Friday, August 19, 2011

Of Branding and Blending: Vincor's Vintage Ink Wines

Recently I, along with many other bloggers, was invited to the introduction party for Vincor's new line of Vintage Ink wines. The first thing that strikes you about the wines is the branding. There's no château, no critter and no Canadiana on the labels. Instead it's exactly what you'd think given the line's name and the tag line “indelible wines.” If I had to guess the tattoo-centric branding ,which emphasizes brand first, grape second and then origin and vintage after that, is targeted at the Millennial Generation a.k.a. Generation Y. This is something Vincor's parent Constellation has already has experience with south of the border under brands like Primal Roots. It's a smart group to target because it's young, engaged and has the desire and disposable income to spend money on food and wine.

From VIntage Ink

What you have with the Vintage Ink line are bottles priced at $17-18. That's not really expensive for a bottle of VQA wine which tends to start at about $12-13 because the taxes and distribution costs mean that's where wineries begin to see some profit. That puts the line in the medium price category—just outside the LCBO's highest volume sweet spot of $12-15 making it a reasonable splurge for many. It also doesn't break the $20 psychological barrier which helps if you want to be a volume seller like Vincor does with this line. But whether people will shell out the extra couple of dollars remains to be seen.

In the last handful of years VQA sales at the LCBO have seen double digit growth (from a low of 11.8% to a high of 19%) over the previous year at the LCBO. Where growth has been more modest is in Vintages where for example growth was 17% in 2009-10, two percent lower than VQA products did overall in the LCBO that year and about half of the growth VQA experienced in Vintages the previous year. If you want to get more consumers into a higher priced category as the both the LCBO and any winery would like to do, Vintages is a key part of making that goal a reality. That's why both Vincor and the LCBO would like to see the Vintage Ink line succeed. Although the locavore movement has exploded over the past few years Canadian-made wine still has a relatively low 42% percent of its own market. A far cry from the Americans' 80 percent share of their market or France's and Italy's even larger share. That's changing but you have to remember change like that takes time and aside from the few visionary pioneers Ontario as whole really only began making premium vinifera-based wine for about the past 20 years.

From VIntage Ink

All this is great but the key to growth is getting people to buy more than once and that ultimately comes down to what the juice inside the bottle tastes like. The white is Chardonnay. That makes a lot of sense as the most widely planted grape in Ontario and amongst consumers as the most easily recognisable premium white wine grape. On the nose it's a little floral and tropical with just a hint of vanilla and spice to give away the five month average of oak barrel aging. On the palate there's pineapple, peach, a bit of green apple, pear, citrus, vanilla and oak spice. It has a medium plus round feel but lacks the punch of the mouth watering food-friendly Ontario acidity—it's more like a medium-minus level. Part of that could be stylistic but the Chardonnay also came from the much warmer 2010 vintage so that might explain the why it's closer to a rich round style than the lithe crisp and mineral-acid driven Chardonnay that's an Ontario signature. It's available in Vintages beginning August 20th.

The red, available in Vintages on Sept. 10th is a Merlot-Cabernet blend with ¾ Merlot, 1/5th Cab Franc and the reminder Cabernet Sauvignon. It's wise decision because there's a lot of Merlot grown in Ontario and if you want a supple drink-now crowd-pleaser of a blend Merlot's your grape. When you put your nose to the glass you notice red and black fruit with the Cabernet Franc providing an alluring cedar, herbal and tobacco edge. On the palate there's red and black plum, a bit of cassis and some vanilla on the finish. The tannins are at the medium-minus level. It's an easy drinking red that I imagine will please when it's likely to be opened within the typical 48 hours of purchase. The acid, at the medium minus level, is higher than the Chardonnay, but that's perhaps owing to the cooler wetter 2009 vintage for the Merlot-Cabernet and the hotter 2010 vintage for the Chardonnay.

From VIntage Ink

Of the two I would gravitate to the Merlot-Cab with its higher acid which is always a good food match. I would probably pair it with something like a middle eastern spiced lamb kofta if you're feeling exotic or a classic steak sandwich if you aren't.

Interestingly both wines contain grapes from some premium properties in the Vincor Family. For instance the Chardonnay has grapes that come from Jackson-Triggs' famed Delaine vineyard in the Niagara River sub-appellation—responsible for many of its top of the line single vineyard bottlings. Grapes are also sourced from Inniskillin's Montague in Four Mile Creek and Heron Pond Bench on the Beamsville Bench of Inniskillin's Three Vineyard series. As winemaker Keith Brown said the quality of the grapes is still the biggest factor in winemaking—there's no substitute for good vineyard management. But at the same time wine isn't entirely made in the vineyard either. You only have to attend a single blending session to become a believer that blending can be used to bring different characteristics to a wine in both a single variety and multi-variety blend. It's that the whole is greater than sum of the parts philosophy. When you have a variable climate in a regional that grows just about all the world's major vinifera varieties it's not a bad idea not to rely on a single grape type from a particular vineyard plot year-after-year. Blending allows that kind flexibility. After all as much as consumers crave consistency when they find something that they love, it's also tends to be human habit to be a little curious about the next big thing.

From VIntage Ink

The Vintage Ink line is not exactly the kind of sexy thing oenophiles and terroir-ist gravitate to but that really doesn't matter. Most people in those groups like something a little more idiosyncratic in the taste profile than these wines provide. This is about creating a ready-to-drink quality sub-$20 wine that's a step-up in character from the basic entry level $12-13 wine. In that context they're both solid wines. I'm curious to see how the Vintage Ink brand is received and where it might be heading in subsequent vintages.

Monday, July 25, 2011

TasteCamp Day 3: Niagara, U.S.A. Population Potential

If you're a Canadian and ever wondered what it might have been like to visit Ontario wine country in the early days I'd suggest taking a trip across the boarder to visit the Niagara, New York wine route. Sharing the ancient glacial-shaped soils of Niagara, Ontario and its climate this is essentially one continuous region. But even if you've only ever done a day-trip to Niagara, Ontario's wine region it doesn't take long to realise things across the border are remarkably different. From talking to some of the winemakers, winery owners and wine workers at Tastecamp it comes down to this—Niagara, New York is at a much earlier stage in its development.

For all the issues Niagara, Ontario wineries face like laws limiting how and where they can sell or high taxes and costs making it virtually impossible to sell a quality wine under $12 a bottle there are many advantages to growing grapes in Ontario. Many of those advantages are hard-fought ones that Niagara, Ontario wineries have earned over the past three decades. The real key to it all is without a doubt VQA. Reading Linda Bramble's book you get the impression that wineries were both scared and motivated to improve quality as the talk of free trade via NAFTA and unfettered access for California and other foreign wine superpowers became a real possibility. Quality producers knew great wine could be made in Ontario but they also knew that the industry as whole needed time to establish itself as a quality producer and explore where its particular strengths might lie. One of the ways this was done was fighting for government incentive programs to pull out old labruscas and then hybrids for quality vinifera grapes which take at least three years before they begin to produce commercially. This never happened on the American side so the cost of a pull-out is entirely on the individual. Naturally there are still prime sites full of lubruscas there to this day. For these growers more money can be made growing these hardy prolific native grapes best suited for juices, jellies and eating than growing vinifera best suited wine. So without incentives or a unified body showing an alternative unless an individual has a passion for quality wine and money to burn there's not much of a reason for change. There are certainly a few passionate individuals leading the way but it will take some time, effort, money and likely a little heartbreak before things develop to the same level as Ontario.

