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Riesling to Believe: Why this glorious grape needs its very own celebration in Niagara

By Rick VanSickle

If you want to get all militant about it, there’s a shirt out there that puts into words what Riesling devotees know all too well.

Niagara Riesling

I don’t really believe you’re an idiot if you don’t like Riesling, but, come on, why don’t you? It’s the most perfect grape on the planet, and if you happen to live in one of two or three of the most perfect places in the world to grow it, like Ontario, why aren’t you taking the perfect opportunity to enjoy this perfect wine in your own backyard? That’s a lot of perfect going on there, granted, but as a hard-nosed Riesling fanatic myself, I lose my mind when pulling out a nicely aged Riesling from the cellar for guests and all I see is disappointment and despair on their faces. It’s not right.

And don’t give me that overused trope that “Riesling is too sweet” or “one dimensional” or whatever your accuse is that was passed down from a generation or two of wine drinkers who remember the German explosion of cheap, sweet, unbalanced Rieslings (and the German wannabe Liebfrauenmilch) that flooded store shelves in a time long gone by. The Rieslings of today are not the Rieslings of your grandparents, and it was certainly never that way in Niagara, at least since the beginning of the modern wine era, starting in the mid-70s.

I have helped to conduct two major Niagara Riesling tastings in the last 10 years with bottles tasted from as far back as the 1970s and can tell you that no other variety in Niagara ages as gracefully as Riesling does. Stored under perfect conditions, many of these top Niagara Rieslings are profoundly complex and interesting from the moment they are released and for as long as you can cellar them. Show me another wine in Niagara that does that. I dare you.

Niagara wine

Kicking around some thoughts recently while tasting a few delicious Ontario Rieslings on the Twenty Mile Bench, it occurred to our small group: Why don’t we celebrate this noble variety like we fête, say, Chardonnay?

The annual International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration held annually in Niagara has been a phenomenal success, attracting wine lovers and wineries from around the world to this region to enjoy Chardonnay in all it glorious permeations.

Pinot Noir also gets love with the annual springtime Pinot Affair put on by 10 wineries in Niagara to celebrate everything Pinot.

This fall saw the first Cabernet, All the Way festival that was limited to the four Peller properties — Peller, Trius, Gretzky and 30 Bench — but nonetheless, a Cabernet celebration before Riesling? In Niagara? Blasphemy!

The way things are going for this oft-neglected white superstar of Niagara (that’s Riesling, FYI), Gamay’s #GoGamayGo movement will have its own celebration, backed by a small but group of vocal supporters of this fast-rising new kid on the block. And good for them if they elevate Gamay to elite status. But it shouldn’t be at the expense of Riesling. Sorry, but I’m just telling it like it is (or should be).

Yes, some of you might remember Brock’s Riesling Experience that was put on once every two years for a while, but it was mostly closed to the public and consisted more as a technical exploration of the grape for winemakers and producers of Riesling from around the world than as a consumer event.

Riesling needs to shine, it needs to be put in the spotlight and enjoyed for all to experience what it brings to the table. It’s Riesling’s time.

After Chardonnay and Vidal, Riesling is Niagara’s most planted grape (and the 20th most planted in the entire world). Over 100 wineries in Ontario produce Riesling in one form or another.

Ontario, a cool-climate wine-growing region, enjoys a special status as one of the few regions in the world where Riesling is a signature variety (Germany, Alsace and Finger Lakes, also claim Riesling as their top dog).

In the mid-1970s, when Ontario’s wine renaissance began in Niagara, Riesling topped the list of vinifera plantings. It seemed a natural location for Riesling, Europe’s great hardy northern grape. In 1976, with the assistance of a federal agricultural grant, the first Riesling was planted at Vineland Estates on the bench land of the Niagara Escarpment (the same limestone ridge over which the mighty Niagara Falls tumble). The vines came from Herman Weis, a nurseryman in Germany’s Mosel Valley and many of Ontario’s finest Rieslings, now made by Brian Schmidt from the famed St. Urban Vineyard, are still crafted at the winery. By the early 1980s Riesling’s reputation had started to spread, attracting the interest of German émigrés like Herbert Konzelmann and Ewald Reif, as well as the late Austrian winemaker Karl Kaiser, who co-founded Inniskillin with Donald Ziraldo at Ontario’s first new winery since Prohibition — in 1974. This group planted on the flat lands near the shores of Lake Ontario.

But it was a family of Italian origin that moved Riesling into the mainstream of Ontario’s wine culture, where it has remained to this day. Len and Tom Pennachetti founded Cave Spring Winery, based on a spectacular Riesling vineyard inland on the Niagara Escarpment bench land near Beamsville. They made estate-grown Rieslings — dry and off-dry, a late harvest called Indian Summer, as well as one of the first Riesling Icewines. Today, these remain staples on wine lists throughout Ontario, indeed all of Canada.

