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Tribute to a veteran County winemaker, plus a change of the guard at Honsberger

By Rick VanSickle

In this Ontario Wine Report, we have a tribute to veteran PEC winemaker James Lahti, a change of the guard at Honsberger in Niagara and a whole bunch of wine reviewed.

New wines in this post include a Riesling from 2027 Cellars, just released Tragically Hip wines, and a trio from Henry of Pelham. Also, our recommendations for two upcoming Vintages releases.

But first, the recent passing of Long Dog co-owner and winemaker, Lahti, a pioneer of The County and a renowned IMAX film editor, is fondly remembered by Prince Edward County writer/editor Michael DiCaro.

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Lahti moved his film editing business to The County farm in 1999, the year after it was purchased. Lahti and co-owners, his wife Victoria Rose, and good friend Steven Rapkin, began planting Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Gamay, and Pinot Gris vines that same year, after discovering they had terroir very similar to Burgundy. The first Long Dog wine made by Lahti was sold to the public in 2004.

The 20-acre winery sits in near isolation on region’s most southern peninsula.

Michael’s DiCaro’s personal tribute to Lahti

I’m really saddened to learn about the passing of James Lahti of Long Dog winery. Along with partners Victoria and Steven, they set up in the southeast corner of the County and were early pioneers making lithe and elegant Pinot Noir, Gris, and Chardonnay — the County’s signature. Like a lot of folks, I don’t get out to that end of the County as much as I should. It’s a bit warmer, close to the lake and with a stunning natural beauty, it’s a great spot to grow grapes. But it’s also much more sparse and less developed, even by County standards, so it often gets overlooked.

I remember my first visit to Long Dog about a decade and half ago. Happily full of Fifth Town cheese, I can still remember being lost, stopped at an unlabeled dirt road intersection with terribly inadequate cellphone and GPS reception guessing which way to go. It really felt like you were at the edge of an unexplored territory and in on a secret for wine lovers in the know—thankfully the juice lived up to the sense of adventure.

But what sticks with me more is my last visit a few years ago after reacquainting myself with James’ Pinot via a friend and being really impressed with its depth and elegance. So, I made it a point to stop by for a tasting on my next PEC visit. I’m much more familiar with County roads so signage wasn’t an obstacle that time, but reception in that corner remains less than adequate. Anyway, based on my questions and interest James quickly clocked me as a fellow wine lover. He took me to the barrel cellar, and we tasted and chatted wine and life as he shared his art — the result of countless hours in the fields and cellar. James’ passion, love of Pinot and jovial character was and remains the heartbeat of Long Dog and County winemaking as it matures from its nascent days to renown wine region.

Just before the pandemic his friend and fellow veteran County winemaker Dan Sullivan of Rosehall Run shared an anecdote about the sage advice James gave him during the difficult early days trying to tame that rugged and rocky County soil while developing an industry and creating market. He said, “Dan my boy, we’re selling mystery not history.” A little cheeky yes, but as a filmmaker he understood successfully selling wine in an emerging region like the Country is about more than just making a great product — if you build it they won’t just come. You certainly need to be making exceptional wine, but what you really need to flourish is storytelling that leans into the hook that makes you unique and it needs to be delivered in a way that connects with people.

While the exact words of our conversation have faded, I’ll always remember the connection James fostered during my last visit. So, if you’ve got one, pull a bottle of Bella Chardonnay or Otto Pinot from the cellar and share a glass with James. RIP, you left the world a better place than you found it and made a mark on this and countless other wine and film lovers.

Winemaker Mason passes Honsberger torch to Smith

Matt Smith, left, with Kelly Mason. Photo by Adam Thomas Photography.

It’s always nice when things work out the way they are supposed to. And that is particularly true with the promotion of Matt Smith, aka @Cellar Matt, to head winemaker at Honsberger Estate, who is taking the reins from Mason Vineyard owner and winemaker Kelly Mason.

Smith’s wine journey began at the tender age of 13 at Thirty Bench Winemakers. He continued to grow his experience and skills with production stints at Trius, Southbrook, Bachelder (2015 vintage) and Domaine Queylus, where he worked with Thomas Bachelder and Mason. His passion for winemaking led him to enrol in the winery and viticulture technician program at Niagara College, and after graduation Smith landed his current position as the winemaker for Cloudsley Cellars, where he will remain.

