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A ‘grande’ Pinot gesture from Queylus, plus Foreign Affair’s whisky talk, Inniskillin icewine and Vintages highlights

By Rick VanSickle

The 2015 vintage in Ontario was both a blessing and a curse that, in the end, left vintners with some truly magnificent wines, but there were significantly fewer of them.

Note: Also in this tasting report — Foreign Affair’s whisky-barrel-aged red changes our mind on these emerging wines, two beautiful icewines from Inniskillin, and Niagara wines released at Vintages Saturday.

To catch you up, 2015 was the back half of two consecutive cold winters that caused wide-spread bud kill on vines and reducing yields significantly across the board. Climatologists attributed the extreme cold to a phenomenon known as a “Polar vortex,” whereby the jet stream dipped further south than normal, carrying with it frigid Arctic air that settled over eastern North America for two weeks in February.

Bud survival rates in Niagara ranged from complete devastation for some varieties to a relatively strong bud survival rate of 70% in some vineyards. Few escaped unscathed.

“2015 was unpredictable, nail-biting and fabulous,” wrote Queylus in its assessment of the 2015 vintage. “Spring was up and down with a terrifyingly wet June. July and August were extremely dry with few storms and sunny, warm weather in most areas. September was warm with beautiful conditions for the start of harvest and, except for rainy periods in October, fall weather was just what one would want.”

The problem was yields. And at Queylus, the cruel irony was this: The fruit across the board, with Pinot Noir in particular, was at 30% of capacity, but the quality was some of the best Pinots produced at the winery. In fact, the 2015 La Grande Reserve is one of the finest ever produced at the Queylus with everything coming together perfectly to produce a highly perfumed and concentrated Pinot with power and elegance on a silky frame. Unfortunately, the number of bottles is down drastically across the three tiers made in that vintage. General manager John Nadeau held back some of the 2015s to release after the 2016s and Wines In Niagara had a chance to taste the three offerings available at the winery now only until Feb. 29.

Queylus utilizes the terroir from both estate vineyards in Beamsville and that of the Neudorf Vineyard (previously called La Petite Colline) in Jordan to produce a range of varieties identified as perfectly suited to its vineyard’s soils and microclimate.

The wines are made by the dynamic duo of Thomas Bachelder and Kelly Mason (above).

Here’s what Wines In Niagara liked over three tiers of the 2015 Pinots:

Domaine Queylus Tradition Pinot Noir 2015 ($45, only 144 bottles available until Feb. 29 at the winery, 92 points) — The Tradition Pinot is aged in French oak, a third of which is new wood, for 16-20 months and then aged a further 12 months in bottle to develop perfume and mouthfeel. Such an intensity of perfumed black cherries, raspberries and meaty notes with violet and elegant oak accents on the nose. Darker fruits emerge on the palate with a meatier profile, underlying spice, complexity, polished tannins and length and finesse on the finish.

Domaine Queylus Réserve du Domaine Pinot Noir 2015 ($60, only 72 bottles available through Feb. 29 at the winery, 93 points) — As we climb the ladder on these Pinots, the perfume is more profound, the fruit denser and prettier, the focus on place more determined and the complexity grows in intensity. The wines are made in essentially the same way as the Tradition reviewed above with barrel selection providing the difference in quality. The mid-tier Pinot is highly aromatic with notes of brambly wild raspberries, dark concentrated cherries, red plums, stony minerality and elegant oak spices. Such silkiness on the palate with lifted red berries, anise, subtle blueberries, depth, complexity and uplifting acidity that provides finesse and balance through a vibrant and long finish.

Domaine Queylus La Grande Réserve Pinot Noir 2015 ($90, only 36 bottles available through Feb. 29 at the winery, 94 points) — This is one of the most highly perfumed, pretty and elegant Pinots I have tasted from Niagara. Everything clicks here with a nose of crushed red berries, forest floor, river rock minerality, integrated sweet herbs, red plums, cassis and bramble notes that all come together nicely at this point. It’s like velvet on the palate, such beautiful texture with a mélange of intense raspberries, dark cherries, cranberries, touch of anise, elegant integrated spices, forest floor, graphite and length on an echoing finish. This is in a perfect place right now but would be interested in seeing it five years from now. A Niagara Pinot you must have.

Foreign Affair’s whisky barrel collaboration

I take you back to a previous on Wines In Niagara entitled “Should You Mix Whisky and Wine.” The piece took umbrage on the proliferation of wines being treated with whisky/bourbon barrels and the unusual aromas and tastes being imparted by those vessels. I was not kind to the whisky/bourbon-aged segment tasted to date.

