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New Watchful Eye winery making waves, Niagara winemaking film debuts, plus Vintages picks

By Rick VanSickle

Niagara’s newest winery only opened this past July, but already it’s making waves — in more ways than one!

Also in this Niagara wine report: Watchful Eye, King and Vic chosen as Queen’s Park wines, the cinematic debut of Crush: Message in a Barrel, Vintages picks, including Stratus, Bachelder, Cloudsley, Foreign Affair, Le Clos Jordanne and a treat from Australia’s St. Hugo winery, plus new wines from Henry of Pelham.

Niagara wine

The Watchful Eye winery, breathtakingly located on the shores of Lake Ontario, only one of three wineries in all of Niagara with that distinction, had one of its first wines it has ever produced, the 2021 Chardonnay, chosen as the official white wine of the Ontario Legislature for the coming year. Not bad for a winery barely open for four months.

The winery, located in the Lincoln Lakeshore sub-appellation, enjoys an idyllic setting for sipping wine on the front grass of the estate with stunning views of the lake looking out toward the Toronto skyline. What truly makes this new venture exciting, aside from the setting, is the three co-owners, Kate George, her brother Will George, and cousin Chris Bartlett are the ninth generation of the George family from a rich history of farming in Niagara.

From L to R, Kate George, Chris Bartlett, Bill George and Will George.

Kate and Will’s father is Bill George, a former Niagara Grape King and former chair of the Grape Growers of Ontario, is the current family custodian of the family’s home farm, located between Tufford Road and Victoria Ave., north of the North Service Road. The 17th century family farm began as an apple orchard, at one time shipping apples to England in wooden barrels, and transitioned to a mixed fruit farm, including labrusca grapes, over 100 years ago. Bill George decided 15 years ago to switch the entire 200 acres to quality wine grapes, mostly vinifera, which he sells mainly to the larger producers in the region.

The new generation, Bill’s son, daughter, and nephew, “began contemplating a virtual winery during COVID,” Will George, 28, said. “But we eventually decided it would be better to start a full-fledged winery,” as another revenue stream from the new generation. Will, Kate, 24, and cousin, Chris Bartlett, 37, own and operate the brand with the production made off-site by a Beamsville Bench winemaker, who they don’t want to name for now.

The plan is to eventually convert a historic barn on the property to a winery and move the winemaking to the farm. The young team began working on the Watchful Eye project in 2021 and after “a lot of trial and error,” opened the doors to the public in the second week of July this year.

The full production of the current 2021 wines is a modest 600 cases consisting of Sauvignon Blanc (the Georges were one of the first growers in Niagara to plant the hard-to-grow Sauvignon Blanc 35 years ago), Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, and rosé. There are 450 cases from 2022 and up to 500 cases for the current 2023 vintage.

The clever name of the winery, Watchful Eye, “is meant to encompass the life of a farmer and the farming family that has watched over all we hold dear,” according to the website. “Generation after generation we have watched over the land, we have watched over the lake, and most importantly we have watched over each other. Sit down with some wine and remember that once you look out to Lake Ontario or have connected with our family at the winery that you too are now a Watchful Eye.”

The catchy labels are designed by Kaiser Design and Marketing and really stand out on the bottles. “It pays homage to farming and our grandfather,” said Bartlett, of Bill George Sr.

The tasting room is currently located in the home of Will George with the front living room transformed into a tasting pavilion with views of the lake just metres away. The tasting experience is cosy and informal with all four wines available for tasting, by the glass and for purchasing. You can also buy online here, but I highly recommend a visit to the farm with those amazing views, or a walk to the estate’s historical tombstones that date back to the 17th century, or even the family’s beloved giant willow tree. You won’t be disappointed.

As for the wines, reviewed below, the team has the advantage of choosing the best grapes from the estate’s 200 acres in several vineyards and cropping to whatever levels they feel will make the best wines. The old-vine Sauvignon Blanc is grown in an ideal location moderated by the lake that has survived even the coldest winters that Niagara sees. The Cabernet Franc, even from the difficult 2021 vintage, is a classic Niagara CF that takes up a notch in the as-yet unreleased “reserve” version. The Chardonnay is impressive, and the rosé is a lovely dry and refreshing blend of Dornfelder and Cabernet Franc. These are honest wines, representative of Niagara and smartly priced for consumers.

I tasted all four current releases, plus a couple of upcoming wines. Here’s what I liked.

The wines

Watchful Eye Sauvignon Blanc 2021 ($25, 90 points) — A bright and expressive nose of kiwi, pear, and grapefruit with a lovely floral/herbal note. It’s crisp and refreshingly dry on the palate with zesty citrus, kiwi and passion fruit, subtle herbs, pear, and tingling acidity through the bright finish.

