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On the Road with the Grape Guy

On the Road with the Grape Guy is a on-going feature that follows me from event to event ... I post my thoughts, feelings and reviews of what happened and what I tasted ... basically it is here that I review the events I attend and the things that thrilled me.

Report from - Cuvee-en-Route March 2007

08 Mar 2007
Cuvee is truly a wine lovers paradise … it’s dubbed as the “Oscars” of the Ontario wine industry, but for wine lovers it’s sorta like a wedding:  you’ll taste something old, something new, something borrowed (from the cellar) and something blue (I found an intriguing wine packaged in a blue bottle).  This year’s “En-Route” passport extravaganza featured 28 wineries each pouring between 2-3 newer or older vintage wines … some had even robbed wines right out of their cellar for the event.  I visited 11 of these wineries to see how those previous vintages were tasting, and to wet my palate (literally) for the 2005’s that will soon be arriving on shelves.

Starting the day off at the Niagara College Teaching Winery, where they poured the 2004 Warren Classic Chardonnay ($27.95) – oaky, buttery with deep vanilla notes; a 2005 Select Late Harvest Cabernet Franc ($27.95) – grapes that were caught up in an early flash freeze in December 2005 when temps went below minus-8 but did not remain there, hence any grapes picked at that time could only be used for Late Harvest wine, not ice wine.  The wine itself had a rich strawberry nose and taste.  On a whim I also tried the 2005 Riesling ($11.95) – a blend of 84% Riesling with the rest being Pinot Gris and Muscat – soft citrus nose, with fruity pear, lemon, peach and minerals on the palate.

Then it was off to Coyote’s Run, where they were featuring their new 2005 line-up:  Cabernet Franc, Meritage and Pinot Noir.  The 2005 reds are going to be wonderful, so I’ve heard, and from what I’ve tasted so far I agree.  The Coyote’s Run Pinot Noir ($30) is a blend of Red Paw grapes and Black Paw grapes.  Those familiar with Coyote’s Run know they usually make two Pinot Noirs from two parts of their vineyard where the soils are different, one red and one black; but because of the short crop they could not make the individual Pinots.  Good concentration of red and black fruit with the predominance going red – strawberry and rhubarb hit the nose and earthy on both the nez and the palate.  The Franc ($22), was aged 12 months in Hungarian, Canadian and Franco-American oak barrels … soft fruit, light tannins and an apparent sweetness in the mid-palate – yum – this one should age well for 5-10 years.  The same can be said for the Meritage ($24) red fruit sweetness on the taste with an oak and berry nose … 54% Sauv, 23% Franc, and 13% Merlot make up the blend.  Looks like Coyote’s has a good Run of wine this year and all under screwcap.

I always find that I learn something new on these trips, and that is a good thing.  Today’s lesson was on Riesling Traminer.  I always thought it was a blend of Riesling and Gewurztraminer – but not in this case, Ken Hernder, retail manager at Konzelmann told me.  Konzelmann actually grafted Riesling with the parent root of Gewurzt, namely Traminer, and have made a single varietal called Riesling-Traminer.  They poured a flight of this grape starting with a 2002 Riesling-Traminer ($24.95) sugar coded at zero but tasted sweet with petrol notes; a 2004 Select Late Harvest Riesling-Traminer ($29.95) – peach, apricot, and over-ripe pear on the nose, with honeyed apricot and apple in the mouth; and a 1996 Riesling Traminer Icewine ($129.95), rust coloured with raisiny nose and taste, with hints of rusty fermented apple (which mirrored the colour).  Ken also mentioned their expansion plans “should be ready in June 2007,” was said with crossed fingers, “or the workmen are going to be giving tours and offering tasting,” he finished with a laugh.  A new barrel cellar, 2 levels of retail space and private tasting rooms; a spiral staircase that will go all the way to the turret top so visitors can look out over the lake.  They are very excited about the changes.

