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Harvest vignettes from Niagara wine country with stops at Ravine, Vineland Estate, Stratus, Rosewood and Fielding

Niagara wine

Rick VanSickle

It’s getting down to the brass tacks in Niagara wine country as winemakers and growers turn their attention to the late-ripening red grapes during Harvest 2018.

Note: In this report Wines In Niagara visits Ravine (top photo), Vineland Estate, Stratus, Rosewood and Fielding Estate Winery as well as recommend a couple of local wines from the Vintages/LCBO release on the weekend.

The weather has been a little dodgy at times this fall (after a hot, dry summer) going from dry to wet and warm to cold and back in the blink of an eye. It all factors into picking schedules and pressing/processing, as no one wants a) wet grapes and b) over-heated fruit going into the presses. In a perfect world grapes would be picked early in the morning when it’s cool, crushed and sent to tanks before the heat even makes an appearance by mid-day.

So it becomes a guessing game for picking grapes and a mad dash to beat the rains when the forecast calls for it.

I try to get out to as many wineries as I can to see first-hand how the harvest is going for evaluation later in the year. It has been hit and miss with the weather this fall, but the picking has been steady with mostly red grapes (and icewine grapes, of course) left to come in.

Here are a few observations from bopping around crush pads this fall from St. David’s to the Beamsville Bench.

Vineland Estate (Twenty Mile Bench)

Ontario wine

Winemaker Brian Schmidt does a neat thing every harvest — he lets every member of his winery crew make their own batch of wine from scratch. His daughter Maddy is making an aromatic Gewurztraminer (seen below tasting with her proud papa). I tasted it and loved the exotic lychee/grapefruit/pear and spice flavours it was already showing.

Schmidt’s assistant winemaker, Tobias Fiebrandt, is making a German wine style of wine call Rotling (not pronounced as you would think, thankfully), a press blend of white and red grapes using two tonnes of Vidal and one tonne of Cabernet Franc.

Ravine Vineyard (St. David’s Bench)

Niagara harvest

Food writer Michael Lowe and I were invited to Ravine Vineyard in St. David’s to try our hand at a harvest tradition at the winery — the always humbling Options Game.

Ravine general manager Martin Werner and winemaker Ben Minaker like to test the palates of the winery crew with blind tastings along a common theme (often with a ringer added in just to keep everyone on their toes).

On this day, bottles of Pinot Noir were bagged and poured blind in flights of three. After each flight, Werner leads a lively discussion of the wines they tasted and everyone gets to guess the region and offer what they liked best.

Three of the Pinots were from Niagara (including one from Ravine), two were from Prince Edward County, one from Central Otego (New Zealand), one from Patagonia (Argentina), one from South Africa and, of course, one from Beaune in Burgundy.

It’s a humbling experience for all involved and good on Ravine for putting their own Pinot under critical review against some mighty fine examples of the heart break grape from around the world.

There was no unanimous consensus on a favourite but there was a lot of love for the Niagara Pinots, which fared quite well among their peers from the rest of the world.

After the tasting, it was back to work for the crush crew while lucky Mike and I headed to lunch at the Ravine Restaurant (you get peckish after a hard morning of work). We both enjoyed the fall charcuterie board, followed by a taste of the delicious mushroom risotto (above) made and served to us personally by chef Ross Midgley, and our mains of braised beef short rib (me, pictured above) and duck confit (Mike) paired brilliantly to the 2016 Meritage and 2016 Merlot respectively.

Mike and I may not have aced the blind tasting, but we sure excelled at lunch!

Rosewood Estates Winery
(Beamsville Bench)

I caught winemaker Ryan Corrigan (front left), operations manager William Roman and the crush crew hand sorting Riesling on the last day of picking white grapes at the Beamsville Bench winery.

Corrigan and Roman have completely revamped the wine program at Rosewood with a much more minimalist approach to wine using less intervention and far less oak.

Corrigan stepped away from the sorting table to give me a quick tour of the renovation taking place at the family winery that features more room for winery operations, storage, VIP tasting room, more space for staff facilities and room to expand the small existing tasting/retail room.

He also proudly showed off the new amphorae (photo above) that arrived from Italy, an egg-shaped clay vessel Corrigan loves using in place of oak for many of his wines.

Fielding Estate Winery
(Beamsville Bench)

Winemaker Richie Roberts and assistant winemaker Clark Tyler crush a lot of grapes (and now apples!) at Fielding Estate Winery. I have spent many an afternoon catching the action at this Beamsville Bench winery during harvest in previous years, but this time around I just missed the fun each time I cruised up there.

I did, however, taste a trio of Fielding wines I quite enjoyed. Here are the reviews:

Fielding Estate Chardonnay 2017 ($26, 92 points) — Such a gorgeous nose of pear, crème Chantilly, baked apple, integrated spice, minerals and citrus accents. Such lovely texture on the palate with pristine apple/pear fruits, vanilla toast, lemon, flinty minerality and freshening acidity on the finish.

Fielding Estate Gamay 2017 ($20, 88 points) — Look for plump and juicy plums, cherries, raspberries, bramble and subtle peppery spice on the nose. It’s light and fresh on the palate with a range of plums and red fruits served on a bed of smooth tannins with juicy acidity.

