Off the Bench: Peller Estates
We were off to Niagara for the first weekend of October for a bit of wine and food. I decided it was time to head for the benchlands, as I had begun to think superior wines were being produced from grapes grown in the benchland area. I had picked out three wineries on the Beamsville Bench that we'd never visited which I thought might shed some light on what was happening in the area.
We began at Fielding. I was intrigued by the Lot 17 Riesling. Although slightly off-dry, this wine was full of ripe fruit and very well balanced. At the tasting, this led me to try the 2008 Conception, a Pinot Gris based blend, with flavours of apricot, honey and lichees, making it suitable for a wide range of foods. Next we tried the 2008 Unoaked Chardonnay-a real winner on the palate, probably superior even to Conception as a food wine. It was also the winner of a double gold medal at the 2010 All Canadian Wine Awards. With its crisp citrus edge, at a very reasonable $15.95, this wine will serve many very well as their chosen house wine.
We also tasted Fielding's reds, including the excellent 2007 Syrah, also a prize winner. Leaner than we have come to expect from OZ Shiraz, but more elegant than almost all, this is a wine closer in style to the northern Rhone, where the very best wines based on Syrah are made. We also tasted the 2007 Meritage, a Bordeaux blend with guts and staying power ranked as the best red blend in Canada at the 2009 Canadian Wine Awards, but at $15 more than the excellent Syrah, we felt the former was the place to put our money.
About two minutes down the road from Fielding is Hidden Bench, the domain of Harald Thiel (also the proprietor of the Upper Canada Cheese Company) and winemakers Marlize Beyers and Jay Johnston. From vineyards located on the Beamsville Bench, Hidden Bench is producing some of the very best wines made in this country, and with its limited production, has become our own little darling cult winery. Ten minutes with the dynamic, lively Harald would have you investing, and as for the wines, the Hidden Bench Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs and La Brunante, a Bordeaux blend (including Malbec) all belong on the world stage. After tasting the range and learning about Harald's passion for quality, we departed with the Meursault-like 2008 Estate Chardonnay (intense, with a nutty, peachy impression on the palate), the 2008 Nuit Blanche, made to rival or better the great Bordeaux whites (intense flavours of ripe pears with mineral overtones), the 2007 Locust Lane Pinot Noir, which could easily be located in the Cotes de Nuit by an expert taster (intense ripe plums) and the piece de resistance, the 2007 La Brunante (Bing cherries and dark chocolate). These wines are not inexpensive but their quality well compensates for that.
We also left Hidden Bench with the restaurant recommendation for the local August, which turned out to be a real find. As Lucy has tweeted about our lunch, all I will say is that I could not resist a glass of the 2008 13th Street Gamay Noir. Although other wineries (Malivoire, for example) excel with the Beaujolais varietal, none exceed the fine product from 13th Street (Big and juicy with a firm streak of dark fruit).
Our trip came to an end with our visit to Foreign Affair and Marissa and Len Crespino. Wonderful hosts themselves, they have attracted fans from everywhere. This is the winery that is making Ontario grapes into wines using the appassimento process to dry the grapes and concentrate the wines as is done with Amarone from the Veneto region where Marissa comes from.
Like Amarone and other similarly styled wines of the Veneto, these concentrated reds reach out for rich meats and sauces. At this point, only two of the wines have 100% of their grapes dried. The Cabernet Franc is a dry version with notes of coffee and new leather popping up in the dark fruit, and the Cabernet Sauvignon is made in a sweeter style (Recioto in Italy) which made me think of chocolate on ripe raspberries. This is a wine to enjoy by itself in front of the fire. Before tasting this version, I had enjoyed only one such wine in the past, a 1964 Sagrantino from Marco Caprai in Umbria, and if that wine was any indication of the future of the Foreign Affair Cabernet Sauvignon Recioto, this will be a wine for the ages.
With the exception of an icewine, the remainder of Foreign Affair's wines use a partial grape drying method, and range from the outstanding 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon (full and rich, retaining the essential cedar/dark berry cabernet character) to the less successful Merlot and Pinot Noir. They also make a lighter red, more like a light version of a Valpolicella Ripasso, which is available at selected restaurants in the province.
Of their whites, I found the 2008 Sauvignon Blanc to be most interesting. With all of the Foreign Affair wines, the first sip made me sit up and take notice, and this was particularly true of the Sauvignon. Far from the gooseberry/grapefruit flavours of Marlborough in New Zealand or the tight, intense bright fruit of Sancerre, this is a wine packed with ripe peach flavour, ready to take on grilled Mediterranean fish.
Before we left, Len took us into the cellar for a tiny taste of his current pride and joy, a wine he plans to call Unreasonable. Currently in barrel to be held for 165 days (Len says it will sell at $1 for every day in the barrel) this wine is over the top. Concentrated and rich, chocolate and ripe cherries leap from the glass, this will be a match and more for the great Amarones of Italy. Bravo!!!
Dinner was at Peller Estates. Lucy visited with executive chef Jason Parsons (she wrote the introduction to his new collaborative book with Massimo Capra and Michael Bonacini) and I was treated to a mini-tasting of the winery's products.
Peller offers three ranges of wines from the Family Series (well priced at $10/$12) to the Private Reserves (with more intense varietal flavours) to the premium Signature Series, which represent the best the winery has to offer and are some of the best made wines in Canada. We tasted the 2007 Private Reserve Merlot and then the 2007 Signature Merlot and the 2007 Signature Cabernet Sauvignon. The Merlot is a wine any of us would be proud to serve, say with Lucy's Rack of Lamb with Passion fruit Salsa. Both of the Signature wines, perhaps in all years, but certainly in 2007 are big, hearty wines that suggest a great steak to celebrate an important day in your life.
From our tasting, we went on to experience the five course surprise tasting menu with matching wines. Among the chosen wines were the excellent 2008 Chardonnay Sur Lie and the absolutely outstanding Riesling Icewine.
The owners of many of the newer wineries in Canada have come to the industry with passion and business skills. Most have been successful in another line of business and have decided to turn to the land and something they love. Among the most compelling of the stories is that of Len and Marissa Crespino, who made the decision to change their life dramatically after Len had a bad health scare, and have demonstrated fine business skills and imagination in creating the only winery in Canada and possibly outside Italy that uses the appassimento technique. They are making wines to challenge the Venetians at their own game.
I have described the Peller Riesling Icewine above as outstanding, which it is, but it is not alone. Riesling Icewines from Inniskillin, Henry of Pelham and a handful of others in Niagara are also dazzling . The first Ontario Icewines were made from Vidal grapes. Vidal is a hybrid (a vinifera grape crossed with native a North American variety) and makes wonderful icewine that finishes crisply with a butterscotch nose and caramel-y sensation on the palate. However excellent, Vidal Icewine is not for long aging. On the other hand, a well made Riesling Icewine not only improves with age, but may well live forever. In recent years, we have seen some Cabernet Franc versions, and even Gewurztraminer, but so far as Niagara Icewine is concerned, Riesling is King.
Many years ago when we first began to visit Niagara fine dining in Niagara on the Lake and surroundings, was close to impossible. Today, there are many choices, and although there are always some that lie in wait for unsuspecting theatregoers and other tourists, several rank among the best restaurants in the province. The top echelon includes the Peller Estate Winery Restaurant but Treadwells in Port Dalhousie and Deluca's Wine Country Restaurant near Niagara are definitely worth a detour.
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