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A love letter to wine in the time of COVID, plus a roundup of new Niagara wines and news

By Rick VanSickle

When wine was discovered, oh, about 6,000 years ago, it is doubtful anyone at the time thought that sipping it in solitude was a good idea.

Also in this report: New wines from KIN Vineyards, Chateau des Charmes, Henry of Pelham, Vintages releases featuring Hidden Bench and Haywire Gamay from B.C., plus news on a new Niagara distillery and Sip and Sizzle plans.

It was discovered by a crazy accident when a bunch of wild and crazy native yeast went rogue and stuck to eating grapes stored in containers, turning the sugars in the grapes into alcohol. Thus was born the first wine in the world. Can you imagine the huge party and feast that followed with untethered Julia Louis-Dreyfus-style dancing, heart-pumping music and wild stories being told round a roaring fire? I can imagine a tiny group of keeners breaking off from the party to discuss the fuzzy reductive notes, the brambly forest berries, damp earth and soupçon of leafy notes. They would be huddled together in deep thought and discussing what they would have to tweak to make the wine better next vintage. What I can’t envision is some person all by their lonesome swilling the newfound elixir and finding euphoric pleasure of any kind.

Niagara wine

Let’s face it; wine pairs better with people. We crave the interaction, the simple pleasure of enjoying something wonderful together and, perhaps, the pleasant buzz that comes with that. We are funnier (or we think we are), more engaging and a whole lot more honest (to a fault?) when sharing wine with each other.

Because, you know … One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do. Now, two can be as bad as one, but it’s the loneliest number since the number one. (Sorry, kids, bad Three Dog Night reference there, click here if curious.)

COVID has forced us into our private silos and lonely days and nights in our household bubbles drinking our cellars dry and missing that integral link to other people beyond our bubble. We simply miss them — for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is sharing a glass of something/anything and being human.

And, yes, there have been times during the pandemic where that was possible, when rules were relaxed. And it was glorious. And, yes, driveway cocktails, small gatherings on a patio and endless f***ing Zoom tastings have taken place at times, but, for the most part, it’s been extremely difficult and rare.

For me, tasting wine is a way of life. I taste a lot of it. It usually means tasting in solitude, taking notes and writing reviews to feed this website. It’s not the same as grabbing a bottle of wine, kicking back with the person/people of your choice and just enjoying it. When I taste wines sent as samples, the enjoyment I get from it is finding a great wine and being able to tell people about it.

Outside of tasting critically, I adore wine for the simple pleasure it brings. Opening a musty old bottle, a new find, a quirky bottling or a reliable favourite — all of the above go better with sharing.

I made a pact with a buddy of mine — a wine friend, a golf friend, a sometime writer on this site, a wine educator and a man with vast knowledge about wine — that we would find a gorgeous day and I would open something special for us to enjoy and celebrate nothing other than being alive and healthy. That day took months to occur. Horrible weather, unexpected personal circumstances, conflicts with dates, endless terrible weather … and then finally, a perfect day with no conflicts came up and we were in my backyard, bathed in sunlight, warmth and perfectly socially distanced for a nice and relaxed tasting.

Peter Rod is a generous man at heart and loves sharing his wine but it was my turn. I wanted his opinion on some other wines I was tasting on this day, notably the new Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from KIN Vineyards in the Ottawa Valley made by Brian Hamilton plus some new wines from B.C.

Then I poured the wine that brought us together. It was served to Rod blind, and I, of course, knew what it was but had never in my life had the wine before. Our first taste of the wine was transformative, like nothing either of us had ever experienced. It was a white wine that poured a golden colour but wasn’t showing its age. It took a bit to open up and when it did there was certainly some oxidative notes but also this powerful, heady and enticing nose of dried apricot, toasted almonds, minerals, beeswax and ever so subtle spice. As exciting as the nose was, the palate was explosive, a deep, rich broth of ripe fruits, melon, lemon zest, spices, depth, layer after layer of pleasure and a finish that lasted for minutes and then some.

