Writing about Canadian wines has been intrinsically inspired by music because quite frankly, one is always connected to the other. The wines of Ontario have always been at the head of this coupling and the relationship is borne more or less of its own accord. Music came first of course because before wine there was this gangly Toronto teenager every Saturday morning at 8:59 am sitting on the curb in front of Vortex Records at Dundas and Mutual Streets waiting for Bert Myers to open his shop so that kid could be the first in. The 1,600 vinyl record collection still gets plenty of spin time, as does Spotify and Google Music. The CDs? Not so much. Invariably a glass of wine is in hand, more often than not with an Ontario VQA designation in tow.
Canadian music has been great for as long as I have been listening. When did Ontario wine get here too, or the question begs, how? Not by virtue of any particular ethos through customs and traditions going back over many generations of wines. No, success and cumulative proficiency exists by dint of these wines without any forced supervision. They are governed by themselves and indeed across the entire industry. Done are the blanketing days of spare and powerful Ontario wines that were often too spare, so that the ribs of tannin showed through in painful obviousness. Today the contigious embracing of cool climate idiosyncrasy, fringe exceptionality and a unique Somewhereness makes Ontario the envy of the developing wine world.
My writing about wine an occupation whose reality is examined to points of madness, of long, run-on sentences, often at odds with grammatical winemaking realism. My tireless, tiring sentences and phrasing can at times offer a feeling that is potentially endless. Often I like my music to be the same in a Genesis-Frank Zappa-Pat Metheny like continuum but that too is changing. The young pop meeting hip-hop stars that my children listen to are growing on me. As are the unknown, the indie and the tireless players. And they need our help. The wineries too. Just ask Neko Case. “For every piece of music you stream/use for free today, please pay for one if you can. Music and art seem as effortless and breathable as air because an army of humans lovingly make it and propel it for the good of all.” Support local and order your next case of wine from an Ontario winery.
Compiling any wine list is never easy. Not when the subject matter is the most fleeting of consumables, a drink ever-changing, almost never tasting the same twice and destined for eventual failure. We know by instinct that wines cast the shadow of their own destruction before them and are designed from the first with an eye to their later existence as ruins. Wine critics can only regard what is in the glass by what sensory enjoyment or displeasure is activated at that exact time. In most cases there are no second chances. Music is different, timeless, often repetitive and can always be given a second chance.
Music and wine can work magic when paired together. Sometimes it’s just a matter of breaking wine down to the base, choosing grapes from places where they are made in straightforward and simply powerful ways. Likewise, clicking an uncomplicated, three-chord arrangement on YouTube or Spotify can really change the outlook of a day. With a glass of wine in hand there’s a familiar internal silence when sublime music plays, is performed, gifted. The following wines combine lyricism with melody. They write the songs.
Ontario’s sparkling wine oeuvre has transformed into something unstoppable, immoveable and utterly impressive. Truly. Examples tend to be sharp, of lean and intense fruit, with more toast and edges than other Canadian counterparts. The climate is ideal for making bubbles of all ilk; traditional method, cuvée close, ancestral, charmat and pétillant naturel, a.k.a. pét-nat. For every occasion and at all times, especially with music blaring, or soothing softly, as you wish. There are no wrong pairings for Ontario sparkling wine.
Hinterland Lacus Pétillant Naturel 2017, VQA Ontario ($24.00)
Hinterland’s Lacus is gamay noir made in a fully accumulated yeasty style, re-fermented in bottle and yet wholly antithetical to the Jonas Newman’s sweeter Ancestral. Lacus could mean “lake” or “cistern,” perhaps in nod to all the meandering, surrounding and irregularly patterned water in the County, or perhaps it might mean “award,” as should be what we all get in tasting this delightful sparkling wine. Different and comforting, textural and exceptional in varietal, land and stylistic usage. Utterly versatile and electric as need be. Elevates pétillant naturel wine into the real world for many to enjoy. Drink 2019-2023. Tasted June 2019
Pairs with The Tragically Hip’s My Music at Work
Why? The opening lines say it all, for what’s happening today.
Everything is bleak
It’s the middle of the night
You’re all alone and
The dummies might be right
You feel like a jerk
My music at work
My music at work
Henry Of Pelham Cuvée Catharine Carte Blanche Estate Blanc De Blanc 2014, Traditional Method, VQA Short Hills Bench, Niagara Escarpment (315200, $44.95)
The vintage tension is felt right from the aromatic get go and there can be no doubt that you are nosing Niagara’s most accomplished sparkling wine. Lime and wet concrete, fennel pollen and Baked Alaska. All tolled a terrific entry and no downturn into ginger and savoury crème brûlée followed by a moment of silence and contemplation. Use this for all, whenever and wherever. It will work for everyone, including those who will appreciate the faint sweetness to balance the year’s anxieties. Drink 2019-2026. Tasted November 2019
Pairs with Alessia Cara’s Scars to Your Beautiful
Why? H of P’s Cuvée Catharine is also a wine of hope, youth and beauty. A wine from our very own backyard, just like the the singer from Brampton. The first line helps.