The next two wineries I stopped at were also going through renovations, expansion, or both.  Inniskillin and Reif both have scheduled openings/unveilings for Spring 2007.  Inniskillin will open a whole new wine store with plans to renovate the old one.  While Reif has got new facilities being built right in the parking lot, attached to the current wine store.  As for what they were each pouring, Inniskillin was offering up their limited edition single vineyard series wines from 2004; the best of which, the Klose Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($24.75) – 15 months in American and French oak has given this wine a sweet cherry, vanilla and oak palate with black fruit and plum on the nose.  The Montague Vineyard Merlot ($25.95) was also quite appealing; another 15-month ager which showed vegetal, plum along with some red AND black fruit on the nose, which followed through in the mouth along with some strawberry undertones.  The 2004 Brae Burn Shiraz ($24.95) shows some promise, with black pepper, spice, dark berries and a crème brulee finish, but the nose was tight and closed, showing only hints of black pepper … giving it some time could yield wonderful results.

Reif was showing off their wonderful Merlots:  a 2001 and 2002 First Growth ($50 each) from 12 and 13 year old vines respectively.  But the highlight was something a little cheaper and a little more recent.  Chocolate, white pepper, red fruit and a hint of mint were what my nose picked up, while through the mouth red fruit, sweet cherry and some earthy tones … and what is this delicacy you might ask?  Would you believe the 2004 Merlot ($23.95)?  I’m told upon opening it’s a little tight, but the bottle I sampled had been opened for 5 hours and really shone.

Strewn Winery focused its attention on their soon to be released 2005’s:  Cab Sauv, Cab Franc and a Meritage blend called “Strewn Three” (65% Franc; 21% Sauv; 14% Merlot) – prices have yet to be announced, but they are on sale using their futures program, meaning you can buy now before release at a minimum 10% savings.  So far they have sold over 20% of the release.  These 2005 wines are going to be in limited supply, which is why they are being snapped up so quickly … also because these wines are wonderful and ageable.  The best of which to me was the 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon (currently futures priced at $15), dark chocolate, oak, blackberry, black currant and smoke on the nose; cherry, blackberry and spices on the palate.

I now find myself at Harvest Estates, located in a fruit market on the outskirts of St. Catharines.  To me Harvest seems like a dumping ground for older wines, cast outs and experimental wines from Hernder (their parent company).  2000 and 2001 Rieslings; a 1999 off-Chardonnay (not good for drinking but does wonders in a recipe, the sign proclaimed) or a 1999 unoaked Cab Franc.  They also have a variety of fruit wines and vinegars in all flavours:  grapefruit, peach-vanilla, strawberry – you name it.  There was nothing in the store (that I could see) dated 2003 or higher.  But a blue bottled 2001 Late Harvest Chardonnay ($14.95) sparked my interest and a full review will appear in the newsletter at a future date.  Check out Harvest as a curiosity or if you are feeling adventurous.

It was then off to Creekside where they featured some past Cuvee winners … a Signature Shiraz ($40.15 – 2002) and a Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($29.20 – 2001) … but the real find was the “Best LCBO General List Red” winner from last year, the 2002 Cabernet Merlot ($16.15).  I am told they unearthed and liberated a few cases from the cellar especially for this event.  The price has gone up a few bucks from when I bought it last year for $12.95, but still a bargain for a wine of this caliber.

Next, a stop at Cave Spring, with a flight of Reserve Rieslings from the 2003, 2004 and 2005 Vintages; Cave Springs is truly a Riesling lovers paradise and their Reserves are very tasty and are made from some of the oldest Riesling vines in Ontario (upwards of 30 years).  But it’s the word “reserve” that truly bothers me.  I just had to ask the difference between the “regular” and “reserve” line, considering that Riesling never spends any time in oak.  The “Niagara Peninsula” (regular) wines are sourced from all over the region, while the “Reserve” are produced from their own estate grown older vines.  Unfortunately this is just another bastardization of the word “reserve” that once again is meant to mislead the customer.  I understand and could taste the “special-ness” of these wines, but could they not use a word other than “Reserve”?  I think so … call them “Old Vines Riesling” and charge me a little more.  “Reserve” does not mean special, per se, it means held back - once again I ask, how can one rely on anything read on a wine label – especially when it comes to the overused and misused word “Reserve”?

