Cuvée Awards Gala, March 2, 2012:

A Celebration of Ontario Winemaking


The Cuvée awards gala is a fun event with great food to go with the wine, and if you can't make the Gala, all the wines presented there, including the winners, are available for tasting and purchase throughout the weekend at the participating wineries. It's a bonus that the proceeds raised go to the Niagara Community Foundation to support community groups in Niagara.

However, the really intriguing twist from a wine point of view is that the judges who select the award winners are the winemakers of the participating wineries: peers are judging peers. Because of this format, one of the games I like to play is to speculate (from limited data) about any of the biases that the winemakers as a group might have. It adds a little fun to the tasting!

KevinKevin Panagapka: winemaker and proprietor of 2027 Cellars

This year, 64 wineries offered 264 wines for inclusion at Cuvée, and 51 winemakers judged the winners for 9 major awards and 15 individual categories. I've listed the winners, but I'll give some personal highlights here.

I was able to do some serious preliminary tasting before the awards ceremony, and I came across something that really stood out: the 2010 19th Street Chardonnay from 2027 Cellars. This is a gorgeous wine, fermented and aged in Burgundian oak, with the firm acidity and minerality that I expect from top-notch Niagara Chardonnay. Just 75 cases were produced, and it is available directly from the winery — a great value at $30.00. To my pleasure, this won a major award: the best Limited Edition White Wine.

Sue-AnnSue-Ann Staff with her winning Icewine

In my report on the Niagara Icewine Festival I had mentioned that the Sue-Ann Staff 2007 Riesling Icewine was my favourite, and was very pleased to see that this was also the winner of a major award: the Limited Edition Dessert Wine. This has noticeable acidity to tame the sweetness, and has true varietal character — it really smells and tastes like Riesling — with aromas of mango, peach and tropical fruit. Just 80 cases were produced, and it is available at the winery only ($50.00 for 375 ml).

The first of my speculations about winemakers' preferences began to percolate as I began to observe that, apart from the Chardonnays, I found noticeable residual sugar in almost all of the white varieties. This isn't a bad thing, per se, but I think it may be a continuing trend. Although I can enjoy wines with some residual sugar (and in numerous cases we are talking about levels of sweetness that many people might not even notice), my personal preference tends to dryer styles. So for example, of the winning Rieslings, I preferred the 3rd place Cave Springs CSV Riesling 2009. This is a play of stony minerality, with aromas of lemon and grapefruit, and more than enough acid to balance the hint of sweetness. The previous vintage sold for $29.95, and it has occasionally been available through Vintages.

JeffJeff Innes, the current winemaker at Palatine Estates

The best overall Red Wine award went to Palatine Hills for its Proprietor's Reserve 2007 Merlot, which also received the first place position for Merlot. This wine showed lots of ripe fruit and very evident oak, a big well-made wine very representative of the warm '07 vintage.

My second speculation incubated as I began looking over the results for the Bordeaux varieties, individual awards for Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and the Meritage blend category. Six of the eight first and second place winners were from 2007, and the other two were from 2010, and of course the best red wine overall was judged to be the Palatine '07 Merlot. Both 2007 and 2010 were very warm vintages, with the more difficult and generally cooler 2008 and 2009 vintages being passed over, at least for the top two places in each category. I also felt that there was a great deal of oak used with these wines. To be sure this is a very small sample, and it may be misleading to draw any definite conclusions. But it intrigues me (and perhaps explains some things I've observed) if winemakers in fact prefer lots of oak and wines with an abundance of very ripe fruit. I wonder whether this is really a recipe that works vintage-to-vintage here in Ontario.

13thSt_Gamay13th St. Winery 2010 Sandstone Old Vines Award

At the lighter end of the red spectrum, the winner of the best Gamay Noir was the 2010 Sandstone Old Vines Gamay from 13th Street Winery. This was a dark (but not opaque) ruby; the nose showed red fruits, cherries, pepper and spice, and the palate carried ample acidity and gentle tannins. I believe Gamay is a variety that can work well in almost every vintage, and I've thought for some time that this could be a really great signature variety for Niagara. In addition to 13th Street, look for Gamay at wineries such as Henry of Pelham, Malivoire, Featherstone, and I just noticed an offering from a new winery, Aure Wines.

RobWinemaker Rob Power with his Broken Press Syrah

Moving back towards the "bigger" end of the red wine spectrum, but from the cool 2008 vintage, was the Creekside Estate Winery Broken Press Syrah, which took first place in the Syrah/Shiraz category. My understanding is that while Syrah is surprisingly winter-hardy, there are only a few areas (mostly along the Niagara River and St. David's Bench) where growers believe it will ripen adequately in most years. But those who have access to the grapes, such as Creekside,and Lailey, can create expressive wines that adapt to the vintage, and both wineries have a growing history of success with Syrah.

Creekside also won the award for the best LCBO Red Wine with its 2009 Shiraz ($15.95). As suggested by the title of the award, this wine is widely distributed through the LCBO, and is currently available. The wine has smoky black pepper and black fruit on the nose, with fruit, pepper and herbs on the palate. I would say "Syrah" (Old World) rather than "Shiraz", but it's all the better for that!

I've just scratched the surface of this great event, but my main goal is to entice you to explore your own back yard. If you like wine, you need to taste and sample it, and if you want to taste and sample, then head to some local wineries and enjoy the great opportunities that they provide us.