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Living up to the hype: The 2020 red wines from Niagara’s Ravine Vineyard, and more

By Rick VanSickle

Ravine Vineyard winemaker Lydia Tomek is one of the most upbeat and positive people you will ever meet. She will find a silver lining in hurricane.

Note, also in this report: Our picks from the sparse online only wine release at Vintages that goes live on Thursday, including a gorgeous Bachelder single-vineyard Chardonnay.

So, back in April 2021, when we were tearing into a range of vintage 2020 samples from her St. David’s estate red wine program that were unfinished and aging in various oak treatments, you can imagine how hard it was for Tomek, below, to contain her joy. “What the hell have I been missing all these years,” she exclaimed at the time. “I’ve been yearning for this. I usually say ‘patience is a virtue, but, nope, not with these wines.’ ”

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Now that the rest of the white wines and the first of the red wines from 2020 are being released after their little nap in oak barrels, I believe we can now get behind all the hype and enthusiasm. There just hasn’t been a more complete, more perfect vintage for making wine in Niagara, and from I’ve been tasting lately around Niagara, and now at Ravine with Tomek, that isn’t hyperbole, that isn’t the silver lining in a storm, it’s real.

I tasted the full range of upcoming vintages with Tomek recently from the 2020 vintage and the trickier 2021 Vintage. Here is what I liked.

Bubbles and Rosé

Ravine Charmat Rosé NV ($32, 90 points) — This sparkling wine is made from a base of Gamay and Riesling with a bit of Chardonnay and Pinot for good measure. Secondary fermentation took place in charmat tanks to create the precious bubbles. It shows a lively a mousse in the glass with aromas of fresh red berries, plums, and subtle earthy/savoury notes. It has a lively feel on the palate with the full spectrum of raspberries, cherries and strawberry tart with juicy plums, touch of citrus zest and mouth-watering acidity. Made in a dry, fresh style.

Ravine Rosé 2021 ($25, 91 points) — This is the first Merlot-based rosé Tomek has made at Ravine. It’s made in a bone-dry style with some lees contact. It has an enticing nose of savoury raspberries, cranberries, red cherries, and summer herbs. There is lovely texture and vibrancy on the palate with earthy/savoury raspberry and cherry notes, a touch of plums and herbs with a vibrant finish.

The Whites

Ravine Unoaked Chardonnay 2021 ($31, 91 points) — Tomek gave this unoaked style a lot of lees stirring to add complexity and texture. It has a perfumed nose of pear, peach skin, apple, leesy/creamy notes, and a pinch of citrus. There is some weight on the palate to go with ripe stone fruits, peach cobbler, mouth-watering acidity, and citrus zest on the lifted finish.

Ravine Reserve Chardonnay 2020 ($55, fall release, 94 points) — “The 2020 aromatic whites are stunning,” says Tomek. “It was just a complete year. Everything is a little louder in 2020 and there’s good acidity.” The reserve level is culled from the best 4-6 barrels of all the Chardonnay grown at the certified organic estate vineyard and sourced fruit every year. The barrels are tasted blind and, not surprisingly, the estate fruit usually wins out, as it did in both 2019 and 2020. While the 2019 version of this Chard was a stunner, the ripe, warm 2020 vintage of this Chardonnay is even better. It has an inviting nose poached pear, golden apple, bergamot, toasted vanilla bean, touch of pineapple, butterscotch, lemon curd and elegant spice notes. It’s a generous Chard on the palate with a concentrated and complex array of baked pear, apple, and quince and flinty minerality with lovely butterscotch cream, toasted almond notes and lavish spice. This is a juicy, rich, fulsome Chard but still has balancing acid and finesse on the finish. A real treat.

Ravine Small Batch Riesling 2021 ($28, July release, 92 points) — Riesling was one of the problem children during the harvest of 2021. It was caught between low brix (sugar content) and damaging rains. It needed more time on the vine, but breakdown was a problem with all the rain that came so quickly. Winemakers and growers had to make hard decisions and pay attention to the rapidly fluctuating situation in the vineyard. Tomek and her team must have done something right; this Small Lot Riesling took home a gold medal and scored 96 points at the most recent Decanter awards. Tomek told Wines In Niagara it was a matter of ruthless sorting in both the vineyard (vine by vine) and on the sorting table as the grapes reached the right Brix. The nose is gorgeous with pure lime, grapefruit, peach skin, stony/saline minerality and crisp apple. It has wonderful verve and energy on the palate then lime zest, tangy citrus, apple slices, a touch of peach and a fresh, invigorating finish. Should age beautifully for 5+ years.

Ravine Small Batch Riesling 2020 ($28, previously reviewed, July release, 91 points) — Both this 2020 Small Batch and the above 2021 will be on sale side by side so consumers can taste the differences in two vintages. This has an overt nose of lime, flinty minerality, grapefruit and green apple. It’s feels perfectly dry on the palate, despite 12 g/l of RS, with saline/stony minerality, fresh apple, lime zest and a tangy, bright finish. Should age well for 5+ years.