From TasteCamp

On such winery was Arrowhead Springs Growing vinifera on a modified Scott Henry trellis system, using rye and clover cover crops and fertilising with local horse manure as needed Duncan and Robin Ross have a focus on growing the best grapes they can. They also aren't afraid to experiment. They've barrel fermented some reds in local oak from from Key Stone Cooperage for instance. That's not a common practice given the difficulty of removing skins before barrel aging. After all barrels are meant to keep all but a bit of air out, let alone people, or else the wine inside would oxidise and ruin very quickly. One of Duncan Ross' favourite grapes to work with is Cabernet Franc for its hardiness against winter cold and disease pressure as well as its good yield. His 2008 was full of toasty oak-spice flavours as well as raspberry and some smoky tobacco notes.

Another memorable winery stop was Freedom Run. If you haven't heard of the Lockport winery you probably will soon because a recent purchase of 45 additional acres of pinot noir means the winery has five and half times the production than when it began. The fact that it is all pinot noir is also exceptional given that the persnickety grape is thin-skinned, prone to disease pressure and can turn on you if you so much as look at it funny. The sheer number is also significant considering that the terroir and pinot and chardonnay obsessed Le Clos Jordanne, co-owned by industry giants Constellation and Boisset, has 121 acres split between chardonnay and pinot noir. Six different 2010 pinot noir barrel samples were poured and all had an amazingly deep purple-ruby colour and a distinct bretty note that should be instantly recognisable to those who've have a Flemish sour ale. My favourite was probably the mixed vineyard blend which harmonized the characteristics of the single vineyard wines. It was full of black plum, raspberry and black cherry with medium plus acidity and a strong finish of bretty sour ale. Like a few wineries in Niagara, Ontario, most notably Foreign Affair the winery is also experimenting using the appassimento process of drying grapes to highlight and concentrate flavours.

From TasteCamp

One winery to look out for is Leonard Oakes. The Medina, NY winery is one of the furthest east in the region and they are growing a mix of hardier hybrids and vinifera trying to figure what works best in the their corner of it. The winery's winemaker Jonathan Oakes graduated from the viticulture program at Niagara College and trained under Brian Schmidt at Vineland. That experience shows in this reserve riesling. With flavours and aromas of juicy lime, smoky gun flint and crushed rock it's a classic cool climate riesling from Niagara. It's also perfectly balanced down the middle when it comes to sweetness, mouthfeel and acidity letting the flavours shine through. It would be really interesting to see what he could do with some Weis 21B clone riesling which he'd love to plant if he could get his hands on some vines. His vidal icewine shows his Canadian training as well. It's classic Niagara with the sweet flavours of honeyed apricots, peach and pineapple flavours and aromas. What's makes it exceptional is it possesses the balancing acidity which can often be lacking in vidal icewine.

From TasteCamp

One of the curious things common throughout the Niagara, New York reds was deep colour almost always at the medium plus level of intensity even in thinner skin varieties known to be fairly light in colour like pinot noir. In some cases producers are using enzymes like Color pro to aid in the extraction. The reason is that local market prefers its wine deeply coloured. What's a bit odd with this is that on the whole the body of the wines was lighter than the colour would lead you to believe—almost always a medium minus intensity even in cabernets, malbecs and syrahs. It was an interesting dichotomy that I would be be interested to see again if it changes in a few years as the vines get a bit more age. The other thing to keep an eye out for in Niagara, New York is the creation of a body made of industry producers to promote and push the industry forward. Both the VQA and Wine Council of Ontario have been instrumental in creating the framework for quality standards as well as tireless promoters to both the public and government. There's talk of trying to set something up like the VQA with formal but voluntary quality-focused rules providing a base standard which will ideally push things forward on the American side. If the same holds as it did in Ontario the sooner this happens the better. So with land being very cheap, the industry in its early years and a climate shared with Niagara, Ontario its American counterpart is a region to keep a close eye on over the next decade. I know I'll be making my next visit sooner rather than later.

From TasteCamp

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

TasteCamp Day 2: up on the Bench Where it's Crisp

The focus of day two of TasteCamp was the Bench. The Bench is a colloquial term used locally to describe the wineries east of St. Catharines that are located along the escarpment. Higher-up, with vines on slopes and deep limestone-rich clay soils it really is a remarkably different growing area than Niagara-on-the-Lake.

From TasteCamp

The first stop was Tawse. In its ten years Tawse has made a name for itself as a quality-focused producer. Its big coming out party was winning the Canadian Wine Awards Winery of the Year in 2010 under Paul Pender who was also recently recognised as winemaker of the year in 2010 at the Ontario Wine Awards. Pender is as passionate as he is humble. He's a firm believer that good wine begins in the vineyard and as such he has led Tawse through its organic and biodynamic certifications. The most likely spot you'll probably find him is amongst the vines so it was fitting that he led the group on an abbreviated version of a vineyard tour that he took bloggers on last year. After a tour through the gravity flow facility Pender poured a blind tasting of Tawse's two flagship Chardonnays. One was Robyn's Block from the home Cherry Ave. vineyard and the other the eponymous chardonnay from the Quarry Road vineyard. The Quarry Road Chardonnay is more linear with a tight focused minerality. The Robyn's Block is also an elegant taught chardonnay but it had a roundness and depth of flavour to go along with the pear, citrus and mineral-rich core. The wines taste quite different. Given that the winemaker and winemaking is identical it's a strong argument that terroir matters. But it's also an argument that vine age matters. Entering into its fourth decade Robyn's block is one of the oldest chardonnay plantings in Niagara. If you've followed Tawse for some time you know that Robyn's Block has evolved over time depending on who was making the wine at the time, but the current style with just enough oak to give it structure has been winning critical and consumer praise with elegance.

