By Rick VanSickle
Take a bow, Niagara, you released some mighty tasty wines in 2022, thrilling, in fact.
Having returned to what is now the new normal from the Covid hell we all went through and are still feeling the repercussions, it was nice to finally get back into tasting rooms, barrel cellars and even the back of pickup trucks to the taste wines that make up the bulk of our annual Most Thrilling Wines in Niagara list.
As the list clearly points out, we keep getting spoiled by wines from the near perfect 2020 vintage with a total of 13 red and white wines on this list from that golden year that keeps on giving. Which is a very good thing. The 2021 vintage wasn’t so giving, and countless vines, sadly, never survived that terrible winter, which had a negative impact on the 2022 vintage with less wine to made. We’re not talking quality here, but quantities are drastically reduced.
For this annual Most Thrilling Wines of the Year list for 2022, it should be noted, Wines in Niagara (hi, it’s me, Rick) did manage to get to far more in-person tastings than the previous two or three years, but it was still impossible to get to every winery in the region to taste every wine. While I prefer to taste wines in person with winemakers to get a feel for the people behind the wines, that isn’t always possible. Many of the wines tasted in 2022 were via sample, sent to my front porch, for tasting and possible review. That is not how I prefer it, but sometimes it is necessary. It should also be noted, samples are sent unsolicited, and Wines in Niagara does not accept requests for paid-for reviews or sponsored posts (you have a plenty of options for that). Our revenue is 100% derived from the support of our advertisers (thank you!), and not the Google kind, real advertisers, real people supporting real local journalism.
If I had it my way, in a perfect world, I would taste all wines in a dimly lit barrel cellar, on a picnic table surrounded by vines with the person who made the wine or on my back porch, like in the photo below with Southbrook owner Bill Redelmeier, so I can get a better understanding of what they were trying to do with the wines before us. I crave the human connection to wine rather than the antiseptic nature of tasting wines alone in my living room.
I have always loved annual wine lists and chasing the wines that catch my eye. I love that they are varied, and no two lists are ever the same.
This is the 14th consecutive year for the Most Thrilling Niagara Wines compilation, not sure there is an annual wine list in Canada that has that kind of longevity. I laboured over it for weeks, adding, subtracting, and slashing the list down to the 20 most thrilling white and red wines and (new this year) the most thrilling sparkling wines in 2022. Yes, you read that correctly. I feel the sparkling category, which has grown leaps and bounds over the years, can stand alone with its own category. It’s something Niagara vintners can do very well, and it rarely fails to be vintage sensitive. Picking early has its advantages.
Heavy on my mind when constructing a list like this are two crucial questions: Is the list representative of what does best in Niagara? Does it fairly represent all Niagara wines?
I think that depends on what you like to drink. The list is laden with the Big Four Niagara varieties — Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc, and now a full list of sparkling wines (primarily made from Pinot and/or Chard) — but it also has some surprises. There are more than a few repeat wineries and wines on this list, partially a reflection of where I go and taste in my travels around Niagara, but also because they are consistent vintage to vintage at the top end. And, let’s face it, many wineries in Niagara don’t appreciate having critics sniffing around their wines, or prefer more marketing-based “content providers” they pay to taste and promote their wines for review to reach the audience they want. We have seen a big move in the past couple of years toward paid sponsorships from those willing to charge for positive feedback. That is not Wines in Niagara, but I understand the appeal for both the wineries and the content providers.
This “best of” list is garnered from the hundreds of wines tasted and reviewed on this website since last January in over 100 separate posts. Curating the list is an agonizing venture that causes many a sleepless night and added stress that’s never in short supply this time of the year. But, hey! No one ever said this job was going to be easy.
It is not my intent to claim these wines are the absolute best Niagara has to offer — because, without tasting every wine in existence, how could I? It is a subjective list that is culled from the wines that I have tasted, some re-tasted, and others even re-evaluated. It is based on the thrill factor and not necessarily on points given (although the average score of the wines on this list is 93.7, up slightly from 93.6 in 2021). I realize that not all palates align with mine and there will be some wines that might raise an eyebrow or two. That is exactly what makes wine enjoyment so fascinating.
I have also a few self-imposed rules for the list (this is not a democracy over here!).
• Spread out the love, which means only one appearance on the list per winery (which I have done, but did not follow the rule when the sparkling wines are factored in);
• 10 Chardonnays or 10 Rieslings or 10 Pinot Noirs or 10 Cabernet Francs would be boring, think outside the box (that being said, the list is dominated by Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, sorry);
• The 10 Most Thrilling Niagara Red, White and Sparkling wines of 2022 are listed in alphabetical order with the original scores included.
• Not all these wines are likely to be available, but no wines were eliminated due to selling out.
So, without further ado, the Most Thrilling Niagara Wines of the Year are …
The Most Thrilling Niagara Red of the Year is the Mason Vineyard The Matriarch Pinot Noir Unfiltered 2020, the Most Thrilling White of the Year is the Domaine Queylus La Grande Réserve Cuvée Champlain Chardonnay 2020, and the Most Thrilling Sparkling Wine of the Year is the 13th Street Grande Cuvée Blanc de Noir 2013.
