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When Gamay meets bubbles sparks fly at Niagara’s 13th Winery

By Rick VanSickle

I, Gamay, take you, bubbles, to be my partner, to have and to drink from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are both absolutely satiated.

The marriage of Gamay and bubbles at 13th Street Winery in St. Catharines was inevitable, you could see it coming for miles. “For us it was just logical,” winemaker JP Colas tells me. “We position ourselves as Gamay and sparkling specialists.”

And so, presented for the world to enjoy, behold the 2017 Gamay Blanc de Noir, the fifth 100% Gamay and fifth sparkling wine in 13th Street’s growing stable of wines.

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What a beautiful partnership it is, done in the Colas style — super dry and finessed with zero dosage and no oak aging. It’s a single vineyard sparkling wine with the Gamay sourced from the estate’s Whitty Vineyard in the Creek Shores sub-appellation with the fruit hand harvested from the first few rows in early September. Primary fermentation was kept cool and in 100% stainless steel while malolactic fermentation was suppressed to keep the fresh fruit character in the wine. Secondary fermentation took place in bottle and the wine aged sur lattes for a minimum of 12 months.

“I need sharp freshness,” Colas says and he will repeat that every time you talk him. It is his mantra and he preaches it with conviction. It is in his DNA that his wines must be vibrant on the palate, no matter the varietal or style. Most of his sparkling wines have little or no sugar added to the dosage and even the table wines he makes lean toward a less-oaked, fresher style.

You can’t blame the French-born winemaker for knowing what he wants; he cut his teeth at the notable Chablis house, Domaine Laroche, where he famously produced Wine Spectator Magazine’s 1998 White Wine of the Year, an award he received for his Domaine Laroche Grand Cru Les Clos 1996. Also in 1998, Colas was awarded the Best Wine in the Wine Enthusiast, Grand Cru Chablis Blanchots “Reserve de l’obedience” 1996 (99 points).

He preaches the philosophy that great wines come from the best grapes grown in the best vineyards, whereas winemaking techniques are only utilized to supplement and capture the very essence of the grapes’ provenance and character.

It’s a common thread throughout the portfolio Cola presides over at 13th Street. And as I sit down to taste the new wines with Colas and sales director Ilya Rubin (both in photo above)  that becomes perfectly clear.

Here’s what I can recommend from the tasting conducted a couple of weeks ago.

The Bubbles

13th Street Gamay Blanc de Noir 2017 ($35, Oct. 1 at the winery, 93 points) — For my money, one of the best new sparkling wines in Niagara and worth picking up sooner rather than later when it’s released Oct. 1 (hint … ask for it now), as I have a feeling it won’t last. It’s 100% Gamay from the estate’s Whitty Vineyard, made in the traditional style with zero dosage, 12 months on the lees, and bottled with only 2 g/l of RS. It erupts on the palate with a rainbow of black cherries, robust plums, wild raspberries and roasted almonds amid a riot of bubbles that pop in the glass. It’s seductively rich with a creamy/fleshy feel until the acidity kicks in and drives the boat in a more linear direction. The smoky red berries are bright and cheerful and meld effortlessly with the minerals, toasted almonds and plums. There is plenty of pop on the palate all the way through the finish. Just a wonderful and very different sparkler you need to try.

13th Street Cuvee Rosé NV ($30, 90 points) — The blend for this “vintage” of the non-vintage Rosé is nearly an even split between Chardonnay and Pinot Noir with a splash of Gamay for “visual effects,” and a low dosage of sugar that keeps this refreshing sparkler fairly dry (10 g/l). On the nose, look for aromas of strawberries, cherries, rhubarb and a touch of brioche and minerals. 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. “It appeals to everyone for any occasion,” Colas says.

13th Street Grande Cuvée Blanc de Noir 2013 ($60, Classics Catalogue in Dec., winery now, 94 points) — Made from 100% Pinot Noir from the Whitty Vineyard, this top dog sparkler from Colas follows in the footsteps of the last time it was made from the 2007 vintage. It was on the lees for a full 60 months, did not go through malo and there was no sugar back added to dosage. Just wow! Such a delicate mousse with a beautiful yet complex nose of poached pear, mineral, citrus, lemon curd, brioche, bready/yeasty notes and a subtle, interesting oxidative note. It’s dry and austere on the palate with persistent tiny bead of bubbles and a rich, textured feel to go with a mélange of berries, creamy pear, baked apple, earth and smoky notes that all linger on a finessed palate and graceful finish.

13th Street Premier Cuvée 2013 ($40, Vintages in Nov., winery now, 92 points) — A 50/50 blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that is made in the traditional method but has zero dosage 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 meddling oak and sugar. The nose shows bright citrus, melba toast, green apple, stony minerality and subtle brioche and cream. 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 mouth-watering finish.

