In recent years, Canada, and Ontario in particular, has been creeping up on the world Riesling scale, impressing even Jancis Robinson with the crisp intensity in our well made Rieslings, not only in Niagara but elsewhere in the country.
Today, I did not find what I was looking for. I tested pleasant wines from both the 2008 and 2009 vintages, but anything close to my desire for some steel backbone was nowhere to be found. Still, the intense 2009 Lot no. 17 Fielding Estate was exceptional in an off-dry style - a real mouthful of lychees and peaches with just a touch of grapefruit to balance it out. Alas, only 150 cases were made and it is going fast (at $25). Other praiseworthy examples included the 2009 Thirty Bench Riesling, , (at $16) a blend from four vineyards. With a hint of residual sweetness and good length this is a very pleasant for a drink in the afternoon sun. I also found both of the 2008 Cave Springs Riesling CSV, suggesting ripe pears and apricots, and the Hidden Bench 2008 Estate Riesling with pineappley notes, to be excellent. While they may be strong examples of the grape and well balanced, I was seeking out food wines, and that first whiff of residual sweetness left me dreaming about summer afternoons by the beach, where even antipasta is the furthest from anyone's mind.
Perhaps the most interesting of the Rieslings was the 2008 Inniskillin Legacy Series. Aged on the lees (skins) for 5 months, this wine has, as one might expect, a yeasty element and has much fuller flavours than you might expect from a Riesling. I expect this is an effort to broaden the appeal of Riesling, and despite good intentions, it is likely to meet with limited success. Still. with only 230 cases made, very few will have this unique experience, so time will tell. Riesling is a different animal.
Tom Pannechetti and Charles Baker, both of whom are known as leaders on the world Riesling stage, told me that in Niagara, this grape produces fine wines in great years, although atypically somewhat broader and richer than in ordinary years. But in ordinary years, Riesling is at its ornery best, producing lean, elegant crisp food friendly wines sought after the world over. 2007 is one of the great years in this context, whereas the current crop, from 2008 and 2009 are just ordinary years, but should produce grapes to make great dry Rieslings.
At least on this day, they did not. Excellent Rieslings they were, but I am still waiting for that steely austere edge found in Alsacien and Clare Valley wines.
After the Rieslings, I returned to rest of the whites and took another tack. If Rieslings were not going to excite, maybe I could find a really exceptional unoaked chardonnay or Pinot Gris, or even a white blend at a reasonable price to lift my palate and my spirits. This hunt also proved difficult. I did find several wines in the under $20 range that would work well with highly flavoured dishes. The 2009 Pinot Gris from Calamus has loads of ripe fruit and an air of seduction. At about the same price, Fielding also fields Conception, with the 2009 a very sound wine with ripe fruit and excellent length. It was a little less exciting but also less expensive at $14 than the very good 2009 unoaked Chardonnay from Wayne Gretzky. At least equal to these is a new product from Stratus, the Tollgate 2007 White, made for the restaurant trade. Several grapes make up the cepage, with traces of the ripe peach notes of Viognier showing through. And for less than $20 ($40 to $50 at a restaurant), this wine is hard to beat. So, all in all my hunt for drinkable whites with character from Canada that do not beak the bank was not so disappointing, but I had yet to taste something really exciting. That was just around the corner.
The 2006 Stratus White is at the top of the ABC (anything but chardonnay) heap in Ontario. Made from a blend of grapes, and from the very best lots at Stratus, this four year old wine has a quiet elegant nose, and is still just beginning to show its pedigree as it swirls in the glass. Reminiscent of a young Grand Cru Chablis initially, but with a broader range of flavours as it opens up, it is a delight in the mouth, and shows great length. Wow! Definately not a steal at about $40 , this wine is in the same class as many of the much more expensive white wines of France.
