By Rick VanSickle
It still bewilders me that Riesling doesn’t get the love it most certainly deserves. I get that it’s misunderstood on many levels, but how can one not see the beauty of this grape in all its naked glory?
Riesling is one of the five pillars of hierarchy in terms of grapes that perform at the top level in Niagara, but it does not get the respect that Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir and Gamay get. I would go as far as to say that Niagara Riesling, along with Chardonnay and even Cabernet Franc and Gamay, can compete on the world stage and stand its ground comfortably.
Niagara Riesling has it all going for itself — a staple and capable summer sipper, inexpensive even for the top examples, it ages beautifully, pairs brilliantly with a wide range of foods, comes in myriad styles from fruit-driven quaffers, to soulful, minerally driven single-vineyard expressions, to taut, dry, leesy and complex, to sweet late harvest and icewines. Yet very few people put Riesling at the top or near the top of their every day wine choices. It’s a damn shame.
I am a devotee of Riesling. I am embrace it. I would bathe in it if my wife would let me. I collect it and fill my cellar with it. I love it. It’s that simple.
Some of the most recognizable Niagara “cru” vineyards are famous because of the Riesling that grows there — Cave Spring Vineyard, Nadja’s Vineyard, St. Urban Vineyard, Triangle Vineyard, Picone Vineyard, Ghost Creek Vineyard, Felseck and Rosomel, to name a few — yet it’s stuck in a rut and has been, like, forever. While Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Gamay and Cab Franc are loved and worshipped with special weekends, hashtags, Insta love and admiration from the somm community, Riesling is forever the wallflower who no one wants to dance with. I do! Pick me!
In 2012, I was given the opportunity really get intimate with Riesling at the vineyard that truly put Riesling on the map in Niagara — Vineland Estate’s St. Urban Vineyard. This 42-acre centrepiece of the estate’s vineyards surrounds the winery buildings and showcases the Weis 21 Riesling clone. It was brought to Canada by the winery’s founder, the late Hermann Weis. The first plantings went in the soil in 1979 and were followed successively in 1980 and 1981. Hailing from the Mosel in Germany, Weis was an experienced grape grower who knew exactly what would grow successfully in the Niagara.
It’s now nearly 10 years ago that Vineland Estate winemaker Brian Schmidt made me an offer I could not refuse. “Let’s make a Riesling together,” he said. So, of course I replied yes, and what began as a kernel of an idea put in motion an epic journey from of a single grape from bud break to flowering to fruit set to veraison to harvest, crush, fermentation, aging and bottling. It was documented over many posts on this website (and in a wine magazine) we called Grape Chronicles: The Journey of Grape X.
The St. Urban Vineyard is a famed Riesling Mecca that is presided over by Schmidt and viticulturist Roman Prydatkewycz. The grape we chose to follow was from the first row in Field D, the 10th post in, the second vine. It was marked with a special plaque until the very end.
When the project was over, Schmidt bottled the Riesling under the Circle of Friends label, with Rick’s Grape X inscribed on the back label. Wine club members got first shot at it. Schmidt made the wine, of course, and my small role was to add input into what style I would prefer. He gave me much more credit than I deserved. It was a pure learning experience for me and I was pretty stoked about the finished wine that made it into bottle. I have one single bottle left.
The Grape X Riesling was made with a slightly higher sugar content, up to 50 grams per litre and about 10% of the fruit was botrytised. It was left on the lees to give the wine more texture and complexity. I adored the wine and wish I had put more away in the cellar because it aged so beautifully.
I was up visiting St. Urban Vineyard about three weeks ago and, as is often the case, Schmidt was on his tractor doing whatever sort of things he does on that tractor. He pulled over to offer a rundown of the vintage and how it was coming along. As we surveyed the young vines he wondered if I was interested in another Grape X project, a reprise of sorts but with a different winemaker, a different St. Urban aspect and a different style of Riesling. Well, obviously I wasn’t going to turn that down.
So … here we go again! Grape X Version 2, or Grape XV2 for short. Schmidt suggested that his assistant winemaker, the talented German born and bred Tobias Fiebrandt would take the lead on the new project and we were off and running.
Both Schmidt and Fiebrandt felt that Field C in the St. Urban Vineyard, or what is known as the Connections Vineyards because wine club members are generally the beneficiaries of the wines grown there, would be the best for Grape XV2 2021.
Field C was the first to be converted to herbicide free (all the vineyards at St. Urban are now) and was the first block to never see chemical herbicides. This block is also mostly planted to the original over 40-year-old vines (at least root systems, as Schmidt has brought up renewals after cold years). He calls Field C “very low yielding and is one of two sentinel blocks … meaning I watch it closely, if problems are about to happen it happens there first and I make decisions based on those vines’ response to growing years,” he said.
