September 28, 2012, Ritz Carlton Toronto
The annual Taste Ontario event is the most comprehensive showcase of Ontario wines held under one roof. This year trade and media were treated to an afternoon tasting, with public access in the evening. 182 wines from 49 wineries were poured, representing most of the varieties, styles, and price–quality levels produced in Ontario.
I was able to come in early with my laptop, and carefully tasted and took notes on 35 wines. Even with another 10 or 12 casual samples at the walk around tasting, I barely covered a quarter of the offerings! Since you can't taste everything in the allotted time, it makes sense to follow some kind of game plan or theme, and I decided to begin with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. While I used to believe that Riesling and Cabernet Franc were the standout varieties that would become Ontario's trademark, my views have evolved over the past few years. Although there continue to be fine examples of both Riesling and Cab Franc, and I will mention several, I now believe that Chardonnay and Pinot Noir have nudged their way to the front of the line, and this was a great opportunity to identify some of the best.
As I prepared my highlights for this article, I made a quick summary of the wines presented in terms of their style and variety (table to left). The selections by the 49 wineries gives an interesting perspective on what the industry itself currently thinks is important. Moreover, since each winery could only present a maximum of four wines, the result is not biased towards the interests of the larger wineries.
The table gives some support for my view, in that there were more Chardonnays than Rieslings, and more Pinot Noirs than Cabernet Francs, and these four varieties composed 48% of the total on offer. They are a clear focus of the industry, but you can see that the largest category was the very diverse red blend classification, to which I normally pay little attention. Thinking through the reasons for this may be of interest for another time. For while there are some very fine red blends produced in Ontario, I've never thought (and have never heard anyone else suggest) that red blends were the "sweet spot" for Ontario red wine.
To begin with Chardonnay, I think that across the board the wines are quite good, with several exceptionally fine offerings. Most of those that I find most interesting have spent some time in oak. At least one of the reasons for this is that Ontario's trademark high acidity requires a framework to provide balance. I also enjoy the fact that while most areas in Ontario can produce fine results, you can often distinguish the racy acidity and minerality of Prince Edward County from the more restrained but still crisp wine from the Beamsville Bench, and again from the broader, smoother wines of Niagara on the Lake. Terroir and local climate differences often shine through. Here are several highlights.
Norman Hardie Niagara Chardonnay Unfiltered 2010, VQA Niagara, 13.3% alc/vol, $35.00. This is Norm Hardie's Niagara offering: bright medium yellow-gold with gold highlights, the nose is fresh with citrus and a hint of vanilla. The wine is medium-bodied, oak is integrated, and on the palate it comes through as a burst of sweetness, followed by a pleasing bite of lemon acidity which floats to the roof of the mouth on the long finish. (9/10)
I had the chance to taste the 2011 County version several days later, and the comparison is interesting. The higher acidity of the County translates into more minerality and flintiness, and the oak treatment is more evident, although the wine is newly bottled and the oak has not had a chance to mellow. The Niagara is more modest but confident, while the County is racy and perhaps a little brash!
Norman Hardie County Chardonnay Unfiltered 2011, VQA Prince Edward County, 12.5% alc/vol, $35.00. The wine is pale yellow with gold highlights, and has a smokey-leesy nose that features notes of apple, citrus and wet stone. The body is light to medium, crisp and dry, with lots of acidity to complement the smokey oak. The fruits show through in the mid-palate, and the acidity lingers on the finish. (9.1/10)
Thomas Bachelder presented his three Niagara Chardonnay wines, two from single vineyards, Saunders and Wismer, and one labeled Niagara. Here are my notes on the Niagara Chardonnay:
Thomas Bachelder Niagara Chardonnay 2010, VQA Niagara Peninsula $29.95. Pale lemon, with a nose of vanilla, creamed corn, almonds, pears, lemon and wet stone. The wine is full-bodied and creamy, and the oak notes of vanilla and cream are balanced by lemony acidity. The finish lingers. (9/10)
This Chardonnay is of high quality and is a very good value. It represents a richer and broader Chardonnay than the two Hardie wines. I highly recommend the two Bachelder single vineyard offerings as well and rate them even more highly, but I like the value of the Niagara Chardonnay as opposed to the $44.95 price tag of the two others.
