The Ontario wine industry has powered through many big weeks during the tenure of its young but wise, short howbeit concentrated history. None seemed larger than the first week of March, beginning with Taste Ontario at the Royal Ontario Museum and ending with the 28th edition of Cuvée at the Scotiabank Convention Centre in Niagara Falls.
In between and as a preamble to Ontario’s annual gala celebration there was the presentation of the Tony Aspler Cuvée Award of Excellence, presented by Mr. Aspler to viticulturist Lloyd Schmidt, for advancing viticulture in Ontario by accessing the best vinifera varietals from nurseries around the world and fighting bureaucracy to do it.
Father and son grape growers Howard and Wes Lowrey from St. David’s were honoured with the Cuvée Vineyard of Excellence Award sponsored by BASF Canada Inc. The 2016 category was best red vinifera and the Lowrey’s were recognized for their Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard. The winner is chosen by an expert panel that makes field visits throughout the growing season to monitor quality.
The VQA Promoter’s Awards are designed to recognize exceptional contributors to Ontario’s wine industry. The honours were endowed as follows. For Education, Peter Blakeman of The Canadian Food and Wine Institute at Niagara College. The Promoter-at-Large, Norm Hardie of Norman Hardie Wines. In the LCBO category, Nina Hofer, Product Consultant. In Hospitality, Peter Elmhirst of Elmhirst Resort. For Lifetime Achievement, Peter Gamble, formerly of Hillebrand, VQA, Stratus and Ravine, now consulting winemaker at Benjamin Bridge, Lightfoot & Wolfville and Versado Wines.
Proceeds from the Cuvée Grand Tasting go to support the Cuvée Legacy Fund established after the 2015 event. The fund has already awarded $15,000 in academic scholarships and contributed $13,000 toward industry-driven research projects. At the awards ceremony, the 2015 scholarships were also handed out.
Cuvée 2016 was orchestrated by Brock University’s Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute who will also play host to the Expert’s Tasting of Ontario wines in April. At this year’s reception 52 VQA wineries each poured one carefully selected wine for the Grand Tasting and were joined by 13 culinary partners. Earlier that week, Taste Ontario was hosted by VQA Wines of Ontario and Wine Country Ontario. Upwards of thirty producers contributed more than 125 wines to the media and trade event.
The food establishments on hand were granted the space and signage to show off and showcase their talents. Having their names projected onto the walls around the perimeter of the room made it very easy to locate who was placed where. The wineries received no such similar sort of spotlight signage so happenstance played a significant role on what got tasted. Still it was nice to see a Toronto neighbourhood friendly face in Ossington joint Actinolite Restaurant with chef Justin Cournoyer acting out his special brand of an Ontario forest passion play.
The pork belly ‘Lollipops’ from Vintage Inn – Escabeche by Chef Chris Smythe, Korean fried chicken by Garrison House Chef David Watt and Duck Mu-shu from Golden Lotus Restaurant’s Chef Sing How were exceptional. Also on hand was omnipresent Niagara events food contributor Artisan Ontario presented by Chef Mark Hand and Mario Pingue. I somehow missed out on Backhouse Chef Ryan Crawford’s burrata and braised beef short rib ravioli tasting plates. No chef had a longer line-up all night long.
Insofar as an assessment of Ontario wines is concerned, from a varietal point of view, Riesling and Chardonnay have not relinquished any stronghold on their domination, nor should they any time soon. I can’t help but feel and notice that winemakers continue to reach for the big red machine and wish upon an intangible Bordeaux star when they should be concentrating on fresh, gulpable Cabernet Franc and Gamay. They should also take some chances with these necessary, best Ontario option red varieties. Press less, reveal freshness and let natural ferments find low-alcohol impressions of impossible, ethereal beauty.
At Cuvée there was no shortage of Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and big red blends. Where was the Cabernet Franc? Kudos to Brian Schmidt of Vineland Estates for his varietal choice, albeit in a perfect little tidy $15 package. It was the only one. That is a travesty. Kacaba’s 2013 Cabernet Franc was a Platinum Award winner at the 2015 WineAlign Awards of Canada. They can’t be blasted for pouring their 2012 Syrah and you can only pick on but others should have seized the opportunity. J-L Groux of Stratus Vineyards offered up his 2013 Gamay from magnum. Brilliant! Where was the rest of Ontario’s Go Gamay Go arsenal? Varietal lampoonery I tell ya.
Perhaps I can be accused of filtering my view of the evening through the oculus of an infundibuliforms installation. Just maybe I’m a wee bit harsh in my assessment of choices made but there were several wines poured at Cuvée that we’ve seen many times before. While the inevitable will influence choices because of inventories and the bottom line, the event is not about finding buyers. The purpose and long-term vision should focus on teaching, on educating and ultimately on celebrating what Ontario does best. Not just what, but where. Choosing what to pour must come out of a disseminated varietal necessity so that sub-appellations can be further defined and understood.