Fun with numbers:
• Total price of white wines on this list: $533 (up from $467 last year);
• Total price of red wines on this list: $479 (down from $833 last year). Note, one of the wines last year was a magnum that retailed for $300, oh, and we added an extra wine last year; just for fun;
• Most expensive white: $110, Stonebridge Chardonnay Reserve 2017;
• Least expensive white: $26, Inniskillin Montague Vineyard Chardonnay;
• Most expensive red: $70, Leaning Post Senchuk Vineyard Pinot Noir 2019;
• Least expensive red: $35,13th Street Sandstone Gamay 2020;
• Average price for all wines on both lists: $50.60, down from $61.90 last year, again, a $300 magnum will do that);
• Average score Wines in Niagara awarded the red wines: 93.6, exactly the same as last year;
• Average score Wines in Niagara award the white wines: 94.2, oddly, exactly the same as last year;
• What it would cost for you to buy them all: $1,012 ($228 less expensive than last year, but last year there was a magnum and one extra wine), and it would cost you $1,512 if you included the sparkling wines;
• Number of Chardonnays on the list: 8 (there were 6 last year);
• Number of Rieslings on the list: 2 (there was 1 last year);
• Number of Pinot Noirs on the list: 5 (same as last year);
• Number of Cabernet Francs on the list: 2 (same as last year);
• Average price of the sparkling wines on the list: $50;
• Average score for the sparkling wines on the list: 93.3;
• Most expensive sparkling wine on the list: $70 for the 13th Street Grande Cuvée Blanc de Noir 2013;
• Least expensive sparkling wine on the list: Chateau des Charmes Rosé Sparkling Wine 2017.
• Fun fact: For the second year in a row a winery from Prince Edward County has made this list. Rosehall Run has done it again, for reasons explained in the list.
Most Thrilling Red Wine of the Year
In so many ways, the year 2022 belonged to the talented winemaker Kelly Mason, above in her vineyard. I can’t remember a more determined force in the Ontario wine industry, and it all seemed to play out this year on several fronts.
Mason claims both the Most Thrilling Red Wine of Year (for her own Mason Vineyard The Matriarch Pinot Noir Unfiltered 2020) and the Most Thrilling White Wine of the Year (for the Domaine Queylus La Grande Réserve Cuvée Champlain Chardonnay 2020, where she is the head winemaker). Not only that, the Mason Vineyard Sparkling Rosé Blanc de Noirs 2020 made it the Top 10 Sparkling wines of 2022 and the final wine she made for The Farm, The Neudorf Vineyard Pinot Noir 2019, made it onto the Most Thrilling Red Wine list.
That is an extraordinary feat, to say the least, but not surprising when you consider the work Mason has put into her craft. She quietly purchased a vineyard in 2012 while working as an intern at Le Clos Jordanne and was virtually an unknown in wine circles. She planted the grapes, farmed the property, and bought an adjacent vineyard with money that she had been saving since her 20s and while working and earning a good living with an giant auto parts maker, and quietly mapped out her dream of owning a brand.
This was the year Mason revealed to the world an astonishing portfolio of her own wines that consisted of estate bottlings, traditionally made sparkling wines and exciting collaborations with the people she has the most respect for in the wine business. She did all this and continues to do it while being the head winemaker at Domaine Queylus, Honsberger Estate Winery, and until recently, The Farm.
Our pick for Most Thrilling Red Wine of the Year, the Mason Matriarch Pinot Noir, is the culmination of all the above. Not only is it a sensational wine, but it also represents what hard work, passion and sacrifice is all about if you want to achieve at the highest levels in a competitive wine market.
Mason Vineyard The Matriarch Pinot Noir Unfiltered 2020 ($55, 94 points) — Pinot Noir is exactly what Mason had in mind when she bought her vineyard 10 years ago. She absolutely loves this grape, and it shows in this wild fermented, lightly oaked style that highlights a beautifully perfumed, forest floor nose of ripe dark cherries, beet root, anise, black raspberries, and subtle, unobtrusive oak spice notes. It shows silky, caressing tannins on the palate, somewhere in the middle of power and grace, with ripe and brambly red berries, lovely savory notes, black earth, seamless spice notes and a lifted, finessed finish. This is exactly what Pinot should be — it makes you ponder and think. Mason suggests 3-5 years of cellaring, if you can wait … good luck with that!
The Thrill Factor: Look, Mason is at the top of her game, she’s busier than any other winemaker/brand owner I know of, and the wines speak for themselves. Her wines are peppered throughout this report, and she made both the Most Thrilling White and Red Wines of the Year. This was a slam-dunk choice.