But there’s a hope that’s waiting for you in the dark
It seems that in Ontario riesling is perpetually on the rise and the reasons why are as varied as the artistry it’s equipped to display. It has been 40 years since the Pennachetti family of Cave Spring Vineyard and German vintner Herman Weis planted riesling in St. Urban Vineyard on what is now Vineland Estates. My how things have changed. The trending line ascends as the general public comes around and warms to the versatile grape so popularity is not just in the hands of geeks, oenophiles and connoisseurs. Ask your favourite sommelier, product consultant or wine writer. Riesling’s neighbourhood is beginning to gentrify in a big way but it’s also expanding experimental and ancestral horizons. Varietal power, finesse and omniscient existentialism for a signature and singular Ontario purpose is perpetual and unwavering. Versatility goes with eccentric, electric and eclectic tunes so get your funk, funky and funkadelic groove on.
Adamo Estate Riesling Wismer Foxcroft Vineyard 2017, VQA Twenty Mile Bench (11236, $19.95)
Grower’s Series as in purchased fruit raised by serious Ontario grape farmers, in this case the Wismers and their expansive and generous Twenty Mile Bench-Foxcroft Vineyard. In Shauna White’s hands this Wismer fruit is ripe, developed and open-knit for skies the limit flavour potential. Cut your teeth on this juicy somnambulist riesling of citrus, peach, yellow plum and wide-eyed excitement. Drink 2020-2024. Tasted March 2020
Pairs with The Weeknd’s Blinding Lights
Why? The song is new but timeless, retro, thrown back to the mid 1980s with synth rhythms like Take on Me by A-Ha. Adamo’s riesling sleep walks, blinds us by its light and connects rieslings going back through time to today.
Oh, when I’m like this, you’re the one I trust
Hey, hey, hey
Cave Spring Riesling Adam Steps 2017, VQA Beamsville Bench ($24.95)
Adam Steps is the riesling positioned up the middle lane, with more sugar than the Estate and near equal to CSV, with acidity higher than the former and similar to the latter. It’s the fatter, juicier, more generous one and in many ways much like the Feinherb’s of Germany. This is a very forward vintage with elevated levels of all its typical character, including tropical notes of guava and pineapple. May not be the longest age worthy AS but it is a most pleasing one. Drink 2019-2022. Tasted February 2019
Pairs with Drake’s Passion Fruit
Why? You might think this would pair better with sauvignon blanc but Adam’s Steps smells just as tropical and well, the first line.
Ayy, y’all get some more drinks goin’ on, I’ll sound a whole lot better
Ravine Vineyard Riesling Patricia’s Block 2018, VQA St David’s Bench ($35.00)
From the botrytis block and you can feel, sense, and taste it very much so in this vintage. This in spite of a 30 per cent number out of a year when humidity and brix did not quite jive in terms of penultimate timing. Tart, leesy and so bloody sensorial. Drink 2019-2021. Tasted September 2019
Pairs with DJ Shub’s Indomitable
Why? The indigenous electronic music of PowWowStep is so riesling, so Ravine and so Patricia. “I want Canadians to see that pow wow culture is beautiful in both imagery and spirit,” explains DJ Shub. “I also want young Native kids to know that they can find support and happiness in their lives, even if they can’t see it right in front of them.”
In Ontario, raising chardonnay is about growing grapes and making wines in places previously discounted. There is no secret that Ontario winemakers have worked tirelessly to develop the ability and the acumen to make world-class chardonnay. Always reinventing itself and potential fulfilled, chardonnay, the slow train coming. Few ideals or notions are hotter these days than those relating to cool climate viticulture and the selvage regions from where such wines are produced. As for music and chardonnay? The great singer-songwriters and bands of course; the classics, icons and archetypes.