As for the 2021 vintage that’s unfolding and getting closer and closer to harvest, it was a warm winter with little ground frost, which meant the soil warmed quickly and bud break was earlier than usual. A hot, dry spring also brought some concerns about drought conditions. The flowering period was almost perfect with very little rain and wind. The rains started at the end of June giving the dry soils much needed water, then it continued raining — a lot, said Schmidt.
Disease pressure (mildew) become a concern in mid-July with hot and wet weather that can often produce downy and powdery mildew, which leads to black rot. But “we skirted any significant damage from this. Feet on the ground eyes on the vines (always),” Schmidt said.
By August, summer temps and rain levelled out and growth for both vines and weeds slowed a little. The canopy has been trimmed twice, and in some varieties three times as the growth has been crazy, explained Schmidt.
And that’s where Vineland Estate is at right now … waiting for the period between Labour Day and Halloween when the vintage really reveals itself.
As for the style of wine with this version of Grape X, Fiebrandt wants to differentiate it from the many other Rieslings in the portfolio at Vineland Estate. It’s hard to predict what will happen once the grapes are harvested, and that will likely determine the style, but we both agreed on a drier style this time around with more lees aging, a different yeast strain to shoot for a more complex, less forward fruited and long-lived Riesling expressive of the unique minerality of St. Urban.
I’m so looking forward spending time with Fiebrandt on this project. He is passionate about Riesling and his German roots have a lot to offer a Niagara winery. The results are already showing up on the shelves at Vineland Estates and samples we tasted in barrel of a lees-aged, neutral oak-aged Riesling from 2020 plus a sweeter Riesling Kabinett 2020 in bottle, both from St. Urban, are proof that Vineland and its winemakers take this grape very seriously.
We will keep you up to date as Grape XV3 hurdles toward harvest and bottle!
In the bottle
Riesling finds its way into many different bottlings at Vineland Estates. From the wildly popular Semi-Dry all the way to the top reserve versions. Schmidt also loves to experiment with special series that have included block specific Rieslings and other cool one-off ideas over the years. Here are a couple of Rieslings reviewed on Wines In Niagara recently, plus a review of the 2012 Circle of Friends Grape X Riesling.
Vineland Estate Semi-Dry Riesling 2019 ($15, LCBO, winery, 88 points) — Schmidt sources the grapes for this Riesling from various Niagara vineyards and finishes the wine at 8.5% abv. The nose is fresh, like a mountain-fed stream in early spring and then it gushes lime, grapefruit, green apple and a lovely floral note. There is a tug of sweet-tart citrus on the palate with juicy lime, zesty lemon and apple with racy acidity keeping it singing through the finish. Attractive right now, but can cellar for a few years to tame the acid and round it out.
Vineland Estates Elevation Riesling 2019 ($20, 93 points) — Such a pretty and expressive nose on this single-vineyard Riesling from the historic St. Urban Vineyard planted in 1979. Look for gushing lime, sweet canned pear, profound wet stones and saline minerality, grapefruit and green apple. Certainly off-dry at 45 g/l and light on the palate at 7.5% ABV but offset by a firm acidic spine that brings a nice tingling tension in the mouth. The citrus, apple, pear and peach fruits have that yin-yang thing of sweet/tartness that build in intensity through the vibrant finish. There is a lovely wild honey note that provides nice texture and flavour on the mid-palate. Cellar 10 or even 15 years and watch this beauty show its true potential. Great value, top-notch Niagara Riesling from the Twenty Mile Bench.
Vineland Estates Circle of Friends Grape X Riesling 2012 (Only available to Vineland Estates wine club members, 89 points) — The nose was thick with fresh green apple, a hint of pear and orange rind flavours. I also got pleasant wet stone or limestone mineral aromas with a hint of cinnamon or clove. This combination of aromas instantly gave away its birthplace on the Beamsville Bench. In the mouth there were flavours of lemon, pineapple and limestone. The sugar in this wine is slightly higher than most, but it’s more than balanced by the high acidity. These two aspects are not fully integrated yet, but I imagine they will be further as this wine ages. With all that sugar and high acidity, I can see this wine improving to my liking over the next 3-5 years. This is a light bodied wine, easily sipped on its own, but I would pair it with mildly spiced Asian dishes, or pan seared white fish. I gave this wine a 4 out of 5 stars on my “Did I like it scale” and gave it 89 points.
That review was written by Rick Bates, with this note:
In 2012 wine writer Rick VanSickle decided to chronicle a Riesling grape from birth to Bottle. Known as Grape X, it was grown in the famed St. Urban Vineyard at Vineland Estates Winery (on the Beamsville Bench). About a tonne from Block D was vinified separately and eventually became what was bottled under Vineland’s Circle of Friends label and distributed to their Connections Wine Club members. I followed Rick’s articles about the life of Grape X and even went there and visited it once, so it was with great anticipation that I opened my bottle of it when my March wine club package arrived.