By Rick VanSickle
If Covid has taught us anything, it’s how so many of us take the simplest of pleasures in Niagara wine country for granted.
As we race to catch up on so many things that we just haven’t done like forever, or so it seems, what used to be so normal is now reminiscent of your very first kiss — exhilarating and awkward at the same time. It has been just like that as wineries finally get their estate restaurants up and running at full speed.
Note, also in this report: New wines reviewed from Rockway Vineyard and 2027 Cellars.
Wine might be the main driver for tourism in Ontario Wine Country, but what is wine without sustenance? If you are a regular visitor to wine country, you have your favourite winery food and wine experience. Whether it’s a grand estate, chef inspired restaurant with all the bells and whistles, a smaller, casual experience or just sides of charcuterie and small bites on the patio, we do love our food and the top-notch service that comes with it.
Like many of you, I’ve been slowly getting back to dining at winery restaurants. The restaurant at Trius in Niagara-on-the-Lake was the latest stop for me and I was not disappointed. Sure, an awkward moment or two with masking (do you wear them inside to your table or not, do you turn away when your server delivers water, delivers dishes and menus, do you request a table away from crowded areas, etc.), but once you are sitting down with your guests, it’s like riding a bike, you just never forget.
Our server at Trius on a Monday afternoon was Ashley, an attentive (but not overly so) young woman who knew the food that we ordered with expert knowledge and made it easy for us to make our choices. Two us ordered the same things from the menu created by long-time Chef Frank Dodd, while our third guest went rogue.
We started with a delicious Trius Showcase Pinot 2 Sparkling wine, created by Trius/Peller head of winemaking Craig McDonald (above on the right with Chef Frank Dodd), that was elegant, textured, and vigorous; a perfect combination that went well with the starter. Dodd’s gin cured and smoked salmon (soft Hewitt’s Farm goat’s cheese, Hillside Farm golden beets, tonic gel, sea buckthorn curd and caraway spiced crumble) was the perfect foil with both the Pinot-based sparkling wine and the Trius Rosé 2020.
Our main was a creative cornmeal crusted falafel (white bean and confit garlic, hummus, Welsh Brother’s pickled corn, Hilltop beet, Fior di Latte Romesco, candied pumpkin seeds and crispy sweet potato chips), which paired nicely with the rosé.
It was a glorious meal with perfect service on both the food and wine side, and it felt so wonderful to be able to eat comfortably in the company of friends surrounded by other diners laughing, smiling, and engaging as humans are wont to do.
Get out there, people, book your experience now at the many wineries in Ontario. Looking for ideas? Some of my favourites are the restaurants at Vineland Estates, Ravine Vineyard, BarrelHead at Pillitteri (patio opens Victory Day weekend, great pizza as seen in photo above), Two Sisters, Peller Estate, Strewn winery, Honsberger, Rockway Vineyard, Henry of Pelham, Calamus and Good Earth.
Here are my reviews of the two Trius wines enjoyed at lunch.
Trius Showcase Pinot 2 Sparkling NV ($55, only available at Trius, 93 points) — This sparkler is a non-vintage blend of 72% Pinot Meunier (sourced from reserve wines from 2014-17, but mostly 2016-17), 24% Pinot Noir (from 2013-2017) and 4% Chardonnay (mostly from 2015). The final cuvée (with 36 months of lees aging) is close to six years of aging on release. “Non-vintage is something I fervently believe is the key to complexity and nuance in the drier styles of sparkling,” says McDonald. This one has only is 3 g/l RS. Only 1,260 bottles were made with another 2,100 bottles of the same cuvée still on tirage, which McDonald hopes to release after another 2-3 years. Trius has a rich history of making sparkling wines and it has grown exponentially to be the largest producer of VQA sparkling wines in the country under the care and guidance of McDonald. The Showcase bubbles are small lot, long elevage and carefully blended examples of the best bubbles made at the estate. This is a pretty and finessed wine on the nose with fresh red berries, brioche, biscuit, and subtle lemon zest. It’s both elegant and vibrant on the palate with a vigorous mousse, leesy/biscuit notes, wild raspberries and strawberry tart with citrus zest and mouth-watering acidity on the finish. Very fine now but will age gracefully and gain fat over the next 5-7 years in the cellar. A rarity that sparkling lovers need in their collection.