Dozens of other producers have since joined in, including some in warmer Lake Erie North Shore and colder Prince Edward County. But it was new Niagara “bench” wineries like Thirty Bench, Flat Rock, Tawse, Hidden Bench and Featherstone that opened in the 2000s that elevated Riesling by aiming high in terms of quality and price. They in turn have given rise to small Riesling specialists like Charles Baker and 2027 Cellars making tiny quantities from single vineyards.

Most of Ontario’s Riesling is still based on the Weis clone (21B) imported from Germany’s Mosel Valley. When grown on the bench sites it produces racy examples with citrus, green apple and mineral notes. Two other clones play a minor role — an Alsatian, Clone 49, and Clone 239 fron Geisenheim, Germany. As demonstrated in a Riesling clone project by Cattail Creek of Niagara-on-the-Lake these produce somewhat soft, richer styles. A non-bench Riesling vineyard planted in 1978 to the Alsace clone by Paul Bosc of Chateau des Charmes continues to turn out gold medal dry, late harvest and Riesling icewines.

Some consider Riesling as the most prized of the icewine varietals, although it produces less than the hybrid Vidal. Riesling’s naturally high acidity is the perfect foil for sugar levels that can hit 35 Brix and far beyond.

Ontario has clearly emerged as a New World leader (and Finger Lakes folks may want to argue this point) with Riesling — not so much as a mass market, easy sipping, off-dry wine, but as a terroir-driven, collectible and fine dining wine that ages well and reflects individual vintages and sites.

Yet, here we are. Another year gone by with this magnificent grape relegated to the sidelines for myriad unfounded reasons. No knight in shining armour has come to rescue Riesling from obscurity in Niagara and place it on that pedestal it so deserves.

We were discussing this very topic recently during a tasting at Flat Rock Cellars with proprietor Ed Madronich. At our tasting with Madronich were wine writer Tony Aspler, Brock University senior scientist, oenology, Belinda Kemp, Brock CCOVI graduate student and teaching assistant Hannah Charnock, Flat Rock winemaker David Sheppard and myself. In front of us were wonderful examples of the Twenty Mile Bench winery’s Rieslings, including a comparison of the 2017 Estate Riesling and the 2007 version as well as the single vineyard Nadja’s 2018 beside the 2006 version.

It was an eye-opening experience to see how these soulful, mineral-laden Niagara Rieslings develop over time and a shame more consumers don’t get the chance to experience what we were experiencing. (A post on the tasting will be published next week on Wines In Niagara.)

Flat Rock has long been a champion of Riesling, one of only three varietals the winery focuses on (the other two being Pinot Noir and Chardonnay).

So, of course the subject of a Riesling celebration was put to Madronich. He lamented the fact that Riesling doesn’t get its due in Ontario, not from a lack of respect, but more because all previous attempts seem to conflict with other events not only in Niagara but other regions (like Finger Lakes and various other Riesling celebrations in the U.S. and beyond). It has always failed to gain traction.

So, here’s the thing; a tiny glimmer of hope for Riesling in Niagara. And I don’t want to hold Madronich to this because it’s just not fair to put it all on him despite his genuine enthusiasm, but he is willing to help at least plant the seed for Riesling project with Bench wineries this spring. It would be a weekend focused on this glorious grape from the various styles, to old-new comparisons, food pairings, evaluations, and especially the stylistic differences between dry and sweet, minerally-driven, Riesling icewines — the full gamut of what this grape can do. It would be consumer focused and will need buy-in, especially from the Riesling producers on the Bench — here’s looking at you Vineland Estate, Cave Spring, Hidden Bench, 30 Bench, Charles Baker, 2020 Cellars, Leaning Post, Honsberger Estate, Organized Crime, Fielding Estate, Rockway Cellars, Tawse, Henry of Pelham, Featherstone, Angels Gate, Good Earth, 13th Street, Rosewood Estate … and any to any I’ve missed here (I apologize).

Everyone at our little gathering believes the time has come for Riesling to shine just a little more brightly in Niagara. All agree that Riesling has so much to give and so much that needs to be said about this exciting style of wine that represents the region so well.

It was Tony Aspler who blurted out the working title for this project.

“A Riesling to Believe.”

I think he’s on to something there. Will you join the revolution?

A few key Niagara Rieslings to try

Hidden Bench Estate Riesling 2017 ($25, 91 points) — A blend of the three estate vineyards, this has an enticing nose of lime, grapefruit, salinity and stony minerality. The fruit is tangy, fresh and mouth filling on the palate with gushing lime-citrus, minerals, a touch of peach and rollicking acidity to carry it through a lively finish.