From TasteCamp

Post-Tawse it was a visit to the house that Weis built—Vineland estates Winery. Under the care of the Schmidt family this Twenty Mile bench winery, located high-up on the escarpment on Moyer Rd., has a well deserved reputation for making some world class riesling. Winemaker Brian Schmidt believes that the St. Urban vineyard, where the Hermann Weis planted his Mosel Riesling clone, is a perfect place on the bench for the grape. The choice grape of Germany is a bit strong willed. As Schmidt explained when he was younger he tried tweaks to force the vines to do things he thought would make a better wine. For example, thinning down drastically to concentrate flavours. The vines just ended-up doing as they pleased anyway by doing things like growing bigger berries to compensate for the thinning. Over the years Schmidt has come to terms with fact that he's merely the caretaker for the vines and that the vineyard is truly the winemaker of the St. Urban Riesling. Now riesling is certainly a terroir-driven grape but it still doesn't make itself. One of the key areas where a winemaker shows his or her skill with riesling is in the blend. Schmidt showed this by isolating a 2010 riesling sample from a portion of the St. Urban vineyard called Field D. This sample came from fruit that was left on the vines until mid-October and had some botrytis. Made in an off-dry style it had ripe peach, apricot and tangerine flavours. The ripe flavours were balanced by mouth-watering acidity. Although this wine was brilliant on its own when it was added to the grapefruit, orange blossom, lime and minerality of the blended sample it really was on a whole other level. If you've ever done a blending session of a single variety wine the layering of flavours and complexity you can get simply by blending fruit from different blocks and sites is truly remarkable.

From TasteCamp

Next was a trip to Flat Rock and blends were also the name of the game. The Jordan winery has always thought a little differently from passionately embracing the screw cap across its entire line (even changing the VQA rules to do so in the case of its recent sparkling) to being one of the first to promote a crisp, aromatic white blend like its Twisted. It's also taken the attitude that wine doesn't need to be pretentious as proprietor Ed Madronich likes to say. It just needs to be good. Since rain kept us out the vineyard staff did a great job with a retooled itinerary of various activities. One of the most engaging was trying to guess the blend of Twisted by tasting all the individual components. As humbling as blind tasting is guessing the composition of blend is even more. It might seem easy since you know precisely what makes it up but nailing down the proportion of the Riesling, chardonnay and gewüztraminer isn't easy.

The finish of the evening was a TasteCamp tradition—the bring your own bottle dinner. This is a chance for the group to share a special wine and stories with their fellow attendees. This year's was at Treadwell Farm to Table Cuisine. Service was attentive while allowing this large group the freedom to mingle and chat. The standout dish of the meal was a cold mint and pea soup with a perfectly seared scallop. It was done well enough that the caramelisation brought out the natural sweetness of the mollusc but rare enough that it was still tender. The fresh bright flavours the of peas and mint also really complimented the scallop's inherit creaminess and the light briny ocean flavours. Between the food, the conversation and the special bottles from all over the world being shared it really is a one-of-kind experience that any oenophile would be lucky to attend.

From TasteCamp

Friday, July 15, 2011

TasteCamp Day 1: the Place Where it all Started

With all due respect to Cooksville and growers on the Beamsville Bench the birth of the modern Niagara wine industry began about 35 years ago on the St. Davids Bench when Bosc family planted the first 100% vinifera vineyard in Canada. With the experts saying the decision was foolish at best and that the vines would all die come winter to say it was a big risk is an understatement. But the Boscs weren't worried. Any risk they take is a calculated one and with a lifetime of experience as a fifth generation winegrower patriarch Paul Bosc Sr. knew that the vines could not only survive but they could thrive with plenty of hard work. So it was only appropriate that the Niagara edition of TasteCamp began at Château des Charmes. A pay-your-own-way wine blogger conference with some meals free or highly subsidised, TasteCamp was created by Lenn Thompson of the New York Cork Report as a way to completely immerse writers in a region that they know little or nothing about. By the end of the tastings, the vineyard tours, the winemaker talks and dinners, attendees have a solid grasp on what the region is all about.

As anyone who has ever spoken to him knows Paul Bosc. Jr. delivered an all encompassing overview of his corner of Niagara—the St. Davids Bench. His passion and knowledge of the region is undeniable. Part history, part geology and part viticulture Bosc went a basic overview of how the melting of a glacier during the world's last glacial period shaped the soil and landscape of Niagara. As it receded and water pooled into the forebearer of Lake Ontario, plateaus along the edge of the escarpment were created. One of them is the St. Davids Bench. The term was coined by Bosc after he heard early Beamsville wineries and growers talk about the Beamsville Bench area compare to flatter land that makes up much of Niagara-on-the-Lake. Up against the escarpment the St. Davids Bench, which takes its name from the nearby town, has similar characteristics. But that's not the only thing that separates the St. Davids Bench from the rest of the region. It happens to be one of the areas of Niagara that enjoys a little more growing degree days than the average, some of the highest elevations, protection from some of the cooler winds and deep clay soils and underground rivers that ensure the vines get the needed moisture even in a drought year. As Bosc explained the differences were first fleshed out by Brock University professor Simon J. Haynes. His research along with further work by fellow professor Anthony Shaw formed the basis for the VQA sub-appellations.

From TasteCamp

St. Davids Bench is also an area steeped in history. As Bosc explained the town of St. Davids took its name from Major David Secord—a solider and politician in the late 18th and early 19th century when the country was still being settled and there were regular battles for bordering land with the Americans. You may also be familiar with his sister-in-law Laura whose bravery during the War of 1812 is the stuff of legend. Although knowing this isn't critical to enjoying the wine geography is. The g-word is so inextricably tied to and shaped by history that knowing it adds to the enjoyment of anything tied to the land to the extent that wine is. After all if it added nothing to the conversation you'd simply buy the wine online or pick-it-up off the store shelf and never feel the desire to visit the winery.

Another one of Bosc's key points is that there's human intervention and hard work to bring out the natural terroir. Yes, I realise that may sound like a contradiction but the vast majority of vitis viniferia vines all over the world are either a non-native species grafted on native root stock (North America) or either a native species planted on non-native root stock (Europe). For the most part all over the world vines are cultivated, trained to grow in a trellis, thinned, pruned and all around babied to grow the best possible fruit. When you consider this there's a strong argument that there's a significant human intervention element to what we call terroir. Bosc stressed you can't be dumb and you can't be lazy about if you want the fruit to show its best. That's why at Château des Charmes the vines are trained very low and the space between the rows is left bare. This allows the fruit to get more reflective heat from the ground. It's also why vine cuttings are mulched back into the soil returning the nutrients.

From TasteCamp

Post vineyard talk the Boscs hosted a lunch cooked by the team at Spencer's at the Waterfront. Seasonal, fresh and bright, the light yet substantial lunch was a true wine country fare. The star was an Asian salad featuring shoots, cilantro, cucumber, carrots, mango puree and sesame seeds. A little crunchy, a little spicy, a little salty and a little sweet it was really everything you'd want in a salad. The pairing worked remarkably well too. It was the preview of the 2010 Château des Charmes Paul Bosc vineyard Sauvignon Blanc. It was full of bright citrus, passion fruit and gooseberry flavours and aromas with a hint of grassiness. The wine had the mouth watering acidity and a medium plus roundness on the palate that perfectly compliment the dressing and mango puree respectively. It also brought out the natural bright flavours in the fresh greens and the umami of the fish sauce used in the dressing.