Rod, above, guessed that the wine was a Rhone blend and I don’t blame him for not knowing that the Chapoutier de l’Orée Ermitage Blanc 1994 was a 100% Marsanne, barrel fermented, barrel aged beauty built to age 50+ years.

De l’Orée is simply one of the great white wines in the world with only 600 cases produced per year. The Marsanne grown on the site gets its intensity due to low yields and high ripeness. It can handle barrel fermentation without leaving overt oak tones. The site reflects the alluvial Coteaux des Murets in the eastern part of the Hermitage hill. It is one of the longest-living dry white wines in France.

If scores matter to you, Robert Parker gave this wine 99 points in a review he published in 1997:

“This wine boasts a huge, flowery, super rich nose that is almost the essence of minerals and ripe fruit. Extremely powerful, full-bodied, and unctuously textured, this staggeringly great white Hermitage should last for 30-50 + years.”

Rod brought the following cheeses to pair with the wine including spring milk Camembert, aged Montasio, Tête de Papineau, Délice de Bourgogne triple cream and year-old Maple Dale cheddar. There were some amazing pairings there, but I was most smitten with how the cheddar melded so beautifully with the wine.

It was a glorious wine on a glorious day with some glorious cheese, but much more than that, it was enjoyed with a good friend and fellow human being in the middle of a pandemic that made us forget, if only for a few hours, the world around us.

That, to me, is what wine is.

More goodness from
Ottawa’s KIN Vineyards

After tasting only two vintages of winemaker Brian Hamilton’s KIN Vineyards estate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, call me impressed. What a job he is doing with these soulful, terroir-specific gems. Who would even envision growing grapes in the Ottawa Valley and then who would consider growing vinifera there?

KIN Vineyards is situated on 47 pristine acres in the heart of the Ottawa Valley with 10 acres under vine. The estate vineyard is nestled along the Carp Ridge, adjoined by the Carp River, and resting upon the grey limestone of the Ottawa Formation. The Carp Ridge, sloping south and west, overlooks the Valley at its pastoral best.

The sustainably farmed vineyard is bisected by the Hazeldean Fault showing glacial till over limestone on the upper slope and clay loam over limestone on the lower slope. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay thrive in this vineyard.

Here are my reviews of the new Chardonnay and Pinot Noir:

Kin Vineyards Carp Ridge Pinot Noir 2019 ($45, winery, online, 92 points) — My initial note on this wine was simply: This made me smile (insert smiley emoji here). And it’s so true. I adore this style of Pinot prevalent in more extreme regions of winemaker such as the Ottawa Valley and Prince Edward County. It’s Pinot in its purist form, drawing its personality from the dirt and climate where it’s grown. This is the second iteration of the estate Pinot, winemaker Brian Hamilton told me. “The 2018 Carp Ridge Pinot Noir was our first vintage but I see this as an outlier now as the 2019 and the 2020 (still in barrel) are riper and, I feel, will represent the style and concentration more consistently achievable from our vineyard. Soils are glacial till over limestone and each of the three blocks have variations of sandy loam, limestone and clay,” he said. It’s a mixed clonal blend with French oak aging, 25% new oak, 37% neutral oak and the rest stainless steel. This was bottled unfined and unfiltered. The nose shows bright red cherries, rhubarb, beetroot, raspberry bramble, subtle perfumed spice and an underlying earthy, bloody/iron minerality note. It has medium+ tannins on the palate and a cherry-fruited entry with crunchy raspberries, persistence, depth of flavour and a long, finessed finish with integrated spice and hints of leafy notes (and I mean that in the most flattering way as it brings a complex feel to the wine). A pure joy!

Kin Vinyards Carp Ridge Chardonnay 2019 ($40, 92 points) — This estate Chardonnay was picked on two dates — Oct. 4 and Oct. 21 — and was wild fermented then aged in French oak (19% new barrels, 70% neutral barrels and the rest stainless steel) for 10 months. There is a beautiful note of saline minerality on the nose with pear, lemon blossom, toasted almonds and nougat with subtle elegant oak spices. It is fresh and finessed on the palate with stony minerality, pear/apple fruit, a creamy texture and a bright, long finish with zesty citrus accents and spice.

