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The heat of 2016 brings out the best in Niagara’s Foreign Affair winery

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By Rick VanSickle

Believe the hype about the 2016 vintage in Ontario — climatic conditions were simply perfect for those luscious reds and fuller-bodied white wines that only hit their full potential in the warmest of conditions.

It wouldn’t be accurate to say this happens all the time, it doesn’t, but like the warmer vintages before it (2012, 2010, 2007), 2016 is delivering some beautiful wines if you like them with more punch, power and riper fruits, especially in varietals such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Syrah and Chardonnay. They aren’t typical Niagara wines, with less acidity and finesse, but they do offer a different sort of pleasurable drinking experience.

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Foreign Affair winemaker drawing samples of wine in the barrel cellar, above, and posing during a tasting (top)

What I have learned as the vintages fly by, winemakers have gone to school on previous warm vintages and adjusted previous enthusiasm for delaying harvest dates, amping up the oak, and a previous lack of canopy management.

Some of you may remember the hot 2007 vintage and a lot of the big red wines that came from that. Many of the Bordeaux variety wines were absolute monsters from the get-go and more often than not the aggressive tannins have far out-lived the fruit. The white wines were beautiful on release (from a voluptuous point of view) but faded quickly, even the Rieslings.

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By 2010, lessons were learned, canopy management employed, harvesting was guided by phenolic ripeness (not opportunity … ie, let it hang out there, baby), and a tendency to dial way back on the oak aging. By 2012, one of the greatest vintages in Niagara EVER for the Merlots, Cabernet Francs and Cabernet Sauvignons of the harvest, winemakers were all the wiser and made some of the finest robust, yet balanced, reds the region has seen.

Enter 2016.

More heat, more sun, more drought, more vine stress and another potentially awesome vintage for those bigger red wines.

“2016 was such a dry, warm growing season,” says Foreign Affair winemaker Barclay Robinson. “If you can keep the vines from shutting down, you’re going to have ripe wines.”

Foreign Affair doubles down on the big red vintages with its signature dried grape (appassimento/ripasso) style of winemaking that plays a role in every wine it makes. But, as Robinson explains, just because it’s a ripe vintage doesn’t make it any easier to find the right mix of dried and fresh fruit, picking decisions and complementing (not defining) oak treatment.

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Dried grapes from Foreign Affair, above and below, photo courtesy of Barclay Robinson

The stable of reds from Robinson’s 2016 vintage at Foreign Affair is the best yet for this pioneering appassimento Niagara winery founded by Len Crispino and his wife Marisa and now owned by Corby Spirit and Wine Limited.

I tasted through current wines from mostly the 2016 vintage and can tell you that these are wines to seek out and find room in your cellar to savour for years to come.

Here’s what I can recommend after tasting the wines with Robinson recently.

Foreign Affair Foreign Affair Amarosé 2018 ($19, 88 points) — The appassimento part of this rosé comes from just 5% of the 25% Chardonnay added to 75% fresh Pinot Noir. The colour is a bright and vibrant salmon with a bold nose of strawberry, cherry, intermingling cassis, cotton candy and rhubarb pie. It’s full flavoured and has more weight than typical Niagara rosés and is loaded with red fruits and just a hint of citrus zest on the finish. “It’s so versatile,” says Robinson, “it will pair with everything from seafood to burgers.”

Foreign Affair Viognier 2017 ($24, wine club, winery and small amount at Vintages at some point, 89 points) — 14% of the fruit (Sauvignon Blanc) is dried with the rest is fresh Vio. It’s made in an unoaked style with a nose of apricots, peaches, tangerine and perfumed pear. It has ripe, round flavours of peaches, apricots, tropical fruits and citrus zest on the finish. This is the winery’s first varietally bottled Viognier.

Foreign Affair Chardonnay 2017 ($27, 91 points) — 15% of the fruit is dried for 45 days and the wine sees 9 months of oak aging, one of seven barrels is new oak. It also has a hefty 14.6% abv. It’s bold and sassy on the nose with poached pear, baked apple, ripe tropical fruits and integrated spice notes. It’s a hedonistic and full-on Chard on the palate with weight and power that highlights broad flavours of pear, pineapple, tropical fruits, vanilla toast and spice that all lingers on the finish. Pair with lobster smothered in butter or seared scallops for maximum impact.

Foreign Affair Conspiracy 2016 and 2017 ($20, Vintages Essential, 90 points) — This punches way out of its weight class (talking about price here) and one wonders how Foreign Affair can produce a ripasso-style wine this good at this price. A portion of the Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot was re-passed over the skins and lees of appassimento red grapes and then aged for nine months in oak. It shows a ripe and rich nose of blackberries, dark cherries, spice and jammy currants. It’s full-bodied and ripe on the palate with anise, cherry, currants, Espresso bean, lavish spice notes and evident tannins. The 2017 version of this, which will replace the 2016 when it runs out at Vintages stores, has more red fruits and cassis with a touch more finesse and vibrancy on the finish. Good value wine for savvy shoppers.