From TasteCamp

Sauvignon Blanc was also a focus of the next stop Hillebrand. Winemaker Craig McDonald took over last year after Darryl Brooker departed for the Okanagan. McDonald was one half of the winemaking team at Creekside, a winery that has built an argument for those skeptical of Sauvignon Blanc's place in Niagara. So when McDonald had a chance to let us in on one of his experiments it was no surprise it was a Sauvignon Blanc.

The wine in both glasses he poured was from 2010 vintage. The one on the left could be described as nothing short of a topical fruit bomb with starfruit, gooseberry and some grass just under the surface, but what really stood out was the passion fruit. This was probably the closest I've come across in Niagara to a clean, ripe, tropical New Zealand-style Sauvignon Blanc. For fans of that distinct style this Trius is one to pick-up.

But it was the glass on the right that truly intrigued. It had a slight golden colour and aromas more on the citrus side of things. This is wine that preferred the whispering method of seduction. Full of lemon zest, pineapple, spice and hints of vanilla this one was more Sancerre than Marlborough. The oak treatment it had seen provided a richness and roundness that was lacking in the first wine but it was by no means flabby. There was a lingering minerality and spicy funkiness on the finish that gave this wine complexity and an intriguing spark that wasn't in the first wine. This one was the 2010 Showcase Wild Ferment Sauvignon Blanc. McDonald whole bunch pressed to maintain the freshness and put a carboy of juice out in the vineyard. When the yeast took-off and it checked-out clean that was used to kick-start the rest of the juice fermenting in barrel.

From TasteCamp

Yeast is one of the most underrated factors affecting a wine's flavour. People tend to love the romanticism of terroir, the geeky nature of clones and even the nuisances provided by different barrels but yeast often gets forgotten. I'm glad it's something that's being embraced in Niagara. As McDonald explained the reason he's so keen on wild fermentation is that when you taste really great flavours from the grapes out in the vineyard “you want to capture that in the bottle.” And in his experience those native yeasts really pick-up on what's in the soil. He isn't the only terroir-focused winery with the same opinon of what native yeast brings either. Hidden Bench and Le Clos Jordanne are exclusively natural fermentation for the same reason.

Post-tour with McDonald there was a tasting at Hillebrand with some local wineries. One stand-out was the Lailey 2009 Old Vines Pinot Noir. Winemaker Derek Barnett has crafted a pinot lovers pinot. It's full of roses, sour cherry and mineral tension that lasts on the finish. With the medium plus acid and tannin to match I think this will be one to watch develop over the next few years. Some of my other favourites were a trio of cabernet francs from Thirty Bench (the sister Beamsville winery under the same ownership as Hillebrand). Although Thirty Bench gets much of its well deserved recognition for it riesling, the cabernet franc has been quietly becoming a star first under the care of Yorgos Papageorgiou, then Natalie Reynolds and now Emma Garner. Although the ripe rich bramble and dark cocoa on the 2005 was beautifully balanced with some strong minerality what really got me excited was the 2006 and 2008 vintages. The spicy herbal tobacco edge in these cooler vintage wines added an intriguing dimension to that dark chocolate and ripe red fruit flavours.

The evening was capped with a dinner at Ravine and talk by Peter Gamble and Ann Sperling. I've always gotten the feeling talking to either of these winemakers that they've probably forgot more about wine than I'll ever know. But there are a lot of passionate and knowledgeable people in the wine world. What sets them apart is their willingness to share both that passion and knowledge with you in as much detail as you'd like. You really do learn something new and valuable each time you speak to them so it was a pleasure to hear them speak about biodynamic and organic growing once again. If you look at it from a scientific perspective some of the cosmic aspects of biodynamics might illicit a raided eye brow. But the important aspect is that being lazy in the vineyard and practicing biodynamics in a climate like Niagara just isn't compatible. So whatever the reason behind the techniques anything that has you out in the vineyards as much as possible growing the best grapes you can is a very good thing. The other great argument Sperling made for organics and biodynamics was that with winery workers out in the vineyard so often and for extended periods of time anything you can do to reduce the spraying of herbicides or pesticides that require wearing protection can't be a bad thing. It's not to say that spraying happens very often in a conventional vineyard especially on the small-scale ones that make-up much of Niagara—the cost is prohibitive. The difference between convectional and organic or biodynamic growing is more like the divide between preventative and reactive. If you can set yourself up to be in a situation where you're healthy with rest, a good diet, and exercise you're not likely to be sick. But should you get seriously ill it's nice to know there's the option for a conventionally accepted medical treatment. That's why even biodynamics allows the use of a copper-sulfur Bordeaux spray when there's very serious trouble in the vineyard.

From TasteCamp

Some of the stand out wines during dinner were the 2008 Whimsy! Cabernet Franc. Although the juicy brambly ripeness of the 2007 is fantastic the tobacco undertone and the ripe red raspberry and cocoa make this the wine I'd reach for first. The high acid and medium tannins went beautifully with the roast suckling pig and crispest cracklings I've ever had. The 2007 Ravine Reserve Merlot was also a standout. Gamble isn't interested in making big showy wines, he prefers a little restraint and elegance—that's what you'll find in this wine. With black plum, black raspberry and violet flavours. With good acid structure and silky tannins it's drinking well now, but you get the feeling that it's holding back a bit and will really blossom with some time in the cellar. My favourite wine of the day was the 2005 Poetica Chardonnay poured from a magnum. It was everything you could want in an aged chardonnay. Lemon, peach, a bit of oak spice, funk and a caramel note that bordered on fudgy. It was round and beautiful but had the acid and minerality to keep it from being flabby. It won't appeal to those that prefer their whites steely and lean but it's a good example of how chardonnay can deliver something special in the hands of a good winemaker, the right oak and a bit of age. To me that's always a great way to end an evening.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

There's a World of Great Wine: Thoughts about Lifford's 2011 Grand Tasting

The world of wine is a big one and it's only getting bigger as more unconventional wine countries like China, India and Thailand develop further and increase production. To complicate matters if you look at the terroir, people, winemaking and the grapes each region has something unique and special about it. Which if your a wine lover makes the whole journey of finding that special bottle that much more exciting and rewarding. But even for the dedicated oenophile staying on top of a region let alone a world of wine is a bit of a daunting task. That's why having the opportunity to taste a wide range of wine carefully selected from around the world is the perfect opportunity to get some insight into what's happening in the world of wine. One such event is the Lifford Grand Tasting. This year's tasting featured 51 wineries from Lifford's award winning portfolio of international wineries. The proceeds also go to Delisle Youth Services which works with youth and their families so that that they can learn grow and thrive.