A trio of new wines from
Chateau des Charmes

Chateau des Charmes Blanc de Blancs 2016 ($35, winery, online, Vintages June 12, 92 points) — A consistently delicious traditionally made blanc de blancs sparkling wine made from 100% Chardonnay grapes and aged on the lees for a minimum of two years. It pours with a vigorous mousse and a nose of toasted/creamy vanilla, brioche, golden apple, ripe pear and subtle lemon peel. It has gorgeous texture and verve on the palate with an elegant bead to carry the toasty vanilla, pear/apple notes, touch of citrus, baked bread all leading to a crisp, fresh finish. Great bubbly at this price point.

Chateau des Charmes Gamay Noir Droit 2018 ($20, winery, online, Vintages June 12, 88 points) — Gamay Noir “Droit” was Canada’s first native vinifera vine, born in Chateau des Charmes’ St. David’s Bench Vineyard and the only place in the world “Droit” is grown. It has a big jammy nose overflowing with ripe cherries, raspberries, smoke, cassis and purple plums. It has a smoky entry on the palate with savoury herbs, red berries and mouth-watering acidity on the finish.

Chateau des Chames Paul Bosc Vineyard Chardonnay 2017 ($24, winery, online, 90 points) — This wine is from Paul Bosc’s home vineyard and made the way he was taught: barrel-fermented, barrel-aged and regular stirring of the “lees” for 12 months in French oak barrels. It has an elegant, old-world nose of ripe stone fruits, butter, cream, caramel and spice rack. It’s soft and creamy on the palate with ripe apple and pear, caramel-toffee notes, spice and fairly bright on the finish.

A trio of wines from
Henry of Pelham

Henry of Pelham Cabernet-Merlot 2016 ($25, winery, Vintages July 10, 89 points) — It’s a treat to get to taste this Cab-Merlot from a warm vintage released with some age on it. It’s not showing any signs of slowing down and can still stand further cellaring. It has a nose of ripe cassis, black currants, anise, mocha, pipe tobacco and lavish savoury spice notes. The tannins are firm on the palate and the racy acidity is propping up the range of ripe dark berries and cherry/kirsch accents. There is some mocha, damp forest floor and vanilla toast with rich spices and a decent finish. A cellar candidate that will improve for another 5+ years.

Henry of Pelham Three of Hearts Rosé 2019 ($20, Vintages, 91 points) — I’ve been impressed with this lovely rosé that in the past has been a blend of Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Gamay. It shows a pale salmon colour in the glass with a fragrant, pretty nose of wild raspberries, cherries, strawberry shortcake and violets. It’s perfectly dry on the palate with the full range of red berries, subtle herbs and mouth-watering acidity.

Henry of Pelham Aria Sparkling Rosé 2020 ($15, Vintages, 88 points) — A fun, fruity sparkling rosé with a lively nose of forest berries, raspberries and candied citrus. It has a frothy entry on the palate with zippy red berries, melon and enough juicy acidity to tame the sweetness.

Wineries of NOTL getting
creative this summer

Fire up the grill! This summer, Wineries of Niagara-on-the-Lake is providing wine lovers with an opportunity to taste creative and delicious offerings of their signature wines paired with BBQ inspired food pairings. All summer long the online shop will be “open” with participating Niagara-on-the- Lake wineries offering sizzling wine packages for direct delivery for backyard barbecues across Ontario.

Also, as Wineries of Niagara-on-the-Lake will not be able to host its annual Sip and Sizzle Touring Program in Niagara-on-the-Lake this year, some winery members are offering virtual tastings instead. Many are complimentary with the purchase of wine packages.