The rest of the Most Thrilling
Red Wines of the Year
Chateau des Charmes Paul Bosc Estate Vineyard Pinot Noir 2017 ($45, 93 points) — Much like the estate’s top red wine, Equuleus, the Paul Bosc Pinot Noir is made only in outstanding vintages. Throughout the growing season, the vineyard team led by Amelie Boury, carefully monitors the yield produced by the oldest vines in the Paul Bosc Estate Vineyard to achieve the optimal balance between tannin ripeness, brix (sugar levels) and flavour. The wine is aged for 16 months in new French oak barrels. This is a late released wine, which is a huge benefit for the consumer to enjoy Pinot Noir that has already been bottle aged. It’s a sturdy Pinot with a bold nose of forest floor, earthy/savoury notes, brambly raspberries, dark cherries, a touch of cassis and eucalypt to go with fine oak spices. It’s rich and textured on the palate with black cherries, raspberries and anise all integrated with earthy/savoury notes, smooth tannins, elegant spices, and a lifted and long finish. This is a bolder style Pinot Noir with structure and can benefit from further aging in the cellar, say 5+ years.
The Thrill Factor: There is history here and consistency with the style created all those many years ago by Paul Bosc Sr. There is something to be said about classically made wines true to the terroir.
The Farm Neudorf Vineyard Pinot Noir 2019 ($55, 94 points) — This is the last single vineyard wine made by Kelly Mason at the estate. The grapes were hand-picked, hand sorted and undergo wild fermentation (both primary and secondary) with a cold soak and a long maceration on skins post fermentation. They are fermented and aged in French oak barrels ranging from second fill to neutral. The estate Neudorf Vineyard is central to The Farm wines. It was originally planted with Pinot Noir in 2000 for Le Clos Jordanne and aptly named La Petite Colline, meaning little hill, a nod to the gentle slopes that permeate the plot. The vineyard was farmed organically from the beginning and the wine sees no manipulations, including fining or filtering. For me, the Neudorf is touch tighter on the nose when compared to the sister wine from Mason Vineyard, but as it opens up the floral/violet notes emerge with earthy red berries, a touch of savouriness, minerals, wild black berries, and elegant spices. It’s pretty and polished on the palate with dark cherries, summer strawberries and crunchy cranberries in a concentrated, dense profile buoyed by underlying savoury spice, earth, lovely texture, medium+ tannins and a fresh, vibrant, long finish. Gorgeous wine that will cellar well for 7+ years.
The Thrill Factor: This is the last vintage of single-vineyard Farm wines made by Kelly Mason. Her style is well established, and I have no doubt these wines will continue to excel under the guidance now of Morgan Juniper.
Hidden Bench Terroir Caché 2018 ($45, 94 points) — The blend is 46% Merlot, 31% Malbec and 23% Cabernet Franc all sourced from the three estate vineyards on the Beamsville Bench. It’s aged in French oak (38% new) for 20 months. Such an enthralling nose of anise, cassis, blackberries and cherries with dried tobacco, earth, charred cedar, and rich spice notes. It’s smooth but has structure on the palate with super dense wild red berries, tobacco, leather, blackberries, earth, and elegant spice notes all leading to a mouth-watering and lifted finish. Such a beautiful red wine with style and power that will continue to get better for 7+ years in the cellar.
The Thrill Factor: There is no question that Harald Thiel and winemaker Alex Baines are making wines (and always have) at the highest level in Ontario and Canada. This is one of several Hidden Bench wines that could have made this list and have on past lists.
League of Farmers Cabernet Franc 2020 ($42, 93 points) — This is a delicious Cabernet Franc, about as concentrated and juicy as they come from the warm 2020 vintage. It’s tightly wound on the nose, but swirl for a few seconds and the gorgeous nose of dense black raspberries, kirsch, anise, mulled herbs, and fine oak spices emerge in spades. It’s substantial on the palate with a rich and structured profile that highlights ripe wild raspberries, black cherries, cassis, licorice, sage notes, elegant oak spices, and a long, lifted finish. Such a lovely Cabernet Franc. It needs a little time to integrate or decant if you can’t wait. Cellar 5+ years.
The Thrill Factor: I love the collaborative effort from the League of Farmers, and I like that they are proud growers of Niagara-on-the-Lake fruit and dedicated to lifting the profile of the region. Enough said.
Leaning Post Senchuk Vineyard Pinot Noir 2019 ($70, 94 points) — As a champion of the furthest west border of Niagara, Ilya Senchuk, winemaker and owner with his wife Nadia, has firmly established a terroir they can call their own as top dog at the estate. And it starts with his two Burgundian grapes — the Chardonnay and this Pinot Noir. The Senchuks had no clue what their land would yield when they purchased the property. It took four years to find out what they had and two or three vintages after that before they knew they had found something REALLY special. This Pinot exemplifies what the Senchuk Vineyard is all about, a unique expression that is dense, structured, and built to last. The woodsy/earthy nose yields to savoury red berries with swirling, then forest floor, anise, charred cedar, and elegant, expressive spice notes. It’s tightly wound on the palate with firm tannic structure that will soften in time (or decant now) to reveal the melange of dark cherries, wild raspberries, beet root, fine oak spices, earthy notes, and anise. The finish is long and lifted from the mouth-watering acidity. Can cellar 10+ years, in my opinion.
