushed and fermented on the skins for 12 days and after pressing, the wine was moved into one-year-old French barriques. Only 350 cases of this wine were made because of the brutality of the 2015 winter. Usually, DiDomenico makes 3,000 cases that sells out quickly at Vintages. The nose shows mature red fruits, sweet tobacco and cedar notes, earth and rich layers of spice. It has a silky texture and bold, rich flavours of red and dark fruits to go with sweet spice notes. I enjoyed this wine while sitting in the winery’s peaceful Wine Sensory Garden where guests can stroll through the garden at their leisure with a glass of wine or enjoy an artisan cheese plate, local charcuterie or wood-fired pizza under the arbour.

Reif Kiln Dried Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 ($80, 92 points) — “I’m trying to make a classic Amarone” style of wine with this Cab Sauv that sees up to four weeks of drying in repurposed tobacco kilns from Norfolk County and finished at 15% abv, says DiDomenico. The nose is expressive and bold with ripe aromas of plums, black currant compote, blackberry jam, raisins, molasses, spice and cedar. It’s huge in the mouth with a melange of big, ripe fruits, thick spice notes, polished tannins and a smooth texture through the finish with just enough acidity to keep the heat down. I could see pairing this with a spicy Cohiba Cuban cigar or impressing those friends who don’t believe Niagara can do this big style of red wine.

Vinea ($30, 89 points) — Latin for vine, Vinea is a small batch grape-based liqueur made by Reif finished at 20% abv. The Cabernet Sauvignon is fortified with brandy and then blended with “secret” ingredients to create a one-of-a-kind spirit of the vine. It can be enjoyed on the rocks or as a cocktail (recipe below). The flavours are all about the raspberry/kirsch compote notes with a sweet edge on the finish.

Vinea Royale

Ingredients: 5 ounces of Reif Estate Sparking Chardonnay, 1 ounce Vinea
Preparation: Pour sparkling wine into flute and top with Vinea liqueur
Serve: Straight up; without ice
Standard garnish: Strawberry