Lakeview Cellars was my second to last stop of the day … they poured their 2001 Starboard ($19.95) because the ’05 wasn’t quite ready yet. Starboard is their Port-like wine made from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes.  Lush in the mouth with chocolate, cherries and dark fruit.  Of course, the oxidation is there and so is the full on mouth coating effect of a thick sweet red.  I would suggest getting your name on the list for a few bottles of the ’05 before it’s all gone.

Final winery for this Cuvee 2007 tour was Fielding; who have an excellent track record but also now have a new winemaker - will that track record continue?  Ray Cornell (formerly of Hernder) seems to have a new lease-on-life attitude and is thrilled to be onboard.  The 2005 wines, while not completely his vintage (as was pointed out to me), definitely have his grape stained fingerprints on them.  A Reserve Cabernet Franc ($28 – April 14th release) has a sweet cherry nose with good oak integration; on the palate, more sweet cherry fruit carries itself into the mid-palate right through to the finish line.  It is surprisingly smoother than the recently released 2005 Cabernet Franc ($18) with its spicy oak nose and closed dark fruit flavours.  Fielding recommends decanting or cellaring, and I would whole-heartedly agree.  Some of the other new wines at Fielding, the ’06 Chardonnay Musque ($15) and the 2006 Gewurtraminer, will be reviewed in full in an upcoming newsletter.

Another successful trip through the Niagara region … Cuvee continues to be an under publicized, yet fantastic wine voyage – flights of older wines mixed in with the younger ones makes for an exciting and educational outing. It is also a time to unearth those real finds that are hidden away in winemaker’s cellars … it is the allure of Cuvee that brings out the best for all to taste and see.  If you’re an Ontario wine fan, heck, a wine fan in general, this is your event.  All the winners for Cuvee 2007 can be found at www.cuvee.ca under “event news”.

Report from - Niagara Icewine Festival - January 2007

13 Feb 2007
Fear seemed to grip everyone a little early this year … the fear that icewine season could pass us by, or could be lost all together.  Sounds silly now as we sit here mid-February staring at thermometer readings of minus 10 (for our third week straight), and wind chills that plunge those temps down to between minus 20 and minus 25.  But in early January some winemakers were already starting to ring alarm bells – and later that same month the media caught wind of it and started to freak us all out.  “No Icewine This Year!” they proclaimed from the headlines.  While the Grape Growers Association sent out calming press releases, clear-headed winemakers knew all they had to do was wait – this is Canada afterall.  The truth is that we have harvested icewine (as a province) as late as March.  Sure there is a loss of precious fruit, but the whole of icewinedom was not lost. 

 
This year in mid-December we had a flash freeze (temps dipped for one night below minus 8), some winemakers made the call to run out to the vineyard deciding that it was time to pick; but all a flash freeze does is harden the outside of the grape, the inside part remains soft and fleshy, not the proper consistency for making icewine; for that the grapes have to been frozen and as hard as marbles.  Those that went out in mid-December will be making some really nice late-harvest wines. 

 
In late-January we had some freezing rain – which managed to keep the berries hanging even longer; the ice acted as a protective coating for the grapes thus not allowing them to freeze inside.  Once again pickers at that time ended up with mushy over ripe grape juice.  Those who waited an extra week and removed the ice from their grapes, were rewarded with the perfect conditions and temperatures for icewine and they picked, plucked, squeezed and fermented our nationally renowned liquid.

