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Born to be wild: Tasting Trius’ top tier wines with winemaker Craig McDonald

By Rick VanSickle

Politics have rarely played a role in our discussions during the dozens of times I have tasted wine with winemaker Craig McDonald.

But when I visited recently at his invitation, just as harvest in Niagara was roaring to life, politics were definitely on his mind. “I’m on a bit of crusade to set the record straight,” McDonald, vice president of winemaking at Andrew Peller Ltd. and responsible for all the wines, spirits and beer at Peller properties across the country and pictured below, told me. And then he talked politics for an hour or so, passionately and methodically, before we tasted through some key wines in the Trius/Showcase brands of wines the winemaker has shaped since joining the company over 10 years ago.

The future for the Ontario wine industry has been tossed into disarray on several fronts, not the least of which is dealing in an economically sound way with the COVID-19 pandemic, and McDonald’s company was put into the crosshairs due to a side of the business many people feel shouldn’t exist. The question of International Domestic Blends, wines made from predominantly foreign grape juice and blended with only 25% Ontario grapes, by the larger Canadian companies such as Andrew Peller Ltd. and Arterra Canada, was suddenly back in the news and McDonald wanted to clear the air.

His comments and all sides of the debate appeared in this post entitled: Grapes of Wrath — Trouble in Ontario Wine Country. You can read the detailed piece here; we won’t rehash the issues in this space.

McDonald presides over the largest collection of wines in the country. Since being lured away from Creekside winery in 2010, where he and winemaking partner Rob Power raked in award after award for the wines they made there, he has continued to put his stamp on every drop of wine that comes through the winery.

The Trius “Hero’s Plate.”
The seared rare Ahi tuna from the Trius Restaurant.
Chicken liver pate from the Trius Restaurant.

He may not actually stomp the grapes himself or do the punch downs anymore, but make no mistake, he has a hand in every wine made from coast to coast. And nowhere is that more evident than the wines turned out at Trius. McDonald has built an eclectic range of wines from top estate vineyards, trusted growers and spread across several tiers.

He’s not afraid to take chances, a trait leftover from those halcyon days in the cellars at Creekside when losing a barrel or two of a funky Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Gamay and Syrah blend aged with the “dregs” of every barrel racked that year, was routine behaviour. Anyone who has tried the Lost Barrel wines, pictured below, knows how thrilling they turned out to be.

McDonald brings to the table a winemaking career that has taken him from Australia, where he was born and worked, to stints in New Zealand, Spain, Oregon and California before his new home in Niagara.

Once at Trius, beginning in 2010, McDonald sought to bring focus to a brand that shared the limelight with the Hillebrand wines. After the icon wine Trius Red was created in 1989, that set the stage for the portfolio we see today from McDonald that includes an extensive sparkling program, core wines that show a consistent style (including Canada’s largest and most successful bottling of Sauvignon Blanc) vintage to vintage and Showcase wines (that replaced the Hillebrand brand) featuring single-vineyard estate wines, many using wild fermentation and winemaking techniques that test the boundaries of conventional thinking (let’s just say McDonald is not afraid of a little reduction in some of his wines).

These are what we are tasting on a glorious harvest day where Brix numbers are constantly popping up in texts on McDonald’s phone as we prepare to run through a selection of top wines and nosh on the well-curated menu from Executive Chef Frank Dodd. The patio is packed, safely, of course, in light of COVID-19 protocols, while trucks jam-packed with freshly picked grapes make their way to the crush pad on after another.

Here is what I can recommend from the tasting:

The Bubbles

Trius Brut NV ($30, 91 points) — Crafted in the méthode Classique style, this popular sparkler is a blend of mostly Chardonnay with Pinot Noir and aged sur lie for 18 months. It has a lovely nose of lemon toast, apple, bioche, grapefruit, pear and lessy/toasty notes. It tingles on the palate and shows an elegant persistent mousse in the glass with lemon/citrus, biscuit, pear, crisp apple and all nicely balanced with a clean, fresh and dry finish.

Trius Brut Rosé NV ($33, 92 points) — The blend for this rosé brut (only 4 g/l of residual sugar) is Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Gamay (primarily for colour), with 18 months resting on the lees, and shows a pretty light pink hue in the glass. The nose is fresh and inviting with notes of crushed red berries, smoky/yeasty notes, cassis and biscuit. It’s lively on the palate with raspberries, strawberries and subtle cassis with bright acidity through the finish that keeps it fresh and popping.

Trius Showcase Brut Nature NV ($55, 93 points) — “My view of sparkling wines is the drier the better,” says McDonald. “I want it to be finessed and aged in some way.” He achieves that in spades with this “Showcase” sparkling that spends five years on the lees with zero dosage (no sugar added) leaving just 1 g/l of sweetness. The blend is Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier with a complex, interesting nose of pear, profound saline minerality, apple peel, yeasty/flinty notes and lemon zest. It’s lively and fresh on the palate with a vigorous mousse and flavours of pear, brioche, flint, citrus, wonderful texture and verve that all lead to a bright, finessed finish. This is a beautiful wine that can age 10+ years.

