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Jean-Pierre Colas Unplugged: The unmasked wines of Niagara’s 13th Street winery

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By Rick VanSickle

Niagara’s 13th Street Winery isn’t so much a winery as it is an oasis of goodness in the heart of Niagara wine country that touches all the senses.

Located on a spectacular 60-acre estate just west of Seventh Street on Fourth Avenue, 13th Street was originally started in 1998 by four amateur winemaker friends. The winery was purchased in 2008 by the current owners: John and June Mann and Doug and Karen Whitty who have continued to grow the winery and expand to include an array of ever-changing Canadian original art (both inside and out), a wrap-around verandah where you can enjoy local artisan cheese and charcuterie with wines by the glass, an on-site bakery and marketplace with an impressive collection of gourmet baked goods (including the best butter tarts in the world!!!), soups, artisanal cheeses and unique giftware and home décor items.

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The current renovations, including a revamped and greatly improved winemaking facility, offer guests a wide range of things to do beyond the tasting room, which, of course is the focus of 13th Street, this year celebrating 20 years of winemaking.

On this day, smack dab in the middle of harvest, winemaker Jean-Pierre (JP) Colas has graciously agreed to taste his wines with me as we explore the constantly evolving lineup of wines that focuses on mainly stripped down, vineyard-driven, small-lot Chardonnay, Riesling, Gamay, Pinot Noir, Bordeaux-varietal red blends and traditionally-made sparkling wines.

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Colas has been around wine his entire life, starting as a young boy in his hometown of Chablis, France. After subsequent winemaking stints in Beaujolais and Chile, he arrived in Niagara in 2000 and began his 13th Street tenure with the 2009 harvest. He brings a Chablis sensibility to his wines, a belief that all wines should stand on their own, mostly unmasked, or as Colas likes to say: “If I’m going to talk about soil (terroir), I don’t want makeup. It has to speak by itself or it’s not going to talk.”

The makeup comes in many forms, but for Colas it essentially means either no oak or less oak (no new oak, for sure) across the board, more stainless steel and less (or zero) back sweetening for his sparkling wines.

It is in Colas’ growing portfolio of bubbles that the absence of outside influences is most evident. Two of three bubbles I tasted with him had no added sugar (zero dosage), no oak whatsoever and both were sourced from a single vineyard.

“I’m pissed off about too much oak in wine,” he says. “There is no reason to do that. Sparkling wines have to be refreshing, light.”

Here’s what was tasted with Colas along with marketing director at 13th Street Ilya Rubin served with a delicious plate of the estate’s charcuterie.

The Bubbles

13th Street Premier Cuvée 2012 ($35, previously reviewed, Vintages, 92 points) — A 50/50 blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that is made traditionally but has zero dosage (no sugar added) and no oak treatment. This is how winemaker Colas likes to build his sparkling wines — completely naked and unmasked so you taste the grapes and the vineyard, not the masking oak and sugar. The nose shows bright citrus, a floral note, minerals and subtle brioche and cream from sitting on the lees for 4+ years. It’s razor sharp and taut on the palate with tight, persistent bubbles and electric acidity driving the citrus, green apple, minerals and creamy/toasty notes through a long, long finish.

13th Street Cuvee Rosé NV ($28, Vintages, 89 points) — Made predominantly with Pinot Noir with a splash of Gamay for “visual effects,” and a low dosage of sugar (7 g/l) that keeps this refreshing sparkler fairly dry and fresh on the nose with aromas of strawberries, cherries and rhubarb. It has a dry, refreshing feel on the palate with a vigorous mousse that gives bounce to the bounty of red fruits through a super-charged finish.

13th Street Blanc de Blanc 2016 ($28, makes a return in the New Year, but website says a few are still left at the winery from first disgorgement, 93 points) — This traditionally-made Chardonnay sparkler from the single vineyard L. Viscek site in the Creek Shores sub-appellation is quite something. The vineyard is owned and farmed by 13th Street (original site) neighbour Lado Viscek and was planted in the early 1990s. The vineyard shares many of the same micro-climatic influences as the estate’s personable June’s Vineyard, which is influenced by the moderating effect of Lake Ontario. Soils are also similar but instead of a mix of yellow limestone and clay loam, L. Viscek is composed of pure clay loam, and the clay is a bit lighter than that found at June’s Vineyard. 25% of the production of this wine was sent to a high-end grocery chain in Cleveland after the owner of the stores tasted it and fell in love with it at i4C this summer. Toronto Star wine critic Carolyn Evans Hammond gave the wine an eye-popping 98 points (she considers value in her scores) a couple of weeks ago, causing a stir and early disgorgement of some bottles for her readers and the winery.

This could be the first wine bottle shot ever photo bombed by the buy who made it.