I realize now that I broke a rule that I’ve chastised others for breaking in the past: Don’t make broad stroke declarations because they will come back to haunt you.

And so it has with whisky-aged wines.

One person who challenged my assertions was Barclay Robinson, the winemaker at Niagara’s Foreign Affair. He had just released the inaugural vintage of a Cabernet Sauvignon aged in Pike Creek whisky barrels (the owner of Foreign Affair is Corby Spirit and Wine, which also includes Pike Creek in its portfolio) and urged me to try it. I was skeptical but up to the challenge.

I will say, like Gretzky making a whisky-barrel-aged wine (they have both a winery and distillery), Foreign Affair doing the same thing from Pike Creek barrels makes perfect sense. As a side note, Pike Creek is making a whisky aged in Foreign Affair wine barrels, which I hope I can also taste when it is ready.

Robinson also applies the winery’s signature appassimento dried grape style to the whisky-barrel-aged wine, giving it more complexity and depth. I freely admit, it was quite good. The whisky wood added richness and complexity to an already bold wine. The smoky/caramel notes were less dominating and more integrated and the whisky qualities were integrated rather than smothering.

At 16.5% abv you would think it would be unbalanced, but with all that wood, sweet fruit and added concentration from drying the grapes, the high alcohol was not out of place at all. Bold, yes; thick, yes; but not discombobulated and hot.

Here’s my review:

Foreign Affair Whisky Barrelled Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 ($65, wine club exclusive until spring, 92 points) — The Cabernet Sauvignon grapes were harvested in late November. The grape drying (appassimento) period was 100 days, and after pressing, the wine was aged for the first 12 months in French and American oak barrels. This fruit was then transferred into Pike Creek Whisky barrels to finish aging for 5 months. Smoky/caramel aromas waft from the glass right away, but it’s teeming with black cherry, black currant and plum notes underneath with added toasty vanilla, barrel spices and brambly/earthy accents that follow. It’s highly structured on the palate with chalky tannins, layered spices, caramel/toffee notes, kirsch, ripe blackberries and figs with length and power through a long finish. Quite a big wine, but aided by racy acidity to keep the 16.5% abv somewhat in check. Cellar 5+ years or enjoy now with red meat or game and, perhaps, even a nice Cuban cigar. Love the label on this, as well.

A pair of decadent icewines
from Inniskillin

Inniskillin Riesling Icewine 2018 ($80 for 375 mL, LCBO and Wine Rack, 93 points) — A thrilling nose ripe peach, candied citrus, baked apple, lime, poached pear and nectarine. It’s thick and silky on the plalate with layers of sweet orchard fruit, lovely wild honey notes, mango and peach cobbler in a luxurious and decadent style that is all held together seamlessly with racy acidity. This is a wonder right out of the bottle but can’t help but think how much better it will get with a decade or more in the cellar.

Inniskillin Gold Vidal Icewine 2017 ($90 for 375 mL, LCBO, 94 points) — After bring picked at -10C, the grapes were immediately pressed and allowed to cold settle for 72 hours. The clean juice was racked off, inoculated and fermented for 22 days in new French oak barrels. The wine was further aged for four months in oak before being bottled. It has a heady nose of warm peach pie, compoted pear, apricot, exotic tropical fruits and baking spices. It’s rich, thick and complex on the palate with caressing notes peach, apricot, lemon tart, layers of wild honey and integrated spice notes all leading to a very long finish freshened by acidity. This is truly a magnificent icewine that will bring pleasure for a decade or more.

Niagara wines at Vintages Saturday

The first release at Vintages stores in the New Year comes under the headline: Smart Buys 2020. That’s code for affordable wines. We have a recommendation from the few Niagara wines being released Saturday.

Here’s what we can recommend:

Foreign Affair Conspiracy 2017 ($20, 90 points) — I originally reviewed both the 2016 and 2017 vintages of this wine. I have re-written this review to reflect the 2017 vintage, which is being released at Vintages on Saturday. 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 dark cherries, bramble raspberries, spice and jammy currants. It’s full-bodied and ripe on the palate with anise, cherry, wild raspberries, currants, espresso bean, lavish spice notes and evident tannins through a vibrant finish. Good value wine for savvy shoppers.

Also released, but not reviewed:

• Fogolar Riesling 2016 ($17)
• Bruce Trail Red 2012 ($14)
• Flat Rock Pinot Noir 2015 ($22)
• Henry of Pelham Speck Family Reserve Baco Noir 2017 ($25).