Westcott Vineyards Estate Chardonnay 2017, VQA Vinemount Ridge (424507, $27.95)
This 2017 from Westcott is really just what you might imagine were you to close your eyes and draw a triangle in your mind from the Vinemount Ridge, to judiciously oaked chardonnay and through to Westcotts’s manifesto. Niagara chardonnay should be about farming and this most certainly is, but also a microcosm of place, again of truth, but like all good, great and ethereal chardonnay must be. The florals are high for the place and the texture like organza, filament and lace. The obtuse vintage be damned it is this team that has found the right path and the way to varietal understanding. This teaches us about the ridges and benches but also about cool climate chardonnay. Thanks for this. Drink 2019-2025. Tasted October 2019
Pairs with Bruce Cockburn’s Wondering Where the Lions Are
Why? Like the song everyone always wants to hear him play, timeless, so Canadian and one that teaches so much about being us. The dictionary and playlist wrapped into one with a chardonnay that speaks to all of us in a cool climate vernacular.
Sun’s up, mm-hmm, looks okay
The world survives into another day
And I’m thinking ’bout eternity
Some kinda ecstasy got a hold on me
Hidden Bench Estate Chardonnay 2017, VQA Beamsville Bench, Niagara Escarpment (68817, $29.95)
You may consider this 2017 (estate) chardonnay from Hidden Bench the transition, meaning it demarcates the passing of the varietal torch, from Marelize Beyers to Jay Johnston. And indeed there is a little bit of each winemaker’s finesse, grace and cumulative style. Perhaps a step away from richesse with a step forward in structure. That means the linearity and subtlety speaks ahead of the developed flavours and so a longer primary period will allow this to drink consistently for nearly five years. After that it will develop more flint and smoulder, if less golden sunshine richness. These are of course details in minutia and shadows to discover. Drink 2020-2027. Tasted February 2020
Pairs with Leonard Cohen’s Everybody Knows
Why? Everything about Cohen’s music lives in shadows and everybody knows that a Hidden Bench chardonnay does the same. Even if the plague is coming fast, from one great to another, everybody knows.
That’s how it goes,
Le Clos Jordanne Le Grand Clos Chardonnay 2017, VQA Niagara Peninsula ($44.95)
Welcome back, to that grand vineyard place that we’ve talked about. Down on the farm near the water where chardonnay was purposed grown and put in the hands of a young Thomas Bachelder. The results were dramatic and now that unparalleled fruit is back in the monk’s world, he wiser and more experienced than ever. The transition is spooky seamless and the awe in hand providing breathtaking posits in moments more than fleeting. Behold the presence of orchards and their just ripened glow of fruit with sheen so fine. Let your glass allow the ease of the aromas and flavours to fall in and emit with conscious movement, without conscience or effort. That’s the 2017 Grand Clos. Chardonnay that is. Drink 2019-2026. Tasted November 2019
Pairs with Rush’s Limelight
Why? Le Clos Jordanne is back in the limelight and on a literal level, the return of this iconic Ontario chardonnay by Thomas Bachelder is about living as a performer, on a stage, with all eyes upon them. A wine with a higher purpose.
Get on with the fascination
The real relation
The underlying theme
Who needs only light, southern French styled Rosé when you can also have full fruit, plenty of colour and a healthy dose of personality? In many cases the nearly pale and vin gris examples still persist and excite but there are those bled and rendered, heavily hued and teeming with fruit. Ontario made Rosé is more diverse, complex and multifarious than ever before. In terms of working for the consumer that means more choice and that’s a beautiful thing. Whether you are making yours to be a crowd pleaser with a heathy dose of residual sugar or dry as the desert, the unequivocal voice of necessary conscience will always whisper “balance in Rosé is key.” Like Canadian music which also pairs well with bottles of blush.
Leaning Post Rosé 2018, VQA Niagara Peninsula ($20.95)
Hmmm…salty. Lovely lithe and spirited Rosé here from the LP boys, redolent of fresh-picked strawberry, Maldon sprinkled and just herbaceous enough to care for signature red grape varieties ideal for the quick, calm and easy blush bleed. The sour edge just adds to the mystique and the by the boatload charm. Just right. Drink 2019-2021. Tasted February 2019
Pairs with Shawn Mendes’ Stitches
Why? Don’t want to get too serious with Rosé so a little pop music with a slightly salty and bitter sound seems like just the plan.
And now that I’m without your kisses
I’ll be needing stitches
Malivoire Rosé Moira 2019, VQA Beamsville Bench ($24.95)
Production is “as much as I can get from that site,” tells Shiraz Mottiar, so maximum 800 cases. As always the aridity and the salinity continue to rise, the acids, minerality, near brininess and ultimate stoic balance so secure at the top of the game. Such a high acid vintage for everything but certainly that includes Rosé, yet still the least amount of skin-contact of the three Malivoire blush. Acids just don’t correlate to hue and flesh. Thank pH for the needle’s movement in how this translates from vintage to vintage. Drink 2020-2024. Tasted January 2020
Pairs with Justin Bieber’s Intentions
Why? Moira just gets to me and a glass always leads to creativity. The Ontario Rosé muse unparalleled.
