By Rick VanSickle
It’s the icewine that keeps on giving, a mythical (or magical, depending on your perspective) sweet wine made in Niagara by a producer that always seems to be mired in controversy.
Note, also in this Ontario Wine Report: new wines from Last House Vineyard in PEC, Niagara mourns two noted wine journalists, Pillitteri picks up an important award, Niagara wines coming to Vintages in a sparse release, and a stunning, nicely aged Versado Malbec Reserva from Niagara’s Ann Sperling and Peter Gamble’s Argentine project.
As the self-proclaimed “Canada’s Icewine Specialists,” the Royal DeMaria name pops up from time even though it appears that no icewine has been made there since 2000, if the website is to be relied on. The wine in question here is the 1999 Royal DeMaria Riesling Icewine, which was one of two Canadian wines on offer at last week’s Iron Gate charity auction for the Canadian Opera Company that featured many of the world’s finest bottles. The 375 mL bottle of icewine sold for $220 and was modestly (and correctly) estimated to sell between $100 to $120 with a reserve of $60, a far cry from what it was selling for at one time at Royal DeMaria for $275,000 for a six pack of 375 mL bottles (or if you can or could buy a single bottle for $46,000).
The producer’s note on the bottle for auction reads like this: “The 1999 Royal DeMaria Riesling Icewine is one of the most expensive and rare Icewines in the world. Only 5 cases were produced due to its limited production and high quality, resulting in prices of records breaking one by one. It was given to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth during the Jubilee Visit to Canada in 2002, as well as being involved in 3 of the 8 world records currently held by Royal Demaria.”
Royal DeMaria’s owner, Joseph DeMaria (above and top photo), built up quite a reputation back in the day and with savvy marketing sent prices for his unique, secret-sauce icewines soaring. He claimed to have stumbled on a “blind correction” on the first icewine he made, which produced a sweet elixir that was less viscous with more natural acidity and balance than other Niagara icewines. That first revolutionary wine, a Vidal, went on to win five international awards and Royal DeMaria continued to make every icewine on the property in the same “secret” way. A secret, by the way, that he has never shared with the Niagara wine industry.
The icewine that put DeMaria on the map, the one that landed him on the front-pages of local papers and was regurgitated in hundreds of newspapers (even the Wine Spectator), was his 2000 Chardonnay Icewine.
After it reeled in its fifth consecutive gold medal from Les Citadelles du Vin at VinExpo in Bordeaux from 2002-2006 and deemed one of the top 10 Chardonnays in the world at Chardonnay-du-Monde in France for winning top wine three years in a row, the original price of the wine, $75, started climbing exponentially. Within a year it was selling for $150, then $2,000.
The last bottle was allegedly sold in 2006 to a Saudi prince who paid $30,000 for a half bottle after a shadowy deal conducted in Central Park in New York City by representatives for both parties.
“People were saying we were the Versace of wine,” DeMaria said in an interview with Wines in Niagara in 2012. “No one had done this before, increased the prices.”
There were 18 bottles left when I last interviewed DeMaria over 11 years ago, and the next bottle had a price tag of $250,000 with the price going up until the last bottle sells for $500,000. I suspect it’s still available, if interested.
I put the numbers to Tony Aspler, Canada’s foremost wine critic, judge and the man who founded the Ontario Wine Awards.
Aspler, like most people I asked in 2012 for this story, has never tried the DeMaria Chardonnay Icewine 2000. No DeMaria wine has won a medal at the Ontario Wine Awards competition even though many of his wines have been submitted.
Aspler said DeMaria “either has a lot of chutzpah or he’s a complete nut” for selling wines at those prices. “Or he’s a marketing genius,” he adds after a long pause. Aspler believes that DeMaria has created a lot of animosity in Ontario for his “Barnum and Bailey” approach to selling wine. “Wine is expensive enough without jacking up the price to sell one bottle,” he said.
