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Canadian Wine Wire: Cuvée goes virtual, Niagara wines at Vintages, and Okanagan wine pioneer Stewart dies

By Rick VanSickle

It’s going to be a party like you’ve never seen before as the creative minds at Brock CCOVI move the annual Cuvée event online in this COVID-19 pandemic world.

The best news? You are all invited to participate and you don’t need a ticket to attend.

Also in this Canadian wine report: Niagara wines being released at Vintages Saturday, upcoming wines reviewed, CCOVI scientist helps grape growers navigate COVID-19 uncertainty, CAPS helping somms and Okanagan viticulture pioneer Dick Stewart has died.

Ontario wine

So, put on your party attire (at least from the waist up), fire up the laptop and get ready to celebrate the Ontario VQA wine industry. The Cuvée 2020 Online Experience launches on Friday, May 22 at The virtual experience will feature the 48 wineries, 12 restaurants and seven breweries/cideries that were originally slated to take part in the physical Grand Tasting experience last month.

The free online experience does not require tickets and will be accessible until the next Cuvée in 2021.

In videos created exclusively for the experience, participating winemakers virtually pour and reveal what they chose as their favourite wines for Cuvée, give pairing tips and share unique product signature styles that make their choices truly special.

A link to each participating winery, brewery/cidery and culinary partners’ online store will also be featured, so guests can bring the complete Cuvée Grand Tasting experience into their living rooms by placing online orders at any time.

Niagara band Jonesy also contributed a special performance video for the online experience so guests can dance the night away in an at-home version of Après Cuvée.

Organized by Brock’s Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute (CCOVI), Cuvée was originally scheduled to take place on April 25 but was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Barb Tatarnic, manager of Cuvée, says organizers worked hard to develop a fun, virtual experience so wine-lovers could still celebrate an experience they look forward to all year. “What makes Cuvée special is its ability to bring the industry together in celebration of excellence in the Ontario VQA wine industry and, in 2020, our guests can still do that virtually, whenever they want,” she says. “Get dressed up in your best gala attire — or stay in your sweats, go to, and get ready to meet our industry partners, listen to their stories, and learn more about the labour of love that drives their craft.”

Tatarnic also says the experience helps support the wineries, breweries and restaurants that are being directly impacted by the pandemic, financially and otherwise.

“Although no one could have imagined the challenges brought about by COVID-19, it is important to now stand together, while apart, and support local industry,” she says.

Thomas Bachelder

Thomas Bachelder, winemaker and co-owner at Bachelder Niagara and winemaker at Le Clos Jordanne, is thrilled the opportunity to gather virtually with colleagues and friends can still take place. “Cuvée is a moment in time — a brief shining moment, once a year — where all come together as one collegial community,” he says. “We have learned how to reach out and hug our fellow human beings virtually, and to all of you who have dreamt your ‘Cuvées’ into being but are not able to physically be together to pour them, to all of us, we say ‘Santé.’ ”

Cuvée also serves to honour and acknowledge successes and breakthroughs in the industry and advance vital grape and wine research — something CCOVI Director Debbie Inglis says is important now more than ever.

“Bringing Cuvée online showcases Brock’s ability to still support and celebrate our VQA wine industry while it navigates unprecedented challenges,” she says. “Being able to raise a glass together, even if only virtually, will unite us and help us emerge stronger.”

The Cuvée Online Experience also coincides with the #30DaysofVQA, an initiative created by Wine Country Ontario to promote the province’s VQA wine industry.

Proceeds from Cuvée support the Cuvée Legacy Fund, established to fund industry-driven research initiatives and scholarships for students. This year’s Cuvée Hosting Award for Academic Excellence recipient is Brock Oenology and Viticulture student Jessica Oppenlaender. All of the 2020 industry-related Cuvée awards will be presented at Cuvée 2021.

Watch and follow @cuveegrandtasting and @winecountryont on social media for further information on the Cuvée 2020 Online Experience.

Fond farewell to Stewart family patriarch, pioneer in Okanagan viticultur

This week, the Stewart family is quietly celebrating the life of their father Richard “Dick” Stewart, who passed away at the age of 94.

Stewart was born in Kelowna on April 8, 1926, one of four children to Dick Sr. and Mary (Whitworth) Stewart. Growing up in a family that embraced others, generosity and support were values Stewart upheld his entire life in the community, with his family and at the winery.

After graduating UBC with a double major in agriculture and commerce, he worked in father’s business Stewart Brothers Nursery for 10 years before venturing out on his own. A natural visionary, Stewart purchased the former Allison Ranch property on Boucherie Road, West Kelowna in 1956 to fulfil his keen interest in grape growing. He proceeded to plant experimental grape varieties at the site which would go on to produce world class wines.

Stewart believed in the potential of this region and was a driving force in its development. He was a founding member of the Association of British Columbia Grape Growers and member of the Grape Growers’ Marketing Board where he subsequently became its chairman. Interested primarily in grape growing, he encouraged his son Ben to establish Quails’ Gate Winery in 1989.

