Vinum Exhilarat Animum

For the third year in a row I have hosted visitors to Ontario from the wine trade in England. There is growing curiosity about what’s going on in Ontario in the English trade.  This curiosity is fed by the success garnered by many Ontario wines in competitions such as the International Wine Challenge and Decanter World Wine Awards, both London-based annual events.  This success is not met by wide availability in England of Ontario wines, so the curiosity has to be met by personal visits.

This year my guests had their way to Ontario paid by the Worshipful Company of Vintners, an ancient livery company (trade association) dating from the 14th century.  This Company is one 108 livery companies in London and apparently ranks 11th in precedence: presumably reflecting the importance of wine in the annals of ancient commerce in London.  Membership is made up of senior members of the wine trade some of whom – until recently – were able to sell wine anywhere in London without a license. The Latin motto of the Company of Vintners (quoted above) translates to Wine Cheers the Spirit.

The Company was instrumental in founding the Wine and Spirit Education Trust and the Institute of Masters of Wine, both of which have been important bodies in advancing the levels of skill and competency in the English wine trade.

Each year this Company grants the Vintners Cup to the WSET Diploma graduate attaining the highest aggregate marks on the six units comprising the Diploma curriculum. This year’s winner was Emma Harrison and her prize was a bursary which would fund travel to anywhere in the world of wine. Emma chose Ontario as her bursary destination as she sees few of our wines in London. She has travelled throughout the Old and New World and she wanted to learn more about this place.

I was asked to assemble a tour for Emma and her winemaker boyfriend so over the first week of July they visited 16 of the best wineries in Niagara and Prince Edward County, along with visits to the Wine Council of Ontario and the Vineland Research Centre. I received an instant and enthusiastic response from each winery I wrote to, introducing Emma as a prospective visitor. Well-done Ontario!

I joined our visitors for selected tastings and was delighted with the generous reception they were granted by each host, both in terms of time and content offered. We showed our best!

I participated in three tastings, catch-up tastings to see how things were evolving at Thirty Bench, Hidden Bench and Norman Hardie.

The following is simply a highlights overview – suffice it to say all three continue to progress higher up the quality ladder.

Emma Garner, winemaker at Thirty Bench, continues the traditions of this fine boutique operation (part of the Andrew Peller family since 2005) making small lot Rieslings, a small-lot Cabernet Franc and a fine Meritage blend (other varietals are vinified but these are the wines to seek out).

I think Peller should be congratulated for the work they have done as owner of Thirty Bench.  They have provided capital to upgrade the winemaking facilities and enhance vineyard management but they have left the operation in the hands of folks like Emma who behave like owners with an unrelenting focus on quality.

If you want to experience the impact that terroir has on wine -in the case of Thirty Bench soil and micro-climate – there is no better place to visit than Thirty Bench.  The three small-lot Rieslings: Wood Post, Triangle and Steel Post, are all stunning but distinctly different.  Similarly if you need proof that we can grow grapes in Niagara to make a solid Bordeaux-blend red, then you should taste the 2008 Winemakers Red.

Harald Thiel, vigneron at Hidden Bench, is a living demonstration of the importance of hands-on management when it comes to achieving lofty goals.  Since it released its first vintage with the 2005’s H-B has built a solid reputation as the leading maker of super-premium wines in Ontario, if not all of Canada.

As more newly-planted vines come on stream annual production continues to increase, now in the area of 7,000 cases. With Marlize Beyers now firmly settled into her role as winemaker there is modest evolution in the style of the H-B wines – the result being more finesse on the well-established reputation for intense fruit expression, precise acidity and firm minerality.

The H-B range is wide, covering:

  • aromatic Rieslings, Viognier  and Gewürztraminer
  • a firm and expressive Bordeaux white
  • an intense Fumé Blanc – give it 3 -4 years before opening
  • classic New World/Old World Chardonnays (let’s call them mid-Atlantic…)
  • a serious, small-volume Rosé (a blend which includes some Malbec)
  • two big Meritage reds
  • a suite of estate and single vineyard Pinot Noirs.

A couple of years ago Tony Aspler suggested to me the most important thing for Ontario winemakers to do is reduce the number of varieties they vinify.  The effect would be to focus more what we do best and build a brand for world class wines made with that handful of varieties.  H-B covers a wide varietal waterfront with its wines.  The problem Harald and team would have if they were to try to cull the number of varieties would be…which ones?  They do them all with style and flair.