Ravine Patricia’s Block Riesling 2021 ($36, July release, 91 points) — The Patricia’s Block Riesling comes from the estate vineyard right behind the restaurant. There’s a dip in the vineyard that traps moisture and in most vintages the grapes develop botrytis if left unattended. Tomek elected to have no botrytised fruit this vintage with less alcohol (9.1%) and 34 g/l of residual sugar. Again, Tomek spent considerable time in the vineyard cutting out compromised fruit, vine by vine, “then we picked it and squished it.” It has a pleasant perfumy nose of saline, honey, lemon-lime, and wet stones. The palate shows peach and honey, candied citrus, and pure decadence in a sweet(ish) sort of way. Decent acidity keeps it all together on the finish.

Ravine Gewurztraminer 2021 ($28, 89 points) — The nose shows perfumed pear, subtle lychee, grapefruit, a pinch of spice and ginger. On the palate look for honey sweet pear, apricot tart, grapefruit, ginger in spades and mouth-watering acidity on the finish.

The Reds

Ravine Merlot 2020 ($40, September release, 92 points) — If you haven’t heard it by now, I will repeat it for you: 2020 is a gift from Mother Nature to Niagara wine lovers. The wines are showing beautifully across all varieties, but in particular, the Bordeaux red varieties. These four reds benefit from one of the best growing seasons Niagara has ever seen and Ravine hasn’t even bottled the reserve reds yet. The Merlot is gorgeous with a nose of black cherries, dense black raspberries, cassis, plums, touch of earth and elegant, integrated oak spice notes. It’s caressing and juicy on the palate with concentrated red berries, cassis, anise, and firm tannic structure to go with fine oak spices and a lifted, long finish. Can cellar 7+ years.

Ravine Cabernet Sauvignon 2020 ($45, August release, 93 points) — What a lovely nose of sweet blackberries, ripe black cherries, cassis, black currants, Cuban tobacco leaf, subtle earthy notes, and layered spices. It’s plush and concentrated on the palate and carried by a firm bed of tannins where the black fruits, licorice, earthy/tar, and tobacco notes shine. The finish is long and finessed with lingering oak spice notes. Can cellar 7+ years.

Ravine Cabernet Franc 2020 ($42, July release, 90 points) — The nose reveals mature red berries, stewed herbs, blackberries, black licorice, and fine oak spices. On the palate look for anise, savoury red berries, charred cedar, earth, evident tannins, and spice with finesse on the finish.

Ravine Meritage 2020 ($37, available now, 92 points) — The blend is 60% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Cabernet Franc. Another inviting nose of black and red berries with dominant dark cherries and black currants to go with rich spice notes and a touch of earth. This is a highly structured red with firm tannins, concentrated cherry and raspberry, black currants, mulled herbs, anise, elegant spice, and a big, juicy finish. Cellar 5+ years.

Note: We finished the tasting with a sneak peek at the 2020 Reserve Red. It’s a monster; a big, juicy ripe blend with saturated black fruits, cherry kirsch, cigar box cedar, incredible depth, and tannic structure. It’s tight right now but promises to evolve into an exciting big, bold red built for the long haul.

Vintages releases Thursday (online only)

These online LCBO releases, that replaced the in-store second Vintages release of the month, are shrinking is scope. I’ve never seen such a small release of Niagara wines. There are three white wines — a Bachelder Chardonnay, a pét-nat from Adamo and an orange wine from Reif — and NOT A SINGLE RED WINE at all available for purchase.

A source at the LCBO tells me that online sales haven’t been as successful as expected and unsold stock will likely be distributed to stores for Christmas sales.

The question is, where are consumers going to buy their wine? Are bottle shops starting to have an impact on LCBO sales or are consumers just doubling down on the only physical release of the month? Stay tuned … I’ll ask the question but it’s doubtful I’ll ever get an answer.

Here’s what’s available as of June 30 online:

Bachelder Warren Saunders 100 Chardonnay 2019 ($48, 93 points):

The Terroir: The Saunders Vineyard is located about 4 km from the lake, but on the Beamsville Bench on Mountainview Road. The vineyard is certified organic, and the soil is clay, silk, sand and limestone. Bachelder takes his fruit from a higher, southern part of the vineyard with older vines.

Warren Saunders: Bachelder honours Warren Saunders, above, this vintage with the inscription “Warren Saunders 100” on the label. His 100th birthday was last March 27. The Saunders family property has been farmed since the mid-1800s. Warren and Ivy Saunders purchased the property in 1965 and continued to farm the existing mixed tender fruit orchard and labrusca/hybrid vineyard. They were avid farmer’s market goers, selling the fruit and farm-made grape juice at several markets in southern and eastern Ontario. But the bulk of the grapes were sold to large-scale wineries for the table wines of the day. Eventually, with changes in the Niagara grape and wine industry, the old vines and fruit trees were replaced with vinifera varieties Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Riesling. Operated now by siblings Leslie John and Ann-Marie, the Saunders Family Farm & Vineyard wine grapes have been grown organically since 2008, certified organic since 2013.

The Wine: The nose is broad and concentrated with poached pear, wet stones, golden apples, rich oak spices and subtle lemon zest. It shows concentrated stone fruits on the palate, fine oak spice, lemon tart and zippy citrus zest on the lifted finish.

Also released online, but not reviewed:

• Adamo Legacy Pét-Nat Pinot Blanc Sparkling 2020 ($21)
• Reif Sun Skin-Fermented Vidal Orange Wine 2019 ($25)