By Bryan Calandrelli, Niagara Region Editor
I knew that I was the only wine editor who had tasted most of the wines. I also knew that I had chosen a diverse lineup so I didn’t think my colleagues had any solid expectations of what they were about to drink.
Before focusing on the winners, I want to congratulate all the wineries that were represented in the tasting. Each flight sparked discussion and I got the impression that the overall consistency and quality, especially in the red flight, helped make a case for each of those grapes in the region.
Leonard Oakes Estate Winery claimed the “Best Niagara White” title with their Unoaked Estate Chardonnay 2009. Why did another unoaked Chardonnay from the Niagara region impress the judges? (Remember that Eveningside Vineyards won last year with their 2008 Estate Unoaked Chardonnay.) Simple: it stood out with intense tropical aromas, great balance and something that made us want to keep taking another sip.
After the judging, I met with Leonard Oakes Estate’s winemaker, Jonathan Oakes. In talking to him I got the feeling that the wine we tasted was exactly the wine he intended to make.
“I chose Laffort’s VL1 yeast which tends to release more tropical notes,” he said. “If anything, I was trying to make a departure from typical chardonnay with this one.”
Oakes himself prefers steely, mineral-driven Chablis but isn’t trying to make that style with his estate grapes.
“We don’t have that mineral backbone,” he said. “I’ve yet to find that here on the loamier sandy soils but maybe as this whole region grows we’ll get more people growing on limestone and we can shoot for that style.”
Freedom Run Winery was a repeat winner of “Best Niagara Red” with a cabernet franc after a pinot noir won last year. The winery’s Estate Cabernet Franc Reserve 2008 was a 75-case, three-barrel bottling which was meant to show how well this grape does on the clay and limestone slopes of the Niagara Escarpment.
Our tasting panel was impressed by its Old World aromas of blackberry, pencil shavings, olive and smoke. In the context of a strong red flight of 2008s, this wine stood out on the palate with smooth, mouth-filling tannins and a fleshy, fruit-driven palate.
Freedom Run regularly uses second- and third-fill barrels, which tend to be more neutral in flavor, yet this reserve bottling was 67% new oak. Explains cellarmaster Kurt Guba: “We had some new Hungarian oak that year and we always have a couple new French oak barrels so we decided to try both.”
According to Guba, the new oak barrels, especially the Hungarian one, were the talk of the winery’s barrel tastings. “As soon as we started pouring samples of the Hungarian barrel people starting asking when they could buy the wine.”
There was some talk of just doing a single barrel bottling, but after extensive blending trials the winery thought better of that and blended two more barrels to the mix, one new French oak barrel and one used French oak barrel.
In my opinion the new oak didn’t impart much more flavor than the used barrels, as its real influence was on the palate. It feels nothing short of luxurious, especially for a cool-climate cabernet franc.