I also spent a day in Prince Edward County with my guests and that time was spent at Norman Hardie Winery.  Norman was granted special recognition when Matt Kramer, Wine Spectator columnist, listed the 2008 Prince Edward County Chardonnay as one of the three best wines he tasted in 2011 (the other two wines were a dry Tokaji Furmint from Hungary and a Clare Valley Riesling).

Norman is a widely-travelled vigneron who marches to his own drummer to make wines that are solid and expressive, across the full range. We best know Norman for his Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs but I discovered his stunning Melon de Bourgogne, Pinot Gris, Rieslings and Cabernet Franc during our visit.

Norman’s wines are not for everyone, especially if your palate has developed on New World wines.  Some of Norman’s wines show modest reduction on the nose and this will put off inexperienced tasters.  Norman also uses lees aging almost across the board so along with intense fruit expression comes the autolytic character of the dead yeast cells that adds complexity. He uses stainless dairy tanks, lain on their sides to maximize lees contact, with no batonnage. While Norman matures his Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs in wood, the wood regime yields only modest smoke and vanilla. For me these elements lend a distinctly Old World experience that is appealing and once again shows the potential for Ontario, when solid, principled viticulture and winemaking are combined.

There you have a quick update on three of our leading makers in Ontario.  Things continue to be on the up-tick in wine country Ontario and I encourage all to learn more about our domestic wines…and buy!

I should note my guests were impressed consistently with the quality of the wines they tasted and also with the welcoming reception they received everywhere they went. Well-done Ontario!

If you would like the names of the wineries I selected for this tour, send me a note.

A sidebar on Cabernet Franc:  this grape is emerging for me as a true Ontario champion, along with Chardonnay, Riesling and Pinot Noir. This is a grape which ripens earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon and which grows on hardy vine-stock able to withstand killing winter cold. Sounds like the perfect black grape for a cool-climate place like Ontario, don’t you think?

Several Ontario producers are making excellent wines from this grape, a grape that is often used in blends (Bordeaux and California for example) but which has its highest expression as the main black grape of the Loire Valley.

Cabernet Franc is THE Cabernet, as it is the parent – along with its crossing partner,  Sauvignon Blanc – of Cabernet Sauvignon. Apparently this was an accidental crossing, the story lost with the passage of time.

Oz Clarke gives the best description of the taste of C-F: “at its best Cabernet Franc has the unmistakable and ridiculously appetizing flavor of raspberries, also pebbles washed clean by pure spring water and a refreshing tang of blackcurrant leaves”.

There you have it: ridiculously appetizing and refreshing!  If you haven’t discovered this grape yet I recommend you check out the single varietal C-F wines made by the following Ontario makers: Norman Hardie, Rosewood, Southbrook, Stratus, Strewn and Thirty Bench.

à bientôt…

Copyright© W. John Switzer 2003 – 2013.

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Monty Waldin – and friends – on biodynamics

Niagara College was the site of an important event on August 23:  the Organic and Biodynamic Viticulture Workshop (OBVW).  This event was co-sponsored by the Canadian Food and Wine Institute at Niagara College, Southbrook Vineyards, Grape Growers of Ontario and the Water Superstore.

As the name of the event suggests, this sold-out workshop focused on grape cultivation and, so, grape growers made up the vast majority of the participants.  There were several winemakers and students in attendance, a demonstration of growing interest in sustainable grape growing practices.

The workshop was designed to be a practical demonstration of the concepts of biodynamics, and did not spend any meaningful time on the more esoteric, theoretical aspects of the underlying philosophy originally documented in the 1920’s by the prolific and controversial Austrian philosopher, Dr. Rudolf Steiner.

The morning was occupied with a series of presentations in the Yerich Auditorium at Niagara College, followed by lunch, vineyard presentations and a wrap-up tasting at Southbrook.

Monty Waldin is an effective speaker.

The speaker roster featured Monty Waldin as the headliner. Monty is the current leading proponent for biodynamic viticulture and winemaking.  Monty is an Englishman who now lives in Tuscany but who travels the Old – and New World consulting to growers and winemakers who wish to embrace sustainable vineyard practices.

Waldin is a direct and immodest speaker, very matter of fact in his style, with none of the evangelistic affectations that put off most observers when the topic of biodynamism arises.

