After the vineyard look around we retired into Phil’s “pool room” for a Niagara-on-the-Lake Chardonnay tasting led by winemaker J.L. Groux (Stratus). J.L. explained the difference in picking dates from the Lakeshore and the St. David’s Bench, (a mere 10km away) could be between 9 days and two weeks. He re-told the software story he and Darryl Brooker had relayed to me the night before and claimed that the real key to these appellations is harvest dates, not brix and total acidity levels. After 20 years as a winemaker in Niagara J.L. told us that it’s not the finished wine that tells the story of its origin, or where the grapes should be grown. Because winemaking styles differ, so greatly throughout the region the real difference can be tasted in the juice: “I can tell you place of origin by just tasting the juice. In his opinion St. David’s makes big, plush Chardonnay (and is also good for reds), Lakeshore is great for sparkling wine grapes, “because of the acidity.”
As for the wines we tasted, they were all Chardonnays from the 2006 vintage (5 in total), each from a different sub-appellation of Niagara-on-the-Lake. My two favourites were both Niagara River wines: Lailey 2006 Chardonnay, which had a creamy mouth feel, buttery-vanilla notes and a nice long finish. The other, Jackson-Triggs 2006 Delaine Vineyard Chardonnay with its sweet fruit on the palate, wonderful aromatics and creamy vanilla nuances.
Next stop, on our whirlwind journey through Niagara was the Paul Bosc vineyard, located in the St. David’s Bench appellation. The vineyard is located directly across from the winery. There we met with Paul Bosc Senior and Junior to discuss their vineyard’s particularities. 50 planted acres of vines, with some Merlot that has been there since 1984. Many see Niagara-on-the-Lake as flat, but the rolling hills of the Bosc vineyard tells a very different story. “Grape growing is all about hope,” said Paul Senior, referring to all the aspects of growing grapes in this climate. And with that comment he walked us toward a very special block. As we trekked through the dusty terrain Paul Jr. pointed out, “it is much different soil than what you’ll find across the road, which is heavier clay, no dust to kick up”. We stopped at an experimental planting of over 600 different crossings, created to see what works and what grows in our climate. Interesting to note that the Cabernet Franc/Pinot Noir (two red grapes) crossed to create a variety that produced 30% white grapes; even more interesting was the Cabernet Sauvignon/Pinot Noir (two red grapes) when crossed created a totally robust white grape that thrives in our climate and in the Bosc soils. They are planning to pursue this variety a little further. Paul Jr. figures that out of the 600 potentials, maybe less that 10 of these test varieties will make the final cut, but the fun will be in the naming and marketing of this true Canadian success story.
Our final stop was the Grand Clos vineyard of Le Clos Jordanne, where we met with Thomas Bachelder (winemaker for Le Clos Jordanne), here we were in for a Pinot Noir tasting, and who better to lead us then the current king of the variety. We blind tasted (not knowing what or who these wines were made by) seven Pinots, spread through the Beamsville, Twenty Mile and Short Hills Benches (sub appellations). Thomas’ passion for Pinot is one of his major assets and why he was the perfect person to lead us through this tasting. He talked about near perfect ripeness being optimal for making good Pinot Noir, and the benefits of a long growing season, “[grapes] struggle to get those racy flavours and that’s what makes good cool climate [wine].” The favoured wines of the group varied on the person’s palate preferences, I was partial to the Thirty Bench Small Lot (Beamsville Bench), the Rosewood Reserve Natural Ferment (20 Mile Bench), Flat Rock Gravity (20 Mile Bench) and Le Clos Jordanne La Petite (20 Mile Bench) – all these wines were from the 2007 vintage and were either just being released, recently released or not yet released.
The Minister of Consumer Services, Ted McMeekin, whose department oversees the VQA, said in his brief lunchtime remarks, “we are a youthful part of the very old industry,” and that he “is proud of the way our industry is maturing.” Part of that maturity is learning what our soils can grow and what we can produce well. Unfortunately, in our all too brief visit, the VQA was unable to show that. Although Ontario is making very good wines, our sub-appellation system is in its infancy and we can’t yet show, through the wines we tried, what each appellation gives to the grapes and eventually into the wine. But our sub-appellation system is also in its infancy, we are learning as we go. This was a ground floor tour, the real excitement is what’s to come when we get to the upper floors (ie: in years to come). I think the VQA should consider doing this again in a few years, then again – and in 10-20 years the picture will become clearer as the winemakers get used to bringing what the soil, the climate, the region, the year – in other words, the Terroir – has to offer. For now we wait, we taste, we drink and we wait some more … as the Ontario industry grows out of its infancy and into the awkward, geeky, teenage years, where we try to find our own identity.