“With a second stay at home order now in place, wineries are so appreciative of the support being shown by so many Canadian’s seeking to purchase 100% VQA wines online,” says chair Andrea Kaiser. “As a trip to wine country is not possible right now, we want to make it as easy as possible for everyone to enjoy their favourite wines, so we have created an online shop on our website. And for those missing a trip to wine country and seeking to connect with family and friends in a safe and fun way, virtual wine tastings are a great choice.”

Visit here for more information on packages and virtual tasting schedules.

Lifting your Niagara spirits

The plan for Niagara’s newest distillery was to throw the doors open this long weekend for a grand opening and peek at what we can expect from Spirit in Niagara.

The latest COVID lockdown cancelled those plans, but curious spirits lovers can still order online or curbside while they are waiting for the patio to open, hopefully on June 2.

Spirit in Niagara is unique player on the scene, distilling ripe and fallen fruit straight from its farm. In Niagara, 10% (more than 3,000 tonnes), of the ripest, juiciest and sweetest fruit often goes to waste each year because grocery store consumers are particular in what they purchase.

Arnie Lepp, whose family has been farming in Niagara for four generations, is changing that by creating top shelf local spirits from that Niagara fruit.

The fruit spirits are small batch distilled using the ripe, freshly fallen fruit that is collected from the Lepp farms. Using this fruit not only reduces food waste, it supports farmers and families while protecting the farmland and rich soils of the Niagara Region for generations to come.

Small batch spirits will be made from Niagara peaches, nectarines, yellow plums, blue plums, pears, apricots and cherries – the 7 major fruits grown in the region in Niagara.

The master distiller and blender is Josh Beach, a graduate of Heriot Watt (Scotland) with an MSc in brewing and distilling with distinction and holding a diploma in distilling from the Institute of Brewing & Distilling (Scotland). Beach has worked across Canada as a master distiller and blender before deciding to settle down with his new family in Niagara.

Spirit in Niagara is located at 458 Lakeshore Road in Niagara-on-the-Lake. For website and online ordering, go here.

New chair of cider
association from Niagara

Matt Dixon, co-founder and president of Niagara Cider Company, located in Niagara Falls, was recently named as the chair of the Ontario Craft Cider Association.

Dixon has worked for various wineries, craft breweries and cideries in a variety of senior sales and marketing positions but his ultimate goal was to operate and co-own a cidery to produce quality craft cider products.

Dixon has held a number of positions with various non-profit association boards including Wine Growers Ontario, Ontario Grape and Wine Research Inc., Cool Climate & Viticulture Institute at Brock University along with the Ontario Craft Cider Association. He has an MBA from Wilfrid Laurier University and B. Com. from the University of Guelph. He lives with his wife and two children in Fonthill.

Niagara wines coming
to Vintages stores May 29

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.

A tasty Gamay from B.C.

Haywire Gamay 2018 ($36, 89 points) — The grapes for this Gamay come from the estate’s organically farmed high elevation Secrest Mountain Vineyard. The fruit was gently destemmed with a portion left whole cluster for carbonic complexity. It was fermented in a combination of open top and concrete fermenters before ageing for eight months in large concrete tanks. The wine was bottled unfiltered. It has an enticing nose of plums, red berries, wild sage and subtle peppery notes. It has wonderful texture and poise on the palate with juicy red berries, herbs and a tangy finish. Crushable Gamay! (Full disclosure, my daughter now works for the Okanagan Crush Pad, but this review was written prior to her working there.)

Other Niagara wines released, but not reviewed:

• Nomad Sparkling Firefly 2019 ($18)
• Cave Spring Estate Chardonnay 2018 ($20)
• Di Profio Estate Kitchen Zinc 2018 ($17)
• Reif Chenin Blnac 2018 ($20)
• Reif Reserve Gewurztraminer 2017
• Wildass Sauvignon Blanc 2019 ($17)
• Icellars Reserve Red 2017 ($30)
• Wildass Merlot 2019 ($20)
• Jack Rabbit Special Edition Rosé 2020 ($19)
• Marynissen Estate Rosé 2020 ($17)
• Wildass Rosé 2020 ($19)