Monday, March 5, 2007

Report from: Cuvee-en-Route - March 2007

Cuvee is truly a wine lovers paradise … it’s dubbed as the “Oscars” of the Ontario wine industry, but for wine lovers it’s sorta like a wedding: you’ll taste something old, something new, something borrowed (from the cellar) and something blue (I found an intriguing wine packaged in a blue bottle). This year’s “En-Route” passport extravaganza featured 28 wineries each pouring between 2-3 newer or older vintage wines … some had even robbed wines right out of their cellar for the event. I visited 11 of these wineries to see how those previous vintages were tasting, and to wet my palate (literally) for the 2005’s that will soon be arriving on shelves.

Starting the day off at the Niagara College Teaching Winery, where they poured the 2004 Warren Classic Chardonnay ($27.95) – oaky, buttery with deep vanilla notes; a 2005 Select Late Harvest Cabernet Franc ($27.95) – grapes that were caught up in an early flash freeze in December 2005 when temps went below minus-8 but did not remain there, hence any grapes picked at that time could only be used for Late Harvest wine, not ice wine. The wine itself had a rich strawberry nose and taste. On a whim I also tried the 2005 Riesling ($11.95) – a blend of 84% Riesling with the rest being Pinot Gris and Muscat – soft citrus nose, with fruity pear, lemon, peach and minerals on the palate.

Then it was off to Coyote’s Run, where they were featuring their new 2005 line-up: Cabernet Franc, Meritage and Pinot Noir. The 2005 reds are going to be wonderful, so I’ve heard, and from what I’ve tasted so far I agree. The Coyote’s Run Pinot Noir ($30) is a blend of Red Paw grapes and Black Paw grapes. Those familiar with Coyote’s Run know they usually make two Pinot Noirs from two parts of their vineyard where the soils are different, one red and one black; but because of the short crop they could not make the individual Pinots. Good concentration of red and black fruit with the predominance going red – strawberry and rhubarb hit the nose and earthy on both the nez and the palate. The Franc ($22), was aged 12 months in Hungarian, Canadian and Franco-American oak barrels … soft fruit, light tannins and an apparent sweetness in the mid-palate – yum – this one should age well for 5-10 years. The same can be said for the Meritage ($24) red fruit sweetness on the taste with an oak and berry nose … 54% Sauv, 23% Franc, and 13% Merlot make up the blend. Looks like Coyote’s has a good Run of wine this year and all under screwcap.

I always find that I learn something new on these trips, and that is a good thing. Today’s lesson was on Riesling Traminer. I always thought it was a blend of Riesling and Gewurztraminer – but not in this case, Ken Hernder, retail manager at Konzelmann told me. Konzelmann actually grafted Riesling with the parent root of Gewurzt, namely Traminer, and have made a single varietal called Riesling-Traminer. They poured a flight of this grape starting with a 2002 Riesling-Traminer ($24.95) sugar coded at zero but tasted sweet with petrol notes; a 2004 Select Late Harvest Riesling-Traminer ($29.95) – peach, apricot, and over-ripe pear on the nose, with honeyed apricot and apple in the mouth; and a 1996 Riesling Traminer Icewine ($129.95), rust coloured with raisiny nose and taste, with hints of rusty fermented apple (which mirrored the colour). Ken also mentioned their expansion plans “should be ready in June 2007,” was said with crossed fingers, “or the workmen are going to be giving tours and offering tasting,” he finished with a laugh. A new barrel cellar, 2 levels of retail space and private tasting rooms; a spiral staircase that will go all the way to the turret top so visitors can look out over the lake. They are very excited about the changes.

The next two wineries I stopped at were also going through renovations, expansion, or both. Inniskillin and Reif both have scheduled openings/unveilings for Spring 2007. Inniskillin will open a whole new wine store with plans to renovate the old one. While Reif has got new facilities being built right in the parking lot, attached to the current wine store. As for what they were each pouring, Inniskillin was offering up their limited edition single vineyard series wines from 2004; the best of which, the Klose Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($24.75) – 15 months in American and French oak has given this wine a sweet cherry, vanilla and oak palate with black fruit and plum on the nose. The Montague Vineyard Merlot ($25.95) was also quite appealing; another 15-month ager which showed vegetal, plum along with some red AND black fruit on the nose, which followed through in the mouth along with some strawberry undertones. The 2004 Brae Burn Shiraz ($24.95) shows some promise, with black pepper, spice, dark berries and a crème brulee finish, but the nose was tight and closed, showing only hints of black pepper … giving it some time could yield wonderful results.