The Thrill Factor: Senchuk is defining undiscovered pocket of Niagara with his relatively new vineyard in Winona, and the terroir shines through in this Pinot Noir (as it does in his Chardonnay). Hard work + enthusiasm + talent = thrilling wines.
Rosehall Run UV 2020 ($44, 92 points) — The 52% Merlot and 48% Cabernet Sauvignon UV is a Niagara-sourced blend of fruit from the Nedelko Vineyard from the Twenty Mile Bench. It shows ripe black cherries, black currants, cassis and enticing oak spices on the nose that is both riveting and enticing. The dense red and dark berries on the palate are joined by anise/licorice, and fresh turned soil with tannic structure. This is both a bold and flavourful wine, yes, but also nicely finessed on the finish.
The Thrill Factor: Dan Sullivan is a proud Prince Edward County farmer, winemaker, and winery owner, but he isn’t afraid to grow his portfolio by sourcing some of the finest fruit in nearby Niagara from trusted growers. PEC can do a lot, but only a few vinifera grapes can thrive there. Growth comes from knowing what you can’t do and finding other grapes to achieve what you can do. Rosehall Run is one of the best at doing just that and Sullivan proudly states that on every label whether the grapes come from Niagara or PEC. Others, such as Mackenzie Brisbois at Trail Estate, are also following this path.
Southbrook Laundry Vineyard Pinot Noir 2020 ($38, 94 points) — The Laundry Pinot, from the Lincoln Lakeshore sub-appellation, spends 10 months in French oak (30% new). It has a generously perfumed nose and a ravishing array of wild raspberries, strawberry tart and black cherries with subtle earthy notes, a pretty floral lift and elegant spice notes. It checks all the boxes for a classic Niagara Pinot Noir and shows a textbook “iron fist in a velvet glove” profile on the palate with rich and savoury red berries, silky smooth tannins, underlying earthiness, wild herbs, anise, fine oak spices and all perfectly balanced and finessed on the finish. Can cellar 6+ years, it’s a beauty.
The Thrill Factor: Heather Laundry shares the same values as the gang at Southbrook, so this organically grown Pinot Noir is a perfect fit into the mostly estate fruit portfolio. Wine is often about relationships, and it’s on full display with this lovely, terroir-driven wine.
13th Street Sandstone Gamay 2020 ($35, 93 points) — Sourced from the estate’s Whitty Vineyard in Creek Shores, the Sandstone is the top Gamay from 13th Street. The wine is aged in seasoned French oak barrels for 12 months. It’s lightly fined and filtered prior to bottling. What a beautiful expression of Gamay and shows exactly how engaged winemakers, like JP Colas, are taking this grape to greater heights. It has a penetrating nose of ripe and bold red berries, purple plums, floral notes, earthy/mineral notes, and fine oak spices. It’s rich and expressive on the palate with reductive notes, saturated cherries, raspberries, plums and anise with broad shoulders and structure, firm tannins, and a fresh lifted finish. As Colas says: “It’s Gamay, but more than Gamay.” Can cellar 5+ years and would be fascinating to see its development. Serious Gamay here.
The Thrill Factor: JP Colas has proven over and over again what the strengths are 13th Street. Gamay is one of those grapes that he has championed across many different bottlings, and the Sandstone is the pièce de resistance in the Gamay collection.
Vineland Estates Reserve Cabernet Franc 2020 ($50, 95 points) — The reserve tier is the top category at Vineland Estates, and you can bet winemaker Brian Schmidt put everything he had into his beloved CF from Bo-Teek. It’s a blend of two clones (62% of 327, the rest 214) and interestingly, he made me spit 62% of my sample on the right side of the vineyard where Clone 327 is grown and the rest on the 214 left side when I tasted these wines on the back of pickup truck in the vineyard. Worried about cross-clonal contamination, I guess. I didn’t ask, I just did what I was told. What a beautiful wine, with an impressive nose of savoury red berries, a touch of eucalypt, herbs, anise, and well-integrated oak spice notes. It has both power and grace on the palate with dense red and dark berries, minty herbs, earthy/spicy notes, fine-grained tannins, complexity, and tangy acidity keeping it poised through the finish. This is easily cellarable for a decade or more.
The Thrill Factor: Brian Schmidt is the poster boy for Cabernet Franc in Canada. It is what he loves to drink. It is what does best in his vineyards. And it is sliced and diced into myriad shapes and forms from entry level to the new Legacy Infinity Vintage. No one in Niagara has a deeper dive into CF than Schmidt, or more passion for the variety.
