Over the course of the last year I visited the Niagara wine region of Ontario and then the Finger Lakes, the Hudson River Valley, then Niagara and Seneca and Cayuga Lakes again last week. It’s time to share my highlights of the “Great Northern Tour” of 2014-15.
Niagara Wine Country, Ontario
This year due to a very tight schedule I only visited Peller Estate (with an excellent restaurant, where all their current wines are available by the glass for very reasonable prices). Favorite wines:
- Signature Chardonnay Reserve 2013: light gold color. Nose: complex, smoky, a bit like old riesling, yellow apple hints. On the palate: high acid, lemon/citrus. Made with no malolactic fermentation, deftly balanced between acidity and complex, rich lees impact on the texture. Chewy and intense, still needs time but worth the wait; impressively Burgundian.
- Rose 2014: a blend of gamay and pinot noir. Nose: lovely, like a heritage variety watermelon, with herbal notes (thyme?) gentle and fragrant. On the palate, fine acid, gentle red fruits, but firm zesty acid; stylish.
- Gamay 2013 Four Mile Creek: Nose: smoky/gamey/flinty at first, some reduction. Then, red/black racy plum and cherry and white pepper w. flint. Palate: lively, zesty, earth and mushroom, then bright red cherry and racy flint; a quick finish but stylish, will be fleshed out in a few months for fall cuisine.
- Signature Series Cabernet Franc 2012: Very impressive and varietal-true nose of leafy black cherry with herbal notes. On the palate, firm black fruits, mocha chocolate finish. Stylish.
I had more time to visit wineries both in Niagara-on-the-Lake and the Bench regions in 2014. Here are my favorites:
Foreign Affair Winery (north of the QEW in Vineland) has one of the most charming logos I’ve seen; the silhouette of a moose with an inlaid oval proclaiming “Ciao”. The owner, and Italian-Canadian trade mission official, was inspired by the apassimento style of drying a portion of grapes in the Veronese wines based on Corvina, that culimate in the rich, concentrated Amarone. At this winery, they use a portion of dried grapes for every wine, ranging from 15% and 20% for sauvignon blanc, riesling and chardonnay, to 100% for their 2007 cabernet franc and “Grand Q” meritage blend 2010.
My favorite was the pinot noir 2009 (with 40% apassimento grapes). Nose: complex, fascinating: lifted whiff of dried strawberries. On the palate, wow! Great concentration of strawberry and cherries and huge spice and pepper with amazing length. The concentration was all fruit-driven, not tannin or oak. Very original and stylish (14.2% alc.)
Next was Tawse Winery near Vineland in the Bench district, a high-class (and high-priced) establishment. They employ gravity-flow processing and the tasting room at the bottom of the hill has impressive floor-to-ceiling windows of the processing area tanks going up the hill. They have also won the “Best winery in Canada” twice in the last five years. Wines may be pricey but they deliver the goods. Favorites include:
- Lauritzen Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010 (Vinemount Ridge). Nose: deep earth and mushroom notes with black cherry. Palate: depth and finesse, forest floor and black cherry with truffles, still young and needs four more years but stylish.
- Cabernet Franc 2009 Creek Shores VQA: Nose, crushed limestone and black cherry, roses. On the palate, great vivacity and fruit/acid balance. Still young but amazing and wonderfully fresh fruit finish.
- Gewurztraminer 2012 20 Mile Bench VQA. Nose: passion fruit and freshly peeled grapefruit with lychee and pine nuts. Very exotic and terroir-driven. Palate: pink grapefruit with huge citrus minerality that goes on and on; great fruit/acid balance.
- Riesling Icewine 2013: Apple pie on the nose, ripe apples with a hint of cinnamon and allspice. Palate: perfect fruit/acid balance of green/yellow apples and spice, loads of acid and drinks as if it were dry. Outstanding; needs a decade.
Not far from Tawse is Hidden Bench, aptly named and off the beaten path. All vineyards are certified organic. They have several old vine bottlings and a riesling vineyard planted in 1974. Highlights:
- Felseck Riesling 2012: Nose of white flowers and barley. Palate: Wow! Electric, taught, focused and tart with brilliant green apple, mineral and slate.
- Rosonel Vineyard “Roman’s Block” Riesling 2012: These vines were planted in 1974. Nose: like the palate of the Felseck; taught, tight minerality. Palate: smoke and flint and lime gunpowder. Has depth and weight but young, needs a decade.
- Pinot Noir Estate 2011 (blend of three vineyards) Nose: red cherries and flowers, a Cote de Beaune style, then grows deeper with black cherry and earth. Palate: Wow! impressive intensity, depth and length; needs time.
Malivoire Wine Co. is also located on the Niagara Bench in this neighborhood. Highlights:
- Pinot Gris 2012: Nose: lychee and grapefruit/citrus notes with hints of limestone. Palate: great rich texture but with refreshing acidity; nicely balanced.
