October 26, 2008

Niagara 2008

The original plan to spend two days in Niagara, visit 30 wineries, enjoy a nice walk somewhere on the escarpment, sample some local cuisine and take in a play at the Shaw festival was all a little ambitious. There are simply too many wineries to visit and a dizzying array of wines to sample. Still, we did our best, and sampled some superb wines along the way.
Here, a few comments on a small sample of wineries and some musings on the establishments, the experience and, most specifically, the wines.First, some non wine related matters. We stayed in a delightful B and B on Niagara Stone Road, about ten minutes outside Niagara-on- the- Lake, and pretty close to Hillebrand Winery. “Beside the Winery” is owned and run by Trudy and Terry Wilson, two absolutely delightful people. If you like a supremely comfortable bed, an excellent breakfast, a private deck boasting beautiful morning glories and bougainvillea – even in October, and outstanding hospitality, this is a great place to stay at a very reasonable price. www.bbcanada.com/9812html . Trudy directed us to a walk by the turbulent and vivid green waters of the Niagara River. On a beautiful crisp fall day with brilliant sunshine, we were surrounded by colour. What a treat!We dined one evening at Treadwells in Port Dalhousie – intricate and excellent food and a great wine selection. The next evening we grabbed a quick and fun pre-theatre dinner at The Old Winery, also on Niagara Stone Road.
And now to the wineries, more or less in the order we visited them. We started at Stonechurch, for no particular reason other than its proximity to our home for the weekend. This was one of only two disappointing wineries we visited. Nice place, nice people, great stemware, but somehow every wine we tried offered up terrific and characteristic aromas with no delivery on the palate. We didn’t buy any. The other disappointing one was Malivoire. I know some of their wines to be very good, but unfortunately every glass smelled and tasted of dishwasher powder, so we gave up after a few attempts and moved on elsewhere.
We started in earnest at Peninsula Ridge, in Beamsville. This was a popular destination, overflowing with tasters, late morning, on a Friday in October – and for good reason. The place is stunning, the wines are excellent, the staff helpful and astute. Of note were the Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2002 and the Merlot Reserve 2002, great wines crying out for food and/or a few years in the cellar. The Vintner’s Private Reserve Merlot 2002 was fabulous. I’d like to try it again in about 8 years time. On a crisper and less expensive note, the A J Lepp Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc 2007 was elegant, well balanced and quite delicious. In all, there were some 25 wines available for tasting and I’m fairly certain they would all have been worthy of examination, but this was a two day trip, so we moved on with stated intention of a much longer stop next time. Even if you start visiting at 10 or 11am, it’s really unrealistic to visit any more than 4 in a day and do them justice.
Thirty Bench Wine Makers, also in Beamsville, produces exquisite Rieslings. The 2007 Winemaker’s Riesling at $18 is the best Niagara Riesling I’ve tasted under $20. Hand picked grapes, low yields for better quality and intensity, sloping vineyards, deep dry soils and superb winemaking all contribute to a wonderful collection of Rieslings. The 2007 small lot vineyard offerings from Triangle Vineyard, Steel Post Vineyard and Wood Post Vineyard were all exquisite, all different. There was absolutely nothing thin or apologetic about these wines. They were all elegant and well-balanced, with wonderful aromas, beautiful flavours, perfect mouthfeel and long, lingering finishes. Do not miss this winery on your next trip to Niagara. Our host, Janice, was disappointed that we didn’t have time to taste the rest of the 17 wines on offer, and so were we. She did persuade us to taste the Thirty Bench Riesling Icewine 2007 and, again, this was simply outstanding, with wonderful acidity to balance the luscious fruit – probably the best Icewine I’ve ever tasted.
It was hard to follow that, but we popped into Angels Gate Winery next, a pretty place with a great view and a grand collection of reasonably priced wines. The 2005 Old Vines Chardonnay was very drinkable, buttery but not overoaked, nicely balanced with a good, long finish. The 2007 Gewurztraminer had a wonderful nose of roses and lychees, a delicious fruity palate with nicely balanced acidity and a great price tag of $15.95. The 2007 Late Harvest Cabernet at $23.20 for a 750ml format is a great buy if you’re serving summer fruit salad to a big crowd and need a refreshing dessert wine. Angels Gate Restaurant is closed in October, but we followed the recommendation of lunch at “August”, just down the road, which was delicious and very reasonably priced.
Tawse Winery boasts a gorgeous building, fabulous crystal glasses and exuberant staff. We didn't taste many, but nothing seemed stunning on that particular day at that particular time. Perhaps its after lunch position did the winery a disservice, but I just didn’t taste anything with brilliant balance. However, at a Niagara Riesling tasting earlier this year, The Tawse Twenty Mile Bench 2006 Riesling was my top pick from the group presented, with an elegant and quite lovely nose, great structure and a long finish. So a return trip is required - before lunch.