Foreign Affair Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 and 2016 ($40, 89 points) — So, 20% of the fruit is dried for 45 days and the wine is aged for 18 months in American and French oak. The nose displays bright blackberries, savoury red fruits, black cherry, elegant oak spice notes and earthy/meaty notes. It’s quite earthy on the palate with smoky undertones to go with black currants, blackberries, subtle red berries, leather and drying tannins with a highly structured frame. Can cellar 5+ years. The 2016 version of this wine (91 points) has a richer, prettier profile on the nose with ripe currants, blackberries, cocoa and cherry/kirsch accents. It’s a wonderful wine on the palate with ripe dark and red fruits, ample chewy tannins, enticing spice notes and a long finish.

Foreign Affair Dream 2016 ($30, 92 points) — “Dream and the world will conspire to make it so,” was founder Len Crispino’s mantra, who often battled adversity when he first introduced his controversial appassimento style wines in Niagara. His perseverance and belief in dreams trump all the critics’ negativity and Foreign Affair’s important place in the Niagara mosaic is firmly established. This particular Dream is a blend of Merlot (45%), Cabernet Sauvignon (34%), Cabernet Franc (15%) and the rest Petit Verdot with 17% of the fruit dried for an incredible 100 days and aged for 16 months in French, American and Hungarian oak. Such a beautiful and inviting nose of red plums, black cherries, concentrated black currants, swirling barrel oak spice, toasted vanilla bean and subtle leather and earth accents. It’s a fruity mouthful highlighted by thick dark fruits, campfire smoke, layers of spice in a highly structured and complex style that all leads to a long, long finish delivered on a bed of polished tannins. Cellar 10+ years.

Foreign Affair Temptress 2016 ($45, 92 points) — Similar components and drying regime as above, but the switch is flipped with Cabernet Franc being the dominant fruit and Merlot pushed to a supporting role. It’s tighter on the nose at the moment with fruits of cassis, blackberry, kirsch and a range of integrated barrel spice notes. Such power on the palate, with a full complement of ripe, dark fruits, earth, elegant spices, well structured and complex through a long finish that is aided by brisk acidity. Can cellar up to 10 years.

Foreign Affair Petit Verdot 2016 ($55, 91 points) — There isn’t a lot of Petit Verdot made into a single-variety wine in Niagara and only one other that I’m aware of done in the appassimento style (Big Head). There is 14% Cabernet Franc added, all of it dried grapes for 100 days. It’s aged for 18 months in French and American oak and the alcohol tops out at 14%. A lovely nose of plums, cassis, violets, savoury spices, ripe red fruits and beguiling oak spice overtones. There is a certain herbal tinge on the palate with a complex array of plump, juicy plums, wild blueberry jam and currants all wrapped up in polished tannins and baking spices that linger on the finish for a very long time. This has vibrancy through the core and a sense that it will improve in the bottle for a decade or more.

Foreign Affair Syrah 2016 ($55, mostly wine club with a bit coming to the winery eventually, 93 points) — It is a cruel fact of life in Niagara: Syrah can be a beautiful thing when grown in the vineyards of the region, however, it often doesn’t survive the coldest of winters. In a vintage such as 2016, just WOW. It has a deep, soulful and contemplative nose of ripe blackberries, figs, boysenberries, forest floor, peppery spices, smoke and red fruit accents. There is incredible depth of plums, figs and currants on the palate that mingles with, earth, cracked black pepper, smoke, a certain gaminess, savoury spices and toasted vanilla/espresso through an echoing finish. A real treat of a wine.

Dried Cabernet Franc grapes, photo courtesy Barclay Robinson

Foreign Affair Apologetic Red 2016 ($70, $160 for magnums, 94 points) — This “Sorry — Not Sorry” 100% Cabernet Franc made by “talented, hardworking, law-abiding, polite, friendly, pragmatic, peace-loving, apologetic, grateful and self-deprecating Canadians” uses 50% dried grapes for 90 days and is barrel aged in all French oak for 18 months. There is another level up of the Cab Franc appassimento, simply called Cabernet Franc, and the current vintage is 2010, which I have previously reviewed (93 points). I just can’t imagine the 2016 vintage of this wine being bested by anything in the portfolio. This is a tour de force with a hedonistic nose of cherry kirsch, thick black currants, figs, graphite, Cuban cigar leaf, toasted vanilla bean and mocha that all works brilliantly together. The alcohol is just shy of 15%, but with the depth of fruit and concentration, you just don’t feel the heat on the palate. Full throttle currants, cherry compote, wild raspberries and blackberries are married to sweet tobacco, warm dark chocolate and a range of beautiful spices on a highly structured and complex frame that’s shrouded in polished tannins. The finish lasts for minutes and is lifted by medium + acidity. Such a gorgeous wine that can use at least 3 years of cellaring before even opening the first bottle. Another 10 years after that will reap greater rewards. No apology needed.