Never afraid of new ideas, Stewart believed in putting his nose to the “grindstone and his shoulder to the wheel.” He was intensely proud that all his children became a part of making the winery successful. He loved to wander the vineyards, Wineshop and offices at Quails’ Gate visiting with guests and he fondly referred to the staff at Quails’ Gate as his extended family.

Stewart had a passion for his hometown and felt a deep responsibility to his community giving back and participating in many boards and committees over his lifetime.

He will be greatly missed by his family and extended family at Quails’ Gate Winery. For more information on the life of this amazing man please find his obituary here.

Note: See review for new Quails’ Gate rosé below.

Niagara wines released
at LCBO stores this Saturday

Organized Crime Limestone Block Chardonnay 2017 ($21, 90 points) — So, whole bunch pressed, partial wild ferment, full malo, no lees stirring and 10 months in oak (60% puncheon, the rest foudre, mostly older wood). A highly mineralized nose oyster shells, subtle spice, pear and apple notes. It’s lean, fresh and minerally on the palate with quince, citrus, light spice notes and a finessed finish. A showcase for Beamsville Bench Chardonnay. made by Greg Yemen, above).

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.

Featherstone Canadian Oak Chardonnay 2018 ($22, 91 points) — A specialty at Featherstone with the fruit aged in 100% Canadian oak, with 10% of the barrels new oak and the rest older barrels for 10 months. It shows a nice golden glow in the glass with a nose of pear, apple, spice, cream and butterscotch. It’s creamy and rich on the palate with poached pear, baked apple, a touch of lemon zest, spicy oak accents, good texture and verve through the finish.

Also released Saturday, but not reviewed:

• Southbrook Canadian Framboise ($20 for 375 mL)
• Angels Gate Archangel Brut Sparkling Chardonnay 2014 ($30)
• Cave Spring CSV Riesling 2017 ($30)
• Frogpond Farm Organic Vidal 2016 ($15)
• Marynissen Platinum Sauvignon Blanc 2016 ($20)
• Creekside Red Tractor Cabernet/Merlot 2018 ($18)
• Riverview Cellars Rosso Cabernet/Merlot 2017 ($20)

A trio of rosés to
keep your eye on

Flat Rock Cellars Pink Twisted 2019 ($18, online or Vintages on June 13, 89 points) — The candy apple red colour stands out in a crowd for this blend of Pinot Noir, Gamay, Riesling and pinch of Gewurztraminer. It has an interesting nose that’s redolent in raspberries, cherries and citrus accents. There is more complexity on the palate with fresh raspberries, cherries, plums, subtle tannins, ginger and tangy citrus on the finish.

Saintly The Good Rosé 2019 ($18, Wine Rack, LCBO end of May, 89 points) — From the Arterra family of wines comes this tasty rosé that shows fresh strawberries, raspberries, violets, peach and citrus. It’s dry on the palate with ripe red berries, herbs, touch of lime zest and a clean vibrant finish.

Quails’ Gate Rosé 2018, Okanagan Valley ($20, Vintages on June 27, 90 points) — A pioneer of the Okanagan Valley wine industry and patriarch of the Quails’ Gate Winery in West Kelowna, Richard “Dick” Stewart, died this week at the age of 94. In a post on Twitter, the family said this: “Today, the Stewart Family quietly celebrates the life of their father Richard “Dick” Stewart, who passed away at the age of 94. His generosity, support and unwavering belief in the potential of this region will continue to inspire us. #RIP.” We might all toast the rich life of Stewart with this rosé, which is being released in Ontario at the end of June. It shows a pretty pale salmon colour in the glass and has a nose of freshly pick raspberries, watermelon and grapefruit. It’s fresh and tangy on the palate with red berries, red currants, touch of citrus and a clean, dry, vibrant finish.

A pair of Chardonnays
being released in June

Henry of Pelham Speck Family Reserve Chardonnay 2018 ($30, Vintages June 27, 93 points) — The Speck Family Reserve label is the top tier in the large portfolio at Henry of Pelham. The fruit comes from the oldest part of estate vineyard on the Short Hills Bench, which was shovel-planted by the three Speck brothers in 1988. The fruit is hand-picked, whole cluster pressed, barrel fermented in French oak and aged for 8-10 months. This is the finest Chardonnay to emerge from HoP, a gorgeous example of Niagara finesse, fruit and minerality. The nose shows luscious pear, lemon blossom, apple tart, toasted vanilla bean, spice and stony minerality. It has a pure and clean expression on the palate, rich yet vibrant, powerful yet graceful, with pear/quince, crushed stones, creamy vanilla and oak spice with persistence and finesse that echoes on a long, long finish. Beautiful wine with 5+ years of aging ahead.

Flat Rock Cellars Unplugged Chardonnay 2019 ($18, Vintages on June 13, 89 points) — Unplugged, Flat Rock’s version of unoaked Chardonnay, is a consistently good example of this style in Niagara. It shows fresh apple, pear, touch of peach and minerals on the nose, with subtle lemon zest. It’s lean with a mineral edge on the palate to go with crisp apple, fresh pear and citrus zest on the finish. Good value Chardonnay here.