Shout out to your mom and dad for making you
Standing ovation, they did a great job raising you
When I create, you’re my muse
The kind of smile that makes the news
Not that there is ever a bad time to partake in the wonders of gamay, but with the mercury rising, spring is the right time to be with the gamay you love. If you’ve never experienced the nuanced pleasure of great gamay, whether it be from Beaujolais in Bourgogne’s southern reaches or from Ontario’s cool-climate hinterlands, its prime time you did. The gamay produced in Ontario can run the gamut from light, fruity and joyful to dark, serious and structured. Winemakers are on their gamay game and the quality has never been better. The kind of songs to match gamay need to exhibit intrinsic purity and also variance so be picky and intentional here.
Château Des Charmes St. David’s Bench Vineyard Gamay Noir Droit 2017, VQA St. David’s Bench, Niagara On The Lake (346742, $19.95)
Quite a reductive and structured gamay with healthy extraction and great vintage fruit. Resides in the black raspberry realm with a balancing sheet of strawberry roll-up. Nothing shy about this, in a ripest of St. David’s Bench vein and so much could be taught about Ontario gamay through the work of this maker. Drink 2019-2023. Tasted October 2018 and March 2020
Pairs with Neil Young’s Homegrown
Why? Both Château Des Charmes and gamay strike me as the epitome of homegrown and the St. David’s Bench estate is simply the Neil Young of Ontario.
All right with me
Is the way it should be
Is a good thing
Plant that bell
And let it ring
Stratus Gamay 2017, VQA Niagara On The Lake ($29.20)
The 2016 Stratus cabernet franc offers up a wilder ride so fasten your seatbelt. Ropey and fully berry-Gamay gets neither more ripe nor extracted in Ontario and yet there’s a step back dance grace about this singular ’17. If ever the word Cru might come to mind when nosing and tasting local gamay this would be one, specific to a time and a place. Wild cherry, black cherry and concentrated cherry syrup are the big, bigger and biggest attributes, all cut through by a knife’s edge acidity. Wild gamay of grip, with very good length. Drink 2019-2023. Tasted February 2019
Pairs with Robbie Robertson’s I Hear You Paint Houses
Why? To be honest lyrically this song has nothing to do with Stratus or gamay but it features Van Morrison and that’s pretty much the reason. Robbie and Van together is like Stratus and gamay.
I hear you paint houses
Right down to the wire
Thoughts about pinot noir always articulate an opinion. Smells like cherries, shows earth and mineral notes of/from clay and limestone. Texture is specific to the village where it is grown. In Ontario there are pinot noir crus few would ague against the probability that in most vintages quality will be a guarantee. Crus like Lowrey Vineyard on the St. David’s Bench, top blocks in Prince Edward County, several vineyards up on the Beamsville Bench, Wismer-Foxcroft, much of the Twenty Mile Bench and Four Mile Creek. The naysayers who continue to doubt whether pinot noir is a viable signature grape in this province are not paying close enough attention to the signs, portents and in conclusion, the results. As for the songs it plays and sings? Gotta be both old and new, retro and still avant-garde, crooning while ambient, poppy yet just a bit unusual and always stuck in your head.
Inniskillin Montague Vineyard Pinot Noir 2017, VQA Four Mile Creek, Niagara Peninsula ($30.95)
From a vintage both turned on and stood on its head with cool and wet summer conditions followed by unprecedented heat in September. The resulting look at pinot noir means strawberry like you’ve never noted before and Montague’s certainly jamming with concentration. Sweet fruit carries just enough varietal tension and depth to keep it grounded in the clay-earthy realities of Niagara. Not like Montague’s past perhaps but great fun nonetheless. Drink 2019-2023. Tasted November 2019
Pairs with City and Colour’s Hope for Now
Why? Dallas Green’s voice, of sweet tension, like Ontario pinot noir and Montague’s clay-earthy reality.
What will it take to live as if I would not another day?
To live without despair, and to be without disdain
How can I instill such hope, but be left with none of my own?
What if I could sing just one song and it might save somebody’s life?