Watchful Eye Chardonnay 2021 ($28, 91 points) — As mentioned, it was named recently as the official white wine of the 2023 Ontario Legislature (more on that later in the post). This is aged for nine months in two- to three-year-old French oak barrels from a 1988 planting. It has an attractive nose of ripe pear, yellow apples, a touch of tropical fruits, peach, lemon zest with light toasty spice notes. It has a lovely, rounded, and creamy feel on the palate with clean, ripe orchard fruits, zesty citrus, and beautifully integrated oak spices along a lifted, long finish. Just a great Niagara Chardonnay.

Watchful Eye Rosé 2021 ($22, 88 points) — The blend is 89% Cabernet Franc with the rest Dornfelder finished at a very dry 3 g/l of RS. It shows a pale salmon colour in the glass with a nose of brambly raspberries, cran-cherries, herbs, and subtle earthy notes. Perfectly dry and refreshing on the palate with a melange of red berries, herbaceous notes and a bright finish.

Watchful Eye Cabernet Franc 2021 ($34, 88 points) — With 2021 not ideal for the Bordeaux varieties like Cabernet Franc, Will and Kate George along with Chris Bartlett weren’t sure that they wanted to make the Cab Franc. “I said, kids, we just have to have a red wine,” Bill George said. As it turns out, dad was right; it was a good call. It’s a lighter style in the glass and mouth but still typical of Niagara Cabernet Franc with a nose of brambly red berries, herbaceous notes, some plummy accents, a touch of cassis and seamless oak spices. There’s some decent tannin structure on the palate and the full range of earthy/savoury red berries, wild herbs, anise and a bright, lifted finish.

Watchful Eye Cabernet Franc Reserve 2021 (no price yet, unreleased, 91 points) — The reserve, once it is released, takes everything up a notch. It’s all the above but with more concentration, riper red berries, firmer structure, and more evident spice notes.

Watchful Eye Cabernet Franc 2022 (no price yet, unreleased, 90 points) — A better vintage for Cabernet Franc and it manifests itself in the colour and concentration. The wild raspberry and dark cherry aromas jump from the glass, with a bit of cassis, mulled herbs, and more evident spice notes. It shows good structure on the palate from the ripe tannins, with ripe red berries, plums, black currants, and spice notes with a long, bright finish. Can cellar this one 4+ years when released.

New film focused on Niagara
winemaking debuts on the weekend

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A new film focused on a single, difficult vintage in Niagara Wine Country gets its cinematic debut in both St. Catharines and Toronto on Nov. 4-5.

Crush: Message in a Bottle is a portrait of a year in the life of artisanal winemakers and winegrowers in Niagara. Documenting one of the most difficult harvests in recent history, Crush is a testament to the challenges of producing an exceptional bottle of low intervention wine in a frequently inhospitable climate, the producers said in a news release.

The film features some familiar faces from the winemaking community in Niagara, including Ann-Marie Saunders (Saunders Vineyard), Kelly Mason (Mason Vineyard, and Domaine Queylus), Shiraz Mottiar (Malivoire Wine Company), and Thomas Bachelder (Bachelder Wines).

The film portrays a growing movement of winegrowers and winemakers using eco-conscious practices to reduce their carbon footprint, merging modern and traditional techniques to infuse their craft with authenticity, the filmmakers said. “Similar to the Slow Food movement, it’s a return to old ways, a response to concerns about the planet as well as what we put in our bodies.”

Crush is directed by Maya Gallus and distributed by Red Queen Productions. Broadcast and Canada-wide streaming on TVO begins Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023.

St. Catharines, Toronto screenings:

• Where: St. Catharine’s First Ontario PAC
• When: Saturday, Nov. 4, 3 p.m. followed by a Q&A with winemakers
• Tickets: Go here.

• Where: Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, Toronto
• When: Sunday, Nov. 5, 2023, 7:30 p.m. (doors open at 6:30 p.m.)
• Tickets: Go here.
• For more information, go here.

Niagara wines shine at
Ontario’s Legislative Assembly

Two Niagara wines were chosen as the official wines of Ontario’s Legislative Assembly for 2024 at a Queen’s Park ceremony hosted by speaker and MPP Ted Arnott on Oct. 25.

As mentioned above, the Watchful Eye 2021 Chardonnay was chosen as the white wine, while the King and Victoria Cabernet 2020 was chosen at the red wine. Both wineries are only in their first year of operation and both are wineries that began as strictly grape growers.