The Most Thrilling White Wine of the Year
I can’t really say a lot more about winemaker Kelly Mason that hasn’t already been said above, but I will try. She was mentored at Queylus by one of the best, Thomas Bachelder, and now acts as a mentor to her talented assistant Brooke Husband. Both Bachelder and Husband were asked to do collaborative wines with Mason for her new brand. Friends and mentors helping each other out is kinda special, don’t you think? This Chardonnay is a result of Mason’s winemaking skills, some of it learned from Bachelder, and with help from Husband, who Mason has a great deal of respect for. No wonder it’s our Most Thrilling White Wine of the Year.
Domaine Queylus La Grande Réserve Cuvée Champlain Chardonnay 2020 ($60, 95 points) — No new oak is used in aging this extraordinary wine, just second fill and neutral French oak barrels for 24 months. It has such a beguiling nose of flinty stone fruits, fresh salinity, subtle pinecone, and savoury notes, lemon peel and toasted oak nuances. While it’s mouth-filling on the palate, it is still lithe and pristine, with concentrated pear/quince fruit, savoury notes, fresh salinity, elegant spicy notes, citrus zest and a lifted, finessed and extraordinarily long finish. This will cellar nicely for years to come, at least 5+ years. A real treat to taste Chardonnay at this level from Niagara.
The Thrill Factor: To watch Champlain Charest, above, taste this wine for the first time was touching to witness. The look of pure joy on his face as he sniffed and tasted it, then complimented Mason and Husband after declaring it a winner ,was priceless. Charest was one of Canada’s most prolific collectors of fine wine. He can drink the top wines in the world for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. So, to see him fawning over a Niagara Chardonnay is testament to something magical is happening at Queylus.
The Rest of the Most Thrilling White Wines
Bachelder Hill of Wingfield Chardonnay 2020 ($75, 95 points) — This Chardonnay from “The Hill of Wingfield” is what Thomas Bachelder not so quietly refers to as “grand cru” even though it is a classification that still has no standing in Niagara (but should). The Chardonnay grapes grown in this parcel, which is at the highest elevation and furthest from Lake Ontario, are the latest ripening in Wingfield. As Bachelder says, and in this I agree 100%: “This wine’s beauty is certainly at least partially in the eye of the beholder, but, come on, the Wingfield is grandiose!” This was formerly called Wismer-Wingfield West. Oh, my! What a beauty. Such a beguiling and perfumed nose of pear/apple, savoury notes, beautifully reductive, stony minerality and so pretty and unique with bergamot, vanilla toast, creamy accents and already integrated fine oak spices. It just gets better on the palate with generous quince and lemon tart, stunning saline/flint/wet stone minerality, a touch of savoury spices, mouth-watering acidity, and verve through a long, clean, and finessed finish. Gorgeous Chardonnay that will age nicely for 6+ years.
The Thrill Factor: He is the terroir whisperer of Niagara (that’s him on the left above, with Craig Wismer) and his wines across the three grapes he champions — Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Gamay — could fill many spots on this list. The Hill of Wingfield is his holy grail for Chardonnay, and he’s nailed it perfectly in this vintage.
Flat Rock Cellars Nadja’s Vineyard Riesling 2020 ($33, 94 points) — Nadja’s is one of Niagara’s most important vineyards for Riesling. It’s a three-acre block that was planted in 2001 with shallow clay loam soil and visible veins of glacial deposits resting on a thick layer of fractured dolomite limestone. It’s a special vineyard, and in a fabulous vintage such as 2020, the results are stunning. The nose gushes with pure lime juice, wet stones, peachy/apple notes, saline minerality and a just a hint of petrol emerging. It’s tangy and electric on the palate with an intriguing tug of sweet-tart fruit that highlights lemon-lime zest, lanoline, apple skin, stony minerality, a touch of ginger and a rousing finish with mouth-watering acidity. You can happily cellar for 10+ years and watch this mellow into an even more complex Riesling.
The Thrill Factor: Nadja’s Vineyard is one of five or six vineyards in Niagara that never fail to impress with its Riesling. It’s simply one of the best made Rieslings in Niagara every single vintage and no matter who makes it. That’s terroir, baby!
Henry of Pelham Speck Family Reserve Riesling 2020 ($30, 94 points) — The Speck Brothers do a lot of things right from their Short Hills Bench estate, but Riesling is a cut above all the rest and this top cuvee is consistently one of the best Rieslings made in Niagara, along with the Nadja’s above and two or three others. The vineyard where this Riesling is grown was planted in 1982 to the famed Weis 21b Clone. It has a racy, saline nose of gushing lime, grapefruit, lemon blossom, green apple, tangerine, stony minerality and a subtle note of ginger. There is an interesting tug of tension between sweet and tart citrus then wet stones, lemon pith and ginger with a dry impression on a finish that’s long and fresh. The racy vein of acidity should carry this wine to even greater heights for 15+ years. A cellar must for collectors of Niagara Riesling.
The Thrill Factor: Henry of Pelham just keeps growing its portfolio every year with new labels and tiers. It’s hard to keep up to these busy Speck brothers, but the family reserve wines have never suffered with all the growing. The best grapes go into the top tier, and they shine each and every vintage.
