The Expert’s Tasting: Dude, Where’s My Chard?
If the Ontario wine industry’s yearly black tie Cuvée Grand Tasting is the wine-fueled celebration of excellence in Ontario winemaking, the following day’s Expert’s Tasting is the hair-of-the-dog hangover cure. There a more analytical approach to the industry’s best juice sheds some light on just how we got to where we ended up the night before. This winter’s 25th anniversary Expert’s Tasting at Brock University had a more retrospective approach than in years past, studying multiple grape varieties and styles while recognizing and highlighting the accomplishments of this year’s Vintner’s Quality Alliance (VQA) Promoter’s Award recipients.
The tasting began just as the grand tasting ended a handful of hours before, with a selection of local sparkling wine. With bubbly in hand and all ears on representatives from the university’s Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute, the formal tasting got underway as writer Rick Vansickle woke up the room with his “Are You Experienced?” themed presentation of Ontario Rieslings. The flight supported the notion that Riesling is and always will be the most consistent variety in Niagara. Rosewood’s 2011 Beamsville Bench Riesling ($16) demonstrated how much value it brings, while Cave Spring’s 2003 CSV ($50, winery only) from the same appellation reaffirmed our confidence in the grape’s ability to age gracefully. The three Charles Baker Picone Vineyard Rieslings— 2006, 2009 and 2012 (each $35, winery only)—were a big hit at my table where, coincidentally, Baker himself tasted.
A search for Niagara chardonnay must cover a lot of ground, as there’s no shortage of the grape within each sub-appellation of the peninsula. Flat Rock Cellars’ 2012 Twenty Mile Bench Chardonnay ($16.95) and Fielding Estate’s 2012 Beamsville Bench both represented great value and typicity for young bench-grown wines, though the balance and restraint of the Fielding was more to my taste. Cave Spring (CSV 2010, $29.95) and Rosewood (Reserve 2009, $28.00) both found their way into another flight with more mature aromas and rich flavors of butterscotch and honey. But if there was one wine that could make you forget about the rest, it would have been the closer—Stratus’s 2010 Niagara-on-the-Lake Chardonnay ($55). Its generous aroma preceded an endless tsunami of flavors and textures, leaving a lasting impression on the taste buds.
There’s nothing I dig more than comparing terroir and winemaking techniques via a well-selected flight of pinot noir, and the best part is, they tend to raise more questions than they answer. The ringer in this flight— Devil’s Corner Tamar Ridge Pinot Noir from Tasmania—made a case for how a cool climate in Australia can blend nearly undetected among six other pinot noirs from the other side of the world. Inniskillin Estate Wines contributed a generously fruit-forward, balanced Pinot Noir Reserve 2011 ($24.95) that would make one re-imagine the winery as more than just a place that makes great icewine. Domaine Queylus—a pinot-forward project led by Thomas Bachelder, who’s perhaps best known in the US as former winemaker at Le Clos Jordanne and Oregon’s Lemelson Vineyards—was represented by its 2011 Le Grande Reserve Pinot Noir ($65) which didn’t miss a beat in terms of what we’d expect from this ambitious winemaker. My favorite of the flight was 13th Street Winery’s “Essence” 2010 ($44.95, winery only), in part due to its deft balance of oak and black cherry fruit and a full, generously rich frame. The flight’s head scratcher was Fielding Estate Winery’s 2010 Jack Rabbit Flats Vineyard Pinot Noir ($24.95). I had this one pegged as a ringer from the Sonoma Coast, yet was fully humbled after its origin was revealed as Lincoln Lakeshore, a sub-appellation not often touted as pinot noir country. Either way, it was ripe and juicy with flavors of crushed berries in a fleshy, almost chewy package that could easily be filed under “crowd pleasing.”
The next flight asked the question, are we on the right track? More specifically, do the red blends within represent the greatest potential for Bordeaux varieties locally? Fielding Estate once again punched its ticket into another flight with its Cabernet Franc-led 2010 vintage Cabernet Merlot ($34.95, winery only) and Creekside Estate Winery’s reputation for serious reds was backed up by its 2004 Meritage. The surprise of the flight was how well Henry Of Pelham’s Reserve 2002 Cabernet Merlot Reserve was drinking that morning. With big tannins still commanding each and every taste bud, it’s dark fruit profile still seemed fresh, with plenty of life ahead of it. It like the rest certainly reaffirmed the region’s red blends are on the right track.
The final flight, entitled “Wine Options,” was the yearly wake-up call that, when we’re tasting blind and publically pressured to speak up on the details of what’s in the glass, your confidence disappears as fast as the memories of the last few glasses of bubbly we drank the night before.
Bryan Calandrelli is a winemaker, filmmaker, and contributor to several publications.