Brewed, crushed, or distilled: Moving beyond ice wine in Niagara, Ontario
Grape growers and winemakers in Ontario are working harder than ever to convince us that the words “world class” should not be attached only to Niagara’s ice wines. Here are a few grapes that are helping their case:
There’s certainly a Niagara community of pinot-obsessed winemakers and owners who are embracing Burgundy’s heartbreak grape with plantings from the slopes of the escarpment on down to the vineyards of the lakeshore. The resulting wines are all over the place in terms of style, quality, and consistency, but the best examples can compete with more established new world regions and, in a few cases, even some old world regions.
Why is Niagara a good home for pinot noir? For one, the climate enables a long, cool growing season, which has the potential to produce balanced and aromatic age-worthy wines that reflect the personality of the grape, and also convey a sense of their origin. There seems to be an almost unlimited range of styles being produced, which speaks to the diversity in soil and microclimate.
Wineries like Flat Rock Cellars, Rosewood Estates, Malivoire, Hidden Bench Estate, and Tawse are making exceptional pinot noir from fruit mostly grown on the bench of the Niagara Escarpment. The common thread among them is the elevation and northward sloping vineyards.
In 2010, Hinterbrook Winery and G. Marquis—both new labels in the region—made impressive pinot noir, working with Niagara-on-the-Lake and lakeshore-grown grapes, while the iconic Peller Estates has shown it can compete with the more pinot-centric wineries with its reserve label from the same vintage. For those looking to experience the subtleties of the region’s terroir, Le Clos Jordanne’s single vineyard wines are available for tasting at Jackson Triggs Winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Cabernet franc may only play a supporting role in Bordeaux, but in Niagara, it demands the spotlight as it does in France’s Loire Valley, and adds complexity to blends. Year in and year out, this feisty grape earns its reputation as a workhorse in a region still convincing the world it can produce medium- to full-bodied reds.
Even though your average wine drinker’s devotion to the grape may not be the unwavering sort displayed by some wine industry folks, it’s likely you’ll find a cab franc in just about every tasting room in Niagara. Why? Because unlike the merlot grape, cabernet franc’s vines are hardy enough to survive the coldest winter temperatures Niagara dishes out. And the grape’s ripening window comes sooner than that of its cousin, cabernet sauvignon, which gives it a better chance to produce wine with less astringent tannins, fresher fruit flavor, and higher alcohol.
Cabernet franc produces reds that can vary from light, fruit-forward, graceful table wines to darker, more robust wines that show as much earth, pepper, and tobacco as they do fruit. Niagara, like cab franc’s Loire Valley home region, has the diversity of soil and microclimate to produce the whole spectrum; whichever style you prefer, there’s probably one that will satisfy.
In Niagara’s sea of quality cab franc, there are a few that stand out. Tawse produces some extremely balanced fruit-forward single vineyard francs that tend to push the envelope in price but reward with structure and cellar life; the Van Bers Vineyard and Laundry Vineyard are the most memorable. Winemaker Ann Sperling and associate winemaker Brian Hamilton—a self-professed “cab franc guy”—at Southbrook Winery consistently coax Bordeaux-like depth from their bio-dynamically produced Triomphe and Whimsy—or “winemaker’s palette”—labels.
Vineland Estates, under the direction of cabernet franc-obsessed winemaker Brian Schmidt, produces some of the best-value versions in Ontario. At $25, Vineland’s Elevation line is a reserve-level wine that drinks well out of the gate or can be cellared for a decade, while its entry-level cab francs are solid, fresh, and approachable for under $15.
While Riesling may be the first white grape that comes to mind when we think of cool climate whites in Ontario and New York State, there’s growing buzz around Niagara chardonnay, thanks to an upward trend in quality, and a consequent coordinated marketing campaign.
While haters rant about flabby, over-oaked, and overly buttered high-alcohol chards from dry climates deemed barely fit for grass-growing, a market is growing for chardonnay that draws its inspiration more from Burgundy than Yellow Tail. Luckily, our neighbors to the north have no shortage of it, and, as a movement emphasizing quality over quantity takes hold, global awareness of Niagara chardonnay is on the rise.
Industry leaders like Peter Gamble of Ravine Vineyards and Thomas Bachelder—formerly of Le Clos Jordanne, but now with his own eponymous label—are outspoken members of a huge community that organizes events like the International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration (IC4) in an effort to showcase the best Niagara wines and establish their places alongside worldwide wines. This July marks the second year of the event, which is branding the region as a chardonnay lover’s paradise.
As with the cab francs, Niagara produces all variations of chardonnay, from the aforementioned over-oaked butter bombs to the most feminine versions. Lovers of the rich style should try Southbrook’s premium level Poetica Label Chardonnay or Hidden Bench’s Felseck Vineyard label, while Burgundy drinkers should seek out the brighter, crisper versions from Pearl Morisette and Bachelder Wines, both new labels in the region.
Forced to choose one bottle to show off the potential of Niagara chardonnay, I’d pour Tawse’s Robyn’s Block Vineyard label. The 2009 has a sophisticated balance of richness, crispness, ripe fruit, and minerality that may motivate you to crack open a few bottles of your cellar’s ice wine just to make room for Niagara chardonnay.
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