Inniskillin Montague Vineyard Chardonnay 2020 $26, 94 points) — The gnarly, historic vines in the Montague Vineyard shine in the heat of a great vintage like 2020. The aromas jump from the glass with peach tart, baked apple pie, poached pear, roasted vanilla bean, toasted almonds, and an array of baking spices. It has a creamy texture on the palate and a lush and fleshy profile loaded with ripe orchard fruits, lemon oil, more restrained oak spice notes and still plenty of bright acidity keeping it fresh and lively through a long finish. Buy a bunch, but don’t keep it too long … it’s too good right now to wait on it.
The Thrill Factor: The Montague Vineyard is steeped in history, all the way back to Donald Ziraldo and Karl Kaiser’s early days of establishing the modern wine industry in Ontario. To walk this vineyard and pass by the some of the oldest vines in Niagara is to walk through history. Only a few winemakers have had the privilege of making this wine over the decades, one of the most consistent Chardonnays made in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Le Clos Jordanne Claystone Terrace Chardonnay 2020 ($48, 94 points) — This is an exciting Chardonnay from beginning to end with a savoury and saline nose of gunflint, fresh pear, apple skin, zesty citrus, lifted and elegant spice notes and all tightly wound and ready to further spread its wings with a bit of time in the bottle. There is depth and power to this sturdy, unique Chardonnay on the palate with more of that saline/flintiness, tension and verve driving the pear/quince fruits, lemon curd, subtle creamy notes, and texture from a deft touch with the oak. There is this lovely vein of savouriness through a finish that is long and finessed. A beautiful expression of terroir-driven Niagara Chardonnay.
The Thrill Factor: After a long absence from the Le Clos family, Claystone was finally reborn. No one was happier than winemaker Thomas Bachelder, and it certainly shows in this Chardonnay that bested, in my opinion, the top Grand Clos bottling in the 2020 vintage (sorry, not sorry).
On Seven The Pursuit Chardonnay 2019 ($55, 94 points) — This Chardonnay was created predominately from a 2014 planting of Chardonnay Dijon clone 76. The fruit was hand-harvested and the whole clusters were then pressed to produce juice. After settling to remove gross lees, the juice was transferred to French oak barrels (25% new, 75% neutral) for wild yeast fermentation and aging. After 20 months in barrel, the wines were coarsely filtered and bottled. “I love 2019 for Chardonnay; if anyone wants to do classic (Burgundian) style, it was a year that had terroir and intensity right across it,” said winemaker/consultant Peter Gamble. The nose is intense with poached pear, golden apple, shades of citrus zest, a touch of flint and wet stones, beautiful perfume, and savoury notes with elegant spices. It has dense stone fruits on the palate with some weight and structure, flinty minerality, a savoury accent, lemon tart, cream, and length through a finessed finish. It just gets better with every sip, suggesting time (5-7 years) in the cellar for further development.
The Thrill Factor: Still a new winery with young vines, On Seven, with winemaker/consultant Peter Gamble in charge of viticulture and crafting the wine, has certainly made an impression with the first few vintages. Attention to detail, dedication to craft and never sacrificing quality for anything has made On Seven a must watch winery for Chardonnay, and soon Pinot Noir and sparkling.
Ravine Reserve Chardonnay 2020 ($55, 94 points) — “The 2020 aromatic whites are stunning,” said winemaker Lydia Tomek, above. “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.
The Thrill Factor: Winemaker Tomek often lets her enthusiasm run wild, but I can’t ever remember her more excited for a wine than this one. And she has every reason to be happy, it’s just a great Chardonnay, a showpiece from the St. David’s Bench.
Stonebridge Chardonnay Reserve 2017 ($110, 94 points) — I love a well-made Chardonnay that polarizes wine lovers, or at the very least, makes them think. Some will absolutely love this unique Chardonnay, others will not. Some will question whether spending $110 on a Niagara Chardonnay is a wise decision when they can buy decent Burgundy for less than that, while some understand completely when a Chardonnay such as this grabs a hold of you. This was the oldest Chardonnay in a tasting I attended earlier this year, yet for me, it was the freshest and has the longest aging potential. This wine is not about the fruit, it’s about the indescribable nuances that make it exhilarating. The nose has a savory/saline quality that draws you in, then white flowers, a touch of smoke, bergamot, stony minerality, quince and swirling spice notes. It’s incredibly lithe on the palate with chalky/flinty notes and savoury stone fruits, lemon zest that’s deep, dense and penetrating on an extremely long and finessed finish. Whatever spice is there is more about texture than dominance. A super special Chardonnay that will serve you well in the cellar for 5+ years and likely transform into something even more ethereal.