My top ten wines tasted at the two bookending events were these.
Cattail Creek Small Lot Series Old Vines Riesling 2014, VQA Niagara On The Lake, Ontario (Winery, $21.95, WineAlign)
A Cattail Creek joint starring Roselyn Dyck and consulting winemaker Steve Byfield, from a block of Clone 21 (Weiss) Riesling planted in 1976, one of the oldest in Ontario. This OV loitered in subdued maturation because of a brutal winter, a cold spring and a cool summer. A beautiful fall abrogated what came before and brightened the possibilities. Dyck and Byfield took full advantage, channeled their inner Mosel science of the mind, dialled back the sugar and submitted to the vintage’s desires. The result is a scintillant of Riesling with texture and acidity getting together to”grab a piece of something that you think is gonna last,” reelin’ in the year and shining like new. Steely Riesling at its Niagara flats finest, short of bracing and far from cloying. Though a long ways from the Bench, put this ’14 in the vineyard cru discussion with Picone, St. Urbain, Carly’s Block, Triangle, Steelpost and CSV. Drink 2016-2020. Tasted March 2016 @CattailWinery @TerroirLover
Fielding Estate Viognier 2014, VQA Niagara Peninsula, Ontario (142323, $25.95, WineAlign)
If the 2013 from Fielding Estate helped decipher the code of the how, where and why of Peninsula Viognier, this follow up 2014 speaks at the symposium. Sourced from the Four Mile Creek sub-appellation, a locale fast becoming the consensus ground zero for the option, this single-vineyard is farmed by grower Rick Smith. Low-cropped and hand-picked, this is the cleanest Viognier in town.The spice kick starts au fait late, sneaks up the backside and boom. Gotcha! Winemaker Richie Roberts has a vested investigated interest in this white variety amongst Niagara choices deeply pondered and painstakingly explained. Some off-roading chances taken going forward will elevate this wine into territory occupied by the excellent and the outstanding. Drink 2016-2020. Tasted March 2016 @FieldingWinery @RichieWine
Henry Of Pelham Speck Family Reserve Chardonnay 2014, VQA Short Hills Bench, Niagara Peninsula, Ontario (Winery, $29.95, WineAlign)
Vintage in and out this is the manifestation of an unequivocal Niagara icon for Chardonnay. An unwavering, stylistically consistent, best fruit first cuvée from Pelham’s oldest (1988) estate vineyards in the Short Hills Bench. Quite reductive and dramatic Chardonnay in 2014 with multi-macerated flavours. Needs some time for the barrel and the malo to get together with tangy, soil-driven fruit. A bit clunky at the present time. Should be fascinating to watch it develop, oscillate, flip-flop and ultimately settle into something fine over five years time. Drink 2016-2021. Tasted February 2016 @HenryofPelham @SpeckBros
16 Mile Cellar ‘Tenacity’ Chardonnay Unfiltered 2013, VQA Beamsville Bench, Ontario (Winery, $35.00, WineAlign)
Call this an experiment if you will and while winemaker Regan Kapach was blessed with a perfect ferment (and one that would not, could not be repeated in 2014 and 2015), don’t believe for a moment that divine skill was not integral to making this wine happen. Like an early 1990’s MTV production of Neil Young, David Bowie and Nirvana all wrapped up into one unplugged special, here is what happens when unfined, unfiltered and unsulphured jam as one. One major “un” omission, or inclusion in this case is French oak, the catalyst and the glue to keeping this freak of Chardonnay nature together. True, this is the one grape that can handle such a hands off winemaking process, but in Ontario? Not so simple. From the Little Vineyard up on The Bench, the Tenacity is not so much. It’s dreamy, creamy, lightly toasty and full of gelato texture and flavour. It glides and slides, lifts and cleanses. It’s a beautiful impossibility. Drink 2016-2019. Tasted March 2016 @16milecellar
Rosehall Run Ceremony Blanc De Blanc Brut, Prince Edward County, Ontario (Winery, $34.95, WineAlign)
A little ceremonial joy in the division here with Dan Sullivan taking some fizz chances to create a new PEC sparkling order. A multiple vintage cuvée from estate grown fruit of weight, substance, tang, drive, a shot put of citrus, servitude to PEC Chardonnay, certitude to B de B style and structure. Just enough pierce to go through and come out clean, even in the face of oxidative time, on the other side. Dips into the well of Champagne to recover its fearless tactility. These are bubbles that “travel first and lean towards this time.” Timing is everything. Drink 2016-2021. Tasted February 2016 @Rosehall_Run @sullywine
Tawse Quarry Road Chardonnay 2012, VQA Vinemount Ridge, Niagara Peninsula, Ontario (Winery, $35.95, WineAlign)