We had a quick stop at Ridgepoint, since it is, apparently, one of only two wineries using Nebbiolo – the great grape of Barolo, and I was curious. Unfortunately they had run out of anything containing that particular varietal.
On to Vineland where we enjoyed a great tasting in the capable hands of Hayden, a very competent and well-versed member of staff. I’m a fan of their rosé wines, especially in the years when they bottle Pinot Meunier as a rosé. Pinot Meunier is one of the varietals which can be used in Champagne production, but it’s rarely seen as a straight varietal. We tasted a few Sauvignon Blancs and particularly liked that from the Neufeld Vineyard. This was reminiscent of New Zealand Sauv Blancs, with nice acidity and balance, though a little richer in mouthfeel. The barrel fermented Sauv Blanc tasted weird to my palate. After tasting our way through a number of their standard and inexpensive wines, many of which were very drinkable, we tried some of the Reserve wines, and particularly liked three of the reds. The 2005 Cabernet Franc Reserve was excellent – a big wine, with lots of aging potential. The 2006 Syrah Reserve was a big, dark and brooding Old World style Syrah – great fun. And the 2005 Cabernet-Merlot Reserve was elegant and full, a little overpriced, and with enough tannins and fruit to keep a few years. We finished off the visit with a taste of the much acclaimed 2002 Riesling Icewine. I was anxious to try it, since I had carted a bottle over to Scotland in the summer as a special gift. Sadly, I found it to be disappointing – very luscious but with insufficient acidity to balance it. The previously mentioned Thirty Bench 2007 Riesling Icewine was far superior, to my taste. Vineland is a great place to visit, though. Ask for Hayden. He knows his stuff.
The following day, we tasted and bought a couple of wines at Marynissen. I’m not entirely sure how that happened because overall I found the quality of the wines a bit mixed. A number of them exhibited production smells and underripe fruit. The 2004 Merlot and Cabernet Merlot were quite nice though and good everyday drinking. Again, maybe it was the after breakfast straw that they drew that muddied the waters a bit.
I was very impressed with the selection at Lailey Vineyards. Almost all of the wines we tasted were elegant, well structured and balanced. Of particular note were the 2004 Cabernet, 2006 Pinot Noir, 2006 Merlot, and 2006 Cabernet/Syrah. We certainly didn’t visit a very large percentage of the Niagara wineries, but Lailey, along with Thirty Bench, displayed great consistency in the quality of the wines on offer.
Unfortunately we reached Pillitteri at the same time as a couple of bus tours, so the place was a bit crazy. I love their 2002 Cabernet Franc, which sadly is now gone, although I still have a few bottles lurking in the cellar. We tasted the 2005, but it’s not a patch on the 2002. ‘07 was a great grape growing season in Niagara, purportedly the best since ‘02, so I’ll look forward to tasting the ‘07 Cab Franc when it becomes available. Nothing else really inspired me that day, but maybe it was just too crowded.
Since Hillebrand was almost next door to our B and B, we ended the day there. One of the biggest and longest established wineries in the region, the place was also hopping, but with lots of staff to handle the crowds. Hillebrand created Niagara’s first Icewine in 1983 and opened the first winery restaurant in Niagara-on-the-Lake in 1996. We headed up stairs to the Collector’s Boutique and tasted some very fine wines indeed. The Showcase Merlot 2004 is drinking very nicely now. The 2002 should have been better, given the vintage, but the bottle we tasted had a nasty nose, little fruit and was lighter than expected. Perhaps we just had a bad bottle. The whole scene upstairs was excessively busy and noisy – it was a Saturday after all - with people screaming with delight at each other across the tasting area, so I didn’t ask if another bottle could be opened. The Showcase Merlot 2000 was wonderful, complex and exciting, with lots of flavour, great balance and a long, delicious finish. Pricey, but very good. In the Cabernet Sauvignon verticals, the 2002 was outstanding. We were given further verification here that 2007 was going to be an outstanding vintage – the best since 2002. I look forward! Of the Hillebrand ice wines we tasted, the 2007 oak aged Vidal was beautifully balanced.
For wine lovers, try to organize about five days in Niagara, two days to taste, one to pursue other activities, and two more days of sampling. The wineries are lovely, the people friendly and helpful, and some of the wines simply gorgeous. How wonderful to live relatively close to this great winemaking area and to be able to fill up the trunk with goodies to take home. Almost like living in the EU!