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Code Red means Niagara is back in business, plus Ontario wine news and reviews

By Rick VanSickle

Moving into the red control level of the Ontario Covid-19 response framework in Niagara has sent a shot of adrenaline throughout the region with wineries, breweries, distilleries and restaurants rushing to get their doors open for guests.

Some wineries were quick to invite consumers through the doors for tastings and shopping at the earliest possible moment this week, while many others are taking a more cautious approach until they are certain they have the staff and protocols in place to make it safe for staff and visitors. It is impossible to compile a complete list of which facility is open for tastings or not, so we are not attempting that here. Our best advice, if you are planning to venture into wine country this weekend or beyond, is to plan ahead, do your research and make reservations as soon as you can.

Ontario wine

Wherever you go, there are strict COVID rules in place and far less capacity then in pre-COVID times. With sunny skies and a relatively balmy 0 C predicted for the weekend, getting a spot at your favourite winery or restaurant is going to be extremely difficult.

In this Canadian Wine Report, we have stories on the Peller family’s purchase of the Riverbend Inn in Niagara-on-the-Lake, new Versado wines from Argentina coming to Vintages from Niagara wine couple Ann Sperling and Peter Gamble, Toronto’s Iron Gate launching a national commercial wine auction out of Alberta, new wine reviews for Malivoire and Henry of Pelham, plus Niagara highlights for two Vintages releases.

First, some cool Malbecs hitting Ontario soon.

New Versado wines coming from
Niagara’s Sperling and Gamble

Ann Sperling, the winemaker at Southbrook Vineyards in Niagara and at her family’s Sperling Vineyards in the Okanagan, and husband Peter Gamble, an accomplished wine consultant/winemaker with various Canadian projects, first bought a villa, which they named Villa Viamonte, below, in the old town of Chacras de Coria in 2007 with some Canadian partners.

The next task, the tougher job, was locating the perfect vineyard for what Gamble and Sperling wanted to do — make world-class Malbec from old vines on a property that could be converted to organic farming.

In 2008, they found and purchased an ancient vineyard that fit their requirements on the legendary Cobos Road and named it Versado. The three-hectare property, with Malbec plantings dating back to 1920, is located in a cool-air corridor with pristine water winding its way to the vineyard from the mountains.

The small-lot wines from Versado — made in three tiers from the regular Malbec to Reserva to the Old Vine bottlings — are extraordinary wines quite unlike most everyday Malbecs from Argentina you find at the LCBO.

Three Versado wines are coming to Ontario and one or two them will likely hit the shelves at Vintages stores. They are also available through CRU Wine Merchants here. I tasted two of the wines from Coravin samples delivered to me in these cool little sample bottles.

Versado Malbec 2017 ($25, Vintages later this year, 91 points) — Following a very wet 2016 El Niño vintage, 2017 in Mendoza turned into a much more typically dry growing season. This junior partner in the tiny Versado lineup, a project by Canadian winemaking couple Sperling and Gamble, is wild fermented in concrete vats and made using “very little” manipulation before aging in older French oak barrels. It has such an expressive nose of cassis, dark plums, some red berry and floral notes with subtle savoury spices. It’s plush and ripe on the palate with complex layers of dark fruits, licorice, loamy/earthy notes and length through a lifted finish. A lovely drop that can be aged for 5+ years.

Versado Old Vine Malbec 2015 ($40, available through CRU Wine Merchants, 93 points) — 2015 marks the first year of certified organic production in the Versado vineyard, located in the old town of Chacras de Coria in Mendoza, Argentina. Despite a rather rainy season, this Old Vine version of Malbec is a beauty. It’s highly aromatic with forest berries, anise, cocoa, crushed red berries and integrated herbs and spices in a purely elegant style. It’s coming along nicely on the palate at this point with generous and pure dark cherry fruit, brambly raspberries, anise, black currants, smoke and spice that’s all layered and textured through a finessed and long finish. This is a highly elegant and terroir-driven example of Malbec at its finest. It will provide excellent drinking for many years to come.