Rosehall Run JCR Pinot Noir 2017, VQA Prince Edward County ($39.00)
A bit high-toned, magically spirited and rebelliously volatile. Earthy and lithe in fruit though quite raspberry-pomegranate and exciting for those who like it not only lightning searing, but intensely meaningful. Hard not quiver with impatience at the thought of this treat before me and what such a singular pinot noir will become when it matures. Drink 2019-2023. Tasted blind at NWAC19, June 2019
Pairs with Joni Mitchell’s A Case of You
Why? PEC pinot noir, this vineyard and that winemaker. Musically structured like a song from Blue, chord and tempo changes, magically spirited and intensely meaningful. Thank you Dan Sullivan.
You taste so bitter
And so sweet, oh
I could drink a case of you darling, and I would
Still be on my feet
Stanners Vineyard Pinot Noir The Narrow Rows 2017, VQA Prince Edward County
A super-saturated, honed and zeroed in upon place in a vineyard ripeness with a touch foxiness. Reality from limestone bled into fruit wavering on a spectrum where berry fruit
sits on one end and earthy beetroot all the way over on the other. Touches both and then properly meets in the middle. Cherries are red, herbs are green and tension stretches a wire between two poles. Tomato water and tomato leaf with fresh basil. That’s just matter of fact and a good struck balance in combination. You almost feel it’s at once too ripe and then a bit green but those moments are fleeting and so the summation in accumulation is the thing; must, seeds, stems and the work of kind, nurturing and gentle hands add up to great delicacy. It’s local and it’s so bloody good. Delicious even. Unlike any pinot noir ever made previously in Ontario. Drink 2019-2023. Tasted blind at the Judgement of Kingston, November 2019
Pairs with Ron Sexsmith’s Gold in Them Hills
Why? Pinot is a song of hope, crooned by a Canadian treasure. Colin Stanners may as well be the Ron Sexsmith of Prince Edward County, shy and brilliant, reserved and funny.
But maybe it’s the perfect day
Even though the bills are piling
There’s gold in them hills
There’s gold in them hills
So don’t lose heart
Give the day a chance to start
At the brazen and confident right of Ontario’s most important varietal reds is cabernet franc, a Bordelais grape that paints a more palatable picture than those brushed by both merlot and cabernet sauvignon. Transparently honest and forthright by nature, brassy and highly energetic, righteously indignant like a young band with a big sound and no shortage of swagger. Frank Ontario red, frankly speaking.
Tawse Natural Wine Cabernet Franc Redfoot Vineyard 2018, VQA Lincoln Lakeshore, Niagara Peninsula ($28.95)
There’s a symmetry in this cabernet franc and as it is the natural one in the Tawse stable, it’s actually the connection between vineyard and varietal that brings about the a ha moment. Redfoot has to date been the gamay block for natural executions and cabernet franc has been a Laundry Vineyard affair. The dots are connected through the Lincoln Lakeshore lexicon from one to the next, first in grape and then in winemaking, or lack thereof. This Vin Nature is both the least “natural” of all the Tawse tries while at the same time most like the Laundrys of past vintages, though it’s really somewhere in the circulative middle of a stylistic that includes the Grower’s Blend. In fact there’s no great departure from those cabernet francs so why not make them all this way? If the results are same dark fruit, same blushing acidity, same piquancy, same herbal undertones and nearly the same clarity of structure, why not risk it across the board? Could drink this with abandon. Drink 2019-2022. Tasted September 2019
Pairs with The Arkells Knocking at the Door
Why? “There’s a fearlessness to it that I think a lot of sports fans and teams want to feel,” said frontman Max Kerman. The song has been anthemic at hockey games and women’s marches. Paul Pender’s natural wines do something eerily similar and reach a very large audience.
That’s me, I’m knockin’ at the door
For more, for more, for more
That’s me, I’m knockin’ at the door
I’m knockin’ at the door
I’m knockin’ at the door
Southbrook Saunders Vineyard Cabernet Franc 2018, Beamsville Bench, Niagara Peninsula ($28.95)
Nothing if not classic Bench-raised cabernet franc with crunchy fruit, dark red and savoury plus that unmistakeable current of dark currant and capsicum. There’s no mistaking the origin or the execution, nor the varietal expressiveness. Transparent, honest, real and blessed of so much purposeful character. May not charm everyone from the word go but a couple of years will sort them out. Drink 2020-2024. Tasted December 2019
Pairs with Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs
Why? The bounce in this song reminds of cabernet franc’s varietal dance, crunchy, savoury and honest. That’s just how Ann Sperling interprets fruit from Saunders Vineyard, tripping over piano keys and a background of strings making ambient sounds, rising to a crescendo.
Sometimes I can’t believe it
I’m moving past the feeling
Sometimes I can’t believe it
I’m moving past the feeling again
Good to go!