Southbrook's LEED certified winery and biodynamic vineyards in Niagara on the Lake, ON.
by Bryan Calandrelli, Niagara Region Editor
If you read this column with any regularity, what I’m about to write will be nothing new. But it’s certainly worth repeating: In only ten short years the Niagara Wine Region USA has come a long way. With thirteen wineries open and several more in the works, the region’s future as a wine destination seems more and more likely. The potential for quality reds, whites, roses and dessert wines has never been more apparent.
But as much as good as I think the current vintages are, to get a sense of the long-term potential of the region, you have to make the short trip across the border into the Niagara Peninsula.
With more than twenty years of growing and making vinifera wines in the history books, the Ontario wine industry offers a glimpse into what New York’s Niagara wine industry might look like -- and more importantly, taste like -- in the future.
So in the name of research, last week I grabbed my passport and set out to hit a few wineries I’d never visited.
First stop was Southbrook Vineyards, Canada’s first biodynamic certified estate. I couldn’t help being impressed by their LEED platinum-certified winery and tasting room pavilion. There’s obviously been a huge investment in their 60-acre farm, which is dotted with wind turbines to combat frosts and winter kill.
Overall, I found their wines to be elegant and restrained. The Sauvignon Blanc 2007 ($18) was yet another fine example of the potential of the grape in both regions, and their Poetica Chardonnay 2007 ($50) made another case for why Niagara chardonnay should be taken seriously.
But the one wine that I just had to bring home was their 2007 Whimsy Cabernet Franc ($35). In a vintage where many winemakers tried to make a big red with significant oak influence, this wine didn’t strive for that. With fresh blackberry, cherry and pepper aromas, this one retains everything I like about cab franc without sacrificing its lively acidity in such a warm vintage.
I would have normally avoided Jackson Triggs Winery but that day I stopped because I heard they now pour Le Clos Jordanne wines since they are both owned by the same company. If you haven’t heard of it, the winery is a joint venture between Vincor and Boisset, with a focus on making terrior-driven chardonnay and pinot noir on the Niagara Peninsula. They do not have their own tasting room and the wines aren’t readily available on this side of the border.
Of the estate vineyard sites Le Clos Jordanne uses, the best grapes go into their Le Grande Clos wine, the stuff that doesn’t make it into that goes into the single vineyard wines, and the rest that doesn’t cut it goes into its Village labeled wines. Each batch is vinified the same way using wild yeasts and long ferments. I’d heard great things about these wines but hadn’t tasted them until this trip.
My focus was on tasting their pinot noir and they were pouring their 2006 lineup. Knowing it wasn’t an ideal season for thin-skined grapes, I was impressed by each pinot I tried. The 2006 Village ($25) was perfectly racy and delicate with bright cherry fruit. The Claystone Terrace Vineyard ($40) wine was similar, yet had firmer tannins with a chalky finish. Le Grand Clos ($80) was what it should be, the best of the lineup, with a fuller mouthfeel darker fruit profile and a lasting finish.
My last stop was Lailey Vineyards just off the Niagara River. With a somewhat modest tasting room for Niagara-on-the-Lake, Lailey served up some bold wines including syrah, pinot noir and some crisp whites.
Their unoaked Chardonnay 2008 was just what I was looking for in a white with melon and peach aromas combining with a crisp yet still smooth body. The 2008 Sauvignon Blanc was solid as were both 2008 Pinot Noirs poured. The lineup was consistent from top to bottom but my favorite by far was the 2008 Syrah.
From what I’ve read it seems that the Niagara River appellation receives the most heat units due to its proximity to the gorge and river. As the cooler air sinks down into the lower elevation at water level, warm air rises and provides beneficial circulation. It’s here where syrah is given the best chance to ripen to show its dark fruit profile and a meatiness that is in line with northern Rhone. The 2008 I tasted was just that style with dark blackberry fruit, black pepper and aromas consistent with good salami.
The contrast in size, investment and history of the two regions couldn’t be any more obvious but every time I get over to Ontario I’m impressed by the similarities in flavor profile and quality, especially the pinot noir, chardonnay and cabernet franc. The potential for grapes like syrah and sauvignon blanc is also convincing.
We can learn a lot from Ontario’s wine industry. The overall consistency of quality from each winery to the next is staggering but ultimately I’m finding our best wines can hang with their best wines and that’s no coincidence.