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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LCBO Vintages release – November 12, 2011

This weekend’s Vintages release is a big one:  big in number of wines, big in the prices of those wines, big in the size of the wine critic scores, big in the number of pages in the catalogue and big in the weight of the bottles.  The theme tells the story: Premium Wines for Perfect Get-Togethers.

The selection this week is a good one. There are many lesser-known icons in this release and this means they are not over-the-top in price.  Make no mistake: this is an expensive release with 46 wines, out of a total of 135 offered, priced over $35.00 per bottle.

In the WSET program we have a classification system which students apply in estimating wine price in blind tastings:  premium wines are those priced over $35.00 per bottle.  By comparison, inexpensive wines cost under$10.00 per bottle; mid-priced wines sell for $10.01 to $20.00 per bottle and high priced wines range in price between $20.01 and $35.00 per bottle. With this in mind it is no wonder we have the price skew in a release which features premium wines.

Despite the premium skew there are some fine values at all price points and I think I have done a reasonable job in balancing my selections from a price point of view.  I hope you agree.

My recommendations this week have a decidedly Chardonnay character.  I don’t look for things like this; it’s simply how I judge the wines for quality and value.  As always this basic framework guides my recommendations.

Austria, Burgenland – Lenz Moser Prestige Trockenbeerenauslese 2008

This wine is from the TBA category of the Austrian Pradikatswein classification, meaning the grapes have been individually harvested, one at a time, and have been affected by the botrytis cinerea fungus, meaning the fruit has rotted on the vine in a slow, progressive fashion, one grape at a time.  Botrytis-affected fruit delivers high sugar levels, over-the-top intense flavours of orange marmalade, honey and apricot and high acidity. This wine is complex and delightfully balanced, a perfect finish to a holiday meal. This is a very good value for a noble wine.

Sweet dessert wine – $19.95 per bottle (375 ml) (Sweet wine feature wine)

Ontario, Niagara – VQA Beamsville Bench Hidden Bench Estate Chardonnay 2009

Several premium Ontario Chardonnays are included in this release, from Tawse, Closson Chase, Le Clos Jordanne and Hidden Bench.  While all except the Tawse are in the same general price band, the Hidden Bench stands out. It has balance, concentration, very good varietal expression, Old World character and the things that Hidden Bench has become known for: juicy acid, fine mineral backbone and complexity that won’t stop.  This wine will evolve over the next 5 -7 years but can be enjoyed now.

Extra dry, white wine – $32.00 per bottle (Premium wines feature wine)

New Zealand, Auckland, North Island – Kumeu River Maté’s Vineyard Chardonnay 2008

Kumeu River is a renowned producer in the rapidly growing historic zone of Auckland on the North Island.  Vines have been cultivated in this region since the late 19th century when Croatian immigrants planted grapes so they would have the wines they loved back home, in their new homeland. The Brajkovich family of Kumeu River has been making wine since it first acquired land in 1944.  Michael Brajkovich, MW, son of the founder, Maté Brajkovich, has brought Kumeu River to world prominence over the past 15 years by making rich, concentrated, creamy wines that receive acclaim locally and internationally.  Maté’s Vineyard is the premier cru of the range and is considered a classic by Michael Cooper, the dean of New Zealand wine writers.  While it shows plenty of vanilla toast, this wine is full of ripe tropical flavours and lime citrus fruit, zesty spice and bright acidity. Like the Hidden Bench white above, we have another New World wine with sound Old World character – at a very good price for the quality. This wine will be best over the next 3-4 years.

Extra dry, white wine – $44.95 per bottle (Premium wine feature wine)

France, Burgundy – AOC Volnay Pitures 1er Cru Maison Roche de Bellene 2008

Volnay is a small communal appellation on the Côte de Beaune in Burgundy, located between Meursault and Pommard. Only red wines come from this zone and they are lighter in body and more elegant than the reds from most appellations in Burgundy. This wine is made by Nicholas Potel, a young negociant who uses the facilities at Domaine Bellene to assemble his wines from bought fruit. This wine shows a perfumed and floral nose along with bright red cherry, raspberry and cranberry fruit with acid and tannins to accentuate the brightness.  The wine is lean and juicy with spice on the mid palate and finish. This is a well made wine from a maker to watch.

Extra dry, red wine – $44.95 per bottle (Premium wine feature)

France, Alsace – AOC Alsace Grand Cru Domaines Schlumberger Kessler Riesling  2007

This is a wine for Riesling lovers who will appreciate the mature, racy, spicy, intense lime, mineral, honey nose and palate of older, well-made Rieslings.  Somewhat surprising for the appellation and the grape, this wine is not for keeping.  Its complexity and character get it on the recommended list, nonetheless.

Extra dry, white wine – $25.95 per bottle

The runner’s-up this week is an exceptional value, just not as competitive on the complexity and structure scale as the first five wines I recommend, above..

France, Southern Rhône – AOC Côtes du Rhône Delas Frères Saint Esprit 2009

Delas is an old Rhône firm, now part of the Roederer Group.  This wine is an everyday Rhône red made from a Syrah-dominated blend.  For the price it is a surprising wine.  It shows very fine balance, concentrated red and black fruit, plenty of spice and garrigue, crisp acid and firm, grippy tannins.  The tannins are quite forward and need time to round out.  Give this wine a year or so and serve with a beef stew next winter.

Extra dry, red wine – $14.95 per bottle

This week’s Collector’s Item is a big wine that will profit from some time in bottle to allow further integration of a complex array of fruit, herbs, tannins and acid.  It is a very good value for a keeper.