A chalk board at the winery showed a shocking price list of the wines both for current releases (as evidenced 11 years ago when I was last there) and those that have been raking in awards and climbing dramatically in price as the recognition flowed in.
Talk about sticker shock. Forgetting for a moment the two that stick out above all the others — the $250,000 Chardonnay 2000, and $275,000 Riesling 1999 (for a six-pack) — there’s also the “world’s first” Meritage Icewine 2002 on sale for $18,000, Pinot Gris 2000 for $13,000, Winter Harvest Muscat Ottonel 2002 for $11,000, Gamay 2000 for $9,000 and on down the list.
Even newer vintages are staggeringly expensive: Winter Harvest (this is a wine that failed to get the VQA stamp of approval, which began his legal troubles), Malbec 2006 for $750, Winter Harvest Petit Verdot 2006 $650, and on and on.
So, in terms of the prices above, whomever purchased the 1999 Royal DeMaria Riesling Icewine for $220 at auction last week certainly got a deal, well, depending on what’s in the bottle.
We have heard very little from (or of) DeMaria since 2019 when he lost a crucial battle with VQA after his icewines failed several tests and the regulatory agency promptly charged him under the1999 VQA Act and ordered him to stop selling any more of his 6,000 bottles.
DeMaria won his first court battle in 2014 after a justice of the peace dismissed the charges and found the VQA overstepped its powers under the act when it banned the sale of his previously approved bottles. He thought he was in the clear.
And then the act was changed. In 2015, a new clause was added that allowed the VQA to revoke approval for a wine if the winemaker is no longer a member of the VQA – which it did to Royal DeMaria. He sought judicial review before the Divisional Court – and lost on all fronts, according to a story in the Toronto Sun from 2019.
Since that story, it has been radio silence from the DeMaria camp, even though the website is still up and appears capable of selling what wines they still have on offer (all older than the 2000 vintage). What will emerge from this quirky, certainly entertaining, winery in the future is to be seen. The hairdresser-turned-winemaker who discovered a secret method for making icewine, sold a bottle of Chardonnay icewine (allegedly) to a Saudi Prince in 2006 who paid $30,000 for a half bottle after a shadowy deal conducted in Central Park in New York City, and winning and losing battles with VQA is certainly the stuff of movies.
To the person who purchased that bottle of 1999 Royal DeMaria Riesling Icewine, whether it’s drinking fine or not, it sure has a story that will entertain friends for years to come. Who cares what it tastes like?
Note: I wrote a detailed account of Royal DeMaria’s icewines in August of 2012, one of this website’s most read posts ever. You can read the full story here.
New wines from Last House Vineyard, Prince Edward County
André Gagné and his wife Debra Mathews make small-batch wines from the unique terroir that is found in Hillier Ward, Prince Edward County. The wines, with help from winemaking consultant Geoff Heinricks, are only made from vines grown on the family farm. They are focused on the classic Burgundian grapes of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and made with minimal intervention. Here are two wines I tasted recently and can be purchased at Grape Witches in Toronto here (https://grapewitches.com/) or directly from Last House here and likely coming to Archives Wine and Spirits in St. Catharines soon.
Last House Piquette Tranquille de Pinot Noir 2022 ($16, 89 points) — A very different take of the popular piquette style of beverage in that it is made without effervescence and is bone dry. It’s made from the pomace from the estate’s 2022 Pinot Noir from the oldest parcel. The pomace was rehydrated and refermented after pressing for the Estate Hillier Rouge Pinot Noir. It shows a cloudy, pale garnet colour in the glass with a nose of cherry lollipops, red currants, raspberry bush and green tea in s light, fresh style. It’s completely dry on the palate with tart red berries, light tannins, subtle bramby/undergrowth notes with a zippy, electric finish. It’s a fun, not-quite-wine drink with only 7% abv.