13th Street Blanc de Blanc 2017 ($30, winery only, 93 points) — This is another well-priced sparkler from Colas with the focus, again, on freshness and not sugar and oak. Only a 2 g/l dosage was added to the 100% traditionally made Chardonnay from the neighbouring L. Viscek Vineyard and there was no malo or oak aging but it was aged sur lattes for a minimum of 12 months. There is a gorgeous floral opening on the nose with fresh-cut citrus, pristine river-rock minerality, salinity, green apple and a leesy note. It’s zippy and fresh on the palate with mouth-watering acidity that highlights lemon, green apple, babbling brook minerality and verve through a finessed finish. I would age this 4+ years but quite attractive right now.

The Gamays

Colas is one of Niagara’s champions for this versatile and resilient grape that rarely fails to produce excellent fruit in what can be a fickle climate for other varieties in Ontario.

13th Street has staked a good portion of its reputation on Gamay and has excelled in finding many different ways of expressing it from the popular regular Gamay ($20) that finds favour at the LCBO to the top single vineyard offering from the Sandstone Vineyard located in the Four Mile Creek appellation of Niagara-on-the-Lake, planted in 1983. The Sandstone Gamay sees some light oak aging, while the others in the portfolio are all raised in stainless steel.

13th Street Gamay 2018 ($20, released in January, 89 points) — While the 2017 vintage is currently being sold (and previously reviewed), we sampled the 2018 vintage during this tasting and the wine should be released in January. It shows lovely plums, red berries, red currants, cherries and fresh cut flowers on the nose. It’s perfectly gulpable on the palate with a range of red fruits, plums and a certain savoury/earthy feel on a vibrant finish.

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

13th Street Gamay Noir Sandstone Vineyard 2016 ($30, sold out, 91 points) — Sold out, but worth reviewing as this the top of the Gamay class at 13th Street. It has a purer fruit profile with less reduction and aromas of plums, cherries, herbs, leather and spice from oak aging in older barrels. It’s bright and beautiful on the palate with fresh red berries, lovely mouth-feel, pure, vibrant and just lightly spiced through a vibrant finish.

The Chardonnays

13th Street June’s Vineyard Chardonnay 2018 ($22, winery now, 91 points) — This single-vineyard Chardonnay, named after June Mann, who along with husband John, are co-owners of 13th Street (with Doug and Karen Whitty), has always imparted a rich mineral component in the wine. It’s on full display here without any oak aging, only lees contact (6 months) and light fining and filtration. Colas calls this “old school” Chardonnay with a nod to Chablis, his roots, with only stainless steel aging and a unique nose of pear, creamy notes, apple skin and profound minerality and lemon. The lees aging gives this wine its creamy profile on the palate with lovely pear, bin apple, savoury notes, minerality and mouth-watering acidity on the finish.

13th Street L. Viscek Vineyard Chardonnay 2017 ($30, winery, 91 points) — This is fermented and aged in three different sizes of oak barrels (only the 228L barrel is new, the rest seasoned) and undergoes full malolactic fermentation. The nose shows fresh pear, apple/quince, creamy spices notes and minerality. It’s round and rich on the palate and displays poised elegance with pear, coconut, baked apple, smoke, flinty minerality, vanilla toast and peppy acidity on the finish. The antithesis of the June’s Chardonnay above.

The others

13th Street Pinot Gris 2018 ($20, winery now, 88 points) — From young vines at the estate’s Market Vineyard at the corner of 4th Ave. and 7th St. with aging on the fine lees. An inviting nose of apple, apricot, nectarine and lemon-citrus. It’s round(ish) and shows lovely apple, melon and more nectarine that’s all quite dry and concentrated with a vibrant finish.

13th Street Viognier 2018 (price, availability NA, tentative 91 points) — This was not bottled when tasted and Rubin was uncertain of pricing and availability. Colas had previously made this Vio in an unoaked style but changed direction with the 2018 version and employed the use of oak aging in various formats, but no malo, and light fining and filtration. Really interesting nose of apricot, hay, orange blossoms, ginger and spice. It’s broad on the palate with some complexity and texture but nervy at the same time with sassy ginger spice, ripe apricot, exotic tropical fruits, nectarine and some tannins through a vibrant core. I like this, but will revisit this fall.

13th Street Cabernet Franc 2017 ($25, winery, 89 points) — Colas chose to use no oak in this CF to shine a spotlight on the grape tannins and not the oak. It shows a beautiful vibrant purple hue in the glass with fresh red berries, leather, herbs and raspberry bramble. Lovely tannins emerge on the palate with pure raspberries, tart cherries, herbs and a freshening finish.

Full disclosure: The author’s daughter works part-time at 13th Street in retail.