Reif was showing off their wonderful Merlots: a 2001 and 2002 First Growth ($50 each) from 12 and 13 year old vines respectively. But the highlight was something a little cheaper and a little more recent. Chocolate, white pepper, red fruit and a hint of mint were what my nose picked up, while through the mouth red fruit, sweet cherry and some earthy tones … and what is this delicacy you might ask? Would you believe the 2004 Merlot ($23.95)? I’m told upon opening it’s a little tight, but the bottle I sampled had been opened for 5 hours and really shone.
Strewn Winery focused its attention on their soon to be released 2005’s: Cab Sauv, Cab Franc and a Meritage blend called “Strewn Three” (65% Franc; 21% Sauv; 14% Merlot) – prices have yet to be announced, but they are on sale using their futures program, meaning you can buy now before release at a minimum 10% savings. So far they have sold over 20% of the release. These 2005 wines are going to be in limited supply, which is why they are being snapped up so quickly … also because these wines are wonderful and ageable. The best of which to me was the 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon (currently futures priced at $15), dark chocolate, oak, blackberry, black currant and smoke on the nose; cherry, blackberry and spices on the palate.

I now find myself at Harvest Estates, located in a fruit market on the outskirts of St. Catharines. To me Harvest seems like a dumping ground for older wines, cast outs and experimental wines from Hernder (their parent company). 2000 and 2001 Rieslings; a 1999 off-Chardonnay (not good for drinking but does wonders in a recipe, the sign proclaimed) or a 1999 unoaked Cab Franc. They also have a variety of fruit wines and vinegars in all flavours: grapefruit, peach-vanilla, strawberry – you name it. There was nothing in the store (that I could see) dated 2003 or higher. But a blue bottled 2001 Late Harvest Chardonnay ($14.95) sparked my interest and a full review will appear in the newsletter at a future date. Check out Harvest as a curiosity or if you are feeling adventurous.
It was then off to Creekside where they featured some past Cuvee winners … a Signature Shiraz ($40.15 – 2002) and a Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($29.20 – 2001) … but the real find was the “Best LCBO General List Red” winner from last year, the 2002 Cabernet Merlot ($16.15). I am told they unearthed and liberated a few cases from the cellar especially for this event. The price has gone up a few bucks from when I bought it last year for $12.95, but still a bargain for a wine of this caliber.
Next, a stop at Cave Spring, with a flight of Reserve Rieslings from the 2003, 2004 and 2005 Vintages; Cave Springs is truly a Riesling lovers paradise and their Reserves are very tasty and are made from some of the oldest Riesling vines in Ontario (upwards of 30 years). But it’s the word “reserve” that truly bothers me. I just had to ask the difference between the “regular” and “reserve” line, considering that Riesling never spends any time in oak. The “Niagara Peninsula” (regular) wines are sourced from all over the region, while the “Reserve” are produced from their own estate grown older vines. Unfortunately this is just another bastardization of the word “reserve” that once again is meant to mislead the customer. I understand and could taste the “special-ness” of these wines, but could they not use a word other than “Reserve”? I think so … call them “Old Vines Riesling” and charge me a little more. “Reserve” does not mean special, per se, it means held back - once again I ask, how can one rely on anything read on a wine label – especially when it comes to the overused and misused word “Reserve”?
Lakeview Cellars was my second to last stop of the day … they poured their 2001 Starboard ($19.95) because the ’05 wasn’t quite ready yet. Starboard is their Port-like wine made from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. Lush in the mouth with chocolate, cherries and dark fruit. Of course, the oxidation is there and so is the full on mouth coating effect of a thick sweet red. I would suggest getting your name on the list for a few bottles of the ’05 before it’s all gone.
Final winery for this Cuvee 2007 tour was Fielding; who have an excellent track record but also now have a new winemaker - will that track record continue? Ray Cornell (formerly of Hernder) seems to have a new lease-on-life attitude and is thrilled to be onboard. The 2005 wines, while not completely his vintage (as was pointed out to me), definitely have his grape stained fingerprints on them. A Reserve Cabernet Franc ($28 – April 14th release) has a sweet cherry nose with good oak integration; on the palate, more sweet cherry fruit carries itself into the mid-palate right through to the finish line. It is surprisingly smoother than the recently released 2005 Cabernet Franc ($18) with its spicy oak nose and closed dark fruit flavours. Fielding recommends decanting or cellaring, and I would whole-heartedly agree. Some of the other new wines at Fielding, the ’06 Chardonnay Musque ($15) and the 2006 Gewurtraminer, will be reviewed in full in an upcoming newsletter.

Another successful trip through the Niagara region … Cuvee continues to be an under publicized, yet fantastic wine voyage – flights of older wines mixed in with the younger ones makes for an exciting and educational outing. It is also a time to unearth those real finds that are hidden away in winemaker’s cellars … it is the allure of Cuvee that brings out the best for all to taste and see. If you’re an Ontario wine fan, heck, a wine fan in general, this is your event. All the winners for Cuvee 2007 can be found at under “event news”.

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