This 16-hour in-depth look at Niagara started with a dinner at Hillebrand, created by executive chef Frank Dodd, the food served was based on specifically chosen wines that were to show the best of “sub-appellation character”. Before I continue to tell you about the wines and dinner let’s get one thing straight: the VQA, it was stressed to us (on more than one occasion), is not a marketing branch of the wineries, they do not promote any specific winery or the wineries as a whole, they are the governing body of 100% Ontario wines that bare the VQA logo … they are the testers, tasters and enforcers of the rules. So any wine poured over the next 16 hours is poured solely on it’s typicity of the region, not based on some favoured winery. Finally, it is important to note that the wines were chosen blindly by a panel.
Tonight because we were being hosted by Hillebrand for dinner, they chose Darryle Brooker, winemaker for Hillebrand, to lead us through the tasting.
1st Course: “Tour of Niagara” - Seasonally Inspired Salad Foraged by Chef Dodd with Wild Honeycomb … paired with our first two wines, Rieslings from the 2008 vintage. The wines were served to us blind (we did not know whose they were, where they were from, the winery that made them, nor the appellation). Me preference was for wine number two for its high acidity, long finish, big minerality and steely grip on the tongue. Turns out it was Darryl’s very own, Hillebrand 2008 Showcase Riesling – Ghost Creek Vineyard, from the Four Mile Creek appellation in Niagara-on-the-Lake. All the Ontario writers in attendance were quite surprised because we expect that kind of flavour profile to come from the Beamsville Bench, the other wine that was served beside it was from the Bench and did not seem to have the above mentioned characteristics … an interesting comparison. Though listening to Darryl’s description of the wine I had to ask myself if it was terroir driven or winemaker decision driven? One can conclude that if the winemaker takes what the land gives him and listens to his gut, instead of the numbers, interesting things do happen.
2nd Course: “Cro Farm Quail” - Smoked Bacon, Blood Sausage Ravioli and Wild Blueberry Jam … second course seemed ideal for Pinot Noir, and I could have sworn these were the wines we were served; but when the reveal happened it turns out they were Meritage blends from 2006 – one that J.L. Groux was quick to point out as a “very difficult vintage”, stress the ‘very’; the flavours were light with plenty of sour cherry and earthy notes. All were poured out of a decanter and none of them needed decanting, that’s my excuse for why I found them lighter than I should have. But enough of my excuses … three wines were served to us this time, each to show three different parts of the region: Niagara Peninsula (grapes sourced throughout the area), Creek Shores (sub-appellation) and Niagara-on-the-Lake. I found the Creek Shore wine to be very earthy and minerally, while the Peninsula wine seemed bigger, richer and fuller with an over-extraction of fruit, complex yet lacking mid-palate. Best wine was the Jackson-Triggs 2006 Grand Reserve Meritage, from Niagara-on-the-Lake, a Merlot dominated blend (55%) with Cab Sauv (27%) and Franc (18%) taking on the supporting roles. There seemed to be a delicacy of red fruit here, nice mineral notes, a hint of violets on the nose with dusty yet supple tannins in the mouth – the long dusty black fruit finish was the real winning part of this wine.
3rd Course: “Victory Farm Heirloom Tomato Tasting” – (Pressed, Raw, Soup) … I’ve had this dish before, during the most recent Hillebrand Jazz Concert, tasty for sure, but you’ve gotta like tomatoes. As for the wines, it was back to Riesling. This time Creek Shore squared off against the Bench, 20 Mile Bench to be exact. Hands down the Bench won; Flat Rock 2006 Estate Riesling (winner of the Canadian Wine Awards wine of the year) – it was just fruitier, with more apple, a nice mineral-acid balance and a long finish. There were also delicate petrol notes. I was convinced the Creek Shore appellation wine was oxidized – the flavours, smells and even the colour just seemed slightly off.
4th Course: Lakeland Farm Venison with Back Vintage Niagara Cherry Pie and White Meadows Maple Red Cabbage … the little pie-like item in the picture wasn’t exactly a cherry pie, it was venison and jarred cherries minced in a crust – quite tasty. The wines served were two Cabernet-Merlot blends, (as pointed out there is not difference between a Cabernet-Merlot blend and Meritage, it’s just what appeared on the label). These wines were from the very good 2005 vintage, one from the St. David’s Bench appellation, the other from the Beamsville Bench. Winemaking style proved to be radically different: one aged 12 months the other 24; one was more predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon (65%) as oppose to the other at only 50%; barreling was also different, one was 100% French, while the other a mix of American and French. This was a choice between winemaking styles rather then appellation differences. The wine of choice was the longer aged Thirty-Bench 2005 Benchmark Red with its great complexity, mouth feel, lots of fruit and tannins, peppery, blackberry and vanilla notes; the other wine just seemed lean by comparison.
When all was said and done our host for the evening, Darryl Brooker, was asked for his view (as an outsider now working in the region – Darryl is originally from Australia) as to what makes Niagara wines uniquely Niagara: “acidity and elegance” was his answer, something he never thought he’d hear himself say. “Being from Australia you see acidity as something that comes in a bag and you learn to hate it. You carry 22kg bags up flights of stairs and tell me what you think of it at the end of the day?” He laughed, “So I find it funny that an Aussie winemaker would learn to love acidity; but it’s really what makes Niagara the place it is to make wine: it’s all about acidity and elegance.”
Tomorrow we visit vineyard sites to learn what difference soils make in the wine and we are to learn from the likes of J.L. Groux, Phil Tregguno and Thomas Bachelder. Stay tuned. (Read Day 2)