The wine spends 12 months on the lees with zero dosage and full malo. It’s the minerality and freshness that shines on the nose, the beautiful brioche and toast, the flint and floral accents to go with cut citrus and green apple notes. It has an energetic mousse on the palate, pristine lemon and grapefruit, green apple, oyster shells, subtle toasty/leesy/baked bread notes and razor sharp acidity to keep this perky through the finish. It’s a fresh and elegant wine that will be even lovelier in a couple of years.

The Rieslings

13th Street Vineyard Riesling 2015 ($24, winery, 90) — Formerly known as the Funk Vineyard, this was planted in 1975 and yields the estate’s oldest grapes. The Riesling here is co-planted with clones 21b and 49 and is picked and fermented (perfectly dry) together. It has interesting aromas of grapefruit, ginger, river-rock minerality, bruised apple and zesty lime. There’s an earthy/funky feel on the palate with depth and complexity to the citrus, bin apple and mineral flavours. All of this delivered with taut and racy acidity. Would love to watch this evolve.

13th Street Essence Riesling 2016 ($35, winery, 92 points) — This is the first Essence (top tier) Riesling produced at the winery. The fruit is from the estate vineyard and is vinified in seasoned 500L casks. Colas is not looking for aromatics or spice from the oak casks, but complexity and structure. It shows a range of pear, apple, lemon, candied citrus, mineral and a subtle reductive note. It’s bone dry and fresh on the palate with complex flavours of citrus and mineral with integrated orchard fruits in behind. Wonderful freshening acidity keeps this lively through a long finish.

13th Street June’s Vineyard Riesling 2017 ($20, Vintages Dec. 8, 88 points) — This is the only Riesling in the portfolio to show any signs of sweetness and even then it’s just a touch. It is fresh on the nose with cut citrus, green tea and ginger spice. That is all reflected on the palate against a background of racy acidity.

The Chardonnays

13th Street June’s Vineyard Chardonnay 2017 ($22, Vintages/winery Dec. 8, 89 points) — June’s Vineyard has always been expressive and with Cola’s keep-in-simple Chablis background it was a given that he would make this unoaked Chardonnay a staple in his portfolio. He notes a “raw pottery, wet clay” profile year to year, while, for me, there is a certain savouriness to go with creamy pear, apple and some freshening citrus. It shows purity of fruit on the palate, some cream, minerals and lovely texture that’s all propped up by that ever-present Niagara acidity.

13th Street L. Viscek Vineyard Chardonnay 2016 ($30, winery, 91 points) — This is the oaked version of the blanc de blanc (unoaked) sparkler reviewed above from the same vineyard. Even though it hails from that warm 2016 vintage, Colas has kept it typical of his wines — fresh and lively. The fruit spends 12 months in all French oak, mostly old barrels. It has a beautiful perfumed nose of stone fruit, integrated and elegant spice and fresh citrus accents. There is freshness on the palate to give pleasure to the pristine pear and apple fruit all framed nicely by the elegant oak spices and balancing acidity. Very nice.

The Gamays

13th Street Gamay 2017 ($20, winery 2019, Vintages April 2, 88 points) — “I’m convinced we can do some good things with Gamay in Niagara,” Colas says. The savoury nose shows, plums, pepper, red fruits and earth. It’s perfectly gulpable on the palate with a range of red fruits, plums and a certain savoury/earthy feel on the finish.

13th Street Whitty Vineyard Gamay 2017 ($25, winery, 91 points) — This single vineyard Gamay shows more complexity and depth on the nose with a meaty/charcuterie/barnyard nose, darker fruits and earth. The fruit shines on the palate with plums, cherries and brambly raspberries to go with meaty/funky/earthy notes and a perky finish. Aging this a couple of years would bring more integration to the overall package.

The rest of the Reds

13th Street Pinot Noir 2017 ($25, winery, 89 points) — A nose of bright red fruits, spice, earth, cassis and savoury notes. The red fruits have a rich feel on the palate with good depth, firm tannins and bright acidity on the finish.

13th Street Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 ($30, winery in December, 89 points) — Barrel fermented and aged in 100% French oak with less than 10% new wood. An interesting nose of black currants, barrel spices, blackberries and earth. The dark fruits are ripe on the palate and nicely integrated with oak already at this stage. There is freshness on the finish and fine tannins to hold it all together.

13th Street Meritage 2016 ($35, winery Dec. release, 90 points) — A blend of 53% Merlot, 24% Cabernet Sauvignon and the rest Cabernet Franc from the Creek Shores sub-appelation. Nicely evolved already with pretty red fruits, earth, cassis, spice and a note of iron. It’s nicely stitched together on the palate with a range of red and dark fruits, lovely elegant spice notes, earth and firm tannic structure. Should evolve further with cellar aging.