One of the standouts from the tasting was from right here in Canada: Painted Rock. Located on shores overlooking the stunning Skaha Lake this winery is on the former property of the largest apricot orchard in the British Commonwealth. As far as tender fruits go apricots tend to be the most finicky so clearly this is a great piece of land. Despite only purchasing the land in 2004 and planting a year later, the winery has quickly made a name for itself as a top quality producer. The focus is on the five Bordeaux grapes (Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec and Petite Verdot. The flagship 2008 Red Icon is a meritage blend of 20% Merlot, a quarter each Malbec and Cabernet Franc with the remainder being Petite Verdot. That's right none of that other Cabernet grape. This wine had beautiful aromas and flavours of cassis, black plums and blackberries. Joining the fruit were flavours of cocoa, vanilla and oak spice. Underlying that was a savoury cigar box element that balanced nicely and gave it a dimension beyond the ripe fruit. It possessed the strong acidity and tannic structure to suggest it will develop and drink well over the next few years. The wine that really intrigued me was the 2008 Syrah. The Skinner family, which owns the winery, fell in love with wine touring the south of France where Syrah is behind some of the region's best wines. The wine is full of lush black cherry, bramble, white pepper, vanilla and oak spice. But what really drew me me in were the seductive leather and gamey notes. It was lush and juicy without being over the top and had the tannins and acid structure that made me want to revisit it in a few years.

Another outstanding producer was Kiwi producer Craggy Range. If you've ever tried a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and thought 'I like it but I would love it' if it didn't try so hard for attention the this is the one for you. Over the past forty years the Kiwi take on Sauvignon Blanc with vibrant grassy and tropical flavours has become a world benchmark. Sometimes that style can lack a bit of finesse but not with the 2010 Te Muna Road Vineyard from Craggy Range. It has aromas and flavours of gooseberry, passionfruit, citrus and herbal grassiness that cannot be mistaken for anything but New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. But it manages to do so with an elegance and subtlety that you don't often come across in the Kiwi take on this grape. The majority of fruit is de-stemmed rather than whole bunch pressed and fermentation takes place in a combination of French oak barriques and stainless steel. The result is a wine that retains balanced acidity with a slightly rounder and fuller mouthfeel than the average Sauvignon Blanc. Another favourite was the 2009 Gimblett Gravels (Block 14) Syrah. This was more food-friendly cool climate Syrah than inky jammy warmer climate Shiraz. Blueberries, black current, black plum are rounded out with rose petals before the perfumed kick of Tellicherry black peppercorns on the finish. It's a well balanced wine with a medium mouthfeel, acidity and just enough grippy tannins to pair well with heartier meat dishes.

The last outstanding wine was the 2006 Pio Cesare Barolo Ornato. If you've never had a top quality of Barolo this was a wonderful chance. Barolo is the enigma of the wine world and the grape of romance. Barolo is 100% Nebbiolo, the notoriously fickle grape, that's carefully tended to by small family run estates in the fog covered hills of Piedmont, Italy. It has the power and finesse of a thoroughbred horse and only really begins to reveal it's mysteries and true potential after years of careful finishing. It looks relatively innocuous and light with a bricking garnet red colour but make no mistake this is a serious wine. There were aromas and flavours of dried black cherries, berries, tar, earthy truffles and oak spice and they concentrated without being heavy. To open this wine now is a bit of shame because it's simply nowhere close to its peak. Yes, acidity is strong and food friendly and food would help to tame some of the strong tannins that slowly build and take over as you taste. But for those with patience, years of cellaring will help tame those tannins and allow the wine to reveal its secrets and nuisances.

NZ isn't all SB: Thoughts from Toronto's 2011 New Zealand Fair

Over the past four decades New Zealand has quickly built a reputation as a premium wine region capable of producing consistently great wines that stand-up amongst the world's best. They've largely done so on the back of a fresh, distinctively grassy and tropical style of Sauvignon Blanc. It makes plenty of sense. The country has the potential to grow the grape well year-after-year, the style is distinct and much more highly aromatic than the known benchmark of Sancerre from the Loire Valley, it doesn't require long aging time at the winery or in the cellar to be its best and the country focused its export efforts on the key taste-making market of the U.K. to build a premium reputation. But that's not a complete strategy. New Zealand is a country with grape growing regions that span over 1600 km through latitudes from 34˚ to 47˚. Simply put that means not every region is suited not does it want to focus on Sauvignon Blanc. Plus as a relatively young wine producing nation without the benefit of a long and storied reputation it helps to have a bit of diversity should a key variety fall out of favour with your market. The question is aside from Sauvignon Blanc what should New Zealand's variety or varieties be? A red would probably be nice to cater to those that for whatever reason don't drink whites.

In the Southern most region Central Otago with its hotter dryer continental climate and higher elevation vineyards the focus has been on Pinot Noir. Burgundy's favourite grape is a bit of a prodigy. Temperamental to grow and vinify you never really know if it will delivery on all its promise and brilliance. When it does winemakers and wine geeks rejoice at its complexity and the elusive balance it has between power and finesse that very few wines manage to achieve. But when it doesn't it's a bust that scorns like no other. Although I didn't get the chance to taste from all of the producers at Toronto's 2011 New Zealand Wine Fair the I found that Pinot Noir from Central Otago had a common flavour profile that leaned towards ripe concentrated berry and black fruit with surprisingly heavier weight, tannins and less acidity than you come to expect from Pinot Noir. Although delicious on their own I'm not sure this bigger style works as well with some lighter dishes that Pinot pairs well with like salmon, squab, rabbit and roast chicken. If you're a lover of cooler climate Pinot Noir with its sour cherry, rose petals, minerality, high acidity, earthy funk and the versatility that it brings to food pairing then Central Otago Pinot is almost unrecognisable. But that makes sense with hot dry summers, mica and schist soils and a need for irrigation on the steeply sloped vineyards it has much less in common with Pinot's classic cool climate home in Burgundy than you might have assumed. One of the surprise Pinots was the 2009 Konrad Pinot Noir, from the cooler Marlborough region. A medium ruby colour this wine was full of fragrant red cherry, red berry and floral notes. On the palate there was strawberries, red cherries and a bit spice from the 10 months spent in Burgundian made oak barrels. The Tannins were silky and medium minus level and it had medium mouthfeel and medium acidity.

There was also a push to exhibit Syrah as the next big thing. Producers poured plenty of young, deeply concentrated and brambly Syrah that was tight with high tannins. The best had meaty and gamey notes which added an extra dimension on top of the fruit. Without much experience tasting older examples it's hard to know whether those tannins will dissipate and integrate nicely over time. My favourite was the Elephant Hill from the Hawke's Bay region. The wine was full of black cherry, raspberry and the characteristic pepper kick you get in a cooler climate Syrah. Tannins and body were nicely balanced at medium level and the acidity was at the medium plus level which should make it a nice compliment to a richer meal like a juicy steak.