The Thrill Factor: When I first tasted this wine with owner Faik Turkmen, winemaker/consultant Peter Gamble and sommelier Peter Rod, I was shocked. It is like no other Chardonnay I have tasted in Niagara. The extra age helped, certainly, but there was savouriness and minerality that reminded me so much of one of my favourite California producers for Chardonnay, Kistler. I am not saying it tasted like Kistler, but it had many of the unique qualities of that stunning wine. Stonebridge (at Lailey) is a winery to watch.
Westcott Block 76 Chardonnay 2019 ($48, 94 points) — This single block, single clone Chardonnay is wild fermented and aged for 16 months in neutral oak barrels and is bottled unfiltered. Such gorgeous saline freshness on the nose, then Bosc pear, apple skin, elegant and fully integrated spice with subtle lemon-citrus notes. It’s vibrant and mouth-filling on the palate with electric acidity that highlights the fresh pear, apple, quince, lemon zest, flinty minerality and seamless spice notes that melt into the fruit. It benefits from length and finesse through a lifted finish. It’s just starting to reveal its full potential, so I recommend a bit of cellaring or even a decant to get started. Make sure to tuck one or two bottles in the cellar to watch how this will develop over time.
The Thrill Factor: Westcott is now clearly established as a progressive winery willing to spend money to improve its estate vineyard holdings and join other top wineries in making superb, terror-driven Pinots and Chardonnays over multiple tiers and expressions. This wine is a perfect example of that.
The Most Thrilling Niagara Sparkling Wines of the Year
There are three main tiers of goodness at the 13th Street winery, tiers that took winemaker JP Colas, above, time to understand. He has now figured out the terroir of the estate vineyards and is clearly focused on Gamay, Pinot Noir and one of the deepest portfolios of sparkling wine in Niagara. He is as anti-sweet as they come, preferring zero dosage for nearly all his sparkling wines. His reputation for being a top sparkling producing is richly deserved and this traditionally-beauty is his greatest sparkling achievement.
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!
The Thrill Factor: Did we mention winemaker JP Colas loves bubbles? He’s killing it with a stellar lineup up and down the tiers. This is his best expression yet.
The rest of the Most Thrilling Sparkling Wines of the Year
Chateau des Charmes Rosé Sparkling Wine 2017 ($35, 92 points) — This sparkling rosé is a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir that’s made in the traditional method with a Pinot Noir dosage. It’s aged on the lees for a minimum of 18 months and shows pretty red berries on the nose, strawberry pie, baked brioche and pomegranate with a lively bead in the glass. The bubbles on the palate are more elegant with a mix of raspberry and strawberry fruits, brambly notes, bready/yeasty notes and a bright, lifted finish.
The Thrill Factor: There are no tricks at Chateau des Charmes, just great wines at a good price across the full spectrum of wines made there. It’s a sparkling wine you can buy with confidence every year it’s produced.
Fred Wines Primrose 2021 ($39, 92 points) — This is a 100% Gamay sparkling wine made in the charmat method from grapes sourced in the Vinemount Ridge sub-appellation. It has pronounced aromatics of ripe plums, wild raspberries, some subtle earthy notes, herbs, and a floral lift. It’s bright and lifted on the palate with juicy plums, raspberries and strawberries that straddle the line of tart and sweet with a freshening sturdy bubble and a clean, lifted finish. A joy to drink.
The Thrill Factor: Fred Di Profio (winemaker at PondView) is the man behind the virtual brand Fred Wines, and this is one of the first wines he released this fall. It’s a fun wine, a delicious wine and bodes well for this start-up virtual. Di Profio gets extra points for his 12 Days of Fredmas Christmas promotion on IG. What a hoot!
Henry of Pelham Cuvée Catharine Carte Blanche Estate Blanc de Blancs 2017 ($50, 95 points) — I recall when this was first released into the world many years ago. It was (to my knowledge) the first sparkling wine made in Ontario that spent 54 months on its lees. It was radical at the time and thrilling to taste such a beautiful sparkling wine from Ontario. Henry of Pelham is not alone any longer in that arena, but it continues to turn heads. The 2017 vintage of Carte Blanche is easily among the best sparkling wines made in Ontario that I have tasted. Such an intriguing nose of brioche/autolytic notes, lemon cream, apple/quince fruit, an elegant bead in the glass and citrus zest. The crackling bubbles on the palate are invigorating with notes of baked bread/biscuit notes, lemon tart, pear, fresh salinity, and mouth-watering acidity keeping it clean and fresh through the lifted finish. Wow, just beautiful!
The Thrill Factor: In a lot of ways the Cuvée Catharine Carte Blanche from HoP is the standard bearer for top sparkling wine in Niagara. Long lees aging, beautiful fruit and attention to detail have made these wines a must buy for bubble lovers in Ontario.
Hidden Bench Natur Zero Dosage 2016 ($42, 93 points) — This “zero dosage” (no sugar added) traditional method sparkling wine spent five years on its lees before being disgorged in January of this year. It’s a blend of 72% Pinot Noir and 28% Chardonnay from the estate vineyards and spends 6 months in 100% French oak, all neutral barriques. It pours an elegant, persistent mousse and has a complex toasty/biscuity/brioche first impression with lemon, grapefruit, pear, raspberry bramble, a touch of flint and toasted almonds with subtle autolytic notes. It has energy and verve on the palate with green apple, lemon curd and pear in a rich and suave style that combines length and elegance through a lifted finish. A fabulous sparkling wine.
