Perhaps it’s fitting that the first all-pinot-noir flight at this year’s Expert’s Tasting at Brock University’s Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute (CCOVI) was named after Monty Python’s classic film. If transcendent pinot noir is indeed the life-giving juice that flows from a cup then there are many out there spending their lives and fortunes looking for it across the globe and on both sides of the border in Niagara, even though most everyone else already thinks it lies in Burgundy.
Luckily my own quest to attend this year’s tasting was fulfilled, and I sat down with winemakers, wine writers, sommeliers and industry supporters to take a journey through several flights of pinot noir in hopes of finding the subtleties of the Niagara region’s terroir — and how distinctive that terroir is when compared to other regions in a blind setting. Having tasted what Niagara USA has produced since 2007, I was also looking forward to tasting where our pinots stood with their Canadian cousins.
The aforementioned aged pinot flight set the tone for the day. Presenter Rob Powers of Creekside Estate Winery, who by his own words is not “all-in in the pinot game,” compared the work of his pinot-making colleagues in Niagara to watching them “climbing Mount Everest” as students of CCOVI poured the wines.
So how did these wines hold up after a handful of years? Surprisingly enough, I found the oldest in the lineup, a 2002 Speck Family Reserve from Henry of Pelham, to be the most compelling argument for a Burgundian comparison. Its sweet red fruit with aromas of chocolate and loam was supported by extremely fine tannins and a graceful finish, hinting at an Old World origin. Flat Rock Cellars 2007 Reserve Pinot Noir was just as impressive. Although more youthful, its big cherry fruit and cola aromas resembled a more New World style yet it also finished with seductively fine tannins.
The ringer in the flight, a $60 Terlato Family Vineyards 2007 Pinot Noir from the Russian River didn’t seem too out of place, but its candied fruit aromas and feeling of residual sweetness on the palate made much more sense when the wines were revealed.
The 2009 vintage in Ontario has been referenced as the best for pinot noir many times over thanks in part to a long cool growing season. The title of its flight was appropriately named “The Perfect Storm.” Out of the seven flights we tasted, this one showed the most diversity.
My favorite of the group was Malivore Wine Company’s 2009 Niagara Peninsula Pinot Noir. My notes on this wine were limited to “gorgeous fruit, great balance and powdery tannins,” and to barrow a line from that old fairy tale, this one was just right.
The rest of the pinots were not as comfortable in their two-year-old shoes. Some showed a bit of youthful bitterness and somewhat disjointed herbal notes while others just seemed a little thin for my liking. On the opposite end of the spectrum, A Foreign Affair’s 2009 showed such darker fruit and so much more tannin that it was pegged by many including myself as a ringer only to find out 40% of its grapes were dried out by the appassimento process.
The actual ringer of the 2009s -- and a damn fine one at that -- was Domaine Daniel Rion & Fils Nuits Saint Georges. Surprisingly this wine did not really stick out as not being Niagara as the fruit profile was not far from what you’d expect but its youthful ripe and ready fruit made it much more easy drinking than most Niagara pinot noirs from this vintage.
Winemaker Thomas Bachelder led the popular “Wine Options” flight – which was basically a pop quiz in sub-appellations and terroir. In previous years this flight has been a multiple choice audience participation competition between tables. This year was more intense with the speaker asking for descriptors and ultimately guesses into each wine’s origins – ultimately putting each of us on the spot.
The Niagara selections of this flight were limited to bench fruit from Beamsville, Twenty Mile and St. David’s – and to be honest, it wasn’t easy to tell them apart. While this crowd is expected to be able to pick out a more general comparison of bench versus lakeshore fruit, these smaller sub-appellations were not easy to peg. The last three of the flight were all Twenty Mile bench wines and the crowd didn’t seem to find an obvious common thread in them either.
What was most compelling, though, was the ringer from Gevrey Chambertain by Nicolas Potel. Although I did scribble the words Burgundy and “high-class oak” in my notes, there really wasn’t all that much of a difference in this wine in comparison to the rest of the flight, and it wasn’t even my favorite because I tagged Rosewood’s 2009 Twenty Mile Bench as being so.
What does all this say about Niagara’s quest? For all the work that’s been done in the last 20 years in Ontario, the sub-appellations and the winemaking within cannot be easily disseminated for even the most experienced tasters. The soils, aspects and micro-climates within each is too diverse to confidently stereotype specific terroir in such a small sampling of wines.
But a subtle yet perhaps more important lesson I took from the afternoon was how difficult it was for us to pick out the ringers in each flight as the Niagara pinots did not stick out as being out of place with quality Old- and New World versions - and for young regions like Niagara Ontario and New York, the fact that its pinots can stand their ground with New Zealand, Russian River Valley and even Burgundy in a blind setting says that the quest for outstanding pinot is on the right path.