Oh, the accessibility of Quarry Road in 2012. Still totes the emerald shine, the gemstone tannic scrape and yet the flesh is rendered rich, ripe, ratcheted and riled up. This has tonality like never before, layered and strudel buttery. At this point the vines for Quarry are 17 years of age, sophic and erudite, compounded by the organic, biodynamic and prudent pruning practices that have cemented its vigour. The clay-limestone, fresh-mineral, push-pull is a veritable careening of expression. Though its longevity may not pile towards a compressed future like that of ’09 or ’11, the earlier and often response will act both as Chardonnay charming and Quarry Road magnetizing. For the next five years it will be very hard to turn away. Drink 2017-2020. Tasted April 2015 @Tawse_Winery @DanielatTawse
Cave Spring CSV Blanc De Blancs Brut 2008, Beamsville Bench, Ontario (237198, $39.95, WineAlign)
As expected the Cave Spring 2008 Chardonnay Sparkling solicits thoughts and ideas centred around age. It elicits a complexity response and one taste means a succumbing to the contagion of its vitality. With its autolytic character shining bright, Cave Spring’s BdeB acts out a fantasy up on a silver screen. Another seven year itch is realized in guaranteed Ontario age ability. Has acted way past simple citrus and yet remains a little closed, just now entering the window of showmanship. Another year or two and this will vie for an Oscar. The bubble program production is unparalleled at Cave Spring, perhaps more than any studio in Ontario. Tasted February 2016 @CaveSpring @TheVine_RobGroh
Creekside Broken Press Syrah Queenston Road Vineyard 2012, VQA St. David’s Bench, Niagara Peninsula, Ontario (202127, $42.95, WineAlign)
Creekside’s website waxes about the vintage, noting “the 2012 growing season felt like it had been imported up from California.” This is a type of pragmatic truth (as opposed to correspondent or coherent) because it is useful in applying winemaker Rob Powers’ gathering of phenolic ripeness in lieu of extraneous matter to make this Broken Press. When perfect provisos give you perfect fruit you listen to the winds of the vintage and just go with it. Viognier conditions the mess of richness with more pragmatism in 2012, lifting the aromatics and hooking the rug, up and away from drought conditioning. This BP dips into the earth of the northern Rhône to recover its fearless tactility. And so you feel the autumn’s moderate, crucial rainfall in this wine, its warm days and cool nights. The harvest on October 2nd from the St. David’s Bench Queenston Road Vineyard amounted to nine barrels, eight older French and one new Hungarian, leading to 210 cases. This is the best Syrah from QRV made to date. It will live long because of that aforementioned pragmatic truth. Drink 2016-2024. Tasted March 2016 @CreeksideWine @hobbsandco @AMH_hobbsandco
Domaine Queylus Réserve Du Domaine Pinot Noir 2013, VQA Niagara Peninsula, Ontario (Agent, $44.95, WineAlign)
Oh yes the vineyard speaks, like previous vintages but with clenched teeth and a hyperbole of natural yeast and soil funk. The most charcuterie salts and dehydrates from the middle sibling in 2013, with wisdom and a tale of future memories created in the here and now. Then you will return, to this time that will be its past, when things were so different and the assessment a figment of later imagination. At least three years (and possibly five) will pass before things are set straight for this past to be revealed. The level of smarts and savvy riches are amplified in the Réserve 2013. It is the strongest reminder that reconciliation takes time. Drink 2016-2022. Tasted June 2015 @QueylusVin
Bachelder Lowrey Vineyard Pinot Noir 2013, VQA St. David’s Bench, Niagara Peninsula, Ontario (361816, $44.95, WineAlign)
Beautifully floral Lowrey from Thomas Bachelder, squeezed with restraint and pressed for pitch perfect Niagara Pinot fashion. Lowrey at its elegant best, ripe red though on the edge of anxious, eyes rolling and persuasions lolling though just shy of any sentimentality. Another layer of lovely infiltrates a taster’s psyche, grabbing hold of the heartstrings and then relents, lets go, stays on the righteous path of peurility. The ’13 Lowrey Vineyard gifts such texture and tannins that flirt with danger. It is a wine of life-affirming footnotes. I ask of it, “oh ye teasing beautiful Pinot Noir. When can I drink of thee?” Soon, but not yet. There is no greed from this vineyard and in these hands. As always, Thomas does the right thing. Drink 2017-2022. Tasted March 2016 @Bachelder_wines @LiffordON
Good to go!
WineAlign: Michael Godel