Fielding Estate Lowrey Vineyard Pinot Noir 2016 ($43, 93 points) — Some of the finest Pinot Noir grapes in Niagara come from this tiny vineyard in St. David’s and only five winemakers get to play with the grapes grown there (Richie Roberts from Fielding, Thomas Bachelder, Wes Lowrey from Five Rows Craft Wine (or course), Shauna White from Adamo and Ilya Senchuk from Leaning Post). Each winemaker delivers a different expression of Pinot Noir from this fascinating and historic piece of Pinot heaven. Roberts has really nailed it in 2016. A seductive nose of black cherry, bramble, violets, forest floor, cassis and underlying spice notes with persistence and personality. It’s medium bodied but shows structure and lovely texture on the palate to go with ripe and evident tannins in support of a rich broth of red fruits, chalky minerality, cassis, anise and elegant wood spices. Such depth of flavour through the long finish. Can cellar this for 6+ years and it will just get better.

Stratus Vineyard

It’s always a big deal when Stratus Vineyards releases the top two wines at the estate — the Stratus Red and White. Afterall, these two wines represent the best of the best of everything Stratus does in any given vintage.

At a packed house Saturday, billed the All Good Things Ferment Harvest Party 2018, invited guests sashayed from station to station sipping and noshing a range of highly delectable chef-inspired bites paired perfectly with Stratus wines.

Dishes like:

The Tide and Vine Gamay brined hot smoked scallop with roasted celeriac purée and crisp king oyster mushroom paired with Stratus Gamay 2015

The Fat Chance Salmon homemade aromatic pickled beet and pickled fennel salad topped with cold smoked salmon paired with Stratus Gewurztraminer 2017

Bolete’s chicken liver mousse, crispy chicken skin, blueberry purée and grape skin powder paired with Stratus Syrah 2014

The Wellington Court Korean glazed pork, sticky rice and kimchi paired with Stratus Riesling 2017

The Backhouse dip, dip egg, fried egg white mousse with Ontario saffron, lightly smoked caviar and sourdough brioche dipping soldier

But, of course, the wines of Stratus were the real superstars of the pre-release and tasting weekend at the winery. At the harvest party, the winery reached deep into the cellar to show guests a full range of 2008 wines. It all led to the showpiece Stratus Red and Stratus White 2015 (The Red will hit the retail store next week and Vintages in November while the White will be released in December).

Here’s a preview of the wines from the limited notes I could take between bites and conversation (note: the price of the Stratus Red has held steady at $48 since 2014, while the Stratus White has been $38 since 2012).

Stratus White 2015 ($38, 92 points) — Noticeably missing in this proprietary blend for 2015 is the highly aromatic Gewurztraminer, leaving Chardonnay (57%) to do the heavy lifting with Sauvignon Blanc (18%), Semillon (15%) and Viognier (10%) comprising the rest of the components. The aromatics haven’t missed a beat with the absence of Gew, in fact I much prefer this more elegant style of white with rich aromas of pear, bruised apple, grapefruit, subtle apricot, citrus and stylish oak-spice accents. It’s highly structured, complex and round on the palate with succulent  pear/apple fruits and an intriguing apricot/tropical component that plays in the background and works brilliantly with the toasted vanilla spice that’s all lifted by the freshening acidity of the vintage. Can cellar this 3+ years.

Stratus Red 2015 ($48, 93 points) — In talking to winemaker JL Groux at the harvest bash Saturday, he explained that because of the terrible winter of 2015 (the back half of the brutal Polar Vortex that killed so many vines in Niagara) yields were down drastically. But while many wineries diverted grapes from their top bottlings, Stratus begins at the top and works down, so that was not an option. This estate vineyard blend of all five Bordeaux varietals (Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Merlot and Malbec) had yields as low as 1.2 tonnes per acre. The irony of 2015 is this: it was the winter kill that made it a tough vintage not the quality of the grapes or harvest — both were quite good for red grapes. Like the Stratus White, Groux has dropped a key grape in the red blend that we’d come to expect — Syrah. I like this purer expression of the 2015 with a rich and simply beautiful nose of fleshy and concentrated black currants, blackberries, sweet tobacco, graphite, cassis and untamed (at the moment) barrel spice notes. Everything is a bit out of whack right now — juicy and thick dark fruits, big barrel spice notes, firm tannic structure, high acidity — but this will all integrate into a complete and harmonic red that will reward for a decade or more if cellared properly. Everything I like about personable red wines is right here in this bottle.

Niagara wines at Vintages

I missed providing these Niagara wine highlights from the Vintages release that hit shelves last Saturday. I’ve got two recommendations to offer:

Flat Rock Cellars Unplugged Chardonnay 2016 ($22, 88 points) — This stripped down Chardonnay has fresh and enchanting aromas of apple, citrus and minerality. There is a subtle creamy note on the palate from lees aging but the core of this Chard is all about fresh orchard fruits and bright minerality with a zesty, vibrant finish.

16 Mile Cellar Rebel Pinot Noir 2014 ($23, 90 points) — 35% of the fruit for this Pinot is from the estate with the rest coming from the Beamsville Bench. Only 7% of the French oak used to spice this wine is from new barrels. More cherry richness than the 2013s with brambly raspberry, red currants and oak spice accents on the nose. It’s soft(ish) on the palate with broad red fruit flavours and savoury accents all delivered on a super smooth finish.

Also released last Saturday but not reviewed:

• Henry of Pelham Cabernet Icewine 2015 ($40 for 200 mL)
• Cave Spring Estate Gewurztraminer 2015 ($19)
• Henry of Pelham Estate Riesling 2017 ($20)
• Lakeview Cellars Sauvignon Blanc 2017 ($18)
• Rockway Fergie Jenkins Limited Edition Riesling 2016 ($17)
• Southbrook Seriously Cool Chardonnay 2016 ($15)
• EastDell Pinot Noir 2016 ($16)
• Leaning Post Pinot Noir 2015 ($30)
• Southbrook Seriously Cool Red 2016 ($16)