Last House Electrum 2021 ($39, 92 points) — This estate Chardonnay is a white wine made like a red wine. The fruit was de-stemmed and partially crushed with 20% while clusters included in the fermentation vat for 25 days. At pressing, free run juice and press juice were combined in stainless steel tanks for elevage with 15% of the wine aged in a second fill oak barrel. It was bottled on the lees and was unfined and unfiltered. I will tell you right off the top, my wife Maureen tasted this wine with me, and she couldn’t stop raving about it. There is a subtle cloudiness in the glass and a golden colour. Upon opening, there is a touch of reduction on the nose that blows off quickly with notes of citrus-y marmalade, bin apples, apricot tart, and savoury/herbal accents. It’s bright and vibrant on the palate with rich, minerally notes followed by citrus peel, mulled apples, subtle tannins, savoury notes, and ever so faint spices with a bright, lively finish. Quite unique and delicious!
Niagara mourns the loss of two key wine journalists
Two key wine personalities who helped document the Ontario wine industry through their journalism sadly passed away recently.
Gordon “Doug” Hulley passed away surrounded by his family on April 12 at the age of 68. And the following day, on April 13, Barbara Leslie passed away peacefully at the Niagara Falls General Hospital after a brief illness.
Hulley grew up in Hamilton, graduating from McMaster University and later beginning his career at Stelco. In 1990, he and his young family moved to Niagara-on-the-Lake, embracing country life. A familiar face to many in Niagara’s wine industry, Hulley made waves designing logos and labels for many of the area’s early wineries. He was the owner/editor of Wine Regions of Ontario Magazine until 2007, when he retired to focus on running his B&B. His publication was a thorough and detailed account of new and emerging wineries and regions and was a must-read for anyone curious about local wines.
From coaching his boys’ soccer teams to being an active member of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, participating in his community was one of Hulley’s greatest pleasures in life, and something he missed as his MS progressed. He loved to entertain others with a colourful story, and never missed a chance to crack a joke. He simply delighted in making others smile.
Hulley will be forever cherished by his partner and best friend, Teresa Debicki, and lovingly remembered by his sons: Logan (Carly), Taylor (Laurel) and stepson, Frank. Survived by his Aunt Pat, siblings: Patricia (Dave), Michael (Karen), and David (Lorrie). He was predeceased by his parents, Gord and Joan.
A celebration of life will be held from 2-5 p.m. on Friday, May 12 at Pillitteri Estates Winery, 1696 Niagara Stone Road, Niagara-on-the-Lake. The family invites anyone who knew Hulley to attend and remember his wonderful life.
Barbara Leslie was born and raised in Montreal, Quebec, but moved to Niagara in 1998 to pursue her passion in the wine industry.
Her previous experience as editor of the magazine Wine Tidings (now Quench) and her talent as a writer helped her quickly find new friends and many projects to work on. Soon after, Leslie began teaching at Niagara College’s School of Wine, Beer and Spirits where her kindness and enthusiasm made her a favorite among students. Barbara then began overseeing co-op placements, for students looking to work in the wine industry, and it was in this position that her dedication to helping others and advocacy for gender equality, in the wine industry, touched the lives of countless students as they began their careers.
There was an outpouring of respect for Leslie on social media news of her death.
Former student Leslie and now winemaker at Creekside and Queenston Mile, Yvonne Irvine, wrote this on Leslie’s Facebook wall: Such sad news to hear that Barbara Leslie has passed. She was my co-op advisor/teacher at Niagara College, but she was so much more than that. She truly gave us so much guidance and support. Barb particularly looked out for women in the program and made sure we were at a position where we were respected and safe. She has followed my career over the years, and we’ve kept in touch. Her caring and supportive personality was genuine, and she contributed so much to this industry. She will be greatly missed.
Leslie is survived by her partner Michael East, son Michael Blakely, grandchildren Aidan and Livia, brother and sister-in-law David and Yvonne Leslie and nephews Laurance, Jamie, and Charlie.