 
All this preamble leads me into a short review of this year’s icewine festival in Niagara, where wineries congregate in either Jordan (weekend 1) or Niagara-on-the-Lake (weekend 2) to pour their nectar to thirsty and sweet-toothed visitors at real ice bars.  While the throng pay five dollars a sample, I grabbed myself a touring passport to taste the wines in the warmth of a winery, where I can purchase what I like immediately with no worries that my cold-numbed brain will forget those wines that I really liked.  So let’s look at who was pouring what and their pairings (if any).

 
Starting at the Niagara College Teaching Winery, located just outside of Niagara-on-the-Lake, and just off the QEW – they were serving up icewine-infused creampuffs paired with their 2005 Vidal Icewine.  The dessert was delicious, light and airy and the icewine-infused cream inside really woke up the mouth.  The wine itself was quite lovely, but because they pre-poured many of their samples and they had been left out on a table, the temperature was not where icewine should be served – a tad too warm.  The paring worked well though.

 
Maleta Winery was giving you a choice between 2 icewines, an ’02 and an ’03, pairing it with an icewine sponge cake, which was truly decadent.  The two wines showed marked differences in flavours and mouth feel … the debate from the patrons assembled at the counter raged as to which one they liked best.  I invite you to go to Maleta and make the same comparison and decide for yourself – I thought they were both delicious with merits for both years.  I found it hard to choose a favourite.

 
Chateau des Charmes was giving (and selling) a sneak peak of their 2005 Late Harvest Riesling during this “pre-release” event.  Another delicious late harvest from the Chateau, good tropical fruit flavours drenched in honey with melon notes and a stream of crisp acidity carried this wine through the mouth and into the throat nicely – there it hung out for awhile in a long finish.

 
A quick stop at Hillebrand where local artists using chisels and chainsaws were carving ice sculptures out of big blocks of ice … I also got a sampling of the 2005 Trius Dry Riesling (a full review will appear in an upcoming newsletter).  I also swung by Jackson-Triggs, where I tried the soon-to-be-released 2005 Delaine Vineyard Riesling.  These two Rieslings are just waiting for the spring/summer warm weather and days on the dock - they’ll also pair wonderfully with foods of your choice.  Both reviews will appear in time for springtime purchasing.  But I digress; let’s get back to the icewine festival tour.

 
Willow Heights was serving icewine Martinis which went down way too smoothly and could become addictive, they were also serving up surly staff members behind the counter which did not add to the enjoyment of the fabulous drink creation.  On the other hand, the staff at Stoney Ridge proved to be much more amiable, as they poured the late harvest Vidal and cabernet Franc that they playfully have named Igluu.  And Vineland, who always seems to be over-staffed (but that is to your benefit), poured Vidal and Riesling icewine alongside chocolate truffles.  I also sampled some of their dry and semi-dry Rieslings, which are always superb, and some of the best Niagara has to offer.  Vineland also had gifts for visitors … the first weekend they gave out bottle stoppers, but demand exceeded supply; so on the second weekend they passed out icewine glasses … a nice touch and great memento of the day.

 
Last stop Angels Gate Winery, who decided to fly in the face of convention, skipped icewine altogether and poured a flight of Cabernet Sauvignons from the 2002, 2003, and 2004 vintages.  They topped that off with an unfiltered, as-yet-unreleased tasting of a 2006 late harvest Cabernet Sauvignon that they are working on.  Surprisingly the 2003 Cab Sauv was the winner of the flight and a steal at $18.95 … there’s plenty left and it’s drinking well now, but it can still age for a number of years.  2003 was not a particularly good year for reds in Ontario, but there are some gems out there if you look – this is one of them.

 
Obviously not a comprehensive list of places that were pouring and serving during the festival, but a nice little tour that made for an enjoyable day out on the wine trail.  Many wineries went un-visited and many others had interesting and unique pairings that I just did not have time for.  Next year I would suggest grabbing a passport and checking out the wine route, make a weekend out of it, it’s one of the most delicious and economical ways to enjoy the icewine festival.

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