This past weekend Hubby and I were in town for his brother's fantastic, fun, and mercifully, sunny wedding at Liuna Gardens, in Grimsby. For those of you who don't know, this marks the 'gateway to Niagara' in Ontario. The window of our hotel room looked out on the tourist centre, with the Escarpment looming behind, stretching out on either side like a deep green wave about to break. Ho boy, was I itching to go.
I placated my thirsty taste buds in the meantime with some good offerings at the nuptials and post-wedding gatherings, a Jackson-Triggs Cab blend and an Inniskillin Pinot Noir, in particular. I enjoyed a DIY wine-and-cheese with two Peninsula Ridge whites: the first was the Wismer Vineyards '08 Sauvignon Blanc, all classic varietal aromas and flavours; the other was a decadent '07 Reserve Chardonnay that brought out the best in the Le Silo five-year-old cheddar with which it was paired. (Thanks for the tasting, Marc and Pauline!)
The festivities wound down, with family and friends reluctantly taking their leave until the next celebration. In the lull that followed, I headed out on the 403 to Niagara, alone and eager to immerse myself in the vineyards. I was officially 'on business' as a writer with Brix (I was reviewing Anthony Brooks' Crush On Niagara guidebook for the inaugural edition) but if sipping on samples and having long conversations with winemakers constitutes 'business', this was going to be a banner day.
I passed out my card, shook hands with marketing people, chatted up viticulture students and mused on the future of the biz with owners. I backtracked over the 81, ducking in and out of hidden driveways cloaked by trees. I stopped at my fave lunch spot, Zooma Zooma Café in Jordan, for a turkey-brie-and-cranberry on baguette with a side of Italian wedding soup. Oh yeah, and I tried a LOT of wine.
The highlights of the day were Calamus and Thirteenth Street. Calamus (Latin for "arrowhead") holds tastings in the cool stone cellar of a restored barn, hosted by Steve Byfield (whose own label, Nyarai Cellars, has caught the attention of the Saavy folks with his Syrah. After a bit of sweet talking, I got to try some ... and immediately bought a bottle.) The '08 Pinot Gris was all-around gorgeous, fragrant and luscious with lots of orange blossom and tropical fruit, but with enough firm acidity to serve as a patio sipper. The minerality of the '07 Riesling reflected the sandy loam of its home vineyard, where the roots had to dig deep for sustenance.
Thirteenth Street had just relocated to sparkling new digs over on Fourth Avenue, but I doubt they'll change the name, considering it has achieved cult status among the lucky few who find the wines on restaurant lists or at private affairs. Crush describes their Pinot Noir as a "religious experience", but alas, none was available for tasting. My host, the electric-blue-eyed Peter Bodnar Rod, shrugged off the fame as he walked me through a tasting of a dozen or so (!!!) wines, each meriting their own place in the sun. He spoke of the ever-changing nature of wine, that while future vintages may not be exactly like the one that made them famous, they were still "making exceptional wines in a beautiful setting."
The only sour note was my stop at Walker Hall Winery, a stately Victorian mansion on the lakeshore. You could see tons of money went into the look and feel of the place. Too bad the wines didn't live up to the image: all four samples I tried were still recovering from a recent bout of bottle shock. Everything tasted like sour lemonade, with a foam of CO2 coating the surface. I was especially disappointed with the Viognier; at $40 a bottle, I expected far more. Still, I'm not writing the place off completely - I'd like to go back in about a year's time once they've worked out the kinks.
By the end of the day, my tongue was parched and aching. (How the pros do 100+ wines at competitions--even when they're spitting--is beyond me.) The cooler was packed to the brim and my notebook swelled with scribbles and business cards. Signs of a successful day as a wine writer.
The sun, snuggled in behind the Escarpment, waved a sleepy farewell as I turned back on to the 403, east and homeward-bound.
Editor's note: Information regarding the CO2 content and bottling of the wines at Walker Hall Winery were provided by the tasting room server at the time of the visit.******************
Some more highlights from the day:
Mountain Road Wine Co. 2006 Riesling - The nose is far sweeter with notes of honey, but the palate is the complete opposite, with crisp acidity and a tart apple finish.
Nyarai Cellars 2007 Syrah - A blend of fruit from vineyards in the Lincoln Lakeshore and Niagara-on-the-Lake sub-appellations, it's more Rhone than Australia ("This is a cool climate," Steve says, "I'm not going to pretend this is a Shiraz.") But it still has a hefty dose of cherries and cinnamon roaming around in this light-bodied, high acid representation of the region.
13th Street Winery 2007 Et Ceteras White - Another great summer wine, this one is 50% Sauvignon Blanc, 25% Semillion, and 25% Savagnin, a hardy varietal primarily grown in the Jura region of France. Fascinating aromas of beeswax, honey and melon, with a light, fruity feel and a refreshing effervescence all the way through to the end.
13th Street Winery 2007 Chardonnay Musque - This un-oaked Chardonnay clone delivers lots of perfumey aromas, and balances rich fruit with a sharp, edgy texture.
13th Street Winery 2007 Funk Vineyards Riesling - More along the lines of what Hubby likes, with its pronounced petrol and minerality. But even I found enough to like in this one, as the petrol remains constant but doesn't become obnoxious, and leaves a pleasant, green apple taste in your mouth.
13th Street Winery 2007 Gamay Noir - I grew up on Beaujolais-style wines, so I have a soft spot for good Gamays. Lovely raspberry and strawberry on the nose, the light acid and tannins complement each other well, while a big. juicy mouthful rounds out this free-spirited wine.
13th Street Winery 13 Degrees Below Zero - OMG, heavenly. Forget about Vidal as the go-to grape for sweet wines; Riesling doesn't get nearly enough credit. This late-harvest was made from grapes picked at 30 Brix, lower than the standard icewine level, and allowed to defrost somewhat before pressing. The strong acid keeps an even keel with flavours of nectarine, orange blossom and clover honey, allowing the true fruit to shine through instead of being swamped by the corn-syrup sweetness typical of most dessert wines.
Ravine Vineyards 2007 Gewurztraminer - Subtle scents of lychee and lemongrass; not quite as aromatic as expected. Evenly balanced, with a zesty mouthfeel and residual sweetness, followed by a soft fruit finish.
Ravine Vineyards 2007 Meritage - You'd never know this was from young vines (planted in 2005), what with its complex nose and mature structure. It's warm, inviting, with tons of personality and depth. The blend is predominantly Cabernet franc (57%) with the rest Merlot and Cab Sauv. (Usually, it's the other way around.)
Ravine Vineyards 2007 Reserve Merlot - John Szabo has suggested this might be "Canada's Petrus", and it certainly has potential: silky, subtle, more spice than fruit, a smoky finish ... you'd swear you were drinking honest-to-goodness Bordeaux. Watch out for the mid-September release of Ravine's 2008 Riesling, done in a German style with 20% botrytis-affected grapes.
I also made sure to stop at Vignoble Rancourt for more of the delicious Riesling-Chardonnay I tried at last year's Wine and Food Show. Just as good as I remembered it!