A celebration of life for Leslie was held at Butler Funeral Home last Friday.
Pillitteri winery recognized by Brock
The Pillitteri Estates Winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake was recognized by Brock University as the Co-op Employer of the Year for 2022, according to a news release sent to Wines In Niagara.
Brock University is one of the leading educational institutions focused on “experiential education” with co-op-based learning as a core philosophy in both its undergraduate and graduate programs throughout the academic year. In partnering with Brock University, Pillitteri was able to provide students with work placements, co-op learning opportunities and once-in-a-lifetime winery and vineyard experiences, the news release said.
“It was in 2022 when Pillitteri worked with Brock to develop the world’s first and only icewine harvest co-op – a co-op work term which provides crucial experience of icewine and icewine harvest,” according to the release. It’s necessary knowledge for any prospective winemaker or viticulturalist who may want to one day work at an Ontario winery.
Pillitteri’s commitment to supporting and working with Brock University has a long history. In the 1990s, Pillitteri sponsored one of their first computer labs and more recently provided vineyards and grapes for the Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute in their appassimento winemaking research. This research partnership took over 10 years and culminated in the commercially viable appassimento wines which are now available at Pillitteri’s retail store.
Continued collaboration between Brock University and Pillitteri is fundamentally important to the Pillitteri family, the release said. Family member Jamie Slingerland believes “it is necessary to work together in learning, sharing our experience but also encouraging the next generation to think outside the box and maybe teach us a thing or two. It is a win, win, win situation for Brock’s research, for our business operations and for the student’s gained experience,” Slingerland said. “This award recognizes our commitment to students and the next generation of wine industry leaders. We are incredibly proud to be able to help them grow as people and as prospective employees.”
A Malbec you don’t want to miss from Versado
There’s a tiny release of Niagara wines at Vintages on May 13, but we have one recommendation from Versado Wine, a wine project of Niagara winemakers Ann Sperling and Peter Gamble, that you can order here from the current Cellar Collection (online only) that went live last week. It’s a nicely aged Malbec Reserva from their small, historic Malbec planting in Mendoza, Argentina.
Versado Reserva 2010 ($78, order it here, 95 points) — I first tasted and reviewed this beautiful Malbec in 2015. What a treat for consumers to be able to purchase a well-aged wine of this calibre. “The thing with great vineyards,” says Niagara’s Peter Gamble, co-owner of Versado with his wife Ann Sperling, “you really don’t have to do anything once you understand the fruit.” The second release of the Reserva is made from low yield, small berry Malbec that’s hand-picked, hand sorted, berry selected and spends 22 months in French oak (75%) new after wild fermentation in concrete vats. The planting for this block is from 1920. I retried this spectacular wine just recently with Gamble. When Gamble tasted the wine shortly after the original release he felt it was tight and needed time to soften. “That’s why we held some back.” It simply needed cellaring to absorb all that new oak, he said. It certainly is a much more profound wine than the one I tasted in 2015. The nose is stunning with vivid blueberry pie perfume, cedar, black currants, cassis, plums, fine French oak spice that’s nicely integrated 13 years after the vintage, some peppery/minty notes, subtle roasted vanilla bean and anise. It’s rich, textured and showy on the palate with layers of ripe, dark fruits, fine-grained tannins, black licorice, minty herbs, and gorgeous spice notes that marry well to the abundance of fruit, all leading to a long, echoing finish with finesse and flair. This is not drinking like a 2010 Malbec, it’s still evolving and getting better. Such a rare treat to have this available to consumers. Can further develop for another 10 years.
A sparse release of Niagara wines is coming up on May 13 at Vintages stores. Here’s the limited selection (I have no reviews of any of the wines):
• Kew Marsanne 2019 ($20)
• Rockway Pinot Gris 2021 ($20)
• EastDell Black Label Shiraz 2019 ($25)