But my favourite wine was neither from the newer stars Pinot Noir and Syrah nor from the country's flagship grape Sauvignon Blanc. It was a Chardonnay from Staete Landt. The vineyards are on a former apple and cherry orchard in one of the oldest grape growing areas of Marlborough. The Chardonnay comes from two clones planted in clay over stoney soils —it was a former river bed. The 2009 vintage is a rich Chardonnay that was barrel-fermented in new French oak. The nose and palate are reminiscent of ripe peach, golden apples with a nutty spiciness. The most intrigue aspect is the savoury peach-pit kernel note that emerges towards the finish. Even with the rich full flavour and medium plus mouthfeel the Chardonnay retained great minerality and medium acidity which balances. I was also lucky enough to taste the 2004 vintage at the Lifford Grand Tasting and it was aging beautifully, gaining complexity with toasted hazelnuts and tertiary honey notes.

What did i come away with? There's more to New Zealand than Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. It's a really diverse wine producer with dramatically different climates that are capable of producing a range of wine styles even growing the same grape. I'm not convinced there should be a focus on particular grapes quite yet. Yes, the push for Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc was critical to developing the country's reputation aboard. But there's plenty of regions outside Marlborough that are just as capable of producing great wine. Over time I can see a focus emerging in each of the regions from Northland to Central Otago. But in the mean time I'm happy to taste the results as growers, wineries and consumers all figure out what each area believes it does best.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Viopalooza: Vio the Rhône-born Divo Shows What it can do when it Goes to Ontario & BC Finishing School

After the success of the #Tastegris Twitter tasting a group of oenophiles recently came together to taste the best of Ontario Viognier. Yes, the favoured and sometimes only white grape permitted in certain regions of France's Northern Rhône has slowly found some traction in Niagara—enough to provide a solid line-up for #Viopalooza. As is the nature of these Twitter tastings the line-up is announced ahead of time and people are encouraged to taste along and share their thoughts with the tasters and those tasting vicariously on Twitter using the above hash tag. Naturally that makes blind tasting virtually impossible but if you want to build a community the social interaction of allowing everyone to participate is far more important than trying to isolate any bias.

Regardless of Viognier's exact origins it seems to have found a home in the Northern Rhône, in particular Condrieu where south facing slopes on heat retaining granite soils combine with hot summers and cool wet winters to produce world renown wines. But even in the grape's home producing a fine wine is a challenge. The crop sizes are dubious. Yields must be kept low to maintain varietal character. And there is a very tight window after the grapes reach the right sugar level and then develop the flavour & volatile aroma compounds that are intrinsic to good Viognier. So given the relatively short and humid summer growing seasons and cold winters in Niagara it almost seems like madness to try grow this diva/divo of a grape. But when it's done right the combination of that ethereal floral bouquet and rich without being heavy mouth-feel is really unparalleled.

From VIopalooza

Chåteau des Charmes has a long history of experimentation whether it be different trellising systems, planting viniferia in the early years or being one of the first to use wind machines to protect tender spring buds against frost damage. So it should come as no surprise that the winery has allocated a relatively small block (one acre) to Viognier since the early 1990s. According to Michelle Bosc the key to producing good Viognier in Niagara is aggressive thinning (40-60% of the bunches are dropped every year to promote ripening). And on the winemaking side it's all about being as gentle as possible limiting the movement of the wine and keeping it in stainless steel. This opinion was echoed by Jay Johnson and Marlize Beyers winemaker at Hidden Bench. Johnson, who assists with winemaking and can often be seen out in the vineyards tending to the vines, says the winery inherited some when it purchased the Locust Lane Vineyard. Given the naturally low yields of Viognier and the very low yields Hidden Bench commits itself to there are plans to grow more. For Beyers the key to making Viognier is to minimise movement using gravity wherever possible because she believes that any movement even necessary ones like tank to bottle only results in a loss of more of the aromatics that are key to variety's identity. Richie Roberts, the winemaker at Fielding first encountered Viognier when he was working as the assistant winemaker at Stratus. Although he uses stainless steel at Fielding he feels there is a place for neutral oak especially if the goal is to impart some nuttiness or leesy character. Similarly Bosc says some malolactic conversion/fermentation can add to the mouthfeel but given Viognier's naturally low acid and high sugar you need to be careful when using it. So how did the wines taste?

Overall it was was a good showing with the Canadian wines exhibiting the variety's distinctive floral character. The 2008 Chåteau des Charmes was a favourite. It had aromas of peach and rose petal as well as a full mouthfeel—all classic characteristics of Viognier. Another favourite was the 2009 Fielding with aromas and flavours of juicy peach and orange blossom that really shone through. Only 10% of the fruit came from the estate vines which were recently pulled because Roberts felt they weren't performing well in that location. The other 90% comes from a Niagara-on-the-Lake vineyard where Roberts has established a long term relationship and the Fielding crew performs the vineyard work.

From VIopalooza

Given that parts of BC's Okanagan are a virtual desert the climate has the potential to get closer to the Rhône than Niagara. And the wines didn't disappoint with the tasting's most praised wine coming from the Okanagan. Selling between $15-20 the Jackson Triggs' 2008 Silver Series was fresh containing ripe peach and orange blossom flavours. The mouthfeel was full with good weight. It hit all the points you expect from a Viognier and did so at a great price point. It was also interesting to taste the 2008 Sandhill Small Lots Program Viognier one year removed from being awarded white wine of the year at the Canadian Wine Awards. Full of peach aromas with floral blossoms the best feature of the wine was the full rich mouth feel. If there was a criticism it was that the wine which was picked late and fermented dry was really quite hot and tasted as if it had more alcohol than the 14% listed. But the mouth feel alone which was rich without being heavy much like a good soufflé, could make you understand the accolades the wine received. However my favourite Okanagan wine and one that received considerable praise around the table was a 2008 83% Viognier 17% Marsanne blend from Rhône specialist Stag's Hollow. Surprisingly this wine's mouthfeel exceed even the Sandhill in its richness. The nose was full of beautiful aromas like walking through an orchard in bloom just after a late afternoon sun shower. There was also a honeyed note which complemented the the slightly off-dry finish—kept in balance by good acidity. Interestingly it was barrel fermented in new oak and aged for eight months. It was nice to see that the practice added structure to the wine and did nothing to hinder the aromatics.