Trius Rosé 2020 ($18, 90 points) — This rosé is a blend of Gamay Noir and Syrah and shows a bright pink colour in the glass. It reveals the full range of red berries, red currants, pomegranate, and citrus zest on the nose. It’s perfectly dry, zesty, and fresh on the palate with raspberry-strawberry highlights, some grapefruit notes and a lifted finish. Great food wine and perfect for the patio.
New wines from Rockway Vineyards
Rockway Small Lot Chardonnay 2020 ($25, 91 points) — The grapes come from the estate vineyard and the wine is aged for nine months in second and third fill French oak barriques. It has a rich and elegant nose of baked pear/quince, toasted vanilla bean, creamy/leesy notes, a squirt of lemon and barrel spices. It’s caressing on the palate with ripe stone fruits, a creamy texture, plenty of oak spices (that should integrate with a bit of time in the cellar) and a fairly bright and lifted finish.
Rockway Gewürztraminer 2020 ($20, 90 points) — This Gew has less of a musky/perfumy nose typical of the style and more overt pear, apple, apricot, and subtle lychee. It has a vibrant feel on the palate and is quite fruit-driven with a kiss of honey on the finish. It’s fresh and vibrant and made in a style that is approachable and food friendly.
Rockway Gamay Noir 2019 ($19, 89 points) — A lighter-bodied and joyous Gamay with an inviting nose of wild raspberries, plums, black cherries, and subtle earthy/spicy notes. It packs a punch on the palate with its fruit-packed array or red berries on a smooth texture with nuanced spice note and a mouth-watering finish.
Rockway Cabernet Shiraz 2018 ($25, 88 points) — The blend includes 50% Cabernet Franc, 37.5% Syrah from estate fruit and 12.5% Cabernet Sauvignon from neighbours on the Twenty Mile Bench. Cabernet Franc might be the dominant variety but it’s the Syrah (Shiraz) that does all the talking on the nose. Look for earth, leathery and spicy notes with cocoa, red berries, plums, herbs, and spice. It’s supple and rounded on the palate with earthy red berries, anise, black pepper, and a bright finish.
Rockway Small Lot Syrah 2017 ($27, 91 points) — An enticing nose of forest berries, brambly raspberries, grilled meats, savoury spices and cracked black peppercorns. The tannins are ripe and supple on the palate with earthy red berries, anise/licorice, herbs, lavish spice notes and a juicy finish. Lovely Syrah that’s drinking well now but can cellar for 5+ years.
Rockway Cabernet Franc 2018 ($28, 90 points) — A leaner version of CF with notes of red berries, herbs, blackberries, anise, and light spice notes. It shows a bit more oomph on the palate and the fruits turn more toward to the darker berries of cassis, plums and anise with rich spice notes, an interesting herbal note, leather, and a spicy kick on the lively finish.
Rockway Staterra Red 2019 ($25, 92 points) — This blend of 50% Merlot from Niagara-on-the-Lake and 30.6% Cabernet Franc and 19.4% Syrah from the estate was a pleasant surprise for me. The nose is lovely with bright cherries, earthy/smoky notes, cocoa, subtle herbs, a touch of cassis and spice. It’s a nicely put together, easy-drinking red with plenty of zip on the palate. Look for a well-integrated array of red and dark berries, integrated spices, and herbs with everything in perfect harmony all the way through the polished and lifted finish. A red wine that that will get the full attention of your dinner guests and won’t break the bank.
A duet from 2027 Cellars
2027 Cellars Gamay Rosé 2011 ($22, 92 points) — This single-vineyard Wismer Vineyard — Foxcroft Block rosé from the Twenty Mile Bench shows a pale salmon colour in the glass and has a fragrant nose of wild raspberries, pretty, dark cherries, a touch of cassis and plums with swirling minerality. It has lovely texture on the palate with pure red berries, a squirt of citrus and darker berries with a fairly robust feel through the lifted finish. Wow rosé.
2027 Cellars King Street Vineyard Pinot Noir 2020 ($40, 91 points) — This is both typical and atypical of a 2027 wine — typical because winemaker/owner Kevin Panagapka has always taken what the vintage delivers and atypical because at 14% abv, it’s just a little over the edge of his comfort zone. But that’s what the warm 2020 gave him and he rolled with it. This Pinot has a deep-rooted and bold nose of brambly raspberries, dark cherries, subtle cassis, earthy notes, and integrated spice notes. It’s dripping in black cherries on the palate with a smooth texture and then anise, wild raspberries, bramble, and spices in a rich and sassy style that still maintains finesse on the vibrant finish. So, not typical of the more restrained 2027 style, but certainly in line with the vintage. Can age 5+ years.