The Whites

Trius Sauvignon Blanc 2019 ($16, 88 points) — McDonald must be doing something right with this popular Savvy. It has grown from 900 cases in 2009 to 20,000 cases in 2020 — that’s more cases of one wine than most wineries in Niagara have in their entire portfolio! The style is user friendly and straddles a New World/Old World style that is fresh and lively but not too herbaceous. The nose shows pink grapefruit, gooseberries, lemon, fresh herbs and passion fruit. It’s fresh and vibrant on the palate with a sassy profile of gooseberries, melon, grapefruit, subtle tropical fruits and a dry impression through a lively finish.

Trius Distinction Sauvignon Blanc 2019 ($20, 90 points) — When you are on to a good thing, like McDonald is with his Sauvignon Blanc program, you find more and more ways to express this grape. For the Distinction, 30% of the fruit is barrel fermented. It shows a riper style on the nose with guava, grapefruit, lemon, subtle herbaceous notes and spice. It’s rounded on the palate with lovely texture and riper fruits of guava, melon, tropical fruits, grapefruit, lemon and a touch of spice on the finish.

Trius Showcase Clean Slate Wild Ferment Sauvignon Blanc 2018 ($32, 92 points) — This is McDonald’s walk on the wild side, a 100% barrel fermented, wild fermented and partial malo Savvy that pushes the boundaries of creative winemaking. McDonald admits it’s not a wine for everyone. “It’s always tricky playing with reduction,” he says. “It can be polarizing. It’s about not being pigeonholed.” It’s an eccentric beauty with a pungent, reductive nose of pear, grapefruit, fresh cut herbs, papaya and spices. It has gorgeous texture on the palate with a complex array of citrus, tropical fruits, pear, herbs, subtle reduction and spice with a dry, freshening finish. Wine geeks will love this wine and will want to see it age a bit (depending on your tolerance for reduction).

Trius Showcase Ghost Creek Riesling 2018 ($30, 93 points) — Riesling aficionados know only too well about this iconic single-vineyard estate Riesling from the mysterious Ghost Creek Vineyard originally planted in the 1980s. The vineyard is in the warm Four Mile Creek sub-appellation of Niagara-on-the-Lake and takes its name from a dry creek bed that only fills up during rainy periods. The soil is stony with heavy clay and is one of the most unique sites in NOTL for this minerally style of Riesling. Such a gorgeous nose of lime, grapefruit, wet stone minerality, ginger, peach and nectarine. It has such racy salinity on the palate with lime, swirling grapefruit, peach and ginger notes with a dry impression, despite 20 g/l of RS, through a persistent and lively finish. This is a proven winner for long-haul aging.

Trius Showcase Wild Ferment Chardonnay 2018 ($37, 91 points) — A distinct nose of ripe pear, warm apple pie, lemon accents and toasted oak spices. It’s quite rich on the palate with fleshy orchard fruits, a slight reductive note with smoky undertones, flint, citrus and a lovely texture through a lingering, somewhat fresh, finish.

The Rosé

Trius Rosé 2019 ($18, 89 points) — McDonald blends Gamay Noir, Syrah and Cabernet Franc to make this popular rosé that now goes into a 20,000 case production. It shows a light amber colour in the glass with notes of wild raspberries, strawberries, red currants, touch of spice and pinch of citrus. It’s refreshingly dry on the palate and a bit bolder with red berries, bramble, citrus, anise, spice and a juicy, vibrant finish.

The Reds

Trius Gamay Noir 2018 ($20, 88 points) — This Gamay is jam packed with aromas of red cherries, plums, brambly raspberries and light herbs and spice from some aging in neutral oak barrels. There’s a lovely savouriness on the palate to go with tart red berries, a touch of spice and herbs with a juicy, but dry, finish. Great food wine.

Trius Showcase Clark Vineyard Pinot Noir 2017 ($37, 92 points) — The grapes for this Pinot were picked by hand from a single vineyard, carefully sorted and fermented on the skins in a wooden fermenter prior to pressing. It was aged on its lees in a combination of new and older French oak for 11 months. The nose shows rich cherry notes, a bit of barnyard/earthiness, ripe cassis, plum, dried Cuban cigar leaf and rich spice notes. It’s quite earthy and complex on the palate with a mix of red and dark berries, savoury spice notes, silky smooth tannins with lovely texture through a long and finessed finish.

Trius Showcase Red Shale Cabernet Franc 2017 ($55, 93 points) — This is culled from a single block of the Clark Farm Vineyard in the Four Mile Creek sub-appellation and aged in French oak barrels (20% new barrels) for 19 months. It has a gorgeous nose of dark cherries, brambly raspberries, cassis, woodsy spices, smoke, cocoa and anise. The first sensation on the palate is a full attack of ripe tannic structure and then a mélange of red berries, cassis, underlying earthiness, leather, cedar, toasted vanilla and spices with a long, long finish and juicy acidity holding everything together. A beautiful wine that will benefit from 5+ years of cellaring.