Hidden Bench Roman’s Block Riesling 2016 ($32, 94 points) — Always a benchmark Riesling in Niagara for me, and while 2016 was a hot vintage, Hidden Bench low-cropped the almost 40-year-old Rosomel Vineyard to 2 tonnes per acre to take only the pristine and ripest bunches. The result is this spectacular wine that in cooler years starts off shy and builds in momentum. This is much more expression from the get-go with a nose of white flowers, stone fruits, citrus, lime, apricot and stirring stony minerality. It’s a beautifully textured wine on the palate with bright green apple, citrus, tangerine, river-rock minerals and such racy acidity on the finish. I would normally suggest cellaring wines from the hotter vintages for near-term drinking, but I feel this will gain more fat and complexity if you let it settle for 5+ years.

Hidden Bench Felseck Vineyard Riesling 2016 ($29, 93 points) — A very close second to the Roman’s Block, in my opinion, with a very different nose of honeysuckle, pear, citrus, lime, grapefruit, saline minerality and a complementing savoury note. It’s fairly rich, textured and complex, with slightly more residual sugar than Roman’s (11.5% vs 10%), on the palate with a basket of citrus, ripe pear and some tropical notes that’s well balanced by the acidity. This is what Riesling is at the highest level of quality in Niagara. Can cellar 5+ years.

Vineland Estates Elevation St. Urban Vineyard Riesling 2016 ($20, 92 points) — St. Urban is one of the most important Riesling vineyards in Ontario. It has history, a proven track record, distinct terroir from block to block and produces top-notch Riesling each and every year at various levels. Elevation is one tier down from the Reserve, but, for me, this defines the wines from Vineland Estate and the winemaker, Brian Schmidt. It’s such a beautiful vineyard both aesthetically and for its rich vein of limestone that forms the foundation of the wine’s personality no matter the vintage. The nose shows bright, vibrant lime zest and citrus, apple skin, summer peach and stony minerality. Just wow on the palate, an initial blast of lemon-lime then honey crisp apple and peach, then waves of wet stone that is all perfectly balanced by racy acidity that runs through the core. Delicious now, but worth laying down a few bottles to see how it matures.

Vineland Estates Bo-Teek Vineyard Riesling 2018 ($20, released in January, 90 points) — So, Clone 21, planted in 1992 in the second of three estate Vineyards, Bo-Teek. A familiar Bench nose of lime, green apple, citrus pith, lemon and waves of wet stone minerality. There are some sweet notes on the palate, but balanced nicely by the racy acidity, with flavours of apple, lime, river-rock minerality and just a pinch of fresh cut peaches. Fresh and vibrant on the finish with only 9% abv.

Flat Rock Cellars Riesling 2016 ($18, 89 points) — Loaded with grapefruit, lime and waves of minerality on the nose. It’s juicy and racy on the palate with grapefruit, lime and apple flavours with a touch of honey and gorgeous minerality.

Leaning Post The Geek Riesling 2016 ($35, 90 points) — The Riesling is sourced from the Wismer Foxcroft Vineyard and rests on the lees from all the estate’s white wines in stainless tanks for 22 months is a somewhat modified solera system. It’s bottled unfiltered and unfined. So, geeky, right? On the nose there’s a plenty of lemon, grapefruit and lime extract notes with underlying apple skin, salinity and flinty minerality. It’s textured, but this side of creamy, with an earthy feel to go with a full range of fresh citrus, crisp apple and razor sharp acidity on the finish.

Tawse Quarry Road Riesling 2017 ($26, 91 points) – Highly perfumed with lots of lemon-lime, wet stone mineral notes and just a tinge of petrol. The off-dry style is intriguing on the palate, with sweet Mandarin orange and lime backed by zesty acidity and a clean, precise mineral finish. (Mike Lowe reveiw)

Tawse Quarry Road Organic Riesling 2017 ($25, 91 points) – Highly perfumed with lots of lemon-lime, wet stone mineral notes and just a tinge of petrol. The off-dry style is intriguing on the palate, with sweet Mandarin orange and lime backed by zesty acidity and a clean, precise mineral finish. (Michael Lowe review)

Redstone Limestone Ridge Vineyard South Block Riesling 2017 ($19, 90 points) — Crafted from organic and biodynamic grapes, this smart Riesling rocks with a nose of profound lime soaked in stony minerality and saline with a good measure of grapefruit and crisp green apple accents. The palate reveals a nice tug of sweet/tart citrus, river-rock minerality and dash of honey with balancing acidity keeping it fresh and lively through the finish.