Another interesting observation that sparked a discussion at the tasting was that Viognier seemed to be wine that you want to drink upon release/purchase or shortly there after (before the next vintage is released). The wine that started this discussion was a 2006 Fielding. The colour had moved from the pale lemons of the fresh Viogniers to a medium-gold honeyed colour. Although there were still some floral elements the dominat aroma was that of burnt sugar which as Del Rollo pointed out is something that is immediately identifiable to someone who has made creme brulée before. Although a touch oxidised and slightly golden the 2006 Hidden Bench was much fresher in comparison with honeyed peach flavours. The acid seemed to be dropping in relation to newer vintages but it still continued to provide a refreshing balance. The 2007 vintage with 13.4% alcohol felt a little hot in comparison. It possessed strong floral aromatics but it had a background of barrel notes. Although all Hidden Bench Viogniers are barrel fermented and aged in neutral oak, the barrel character showed through the most on the 2007. The 2008 showed a little more in the way of floral aromatics with juicy peach and orange blossoms and a slight spicy character. The 2009 was a little less expressive in its aromatics showing a light perfumed note. What made this standout was the high acidity. Much higher than any of the other examples, it was closer to the acid levels of a cold climate Sauvignon blanc than the other Viogniers. Whether you liked the style or not is a separate issue, but it was certainly interesting to taste vintage variation. Hidden Bench uses natural ferments and it barrel fermented these Viogniers in neutral oak through all vintages so with vinification being largely the same you could really taste the differences a growing season can impart on a variety.

From VIopalooza

The last example was a Malleval, Condrieu grown on those famous heat retaining granite slopes from Pierre Gaillard. This wine was a bit of an enigma with many hard to describe flavours and aromas. It was surprisingly far from the most aromatic. However being the last wine poured, it had been open for more than two hours and other tasters had mentioned that the aromatics had dissipated a bit since opening. That said it did possess a wide range of interesting flavours and aromas. Mint, pickles and lactic acid nuances joined floral and burnt sugar flavours and aromas. The mouthfeel had strength and presence while defying heaviness much like a ballerina mid-leap. The vinfication notes on the page write about a controlled barrel fermentation and aging in tightly grained French oak with only 10% being new. Although oak really played no prominent role in the flavour profile it no doubt added something to the wine's feel.

It seems that the richness and complexity of the Condrieu exceeded anything from Niagara or the Okanagan. When the question was asked why this might be happening, Bosc chimed in with a simple but complex answer: vine age. The consensus is that Viognier vines are late bloomers really only showing what they are truly capable of after 20 years. Given that a life span of 30 years is considered quite good in Niagara due to harsher winters it seems that it's an uphill battle to be able to compete on the same level as those Rhône wines. That being said Viognier here shows beautiful aromatics that are a hallmark of the variety but the style is lighter and crispier than those wines. This situation of contrasting styles exists throughout the wine world. I would argue that a Grand Cru Chablis from Domaine Christian Moreau is neither inferior nor superior to Chateau Montelena when it comes to Chardonnay. Sure many will prefer one over the other but if you really analyse a well made old world example versus a new world example a wine lover will probably find them just as appealing but in a different way.
From VIopalooza

The other interesting element which may also help explain the difference between Condrieu and the Niagara and Okanagan Viogniers is clones. It seems that growers in Condrieu say the clone of Viognier used in their vineyards is thought to be different than the one used in the southern Rhône and everywhere else Viognier is grown. The propagation of this clone (642), which came at time when the variety was near extinction, is popular in the new word and it is believed to be a relatively high producer with larger berries but contains less of the distinctive aromatics in comparison to the one used in Condrieu. It's tough to say exactly what clone everyone is growing but Hidden Bench, Chåteau des Charmes and Fielding all use 642. Given Canada's strict importation laws designed to minimise the risk of foreign viruses the clone availability is usually very limited so it's very possible that most if not all of the Viognier found Niagara and BC is 642. Without a direct virtually side-by-side planting it's tough to say whether the clones are as different as the Condrieu growers & producers say. After all in the terroir obsessed world of French wine anything you can do to make your wine as unique as possible is a huge advantage. That said even if you can set aside the climatic and terroir conditions between Condrieu, Niagara and the Okanagan, the clone could be another interesting layer in the differences between the Viogniers. Until and likely even after science definitively sorts it out I'll be more than happy to to give my feedback on the debate through sensory evaluation of what's in the glass.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

2002: An Ontario Wine Retrospective

Before 2010 usurped 2007 as Ontario's best vintage ever* there was 2005, 1998 and 2002. When 1998's hot and dry grape growing season arrived the VQA act was still a year away, Brock's Cool Climate Oenology Viticulture Institute was still a couple years away from producing its first graduates and the growth spurred from Inniskillin receiving the first new license since prohibition had only begun to reach critical mass. In other words even a lot of the pioneers were still getting a handle on exactly what their sites could produce. By the time the similar growing season of 2005 rolled in the wineries had that much more experience. But that was tempered by a severe winter which caused an extremely low crop (enough to temporarily change Cellared in Canada rules to allow 99% foreign grape content). So that really leaves 2002 as one of the first hot and dry growing seasons where education, experience and industry growth had reached a point where there was a wide range of good quality wines from Bordeaux varieties produced. Thanks to Twitter a group of industry professionals and wine enthusiast came together to taste just how that vintage is developing as we began closing in on its tin anniversary.

The genesis of the tasting was a critical assessment of the 2002 Legends Reserve Cabernet Merlot which was surprisingly released in Vintages late this summer. It's not often you see an aged VQA wine released in Vintages. As is the nature with Twitter a dialogue quickly started with many parties chiming in and within minutes plans had been laid to have a tasting of 2002 Ontario Cabernet Merlot blends. In keeping with the communal spirit of Twitter people contributed bottles from their private cellars or from winery libraries and we all met-up at Canoe on a Saturday afternoon.

From #Ontario02

The restaurant's sommelier Will Predhomme kept things objective by arranging things so it was blind for tasters which included wine writers, enthusiasts, winemakers and industry professionals. After the dizzying experience of tasting 35 wines in two hours I was struck that there seemed to be more differences amongst the wines than similarities. The range of flavours that were produced from Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot really speaks not only to the versatility of Bordeaux blends but it also to impact winemakers can have on how a wine develops after a little time in the cellar.

After the wines were revealed and the group had some time to discuss their tasting notes the general consensus was that some wines were probably past their prime. Some were showing quite nicely and are likely in the sweet spot showing their fresher flavours well right now. Still others could probably benefit from further aging. So what does that mean? Just like any vintage in order to make exceptional wine you need to start with the best fruit. But after that it really is left in the winemaker's hands to draw on experience and knowledge to do the little things he/she thinks are needed to make the best wine reflective of the vintage.

From #Ontario02

So it was certainly interesting to hear Craig McDonald formerly winemaker at Creekside and now of Hillebrand give his assessment of the wines. For McDonald the tasting added further evidence to his belief that 2002 was a solid vintage with some wines that have peaked and are in their decline, some that are drinking well right now and could go further and some where it could go either way. In his experience the danger of a hot vintage is there is a temptation to press a little harder in order to extract more flavour and juice. In other words trying to get as much as you can of a good thing. There's a fine line between maximising flavour and extraction and going a bit too far into over-extraction at the expense of balance and structure. One of the things that caught the transplanted Australian by surprise is how hot and quick a fermentation can develop here in hotter vintages. He prefers to work in smaller batches which can make it easier to monitor the fermentation temperature so it doesn't get out of control. It also allows him to more easily assess the extraction.