Monty launched into a presentation that was intense in content and intensely delivered by a man who believes in biodynamism simply because it yields better fruit, it is self-sufficient and it is a lower cost way of growing grapes. He went on to elaborate…

Biodynamic viticulture – or winegrowing as biodynamics adherents call it – relies on a set of preparations which are best made on site by the grape grower, but which also can be acquired from other biodynamic farmers where needs are greater than supply. Waldin spent the first part of his presentation explaining the preparations and the role each plays in the vineyard.

The preparations are one of many sources of derision which non-believers direct at biodynamism. Why? Because the preparations are made from substances that sound like something from Pliny’s pharmacopeia, not the stuff of modern agri-science.

As Waldin states in his materials for the workshop: “ Rudolf Steiner created the nine biodynamic preparations from natural substances – medicinal flowers and bark, cow manure and our most abundant mineral, quartz.  Making the preparations involves sheathing some of these substances in specific animal organs to enable the medicinal properties to become fully effective once applied to the farm via compost or as sprays.”

Consider preparation 501, or horn manure, which is one of three preparations sprayed on the soil.  This preparation is made with cow manure encased in a cow’s horn which is buried in the winter in shallow soil, open end down so the manure stays dry.  In the spring the plug of composted manure is diluted in water, stirred for one hour and sprayed at the minute rate of 30 -120 grams per hectare.  This compost spray is rich with microbes that stimulate root growth.  The result is a vine system that is strong and vibrant below ground as well as above ground.  The vine expression thus derived is the basis for the strong sense of place (terroir) in wines made from biodynamically-grown fruit.

Anyone who composts for their home garden will understand the basic principle behind these preparations; they act as stimulants for soil activity by adding nutrients and feeding earthworms. This enriched soil, or humus, as Waldin describes it, is noted for its spongy character; something you can feel as you walk between rows of biodynamically-cultivated vines.  The effect of the leavening of the soil with the sprays and the compost preparations is to slow down the vineyard, regulate its activities and re-introduce life forces that are sustainable, unlike the temporal effect that manufactured fertilizers have on soils.

There is a counter-intuitive dimension to biodynamic farming that may deter growers who focus only on top-line revenue.  Monty repeated twice the fact that vineyard yields will go down 10-15% following conversion to biodynamics. This may seem extreme but needs to be considered in light of the fact that biodynamic vines typically should not require a green harvest to deliver concentrated fruit. If costs truly are lower under biodynamic regimes and if a green harvest is unnecessary, then biodynamic farming could deliver higher gross margins in the vineyard, despite lower gross yields.

One area that Waldin downplayed was the use of the moon to determine vineyard activities, other than to note that ascending and descending phases of the moon are relevant for timing: of pruning, applying the various sprays and compost preparations.  In fact, the timing Waldin described for these activities is essentially no different from that used in conventional viticulture.  His observation: it’s more important to get the soil right than to worry about the moon.

Monty gave some advice to Ontario wine growers.  His view is the only way for Ontario to distinguish itself is to focus on quality.  The best way to address the quality challenge is to adopt the best vineyard practices possible and to embrace biodynamism as a central element of this strategy.  He also sees high potential for Cabernet Franc in our climate and geological setting, along with Semillon. Cabernet Franc has now established a solid foothold in Niagara. Semillon, the grape of Sauternes, has been grown successfully by several makers in Ontario; primarily for blending with Sauvignon Blanc to make a Bordeaux white blend.  Rosewood and Stratus each bottle single-varietal Semillon. Maybe we should be thinking about a sweet, botrytized wine from Ontario which would complement Icewine…?

Monty’s presentation was sandwiched between two other presenters.  The first was a very good opener on sustainability as a business strategy by Alex Gaunt, director of Ontario for Trialto, a Canada-wide agency with a focus on wines made using sustainable practices. The second was also very relevant, a presentation by Ann Sperling, winemaker at Southbrook.  Ann spoke of the steps necessary to convert from conventional wine growing to biodynamics with a particular emphasis on pest control during the conversion period.  This was real-world stuff – no biodynamic hocus-pocus.

The tasting featured a handful of wines with a Waldin/Sperling connection:

AOC Savenièrres-Coulée de Serrant Clos de La Coulée de Serrant 2009

Biodynamic wines "display narraive" according to Waldin.

This is one of the iconic wines of France made on a single-appellation slope in the Loire Valley largely owned by Nicolas Joly, the most visible philosophical  crusader for biodynamic wines.  This wine seemed quite developed for its age and was jarringly out of balance – the alcohol was a booming 15.5% by volume,  too high for a dry wine made in the cool Loire. Despite these negative elements this is a true wine of place: smoke and ripe brown apple dominate the nose with concentrated flavours of spice, earth, ripe golden delicious apple on the palate.  The mouth feel is supple, the acid is juicy and the mineral are sleek.  Except for the high alcohol this would be an exceptional wine: complex, concentrated and memorable (approximately $90.00 per bottle from the agent, The Living Vine).