Italy, Tuscany – IGT Toscana Ruffino Modus 2007

This is a modern variation on the super-Tuscan theme, a blend of aged Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.  It is a full-b0died, deeply hued, concentrated and complex.  Clearly this is a wine for the cellar.  It has ripe red and black fruit aromas and flavours, rosemary, toast, black olive, chocolate, coffee and forest floor character and a long toasty finish. All in all this is an amazing wine for the price.

Dry, red wine – $28.95 per bottle

à bientôt…

Copyright© W. John Switzer 2003 – 2011.

LCBO Vintages release – July 9, 2011

This weekend’s Vintages release features 90+ wines along with All-Occasion Sparklers.  The sparklers are interesting, albeit more pricy than the quality warrants (except a Roederer Estate Brut from California – unfortunately not the Reserve I wrote about in the last Newsletter, but a wine I recommend at $27.95 per bottle).

As for the 90+’ers, I generally ignore scores as the hype surrounding high-scoring wines at the front line retail shelf is a racket and the 100 point scale, like so many rating systems, seems to be prone to grade inflation. The critic is as culpable as any in this game that feeds a frenzy for wines which all taste the same and which display limited local individuality.  On this point it is interesting that all but three of the 90+ wines are scored by Wine Spectator or the Wine Advocate (Robert Parker and team). Expect big, oaky reds…and four whites of variable credentials.

Notwithstanding this rant about the sins of scores, several of my selections are from the 90+ feature.  Call this very good selection by the Vintages team…

There are some value wines elsewhere in the release and while they are somewhat pricey they are good values.

There is a dominant red wine character to this week’s selections, with a strong French/Rhône sub-theme.

France, Northern Rhône – AOC Crozes-Hermitage Blanc Ferraton Père et Fils La Matinière 2009

Monsieur Rhône, John Livingstone-Learmonth, writes this month in Decanter magazine of the wonderful treats to be found in the white wines of the Rhône valley – difficult sale they may be.  Here we have a well-priced example of the case for treats he makes. This wine is dominated by Marsanne – a grape which makes soft, nutty and age able wines – and shows stone fruit and citrus elements on a flinty mineral backbone. The nose is clean but a bit retiring so pour before serving to allow the wine to open up  for your guests.  The finish is clean and long.  Serve with grilled pork chops or a shrimp omelette.

Extra dry, white wine – $19.95 per bottle

France, Burgundy – AOC Morgon Côte du Py Dominque Piron Les Pierres 2009

Morgon is considered to be one of the serious crus in the Beaujolais-Villages classification.  It is unusually tannic, compared to the lighter wines of the region and it has an affinity for cellaring. The Côte de Py is the source of the best incarnations of Morgon – elevated with volcanic soil, the wines from this climat are distinct and prized.  This wine has fine structure, rich berry and cherry character, spice, firm tannins and tertiary elements of chocolate and smoked meat.  The finish is long.  Cellar for the next 4 -5 years.

Dry, red wine – $22.95 per bottle

South Africa, – WO Cape Agulhas Lomond Syrah 2008

This Syrah is concentrated, and full-bodied with expressive fruit, spice, smoke and earth notes. Despite the full mouth feel, this is a pretty wine that has a complex character not unlike a northern Rhône cru. Nicely-priced, this would be a great wine to do a comparative Syrah  tasting with the Saint-Joseph, next.  Serve the two wines side-by-side with a root vegetable-laden beef stew.

Extra dry, red wine – $19.95 per bottle (90+ feature wine)

France, Northern Rhône  – AOC Saint Joseph Domaine Vincent Paris 2009

Vincent Paris a well-regarded young winemaker in Cornas who also has a small parcel of old vines in Saint Joseph, the source of this very fine wine.  This is a fruit-forward, supple delight: plenty of cherry, blueberry, black pepper and savoury Syrah elements in a concentrated, medium-bodied package. If you are an Old World Syrah-phile this is a wine you must buy. Pricy for a Saint Joseph, this is still very good value.

Extra dry, red wine – $28.95 per bottle

USA, Oregon – Cooper Mountain Reserve Pinot Noir 2008

Cooper Mountain winery is a long-established Pinot Noir pioneer in the northern Willamette Valley, known for its terroir-driven wines.  This Pinot Noir is modern in style with a fruit-forward nose and palate – cherry, ripe raspberry – made complex with smoke, forest floor and spice.  The palate is juicy, the tannins are grainy and the finish is long.  This is an understated, elegant wine that will go well with fatty fishes, such as salmon or rainbow trout.  Enjoy over the next 5 years.

Dry, red wine – $29.95 per bottle (90+ feature wine)

One runner up this week deserves comment:

France, Southern Rhône – AOC Gigondas Domaine des Bosquets 2007

This wine would have made the top five, except for its lofty price.  The 2007 vintages was exceptional in the southern Rhône and this wine is an embodiment of the things that make 2007 what it has become.  This is a Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre blend with a rustic, big character – ripe blackberry, blueberry, herbes de Provence, spice, and wet earth. The tannins are assertive and need time to become more rounded. Cellar for the next 3 -5 years to allow it to round out to a lush, southern Rhône classic.  Serve with cassoulet.

Dry, red wine – $31.95 per bottle (90+ feature wine)

 The Collector’s Item for this release is a very fine value:

Ontario, Niagara – VQA Beamsville Bench Hidden Bench Terroir Caché 2008  

The 2008 vintage was not a solid one with a long, cool spring and a wet summer.  The vintage was late as a result with late-ripening grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon helped by a long, mild fall.  This said those vineyards that followed careful practices for canopy management and yield produced very fine reds such as this.  Terroir Caché 2008 is a concentrated red with still-firm tannins, excellent fruit expression and juicy acid.  I suggest another 2 years in the bottle before serving with a rack of lamb.

Extra dry, red wine – $35.20 per bottle

à bientôt…

Copyright© W. John Switzer 2003 – 2011.