Niagara College Teaching Winery Balance Semi-Dry Riesling 2017 ($15, 88 points) — Nice minerally nose of lime, grapefruit, citrus and ginger. The high acidity keeps on the palate provides a mouth-watering entry to the palate in a not-too-sweet style with juicy citrus, green apple and lingering citrus zest.

Fielding Estate Lot 17 Riesling 2018 ($28, 92 points) — Always among the Tier One Rieslings made in Niagara, the Lot 17 comes from 20-year-old vines planted to Clone 49 (Alsace) grapes grown in the estate vineyard. The Lot 17 was not made in 2017. Such a beautifully classic Beamsville Bench nose of lime extract, grapefruit, stony minerality and granny smith apple. There is some RS but it’s loaded with electric acidity to balance it out. Look for a range of lime, grapefruit and minerals for days on a clean, fresh finish. The kind of Riesling that you buy a few bottles of and keep trying them as they age gracefully. Can cellar 10+ years.

Ravine Vineyard Patricia’s Block Riesling 2018 ($35, 93 points) — As good as the 2017 version is, this nails it perfectly. An incredible 50% of the fruit is botrytised and the wine was finished with a whopping 26 g/l of RS. Winemaker at the time, Ben Minaker finds this block of Riesling always offers an interesting floral and pine needle accent on the nose. For me, it’s rich in marmalade/citrus rind with honeysuckle, grapefruit, wild honey and lanolin. The RS is completely buried on the palate and shows bracingly tangy citrus fruits, particularly lime, with honeycomb accents that’s all mouth-puckering and fresh to the finish line. This will gain fat, beeswax and more rounded notes as it ages gracefully for 10 years or more. A really neat style of Riesling from St. David’s.

Southbrook Heather’s Home Vineyard Organic Riesling 2017 ($23, 91 points) — This is something … an expressive, unique nose of ginger, lime and peach pie with perfumed notes of wet-stone minerality and a subtle note of honey. It’s juicy on the palate and bursting with stone fruit, citrus zest, lime and ginger with a lovely tug of sweet and tart that’s all nicely balanced by the acidity.

Five Rows Craft Wine Jean’s Block Riesling 2018 ($35, 91 points) — Avoiding some botrytis was nearly impossible in Niagara Riesling vineyards in 2018, but in the Lowrey Vineyard and surrounding vineyards of St. David’s, it’s a rarity that there isn’t some botrytis fruit. I happen to like the complexity and flavours it brings, but understand the dangers of letting it get away from growers. This Riesling has some botrytis and was finished at 19 g/l. Wild honey is evident on the nose along with white flowers, ginger, minerality, lime zest and grapefruit. It’s a rich and textured wine with honeyed peach, lime, stony minerality, grapefruit and ginger with just enough acidity to keep it fresh and somewhat balanced with the high RS.

Chateau des Charmes Old Vines Riesling 2015 ($19, Vintages now, 91 points) — Always a special wine from St. David’s. It’s a lime bomb on the nose with notes of lemon, crisp green apple and profound minerality. It’s zippy and fresh on the palate, a smidge of honey, with lime, grapefruit, ginger, stony minerality and balancing acidity. Should age well for another five years but already hitting its stride.

Honsberger Riesling 2018 ($24, 92 points) — Such a beautifully floral and perfumed nose of grapefruit, stone fruits, lime, ginger and lilacs. Perfectly dry (under 1 g/l) and fresh on the palate with frisky lemon and lime, grapefruit, green apple and a crisp, minerally finish. Winemaker Kelly Mason also poured the 2014 version of this Riesling for comparison and is considering releasing a few cases that were held back. It highlights all of the above but age has given it an intriguing petrol note, amplified the stony minerality and has rounded out the sharp edges for the dry style the winemaker loves. “I like dry Riesling, I don’t want to make 12-gram Riesling. It was very hard at first,” she says.

Strewn Riesling 2017 ($16, 88 points) — A really nice Riesling with an expressive nose of lime, grapefruit and tangerine. It’s made in a dry, refreshing style with mouth-watering acidity to highlight the citrus, grapefruit and green apple.

Organized Crime Wild Ferment Riesling 2017 ($21, 90 points) — As the name states, the fruit was 100% wild fermented in a 1,000 litre oak cask and spent nine months resting on the lees. A complex Riesling with lime, green apple, river-rock minerality, salinity and grapefruit notes on the nose. It has some flesh on the palate and a touch of RS, but the tangy, fresh citrus fruits and minerality drive the boat here and hide any cloying sweetness. I sense a big future for this wine. You might want to put a bottle or two to tuck into the cellar for 4+ years to accentuate the mineral notes.

Note: Some of the information on the history of Niagara Riesling was sourced from Wine Country Ontario with statistics gathered from the Grape Growers of Ontario and VQA Ontario.