I was so interested in the whites that the reds were shortchanged. With my limited tasting time, I looked for reds from very hot (for us) 2007 vintage. There is scarcely a person interested in Ontario wines who is not aware that 2007 was considered the vintage of the decade for Ontario reds. The summer was hot for this part of the world and the grapes ripened in ideal fall conditions. With the continual improvements in winemaking, the result overall has been the best red wines Ontario has yet produced. My limited selection did not disappoint. I was interested in the Reif Meritage from 2007, in part because we had acquired a case of the 2006 Reserve Cabernet in a barrel auction. This was an intriguing start. Much richer and more complete than the softer, mellow but now over-mature 2006, this is a wine to drink tonight with roast chicken or rack of lamb. Perhaps it has another year or two to full maturity, but it is impressive enough right now and at less than $30, a pretty good deal. I had heard a lot about Foreign Affair (the winery) and its Conspiracy red, made in the Ripasso style, but at the same table they were serving the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon. This is a real wine, much superior to the Conspiracy, dark berries and cherries with a dash of cedar, plenty of depth and length. A complete wine which will improve for several years, if you can wait, and at less than $40, much less expensive than Californians of similar quality.
The 2007 Stratus red came next. An earlier vintage was poured recently, to critical acclaim, at a lunch on Parliament Hill when we hosted President Obama. Until the 2007, the 2002 was considered the best Stratus red made, but the 2007 will be competition. A cepage which includes most of the Bordeaux varieties along with a touch of Gamay, this wine opens beautifully to show a panoply of dark fruit flavours, with nicely integrated oak. Give this wine a year or two and it will be even more magnificent.
I cannot leave the 2007's without mentioning the new Stratus Tollgate Red and the Hidden Bench La Brunante. The Stratus product is being produced for the restauirant trade and for a rational price, provides a big mouthful of rich ripe red fruit with some character. Like the white,Tollgate red is a good match for a wide range of foods with strong flavours. Stratus has certainly found the formula - wines with plenty of character and flavour at a price that makes them accessible for everyday drinking.
It is not every day that most of us might savour a glass of the Hidden Bench La Brunante. This is a world class red (at a world class price). Intense on the nose and palate, this Bordeaux blend was almost opaque in appearance. In the mouth it began to open up to reveal a range of rich fruit flavours, but they were still masked by tannin. Drinkable soon, this wine has many years to go before approaching maturity. Not officially part of the Wine Council tasting, this and other Hidden Bench wines show what Ontario, or at least Hidden Bench can do. I almost hesitate to mention 2008. I did taste some wines that were disappointing including the Ripasso from Foreign Affair but I was very impressed by the Hidden Bench Estate Pinot Noir from that vintage. This wine is full of wonderful cherry flavours, more in the Oregon full-on fruit style than reminiscent of Burgundy. Still, and this was 2008, there is no hint of overripe grapes as we often see in California pinots. Perhaps a little rich at nearly $40, but quality comes with a price.
On this tasting at least, wines coming from the Beamsville Bench showed an intensity of fruit and character not seen consistently in others from the peninsula. I suggest we are starting to see that a case can be made for the Beamsville Bench having a superior microclimates for at least some vinifera grapes. We shall all wait to see if history bears it out. Not only from the bench, Cabernet Franc has shown its colours throughout the province and when all the results are in, may produce the best reds from this part of the world.
Good Value Wines
At a price, the 2009 Fielding Conception and the 2009 Calamus Pinot Gris represent great values for good food wines. If we had a dozen or two in our cellar, they would keep us good company over the next year or so.
For more money, I was dazzled by the 2007 Foreign Affair Cabernet Sauvignon. Probably not that easy to lay your hands on, but if you can, you will delight in the enjoyment of this wine on special occasions for as long as you still have a bottle in your cellar. I did not get to several wineries, including Sandbanks from Prince Edward County (with its outstanding Baco Noir Reserve) or Henry of Pelham, which also makes outstanding sparkling wine. This just goes to show that the industry in Ontario is maturing and developing the excellence that took generations to achieve in Europe.
I am going back to Niagara soon with Lucy and we hope to find some more examples of Canada's great wines.
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