VQA Niagara on the Lake Southbrook Whimsy Chardonnay 2009 – The Whimsy line is a small portfolio of premium, limited-production wines made by Ann Sperling.  This is a special wine with a bright medium-gold colour and a developing nose of apple, ripe pear, earth and smoke.  The palate is dry with bright acid and a leesy and juicy texture.  Ripe tree fruit flavours are accompanied by spice, vanilla and smoke.  The fruit is intense with a long, clean, butterscotch finish.  $34.95 per bottle at the winery (just released this week).

Like most biodynamic wines, Monty's Red needs decanting.

IGT Toscana Monty’s Red 2009 – This is one of several Monty’s wines made by Monty Waldin (he also makes a red and a white from grapes grown in the Languedoc). This wine bears out Monty’s advice to decant before serving; it smelled of barnyard when first poured.  The nose opened up shortly to reveal an appealing youthful, ripe berry fruit character.  This is a blend of 70% Sangiovese and 30% Merlot and is described by Monty as a wine to be consumed daily, ideally with pizza. The body is light with cherry, blackberry, spice, grainy tannins, chunky minerals, earth and medium acidity.  This is a well-balanced wine, very drinkable and a perfect wine for pasta in tomato sauce, or pizza.  Approximately $19.00 per bottle from The Living Vine.

All three wines displayed very fresh, assertive fruit and soil character.  There is a biodynamic difference and it is notable if you are a lover of expressive fruit and terroir – minerals, earth and mouth feel.

This workshop was special when I consider the composition of the participants. The bulk of the group were those people who grow fruit for winemakers, both big and small, and whose fruit contributes, in large part, to the quality of Ontario wines – good or bad. The content of this workshop will contribute to improving the quality of Niagara fruit, even if growers don’t embrace every aspect of the biodynamic way of vineyard management. I believe events such as this have positive effects on our growers and producers, raising performance for our wine industry.

So, I suggest more events of this type be considered by the leaders of the Ontario food and wine industry.  That is, events where world-renowned experts in viticulture and winemaking came to share their lore, experiences and advice with grassroots members of the Ontario wine community.

In this vein I suggest the directors of i4C add a professional program to next year’s Cool-Climate Celebration with a similar focus to the OBVW: growers and winemakers sharing vineyard and winery practices in a structured way. The value of sharing lies not only in the knowledge transferred but also the community and enduring relationships that form in such meetings. The goal here is to improve quality and build a strong brand for local wines made with Ontario fruit. As Monty encouraged, focus on quality. Let this be where Ontario will achieve differentiation.

The organizers of this event should be congratulated. The practical approach to the topic, the speakers selected for the workshop and the tastings all provided content and proof to demonstrate there is something to biodynamics that must be taken seriously by those who seek wines that reflect the place of their origin.

Thanks to John Ogryzlo (Dean of the Canadian Food and Wine Insitute), Ann Sperling, Monty Waldin, Alex Gaunt and Jen Selvig, event coordinator.  Well done!

Check the workshop website for more information, including a very good paper written by Waldin: Biodynamics in Brief.  It is one of the best, concise descriptions of biodynamics I have seen.

à bientôt…

Copyright© W. John Switzer 2003 – 2011.

LCBO Vintages release – February 5, 2011

Tuscan wines from the 2007 vintage are featured in this weekend’s Vintages release along with some prize winners from the State of Washington and some romantic wines for Valentine’s Day celebrations.

What is a romantic wine, you might ask?  Any wine your lover wants it to be.

In this case the LCBO has covered some obvious bases with sparklers across many price ranges, value-priced Icewines and an attractive Rosé from Bordeaux.

The selection of Tuscan wines is very appealing with a number of excellent values included in a reasonably large cross section of new producers and well-known and popular DOC’s.  Some 7 wines are classified as IGT – Indicazione geografica tipica – meaning they are made from grapes/blends that are not permitted by the more restrictive DOCG/DOC categories.  Some of the best new wines from Italy are classified IGT and wines in this feature bear out that fact of life in Tuscany.