It was the 44th annual wine tasting event at Queen’s Park organized by the Grape Growers of Ontario. “As the legacy partner of the Legislature’s wine tasting event, the Grape Growers of Ontario thank the Hon. Speaker Arnott for continuing the tradition of choosing the official VQA wines of the Legislative Assembly for the coming year,” said Matthias Oppenlaender, chair of the GGO. “Our agriculture value-added industry is rooted in the land, and the Grape Growers of Ontario look forward to continuing to work with the Government of Ontario to support Ontario’s grape and wine industry. Congratulations to King and Victoria Winery and Watchful Eye Winery on their wines being selected.”

Said CEO Debbie Zimmerman: “The wines showcased at this event reflect the connection between 100% Ontario grown grapes and the winemakers who craft them. We congratulate all of Ontario’s wineries on producing top-quality VQA wines and thank the six wineries who participated in this year’s tasting,” said Debbie Zimmerman, CEO.

The official VQA wines will be served at legislative functions throughout 2024. Participants tasted and marked their preferences on a voting ballot to determine which wines would be selected from six Ontario VQA wineries.

“We are so excited to have had our Cabernet 2020 chosen as the red wine for the Legislative Assembly of Ontario,” said King and Victoria. “We have been growing grapes for more than two decades to supply to premium winemakers throughout Ontario and in May of 2023 we were able to open the doors to our very own boutique winery on the Twenty Mile Bench in Vineland, Ontario. Made from vines planted in 2000, our Cabernet 2020 is a rich and full-bodied red that reflects the outstanding growing season experienced throughout Niagara in that vintage. It is a blend of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon that showcases the quality of wines that we are producing throughout all of our offerings. We are confident that you will enjoy the best that these Ontario grapes have to offer.”

The new Watchful Eye winery said: “The Watchful Eye family would like to thank the Grape Growers of Ontario and the Queen’s Park Legislative staff providing a wonderful event to celebrate the amazing wines that come from 100% Ontario grown grapes. We would also like to thank all the wineries that attended and recognize their incredible support and encouragement as we continue this amazing journey of growing our family winery. It is an honour to have our 2021 Chardonnay chosen as the white wine of the legislature and we appreciate the amazing feedback we received from all who tasted as we told our story and poured our wines.”

Here’s our review of the King and Vic red blend (the Watchful Eye review is at the top of the post):

King and Victoria Cabernet 2020 ($35, 92 points) — The blend for this red is 53% Cabernet Sauvignon and 47% Cabernet Franc from 20-year-old vines from the Haynes Street Vineyard in the Creek Shores sub-appellation. It spent 22 months in 100% French oak (30% new oak). It has a gorgeous nose of black cherries, cassis, currants, earthy/savoury notes, barrel spice notes and a touch of pepper and herbs. It’s nicely integrated on the palate with bold and juicy red and dark fruits, evident tannins, anise, and mulled herbs that come at you in layer after layer. It’s dense and spicy but nicely balanced by mouth-watering acidity on a long, lifted finish. Can age this 7+ years.

Niagara wines shine at the LCBO

Here are our recommendations from the Niagara wines being released Saturday at LCBO Vintages stores, plus a beauty red blend from Australia (note, all wines are available at Vintages stores unless otherwise noted):

Stratus Field Blend Ancestral Sparkling Wine 2022 ($35, flagship stores or online only, 92 points) — This is a wine that was envisioned by winemaker Dean Stoyka after a trip with other winemakers to Italy, where field blends are part of the winemaking tradition. Stoyka wanted to gather up a variety of grapes from the estate, pick them all at once, press them and vinify using the oldest sparkling method in the world, predating the methode traditionelle, a naturally paused fermentation that restarts in spring to complete the “bubbly” effect in the bottle. This is finished in a crown cap and left un-disgorged while the lees remain in bottle and contribute texture and an intriguing hazy hue. The three grapes — Riesling, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc — need to be separated before joining together because VQA does not allow unidentified “field blends,” and therefore each variety needs to be weighed and the information sent to the authority for approval. So, a lot of work for such a fun and simple, lightly effervescent bubbly wine. There is nothing too funky about this, it’s fresh, bright, enticing and intriguing with a lovely nose of bright lemon, white peach, nectarine, kiwi, and passionfruit. It’s absolutely delicious on the palate, so bright and cheery with a soft, tickling bubble and firm vein of acidity on the finessed finish tying all those flavours above into a neat little bow. At 11% abv, flip the cap and pour in whatever glass you have handy and enjoy!

Bachelder Wismer-Wingfield Vineyard Chardonnay 2020 ($55, flagship stores or online only, 94 points) — The Wismer family has been farming grapes across 300 acres on the Vineland and Jordan Benches for over 25 years. Bachelder is a huge fan of Wismer fruit and isolated two distinct blocks he uses for two wines, now three with the Wismer-Wingfield and Hill of Wingfield, which usually vie for the top two spots in the lineup every vintage. This is a wee bit shy when tasted a year ago, but it opened up to pretty notes of sweet pear, fresh apple, citrus zest, wet stones and quiet spice. It’s more open knit on the palate with robust pear, apple, and lemon zest freshness, stony/chalky minerality, luxurious texture, elegant spices, and mouth-watering acidity through the long finish. Cellar 4+ years.