Other excellent Chardonnays that I sampled at this event were from Ravine Vineyards, Clos Jordanne and Hidden Bench, and I know that there were others that I missed. There is a lot to be excited about with Ontario Chardonnay, and the best easily hold their own in terms of world-wide comparisons.
Pinot Noir: Despite Ontario's significant vintage variation, the growing season is usually long enough even in cool years to ripen Pinot Noir. The problems more likely stem from high humidity and excess rain that make disease control difficult for the thin-skinned grape. But those who are willing to work hard in the vineyard and accept very low yields in off years can bring in good fruit, although low yields might make them wonder why they bother! But 2010 and 2009, the vintages of most of the Pinots shown, were both very good years for the variety.
Ontario Pinot Noir vines are still very young, and along with the acidity shown in all Ontario grapes, fruit aromas and flavours are light and elegant. Unfortunately I find that too often oak is overused and it swamps the fruit. The three examples I give you avoid this.
2027 Queenston Road Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010, VQA St. David's Bench, 13.2% alc/vol, $35.00. The wine has a pale garnet hue, and a fairly pronounced fruit-driven nose of sweet cherry and strawberry, along with an earthy undertone and some oak-spice notes. This is dry, medium-bodied, with balanced alcohol; the fruit on the palate is accompanied by pleasant acidity, and the tannins are fine though quite evident. The finish is satisfyingly long. There is such good fruit and acidity that time in bottle should further soften the tannins. (9.1/10)
Norman Hardie County Pinot Noir Unfiltered 2010, VQA Prince Edward County, 11.9% alc/vol, $35.00. The colour is pale ruby, and the nose shows pronounced raspberry, sour cherry fruit, earthy and smokey undertones. This is dry, with a medium body and fine, silky tannins. On the palate the fruit is fresh and lively, with minerality. While the overall effect is quite delicate, there is lots of structure. The finish is lingering. (9.1/10) I think that this is Norm's best County Pinot to date.
Rosewood Pinot Noir Reserve 2009, VQA Twenty Mile Bench, 13% alc/vol, $40.00. Fruit is from the Wizmer Vineyard, and the fermentation was from natural yeasts. The colour is a medium intensity garnet, and the nose shows some darker fruit (ripe plums) along with red cherries and cranberries, and some earthy and savoury notes. The wine is dry, medium-bodied, with balanced alcohol and fine tannins. The fruit is more dominant on the palate, and the finish is long. (9/10)
Other varieties: As a Riesling lover, I have been following the trend towards sweeter Rieslings in Niagara, a trend that I'm not sure is wise. While such wines are attractive at the tasting bar, many find them less versatile with food.
To be brief, the sweetness trend stems from the high acidity in Niagara Riesling, which can be overwhelming if not counterbalanced by residual sugar. An alternative approach is to use riper grapes for dry Riesling, in which acidity has been lowered naturally by the ripening process. German Trocken (dry) Rieslings, probably from outside the Mosel, are often made with Spätlese or Auslese grapes, and so balance is achieved with lower acidity and sugar along with higher alcohol. While a deeper discussion of this issue will be put off to a later date, there are many successful examples of off-dry Riesling. One that stood out for me was:
The 2027 Cellars Foxcroft Riesling 2011, 11.0% alc/vol, $25.00. This is an off-dry Riesling showing riper fruit in the peach and melon spectrum, along with lemon and lime. It is more than mid-weight, with lots of defined fruit on the palate that mirrors the nose, with a long and satisfying finish. (9/10)
Finally, while I did not taste widely among the Cabernet Francs that were presented, I very much liked the current offer from Fielding Estates Winery.
Fielding Estate Winery Cabernet Franc 2010, 13% alc/vol, $22.15. The wine is a dark ruby, with a complex nose of dark fruit (cassis), wood spice, dust and forest floor. It is dry, medium-bodied, with noticeable chalky tannins and an abundance of dark fruit on the palate. The finish is medium to long. This is a fine example of Niagara Cab Franc. (8.9/10)
This is just a small sample of the wonderful wines Ontario has to offer. To keep track of some of the events on tap during the rest of the year, check in with the Wine Country Ontario website from time to time. You'll find it to be a great resource, and it will help you keep in touch with the local wine scene.