Wines from the Tuscany feature figures prominently in my best value selections – unusual for a Vintages feature…Two Rhône reds also get the nod this week – another unusual development but the wines I recommend are winners from quality producers

France, Bordeaux – AOC Pessac-Léognan Domaine de Chevalier Rosé de Chevalier 2009 2008

A Bordeaux Rosé this wine, made from a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes.  As you might expect from the blend this Rosé is medium-bodied with excellent structure.  The nose and palate are complex showing spice, red and black fruit and juicy acid. The fruit is intense and very fresh.  The finish is long. This wine is ready now and would be a perfect match with grilled salmon.

Dry, rosé wine – $18.95 per bottle

France, Northern Rhône – AOC  Crozes-Hermitage Domaine Belle les Pierrelles 2007

Domaine Belle is a standard-bearer for this appellation and the 2007 is a fine vintage: all ingredients for a wine to test.  To top it off, this is one of the best quality Crozes we have seen in Vintages for many a year, at an excellent price. There is black pepper, smoked meat, blackberry and some on the nose and palate.  The tannins are firm but well-integrated, the acid is zesty and the finish is long.  This wine will improve over the next 4-6 years.  Serve with a roasted leg of lamb.

Extra-dry, red wine – $22.95 per bottle

France, Southern Rhône – AOC Vacqueyras Montirius Garrigues 2009

I haven’t selected a red from the southern Rhône for a very long while.  Why is this?  For the past several years the Vintages team has been spending its Rhône budget on lesser appellations with a particular focus on the wines from small caves cooperatives – where they can best exercise their buyer clout.  Montirius is a very fine producer in the smallish appellation of Vacqueyras and this wine is an excellent example of what we used to get routinely from this part of France in the Vintages program – complex, correct and good value.  This is a blend of Grenache (70%) and Syrah, both from old vines.  Red and black fruit, garrigue, lavender, black pepper and a hint of chocolate are found on the nose and palate.  This wine is still young and I would recommend cellaring for the next 2-3 years.  Excellent wine/excellent value!  Montirius is biodynamic, BTW.

Extra dry, red wine- $23.95 per bottle

Australia, Tasmania – Jansz Premium Sparkling Rosé NV

Tasmania is a cool-climate zone and is rapidly becoming known for exceptional wines.  Unfortunately production volumes are low so there isn’t a lot of wine that gets out of the Antipodes.  Jansz makes only sparkling wines from the traditional grapes of the Champagne appellation: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. This wine has been bottle aged for some 2 years so it has a fine biscuit nose.  The palate is rich with strawberry, lees and citrus flavours. The body is medium-weight and the mouth feel is refined and elegant with delicate and precise mousse.  This is a great wine, demonstrating the lean and crisp character of cool-climate fruit.  A beauty!

Dry, sparkling rosé wine – $24.95 per bottle

Italy, Tuscany – IGT Toscana Brancaia Tre 2007

This wine is a blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, all grown in estates in Tuscany.  This is an intense wine with a complex nose of red fruit, herbs, mocha and spice.  The palate is very dry with rounded tannins, juicy acid and a medium body.  Flavours of red fruit, coffee, spice and chocolate lead up to a long finish.

Extra dry, red wine – $24.95 per bottle

The runners’- up:

Germany, Pfalz – QmP Ungsteiner Herrenberg Pfeffingen Scheurebe Spätlese 2008

Aromatic, intense fruit, honey and some tropical notes characterize this sweet-ish and juicy wine. Balanced, complex, sound value.  (Medium-sweet, whiter wine – $19.85 per bottle)

Italy, Tuscany – DOCG Chianti Classico Isole e Olena 2007

Fruit-forward, balanced and elegant.  Plenty of crisp and bright red fruit.  This is an outstanding Chianti Classico. (Extra-dry, red wine – $26.95 per bottle)

France, Bordeaux – AOC Lalande-de-Pomerol Château des Moines 2008

Right bank, Merlot-dominated, this wine is a balanced, attractively-priced value.  Concentrated fruit, soft tannins, exotic wood, spice and medium acid.  (Extra-dry, red wine – $22.95 per bottle)

Italy, Tuscany – IGT Toscana AIA Vecchia Lagone 2007

Almost super-Tuscan in its provenance and blend (Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc) this wine will age for the next 3 -4 years and deliver complexity and structure way above its weight. (Extra-dry, red wine – $21.95 per bottle)

Following the mediocre quality of the last release I take my hat off to the Vintages team for a quality effort in assembling this release…selecting the handful of best values was much tougher this weekend.

à bientôt…

Copyright© W. John Switzer 2003 – 2011.