From #Ontario02

One thing that was surprising to learn was some of the bottles poured were the only examples remaining outside of those that may be aging in private cellars. That's something that I hope changes. Given that it takes at least three years to get a grape crop from fallow land and about a year and a half of aging before a big red is ready I understand why you would want to sell all of the production. Especially considering we haven't even factored in the cost of building the actual winery. The problem with selling everything is that there's nothing to revisit. If you want to gauge how the vines are maturing, if you want to evaluate what a certain vineyard practice or techniques brought to the wines, if you want to assess just how certain wines developed in similar vintage conditions a fairly well stocked library is essential. Plus it doesn't hurt to be able to draw from a well stocked library to give wine club members and regular customers a chance to restock on a favourite wine or to purchase something special.

From #Ontario02

Here are tasting notes from some of my favourites:

My favourite wine of the evening was lucky number thriteen the Southbrook 2002 Poetica Cabernet Merlot Still a vibriant ruby with a little aging showing at the edges the nose is full of violets, raspberry and cassis. It fills the mouth with juicy dark blackberries, raspberries and cassis. There's some added complexity with well integrated barrel spice and even a touch of barnyard perhaps from Brettanomyces. With nicely softened tannins and strong food friendly acidity it's a wine that is drinking beautifully right now. And I bet it would do so for some time.

From #Ontario02

Lailey's 2002 Cabernet Merlot wasn't as fruit forwards as some of the other wines. Blackberry and raspberry flavours were present but not in the forefront. Instead there were interesting nuances of smoke, earthiness and minerality which complimented some herbal flavours that I tasted in the wine. This is definately one of the wines that I wish I had previous notes for to see how it may have developed over time.

My other two favourite Cabernet Merlot blends came from wineries on the bench. The 2002 Vineland Cabernet Merlot Reserve had primarily aromas and flavours of cocoa, raspberries and a touch of vanilla barrel spice. There was also great complexity with addtional flavours of liquorice blackberries and cola. The tannins were well integrated with acid at a medium plus.

In a word the 2002 Cave Spring Reserve Cabernet Merlot was layered. It had a little dark chocloate, blackberry, raspberries, butterscotch barrel spice, herbs and even some barnyard flavours (maybe some Brettanomyces was a play here too). If there was a shortcoming it was on the finish which was a little shorter than expected a medium length. But don't get me wrong I'd certainly pay handsomely for a bottle.

The tasting wasn't purely Cabernet Merlot blends. There was a 2002 Nigara Syrah and Pinot Noir thrown in to keep us honest (both of which I was thankfully able to identify). The was also a Bordeaux example from St. Émillion—its always nice to have an old world benchmark for comparison. The were also numerous single varietal Cabernets and Merlots in the tasting. Of the single varieties two of my favourites were Cabernet Francs with the remaining being a Cabernet Sauvignon.

The Caberent Saugnion in question was the 2002 Rief First Growth which was dark chocolate personified. Joining the dark chocolate were aromas of tobbaco and earth with juicy blackberries on the palate. There was a little bit of a reprieve on the mid palate before the chocolate returned on the finish. The first of the Cabernet Francs, the 2002 Pillitteri Family Reserve, tasted very youthful. A bright ruby with juicy blackberry and cassis it had a lingering fruit finish with strong acid and tannin. It appears there is still some of this award winning wine made by Sue-Ann Staff available in in magnums. My favourite single varietal was the Thirty Bench Benchmark Cabernet Franc, made by one of the founders Yorgos Papageorgiou who handled much of the winemaking of the reserve reds in the winery's early days. This Cabernet Franc had a nose of fresh raspberries and blackberries. There was also intriguing minty, menthol and plum components. A slight chocolate note joins these flavours on the long finish. Still a little tight I would love to have a couple of these in my cellar to see how they might develop over the next few years.

From #Ontario02

The two wines I contributed a 2002 Marynissen Caberent Merlot and the 2002 Kacaba Proprietor's Reserve Meritage were a bit of a contrast. Unfortunately the bottle from Marynissen had a bit of a stewed fruit quality which may have meant that this particular bottle likely wasn't at its best—possibly as a result of storage. But underneath there was still a dusty tannic structure that made me want to revisit it. I've been told by staff that this very wine should see a re-release from the library soon. Given that the late John Marynissen planted Canada's first Cabernet Sauvignon vines in 1978 and the 2007 Cabernet Merlot was chosen as the house red for the Ontario Legislative Assembly last year I'm really curious to revisit a winery cellared 2002 bottle.

Kacaba has built its reputation on making small batch full-bodied wines especially big reds. The Proprietor's Reserve Mertiage is no exception. Made from 50 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and a quarter Cabernet Franc and Merlot harvested between mid-October and November it spent a full five years aging in new French oak before its release. Yes, five years of barrel aging! This wine is full of ripe cocoa dusted blackberries, raspberries and cassis that last long into the finish. Underneath the big fruit was some butterscotch perhaps owing to the extended barrel aging. The tannins were still strong as was the acid. What it lacked in finesse it did make up for in ripe juicy fruits. For those that like a big fruit forward style it would certainly be something to inquire about at the winery (some bottles were still available late last year). But the limitrf production and extended barrel aging do come with the steep price of $120 a bottle.

From #Ontario02

If there was one thing I took way from the tasting it was that I would certainly like to buy even more Niagara Cabernets, Merlots and their blends from 2007 and I've got a lot in the cellar. Tasting how these 2002 wines are drinking I plan to open them up gradually and taste how they develop over the next decade. As good as they are in their youth I'm confident that the best of them will be even better in a few years. The other great insight I took away from the tasting was that I was able to taste the proof of some sage advice. If you want to lay down a wine in a cellar your patience will be rewarded especially if you can find a winery and winemaker who has a style that's in sync with your palate. Even in the best vintages its sometimes the little things that can make the difference between a good wine and a great wine. If you're lucky the proof comes in the taste as the primary flavours develop into tertiary flavours and the tannins being to diminish and integrate into that mature bottle of red wine you've hidden in your cellar.

You can read what other at the tasting said via Tweets under the #Ontario02 tag here.

From #Ontario02

*Please note that calling any particular vintage good, better, best, (insert you favourite superlative here) in Ontario is at best a gross oversimplification and at worst dangerously misleading. There's probably no other wine region in the world that grows such a wide variety of grapes and has a harvest period so long that it can often be measured in months rather than days or weeks. In other words a hotter and drier vintage that favours late ripening big bold Bordeaux varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon makes for a challenging growing season for the earlier ripening varieties like Riesling which thrives in cooler conditions. For those that like to know the minutia of a growing season it does make distilling an assessment down to a sentence a little more challenging for Ontario. But it's a good excuse to make frequent visits for research purposes (a.k.a. tastings).