The Thrill Factor: Like everything Hidden Bench does, the estate sparkling wine is created at the very top end of the quality scale. Organic, zero dosage and utterly irresistible.
Leaning Post Traditional Method Sparkling Blanc de Blanc 2018 ($55, 93 points) — This second traditionally made bubby from Senchuk is sourced from 40-year-old Chardonnay vines on the Beamsville Bench. The base wine was barrel fermented and aged for six months, spent 36 months on the lees and was aged in the bottle for a further four months. A modest, 2 g/l dosage was added. The nose shows flint, lemon biscuit, pear, a lovely floral note, and a robust bead in the glass. It’s bright and fresh on the palate with a more elegant bubble with lemon cream, pear, flinty/smoky notes, toasty brioche, apple, flinty minerality and a vibrant echoing finish. Would be fun to watch where the tertiary notes will go with a bit of time in the cellar.
The Thrill Factor: Nadia Senchuk, above, urged her hubby Ilya to produce a sparkling wine because she absolutely loves them. At his peril, it took Ilya far too many years to finally relent. But he did it right and I believe even Nadia would agree.
Mason Vineyard Sparkling Rosé Blanc de Noirs 2020 ($55, 94 points) — This méthode traditionnelle Pinot Noir sparkler has been on the lees for 1.5 years and only gets a 2 g/l dosage from the base wine. This second effort has a bit more colour than the 2019 version but the same lovely, elegant, and persistent bead in the glass. There is an intriguing, lifted floral/rose petal note on the nose followed by bready/yeasty notes, fresh-picked red berries, flint, salty salinity, and citrus zest. It’s energetic on the palate with fresh and tart raspberry/cherry fruit, rhubarb, citrus zest, flint, and a bright, finessed finish.
The Thrill Factor: Mason applies the same passion and skill she applies to all her wines, across all the brands she crafts, to her sparkling program and the result is, well, Mason-like. In other words, fabulous!
Trius Showcase Pinot 2 Sparkling NV ($55, 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 winemaker Craig McDonald. This has only 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.
The Thrill Factor: McDonald presides over the largest sparkling wine cave in the country and produces a lot of very good bubbles. But it’s these small lots under the Showcase label where he really gets to express himself. Fine, elegant and otherworldly stuff.
2027 Cellars Wismer Vineyard-Fox Croft Block Blanc de Blancs 2017 ($45, 94 points) — Sparkling wine is a category that continues to raise the bar in Niagara and Ontario. The best examples are coming from those winemakers who employ long lees aging and minimal sugar added, such as this beauty from Kevin Panagapka. The wine spent 4.5 years on the lees and is made in a “brut nature” style, in other words, zero sugar added in the dosage. This is a thrilling sparkling wine with a flinty nose of pear, lemon curd, pure salinity, leesy/autolytic notes, and a persistent, elegant bead in the glass. It’s a lovely, caressing bubble in the mouth with creamy notes, tart apple, fresh pear, lemon peel, tingly acidity and length through a lifted and bright finish. It’s bright and lively, yes, but nicely mature with elegance, grace, and poise with room to gain fat in the cellar.
The Thrill Factor: Panagapka applies his passion for sourcing the best single-vineyard fruit from his favourite vineyards to this single-vineyard Blanc de Blancs. His winemaking style never gets in the way of the style of wine he wants to create. Which is to say, he lets the vineyard do all the talking. It’s not easy to do, but Panagapka makes it seem effortless.
Two Sisters Lush Sparkling Rosé 2019 ($54, 93 points) — This is a traditionally made Chardonnay (63%) and the rest Pinot Noir blend that spends over 588 days on the lees before disgorging. It’s the first Lush from Two Sisters that is vintage dated and was tasted with winemaker Adam Pearce at the winery. A small amount of Cabernet Franc from 2015 is used for the dosage (primarily for colour). It shows a pretty soft pink hue in the glass with a vigorous, frothy mousse. The nose shows enticing field strawberries and cream, fresh lemon, biscuit, and toasty notes. It’s crisp and lively on the palate with an energetic mouse, an elegant creamy texture, bright red berries, citrus zest, toasty vanilla, and baked bread in a dry and refreshing style through a lifted finish.
The Thrill Factor: Pearce shows his elegant side with this lovely, finessed sparkling wine that fits comfortably in the stellar Two Sisters’ portfolio of wines. It shows the softer, gentler side of this remarkable winery and talented winemaker.
For a list of last year’s most thrilling wines and links to all lists previously published on Wines In Niagara, go here.
Note: Special thanks to Bolete owner Chef McLeod for allowing us to use his great restaurant as a backdrop for our Wines on the Year photography.