CCOVI scientist helps grape growers
navigate COVID-19 uncertainty

Although they are well versed in overcoming fluctuations and uncertainty from one growing season to the next, Niagara’s grape growers are facing a unique set of challenges this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

To address some of those challenges, Jim Willwerth (above), Senior Scientist at Brock University’s Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute (CCOVI), recently partnered with the Grape Growers of Ontario (GGO) to host a webinar on the Economics of Crop Management During COVID-19.

“The entire world is dealing with the uncertainty of this global pandemic,” says Willwerth. “I am glad to be able to provide support to the grape growers by discussing crop management and ways to improve efficiency in the vineyard during this challenging time.”

Since grape harvest season is still a few months away, Ontario grape growers aren’t in the same situation as farmers who have to determine what to do with their early season crops due to lack of available workforce or changing demand.

The immediate challenge for grape growers lies in safely and cost-effectively completing critical spring vineyard work while also adapting to new physical distancing protocols. The mandatory 14-day isolation period in place for seasonal workers coming to Ontario farms from outside of Canada also creates challenges. That two-week delay, combined with having to logistically spread out workers to ensure a safe operation, means there may be less hands on-deck to get the work done.

With many operations already working on tight margins, growers have to determine what key vineyard practices need to be maintained — and which can be scaled back, delayed, or forgone altogether to cut costs. And, as grape vines are perennial plants, Willwerth says those decisions are crucial not only to this year’s harvest, but to future harvests, as well.

“There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, and it’s important to ask questions about your vineyard and the individual block within them,” he says.

Willwerth suggests that growers put the focus on their best vineyard blocks and aim to reduce labour-intensive activities (such as manual leaf removal) and use more mechanization where possible.

Integrated pest management is still critical, he stresses, as is completing major canopy and crop management tasks. Pruning, tying, trunk replacement and other winter injury mitigation is also important, as is training young vines to prepare for the growing seasons to come.

Growers are also worried about what it will mean for their operations if COVID-19 restrictions are still in place when harvest season rolls around this fall, he says.

“But as growers, you always deal with uncertainty and risk management, this is just another level,” Willwerth says. “So be positive and work together, and you can navigate this challenge, too.”

Providing timely research and support to the industry is a critical part of CCOVI’s mandate. In addition to this recent webinar, the institute also produced a viticulture webinar series with the GGO. The videos can be viewed on CCOVI’s website, with more videos planned for later this year.

“The Grape Growers of Ontario remain committed to keeping our members engaged and informed and we thank CCOVI and Dr. Jim Willwerth for helping us deliver an educational webinar and collaborative Q&A session on the economics of crop management during COVID-19,” says Matthias Oppenlaender, Chair of the GGO. “We look forward to bringing more engaging content to our members in the coming weeks and months.”

CAPS Ontario launches Help
the #Sommunity program

CAPS Ontario has announced a limited-time partnership with more than 40 Ontario wine import agencies and VQA wineries in support of the greater Ontario sommelier community — aka #Sommunity — during the current COVID-19 pandemic.

As part of its Help the #Sommunity program, CAPS Ontario is now offering members a wide array of significant savings on purchases from participating companies. The program also offers a series of skills-enhancing webinars entitled, Skills to Pay the Bills and a weekly live Instagram discourse, NIGHT CAPS LIVE featuring leading industry experts expounding on issues relevant to the industry. The program was created to allow members to continue to support local and like-minded businesses, as well as pursue their studies and enhance their career-building skills, when many have found themselves unemployed or struggling financially.

“This is an incredibly difficult time for the hospitality and wine industries,” said Debbie Shing, CAPS Ontario membership chair. “We formed this initiative to bring together our trade partners and members, given we love the products we work with and above all, because hospitality is about connecting people. The savings offered by the amazing roster of partners more than covers the cost of an annual membership to CAPS Ontario. We warmly welcome anyone, including wine enthusiasts, to sign up or renew their membership to take part in our program.”

The full catalogue of participating agencies and VQA wineries is available on the CAPS Ontario website here.

“This endeavour has been an amazing team experience for all of us at CAPS,” added Lynn Abernethy, sommelier and CAPS Ontario president. “If someone had predicted one year ago when I started as president that we would be this engaged, I’d have thought it was a dream. From our Help the #Sommunity program, to the webinars, and teachers and students in the current cohort having to distance-learn, our heads are spinning. But we’re all in, and it’s very exciting.”

The Help the #Sommunity program is in support of CAPS Ontario, the non-profit organization that funds educational programs, competitions and professional development opportunities for Ontario’s sommelier community. CAPS Ontario also welcomes wine enthusiasts who may join for an annual fee of $75 as non-voting members. Associate members also qualify for the Help the #Sommunity discounts.

Note: Some of the information in this report was provided by the wine industry, CCOVI and CAPS.