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Sweet success without the sugar: A winemaker’s passion for dry sparkling wines

By Rick VanSickle

There is nothing sweet about 13th Street winemaker JP Colas. Absolutely zero. Zilch. Nada. In a winemaking sort of way.

In terms of sugar added into Colas’s growing family of sparkling wines at the St. Catharines winery in Niagara, don’t even get him started. He is — above all — anti-sweet and prefers his sparkling wines (and by extension, most of his wines) made in a bracingly bone-dry style. “I like it sharp and festive,” he says as we taste a lineup of bubbles at the estate recently. “So your tastebuds won’t get tired. I just don’t like creamy and nutty, it’s not for me.”

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Colas, above, picks his grapes for the estate’s sparkling program as “fresh and unripe” as possible. He is always looking for high acidity and will make corrections later in the process, but rarely at the dosage stage. He prefers his bubbles in a brut zero style, and if the wine needs a dosage, it’s usually with the base wine, not a sugar blast. “I don’t like fat and creamy.”

He comes to his obsessive pursuit of dry wines honestly. Groomed in the vineyards of Chablis, Colas only knew how to make austere and fresh wines when he landed in Niagara. Dry, minerally-driven whites, for the most part, are in his DNA. “Who in Chablis knew in 20 years I’d be making sparkling wines,” he says with a wry smile on his face. But here we are, a stellar lineup of sparklers in front us, and if truth be told, one of the most exciting portfolios of traditionally made sparkling wines in Niagara.

It hasn’t always been easy to get to this point, admits Colas. There has been a learning curve, with mistakes along the way. But he’s on a roll now, creating a diverse body of work that will excite fans of sparkling wines at all levels.

I sat down recently with Colas and sales/marketing manager Ilya Rubin to taste a range of bubbles at the estate. Here’s what I liked:

13th Street Blanc de Blanc 2020 ($30, LCBO, winery, 92 points) — This popular, traditionally made sparkler, is true to the Colas style. It’s a brut zero (no sugar added), 100% Chardonnay sourced mainly from a neighbouring vineyard. This was disgorged after 14 months on the lees and finished with just 3 g/l of sugar. It has an energetic bubble and a fresh and lemony nose with biscuit, pear and flinty minerality. It’s lively on the palate with subtle smoky/flinty notes, bright apple, fresh pear, toasted almonds, lemon zest and a lifted, minerally finish. Lovely bubbles.

13th Street Blanc de Blanc 2019 ($30, winery only, 91 points) — The ’19 version of the Blanc de Blanc is similar to the above but was disgorged after 18 months. There’s a bit more fruit on the nose with a more elegant bead in the glass and shows beautifully perfumed pear/apple/quince notes with lemon chiffon and stony minerality. It has pep on the palate with a rich vein of salinity, pear/apple notes, lemon-lime zest, beautiful balance, and juicy, mouth-watering acidity driving the back end.

13th Street Blanc de Noir Gamay 2019 ($35, winery only, 92 points) — This is only the second iteration of this rare traditionally-made estate sparkling Gamay. I can’t think of another like this being made locally. The wine was aged sur lattes for 12 months before being disgorged and is another brut zero wine with no malo or oak and finished at 3 g/l of sugar. It has a vibrant, expressive nose of fresh red berries, s touch of plums, biscuit and minerality with a vigorous mousse. There’s tingling acidity on the palate then brambly raspberry notes, plums, a touch of citrus, smoke and saline minerality with vigour and finesse on the finish. A fun and very different style of bubbles.

13th Street Cuvée Rose NV ($35, LCBO, winery, 91 points) — This is the top selling Canadian sparkling wine at the LCBO and the only one in the portfolio to receive a dosage of 8 g/l, which is still dry but a bit of a departure from the other sparklers in the portfolio. It’s a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and a splash of Gamay that’s fermented and aged in the traditional method. It was aged sur lattes (en tirage) for a minimum of 18 months during which the bubbles became smaller and more compact. It shows a gorgeous rose petal colour in the glass with an energetic mousse. It’s loaded with red berries, cranberries, rhubarb, lemon zest and a subtle toasty note. It’s fresh and the bubbles pop on the palate with a barrage of red berries, subtle earthy/autolytic notes, red currants, and a dry impression through a finish that features mouth-watering acidity and verve.

13th Street Premier Cuvée 2017 ($40, 93 points) — This blend of mostly estate Chardonnay (55%) and Pinot Noir (45%) was aged on lees for a minimum of 48 months. After disgorging, Colas felt the wine was in perfect balance so decided to not add any sugar to the dosage resulting in a classically dry sparkling wine in the zero-dosage style. This wine was not exposed to oak and did not undergo malolactic fermentation. It is gorgeous on the nose with bright, fresh saline minerality, lifted lemon and ripe apple, with baked bread and toasty autolytic notes along with subtle berries. The bubble in the glass and on the palate is persistent and lively with stony/flinty minerality, apple and pear fruit, lemon-citrus accents, bready/brioche notes, and all together lifted and finessed through a brilliantly crisp finish. Can cellar 5+ years for further development.

13th Street Grande Cuvée Blanc de Noir 2013 ($70, 94 points) — The Grande Cuvée is only produced in exceptional vintages. It is 100% Pinot Noir sourced from the estate’s Whitty Vineyard in the Creek Shores sub-appellation. After careful manual harvest, the whole bunches of Pinot Noir are put into the press where the free run juice is separated out and blended with the first gentle press to extract juice but not colour or phenolics. The wine was aged on its lees for seven years and no sugar was added, only the base wine was used for the dosage. What a masterpiece! Such a personable sparkling wine with an intriguing nose of mature apple, pear, smoky/flinty notes, lemon curd and brioche/autolytic accents. The colour is golden in the glass with a soft, persistent, and elegant bead. On the palate look for baked pear, stony/saline minerality, ripe apple, lifted lemon-centric citrus notes with rousing acidity keeping it fresh and lifted though a luxurious and long finish. Wow!