Smith is considered part of the family at Honsberger and has worked side by side with Mason since the first vintage.

The Honsberger family said in announcing Smith as the winemaker and the departure of Mason to concentrate on her own project and Queylus where she is the head winemaker: “It has been an honour and a pleasure having Kelly Mason as our winemaker. Our winery is about tradition and family, and she will forever be a part of both. It’s been amazing watching Kelly grow her career as well as her own brand. We wish her much success as she continues to blaze her own path in the wine industry.

Mason replied in kind: “Ten harvests have passed since my first vintage at Honsberger Estate. When I started my journey at the winery, we only had four barrels and two wines. A lot of hands have helped build this family winery and we have made so many friends along the way. It has been incredibly rewarding to work with everyone here. It is with great confidence that I welcome and pass the role of winemaker on to my colleague and friend Matt Smith. I am excited to watch him write the next chapter for Honsberger Estate Winery.”

A 2027 Riesling worth waiting for

2027 Cellars Wismer Vineyard Foxcroft Block Riesling 2022 ($25, available at the 2027 retail store at Calamus, 93 points) — It has been a few years since 2027 owner/winemaker Kevin Panagapka dipped his toes in the Riesling pool, and he’s gone back to one of his favourite vineyards to get back in the game. Panagapka’s Rieslings were some of the first wines I tried from this then-virtual producer many years ago and the ones that made me think this brand would be special. He set it aside in favour of other varieties for a few years, but I’m certainly happy its back in the fold — Niagara Riesling, especially single-vineyard Bench expressions, can compete with the best in the world. It has a profoundly minerally/saline nose with grapefruit, lime, peach skin, green apples, and oodles of freshness wafting from the glass. Love the saline/oyster shells notes on the palate followed by lime, grapefruit, quince, savoury notes, and unsweetened wild honey in a crisp/fresh and zingy style that’s lifted through the finish. Note: I decanted the bottle I purchased for review as it had just been bottled, in case you are wondering why there is a decanter in the photo. No need to do that now.

New Tragically Hip wines

The Tragically Hip Flamenco Rosé 2022 ($20, released at Vintages stores July 22, 89 points) — This is a blend of Gamay Noir (58%) and Cabernet Franc (42%) from two select vineyards in Niagara and made in the saignée method. It has a bright garnet colour in the glass (thank you for that, Cabernet Franc) with a nose of brambly raspberries, cranberries, anise, and a touch of watermelon and herbs. It’s a brash style of rosé on the palate with refreshingly dry notes of red berries, red currants, earthy-savoury notes, herbs and juicy acidity on the back end providing lift and vibrancy.

The Tragically Hip Fully Completely Reserve Red 2021 ($25, in Vintages now and will be re-released in October, 90 points) — This is the third iteration of the reserve red in the Hip series originally created to commemorate the Canadian band’s announcement of the re-release of their legendary album Fully Completely and 2015 North American Tour. The wine was co-created by band members Gord Downie, Paul Langlois, Rob Baker, Gord Sinclair, and Johnny Fay in conjunction with former Stoney Ridge Head Winemaker Jeff Hundertmark. It’s a Bordeaux-variety blend of 48% Merlot, 27% Cabernet Franc and 25% Cabernet Sauvignon from grapes harvested from a single vineyard in the western end of the Niagara Peninsula. It shows a light shade of red but the juicy nose of dark berries, black raspberries, brambly/earthy notes, cedar plank, and oak spices jump from the glass. The red fruits and dark plums on the palate are well integrated with interesting anise/licorice and smoky/toasty oak spice notes adding complexity and interest. It finishes with vibrancy and length. Pair with your favourite Spotify Hip playlist and enjoy!

Note: All Tragically Hip wines are also available at the Niagara Custom Crush Studio retail store.

A trio from Henry of Pelham

Henry of Pelham Chardonnay 2021 ($20, 88 points) — The nose shows fresh sliced apples, lemon blossoms, wet stones, and grapefruit notes. The palate reveals ripe stone fruits, a creamy texture, mouth-watering acidity, and a subtle, lingering spice note.