- Ladybug Rose 2013: 70% cabernet franc, 20% gamay, 10% pinot noir. Nose: watermelon and strawberry; stylish. Palate: lively Provencal style with great fruit/acid balance.
- Gamay 2012: Nose: smoky eucalyptus. Palate: broad, with black and red cherry, lively acid and great length and finish.
Henry of Pelham in the Short Hills Bench is one of the eastern-most wineries in the Bench area, close to the city of St. Catharines. Owned and run by the three Speck brothers, they have five product lines as well as sparkling and icewines so there’s a plethora of things to taste. A house specialty is their baco noir, regular and reserve, which proves what a quality wine can be produced from this red cold-hardy hybrid. Highlights:
- Chardonnay Speck Family Reserve 2011 (Short Hills Bench VQA). Made from old vine blocks dating to 1998. Nose: rich, yet subtle with hints of oak and almond and lemon. Palate: long, rich and smooth, lemon and mineral hints, richly textured and integrated, no obvious oak on the palate.
- Riesling Reserve 2008 (Short Hills VQA) Nose: brilliant white flowers with peach, green/yellow apple with loads of lemon/citrus minerality. Palate: dry, brilliant, taut fruit/acid balancde, with apple and lemon/citrus. Still very young and lively, solid firm acidity and long finish. Drinking well now, will age another 10-15 years.
- Pinot Noir Speck Family Reserve 2009 (Short Hills Bench VQA) Nose: fragrant red cherry and crushed flint, resembles Savigny Les Beaune in Burgundy. Palate: fantastic fruit concentration, layered, smooth and rich but all fruit-driven.
- Baco Noir Classic 2013 Nose: creme brulee, then black raspberry, subtle but elegant. Palate: juicy, round black raspberry flavors then fine, firm acid with crisp finish. Incredibly velvety on the mid-palate, possibly the best baco I’ve ever had.
Moving from the Bench down to the Lakeshore Plain, Trius is a major producer with both high-end, vineyard-specific wines and a popular-priced line in the mid teens, finished with screw caps, that are a great quality for the price. Highlights:
- Sauvignon Blanc 2013: done in a Marlborough style, the nose has huge gooseberry and musque clone mineral and slate. On the palate, passion fruit and bright tropical citrus flavors end with a round texture; fine fruit/acid balance.
- Trius Red 2011: a meritage-style blend with 60% aging in French, 40% in American oak. Nose: fragrant red fruits, floral notes, no oak. Palate: smooth, fruit-forward, with well-knit black fruits. Stylish.
- Trius Cabernet Sauvignon 2012: Nose: dusty tannins, red cassis, black cherries and pepper. Palate: round and rich, ripe yet firm tannins, clean fruit and fresh finish. A pleasure to drink a cabernet with such bright red cassis without heavy tannins or oak.
Near Trius on the Lakeshore Plain is Stratus, with a post-modern tasting room, gravity-flow processing (they even have an elevator for tanks of wine!), and exquisite wines (with prices to match), made by the talented and experienced J.L. Groux. Highlights:
- Signature White 2010: A brilliant, original, aromatic and stylish blend of semillon, viognier, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc. Nose: Wow! Flowers, tropical fruit, passion fruit, star fruit, ripe pear, peach and apricot! Palate: electric, rich and densely layered but with loads of ripe tropical fruit and acid to balance with a vibrant, fresh clean finish. Like a Strauss waltz; outstanding and without oak. J.L. says it can age a decade.
- Malbec 2011: It’s rare to find this once-obscure Bordeaux grape as a varietal in the East, especially in a cool climate, but this works! Dense ruby color. Nose: classic sandlewood and boysenberry. Palate: rich, sexy, plush velvet texture, then firm acid finish.
- Red Icewine 2012 (cabernet sauvignon, mourvedre (!) and syrah) Nose: loads of strawberry. Palate: Wow! loads of strawberry, rhubarb, great fruit/acid balance, sexy and luxurious.
Finally, we end on the Lakeshore Plain (in 2014) where we started in 2015, at Peller Estate with highlights of that visit:
- Private Reserve Muscat 2013: Nose: floral in the best sense, loads of white flowers and mineral. Palate: round but with fine and vibrant acidity, dry, refreshing but very aromatic. Should make a killer food pairing.
- Private Reserve Gamay Noir 2012, Four Mile Creek: Nose: solid black cherry and raspberry, flowers, vanilla, a hint of oak. Palate: tannic, solid black cherry fruit core, lively acid, crushed flint or limestone notes on the finish. Great fruit, balance, terroir expression.
- Private Reserve Cabernet Franc 2012: Nose: pencil lead, black cherry, some black pepper. Palate: lively black fruits and black pepper, firm tannins, great length and finish.
- Meritage 2012 (cabernets franc and sauvignon, merlot) Nose: lovely finely-tuned lifted aromatics of garden herbs, black pepper and black cherry. Palate: vibrant and juicy with electric acidity and smooth chocolate tannins in the finish.