Versado Reserva Ancient Malbec 2014 ($60, Vintages later this year, previously reviewed, 93 points) — The 2014 version of the Ancient old-vine Malbec follows closely in line with the 2013 vintage. A wow nose of rich, deep currants, plums, anise with elegant spice notes, minerals and swirling earthy/savoury accents. It still needs a bit of time to integrate all those moving parts in the mouth, but shows depth of fruit, concentration and plenty of spicy/savoury goodness through a finessed finish.

Iron Gate launches first commercial
wine and spirits auction

Warren Porter, president of Iron Gate.

Iron Gate will launch its first commercial wine and spirits auction on March 23, hosted from its new facility in Calgary, Alberta.

The Fine Wine and Spirits Auction is seven-day online auction featuring some of the greatest wines in the world, all meticulously stored from top collectors across Canada, available to buyers from coast to coast.

In November of 2020, Iron Gate Auctions launched its first online fundraising wine auction in support of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, realizing record amounts for the organization. The auction platform received thousands of hits per day, thousands of bids through the week, and closed with a 98.8% sell through rate. This commercial wine auction is the next step in the company’s evolution.

The March auction will include state of the art new features including improved search and filter functions, staggered closing times, proxy bidding and user-friendly bid tracking and personalized watch list. A follow up auction is already scheduled for May with major events planned for the fall of 2021. Iron Gate Auctions is the only dedicated auction house in Canada, with a focus purely on fine wines and spirits. A full catalogue will be viewable online two weeks prior to the auction and you will be notified via email when it becomes available for your perusal.

You can follow the link here to register to receive notifications about this and all upcoming auctions. A valid credit card is required to bid, but not to simply register and view.

Peller buys the Riverbend Inn
in Niagara-on-the-Lake

Andrew Peller Ltd. has acquired The Riverbend Inn and Vineyard in Niagara-on-the-Lake. This historic property, containing 17 acres of prime vineyards and a 21-room hotel and restaurant, is situated directly adjacent to Peller Estates Winery.

Located at the corner of John Street and Niagara River Parkway, the Georgian-style inn was opened in 2004 and has a successful and profitable track record as a destination of choice for visitors to the Niagara Region. Peller paid $10 million for 100% ownership of the business assets and the property.

The acquisition is a natural extension of Peller’s goal to provide a premium wine tourism experience in Niagara, a news release said. The Inn will complement the Peller Estates Winery, with the new vineyards forming a now contiguous 57 acres of high-quality grape growing managed by Peller’s winemakers. The Inn, closed since late 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, will re-open in the spring under new management with investments made to enhance the Riverbend’s unique and high-quality hospitality offering.

“We are proud to welcome the Riverbend Inn and Vineyard to the Andrew Peller family. This spectacular and unique property will complement our Peller Estates Winery and further our goal of building and enhancing our premium hospitality offering. Looking ahead, we are confident the acquisition will generate a strong and growing contribution to our earnings in the coming years,” commented CEO John Peller.

New wines from Malivoire

Malivoire Wismer Foxcroft Gamay 2019 ($28, 92 points) — By my count, this Beamsville Bench producer has six vastly different Gamays in its portfolio at any given time. That should be a hint that winemaker Shiraz Mottiar is a fan of Niagara Gamay — in a big way. The Wismer Foxcroft Gamay, sourced from the Twenty Mile Bench, is fermented 50% as whole clusters with the rest as crushed must in stainless steel. Following fermentation, 90% of the wine is aged in neutral oak barrels and remainder in stainless steel tank for seven months. It has a lovely earthy/savoury note on the nose then a crush of ripe cherries, plums, cocoa, bit of spice and subtle cassis notes. It’s smooth on the palate with savoury red berries, cranberries, earthy/loam notes, dried herbs and spice on a lifted finish. Could even cellar this for 2+ years.

Malivoire Bisous Sparkling Rosé NV ($30, 91 points) — This is made from 100% estate Pinot Noir in the traditional method with lees aging for 24 months. It has a beautifully expressive nose of cherries, brambly raspberries, strawberries and a lovely mineral component. It shows an elegant and persistent bead in the glass with an array of fresh red berries, subtle herbs, green apple and a kiss of sweetness on a vibrant and finessed finish.