Henry of Pelham Pinot Grigio 2022 ($16, 87 points) — An inexpensive, everyday sipper for summer that checks a lot of boxes. The nose shows melon, apples, pear, and lemon zest. It’s nicely balanced on the palate with ripe stone fruits, melon, and juicy acidity on the finish.

Henry of Pelham Speck Family Reserve Cabernet-Merlot 2020 ($48, winery only, 93 points) — This top estate red assemblage of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc is from vineyards planted in the Short Hills Bench dating back to 1988. The wine was aged in French and American oak barrels, 40% new, for 18 months. What a beautiful, full-bodied red from the near perfect 2020 vintage. It has an inviting, expressive nose of black raspberries, dark cherries, ripe plums, cocoa, cassis, and cedary/perfume notes with rich spice rack accents. It’s dense and juicy on the palate with a firm tannic backbone that displays an array of mature red berries, blackberry preserves, anise, smoky cedar plank, mulled herbs and toasty spices that are all carried through the long, finessed finish. This is still evolving and cellaring is recommended. It will keep improving for 10+ years.

Niagara wines at Vintages July 22

Stratus Chardonnay 2021 ($35, 91 points) — This is the baby sister Chardonnay to the signature “bottled on the lees” version. It’s barrel fermented and aged in neutral oak for 10 months. The wine is highly aromatic with ripe white peach, yellow apple, lemon curd and a touch of tropical fruits. It’s ripe, round, and juicy on the palate and shows stone fruits, lemon tart, and a touch of citrus zest on a freshening finish.

Henry of Pelham Smith & Smith Gamay 2020 ($22, 89 points) — The nose shows ripe wild blueberries, fresh raspberries, plums, cherry tart, and lightly toasted spice notes. It’s bold and sassy on the palate with darker berries, anise, pepper, and spice.

Also released, but not reviewed by Wines in Niagara:

• Westcott Estate Chardonnay 2020 ($30)
• Leaning Post The Fifty Chardonnay 2020 ($25)
• 13th Street June’s Vineyard Chardonnay 2021 ($21)
• Featherstone Pinot Grigio 2022 ($18)
• Inninskillin Montague Vineyard Chardonnay 2021 ($31)
• 13th Street Expression Series Cabernet Franc Rosé 2022 ($18)
• Peller Private Reserve Rosé 2022 ($24)
• Thirty Bench Winemaker’s Rosé 2022 ($20)

Vintages Aug. 5 online and Flagship stores only

Cloudsley Twenty Mile Bench Chardonnay 2020 ($35, 92 points) — While owner/winemaker Adam Lowy prides himself on the single-vineyard expressions, the “Twenty Mile Bench” Chard and Pinot, made with the same care and attention as the single-vineyards, represent incredible value for what you get. This is a blend of two Wismer vineyards, Wingfield and Foxcroft with about 25% new oak aging. It’s quite fragrant and rich on the nose with ripe pear, bergamot, yellow apples, and chalky/stony notes. It’s mouth-filling on the palate with some fleshy notes but lovely salinity holding it all in check. Look for ripe stone fruits, lemon/citrus zest accents, a touch of flint, spice, and a lifted vibrant finish.

Kacaba Cabernet Franc 2019 ($33, 92 points) — This is from the estate’s “Escarpment” series of wines and the wine is aged for 12 months in American and French oak barrels. It begins with textbook Niagara Cab Franc aromatics of black raspberries, bramble, roasted herbs, a touch of pepper and anise with lightly toasted spice notes. It’s smooth on the palate with ripe red berries, cigar smoke, leather, licorice, herbs, and spice in a juicy yet vibrant style through the lifted finish. Nicely integrated now but will improve with a bit of cellaring.

Hidden Bench Sauvignon Blanc Béton Rosomel Vineyard 2021 ($28, winery now, 93 points) — We retasted this interesting take on Sauvignon Blanc, the first wine that was aged in the estate’s new concrete tanks and a chance to taste a wood-aged Sauvignon Blanc beside a concrete version. Aging in concrete was for seven months. An interesting and different nose of grapefruit, pear, some tropical notes, grass, and herbs with flinty minerality. It has gorgeous texture and a rich, deep feel on the palate with ripe pear, grapefruit, subtle spice notes, lime zest an d a long, fresh finish. Love it, and even more with a year of aging.