Le Clos Jordanne Le Grand Clos Chardonnay 2020 ($50, 93 points) — A bit of fruit from the Talon Ridge Vineyard is blended into the top Chardonnay from the “grand cru” Le Clos Jordanne Vineyard for this impressive wine. A dominant note of chalky minerality is the first impression, then notes of fresh pear and quince, Meyer lemon and elegant spice notes. It’s generous and rich on the palate with ripe pear, lemon oil, golden apple, chalky minerality and spice in a complex and layered style with an echoing and fresh finish. A special Chardonnay.

The Foreign Affair Dream 2020 ($30, 91 points) — Dream is a partial appassimento blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc with half the Cab Franc grapes dried appassimento style. The wine spends 18 months in French and American oak (25% new wood). This is a bit more subtle on the nose than the Conspiracy, which suggests a little time in the cellar would be helpful. It has an elegant nose of concentrated cassis, black currants, cocoa, and baking spices. It’s more overt on the palate with ripe tannins, cassis, currants, blackberries, dark cherries, licorice, cedar, and fine oak spice with plenty of acidity keeping the finish lively. Can cellar a few years.

Other Niagara wines being released, but not reviewed by Wines in Niagara:

• Rockway Foxcroft Riesling 2022 ($22)
• Fogolar Cabernet Franc 2019 ($20)
• Rockway Red ($20)
• Stratus Wildass Red 2019 ($22)
• Flat Rock Cellars Riddled Sparkling 2020 ($35)
• Bachelder L’Ardoise Niagara Chardonnay 2021 ($25)

A beauty from Down Under

St. Hugo Signature Collection Grenache, Shiraz Mataro, Barossa, Australia ($40, flagship stores or online only, 94 points) — What a treat to have an old-vine red blend of this quality hit Vintages shelves! The blend is 62% Grenache, 31% Shiraz and 7% Mataro from 70+ year old vines. The wine is aged in used French barrels for eight months. A bold and profoundly concentrated nose plump, ripe cassis, Damson plums, currants, dark cherries, savoury spices, subtle herbaceous notes, vanilla toast, and woodsy/earthy accents. It shows both power and grace on the palate with the full range of dark and red berries, plums, lovely earthy/savoury notes, anise/licorice, fine grained and supple tannins, peppery accents, dark chocolate, rich spices and all nicely balanced through a long, lifted finish. Such a beautiful Aussie red made in the style that I fell in love with long ago. Drinking very nice right now but can cellar 5+ years.

A high-scoring Niagara Chardonnay
hits Vintages Cellar Collection release

There is only one Canadian wine in the November Cellar Collection release but it’s a good one. Ordering for the monthly online began today (Nov. 2) at 8:30 a.m., follow the link here to order. Here’s what I can recommend from the release:

Cloudsley Foxcroft Vineyard Chardonnay 2020 ($60, 94 points) — The Foxcroft Chard sees 40% new oak and 121 cases were made. This was picked about two weeks before the Wingfield. There’s a titch more lemon/citrus aspects on the nose (compared to Wingfield) with fresh apples, pear skin, stony/chalky notes, and integrated spices. It’s slightly more concentrated on the palate with pear, yellow apple, juicy citrus, stony/saline minerality and a freshening, lifted finish that goes on and on. A beautiful thing.

A pair of new wines from Henry of Pelham

Henry of Pelham Speck Family Reserve Chardonnay 2022 ($35, 92 points) — This top expression of Chardonnay from Henry of Pelham’s Short Hills Bench estate vineyard is aged in French oak (a portion in new oak) from 10 months. It has a lovely floral nose with apples, touch of peach, pear, lemon, freshening salinity, and integrated oak spices. The stony/saline note is more pronounced on the palate with richer orchard fruits, bergamot, subtle flinty accents, toasty vanilla spices and just a hint of reduction all leading to a bright, lifted finish.

Speck Bros. Family Tree The Padré Cabernet-Merlot 2022 ($18, 88 points) — This blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc is aged in 60% French and 40% American oak barrel for 16 months. The nose displays brambly wild raspberries, cassis, black currants, herbs, a subtle floral note with nutmeg and vanilla oak spices. It shows more concentration on the palate with riper red berries, cassis, anise, medium+ tannins adding some structure, a touch of earthiness, spice notes and plenty of zip of the finish. Good value red blend.