New wines from Henry of Pelham

Henry of Pelham Rosé 2020 ($15, winery, 88 points) — The nose on this summer-loving rosé shows pretty and fresh red berries and a touch of herbs. The palate reveals cran-cherry, raspberries and subtle herbaceous notes in a dry and refreshing style.

Henry of Pelham Lazzara Rosato Secco NV ($18, winery now, LCBO April 1, 88 points) — It shows a bright, expressive nose of field raspberries, cherries, rhubarb pie and citrus accents. It has a vigourous bubble on the palate and shows a basket of red berries, touch of citrus zest and lively finish.

Henry of Pelham Three of Hearts Pinot Grigio 2020 ($20, winery now, Vintages July 24, 87 points) — A fruity nose of peach, green apple, lemon, lime and nectarine. There’s a pinch of sweetness on the palate to with ripe orchard fruits and a zesty citrus finish.

Niagara wines coming
to Vintages stores

Because there are so few new releases of Niagara wines at Vintages stores these days, I’ve combined the Feb. 20 release and March 6 release in one post. Even at that, there just isn’t a lot of local wine coming through the government monopoly yet in 2021. But here’s what’s available.

Feb. 20 release

Henry of Pelham Estate Pinot Noir 2019 ($25, 90 points) — The Estate Pinot is sourced from the Speck brothers’ estate vineyards on the Short Hills Bench. It has a bright and expressive nose of brambly raspberries, cherries, anise, violets and spice. It’s smooth and silky on the palate with the full range of red berries, savoury spices, touch of anise/licorice, cloves and spice with a lifted finish.

Also released, but not reviewed:

• The Foreign Affair Chardonnay 2018 ($27)
• The Tragically Hip Fully Completely Reserve Red 2018 ($25)

March 6 release

Domaine Queylus Signature Pinot Noir 2017 ($29, March 6 at Vintages, 91 points) — Domaine Queylus has a reputation for making delicious Pinot Noirs over several levels from key estate vineyards in Niagara. This one from the Signature tier has a pretty and perfumed nose of savoury cherries, forest berries, earthy/loamy notes, subtle cassis and crunchy cranberries with light oak spice notes. It’s nicely structured on the palate with silky tannins and depth and displays earthy red berries, cassis, elegant oak spices and a bright, finessed finish. Can cellar 5+ years.

Vineland Estate Bo-Teek Vineyard Chardonnay “Bottled on the Lees” 2017 ($25, 91 points) — Soaking up the lees gives this gorgeous Chardonnay from the coveted Bo-Teek Vineyard a lovely creamy pear nose with saline minerality, citrus, vanilla toast and spice. It is a creamy and rich Chardonnay with a vein of chalky minerality, Bosc pear, Mac apple but all lifted by citrus fruit on a vibrant finish. Very nice.

Hidden Bench Estate Chardonnay 2018 ($30, 93 points) — “The most holistic of our wines are the blends,” says Johnston. “I just love pulling the components together for these wines.” The blend is chosen from the three estate vineyards — Locust Lane, Felseck and Rosomel — with aging in concrete egg (4%) and the rest in French oak (15% new oak) for nine months. Maybe the best Chardonnay at this level made to date at Hidden Bench and hard to imagine a better Chard at this price point in Niagara. It has a beautiful nose of pear, lemon zest, vanilla toast, and elegant spice notes. It’s rich and broad on the palate with a range of stone fruits, citrus zest, vanilla bean, minerals and spice through a clean, fresh finish. Simply, a delicious example of Niagara Bench Chardonnay.

Cloudsley Cellars Chardonnay Twenty Mile Bench 2017 ($35, 90 points) — This first vintage of Chardonnay from Cloudsley was made from grapes sourced from the Wismer family’s Foxcroft and Wingfield vineyards in the Twenty Mile Bench sub-appellation. It’s wild fermented and aged in all French oak, 25% of which is new oak. It has a beautifully perfumed nose of apple, saline minerality and pear with integrated oak spice notes. It shows bright stone fruits on the palate, flint, persistence and vibrancy on the finish.

Also released, but not reviewed:

Queenston Mile Barrel Fermented Chardonnay 2017 ($35)
• Kew Old Vine Riesling 2016 ($16)
• Megalomaniac Sparkling Personality 2019 ($20)
• Angels Gate Fumé Blanc 2017 ($17)