I grew up in Washington State, about 25 miles south of the US border with Canada. With our antenna, I lived through my formidable years on Canadian television. Though we admittedly watched little TV in my house growing up, the quirky (okay, cheesy) humor of the Red Green Show, brilliantly staged Just For Laughs’ gag segments and improv genius of Second City Television formed my sense of humor to a very large degree. When I was in high school and racing bicycles, I can’t tell you how many times we’d drive up to the Vancouver area for races. Vancouver, still my favorite city in North America and one I don’t get to visit nearly enough, is home to the best culinary scene I’ve experienced in any of my travels around the world, including my short stint living in Barcelona and my trip to Tokyo, two cities widely considered to be among the very best for food. And the people, so nice.
Red Green and his nephew, Harold. Credit: tvtropes.org
I left the Pacific Northwest in 2005 and although I get back at least once a year I’ve still not made it to British Columbia’s wine country, which has an improving reputation. I’ve been trying to figure out how to experience some of their wines here in Washington, DC and have come up blank – BC wine industry folk, if you’re reading this, please help! However, I’ve also long been told that wine country in another province, Ontario, had something to say about making quality Canadian wine and I can say now, thankfully, that I’ve been able to experience some of what they produce.
It all started last November in the tasting room of Au Bon Climat in Santa Barbara, California. I was in the area for work but was able to visit ABC and Jaffurs, two of my California favorites. While at ABC I met a woman who worked for a winery in Ontario. We got to talking, I told her about Good Vitis, my interest in trying Canadian wine and the difficulty I’ve had finding it where I live. We stayed in contact and she offered to put together a selection of wines from across Ontario and ship them to me as samples to review for Good Vitis.
And boy, did she deliver. About two months ago two cases showed up at my office spread across ten wineries. There was pinot noir, chardonnay, gamay, riesling, cabernet franc and red and white blends. As I looked through the treasures, I wondered how I was going to try all this wine. First world problems, I know. Eventually I was able to cobble together some friends from the wine industry here in DC, including a fellow blogger and the manager of a retail outlet for a well-respected East Coast importer, to share in the experience.
I had also emailed my Internet friend Peter Vetch, a proud Calgarian and author of Pop & Pour wine blog (by the way, his posts on the Finger Lakes Region are a must-read for anyone considering or planning a trip there), to get some information about Ontario wine and show him the lineup. Ontario has three appellations: the Niagara Peninsula (with ten sub-appellations and two regional appellations), Lake Erie North Shore (one sub-appellation) and Prince Edward County (no sub-appellations). The history and terroir of the three appellations are pretty diverse. Peter confirmed that the wines were almost entirely from the Niagara Peninsula (three came from Prince Edward County) and were a decently representative sample of that appellation. While all three appellations lie in climates that are on the cooler end of the global wine growing spectrum, they experience differing amounts of warming, cooling, wind and rainfall, and have different soil types. That being said, my eight favorite wines in the lineup came from six different sub-appellations of the Niagara Peninsula, so I’m a bit confused, if I’m honest, about the impact these differences have on the final product. The answer may be clear to someone with more Ontario wine experience than myself, I don’t know. Terroir, also, can be changed dramatically in a winery and I imagine there was a fair amount of this factor in play.
In the same vein, there was a massive range of quality in these wines. I rated wines as low as 75 points and as high as 92, and the distribution of scores is spread across that range. There were also significant stylistic differences among wines made from the same varietals. This could be accounted for by the fact that they were made by different winemakers, though the differences were so significant that even differences in sub-appellation and winery don’t seem sufficient explanations. The others at the tasting had similar reactions.
I have positive and negative things to say about the wines. Let me get the negatives out of the way. While all significant, they are also all relatively easily addressed by the winemakers and vineyard managers. Given that we had a number of high quality wines that we enjoyed, the location of the vines is clearly not the issue in wines that demonstrated problems. A number of wines showed very artificial flavors (one I described as smelling and tasting like Yoplait strawberry banana yogurt), which are the result of winemaking, not terroir. Many were overly acidic, meaning that the body, alcohol and flavors were so out of balance with the acid that the best explanation seemed to be freewheeling acidulation. Several wines seemed watery, which in a couple instances was unfortunate because the diluted flavors were dynamic and could have been wonderful under greater concentration. This can be addressed either in the vineyard or the winery, or both, depending on the source of the phenomenon. Some wines clearly demonstrated poor yeast strain selections, while a few had obvious quality control issues in the winery, likely poor cleaning practices of the facilities. Finally, a few were over oaked, at least for my palate, but also in a way that didn’t allow me to confirm what I thought could have been some really delicious flavors that could have merited higher scores.
On the positive side, several wines offered truly interesting and unusual flavor profiles that captivated our attention. Many offered great complexity in their flavor profiles, though even the best, unfortunately, didn’t offer the concentration or depth needed to elongate the experience and transform it into something magical. I was sent three gamays, two of which blew us away (and this was an audience well acquainted with great gamay). As a varietal cohort in the lineup it was the most impressive, and we all agreed were wines we’d buy ourselves. The fruit notes were generally appealing, though some showed unusual and appealing combinations. The very best combined bright, focused fruit in harmony with savory and Earthy flavors.
The eight wines that stood out for me included Bachelder’s 2013 Lowery Vineyards pinot noir and 2013 Wingfield Block Wismer Vineyard chardonnay, which demonstrated a deft winemaker’s hand capable of spotlighting the best their fruit had to offer. Cave Spring delivered the best pinor noir in the lineup. 13th Street Winery gave us two world class gamays that offered some awesome gaminess to go with its ripe fruit. Stratus delivered a very good cabernet franc that stylistically straddled the new and old worlds. Tawse supplied the best chardonnay, if not the best wine, of the lineup, and Charles Baker gave us an intriguing riesling. Flat Rock Cellars and Norman Hardie had some solid efforts as well, and it isn’t hard to imagine even better wines coming out of their wineries in the not-too-distant future.
While ten wineries and two cases of wine is a pretty fantastic introduction, it is certainly not fully representative of a wine region as big as Ontario. Without trying a good deal more, and without speaking to a number of winemakers and vineyard managers, I wouldn’t want to pass any kind of declaratory judgment on Ontario wine other than to say this: there are clearly people in Ontario making good and interesting wine, and if more can sharpen their craft it’s a region that could well rise in status in the wine world.
A big thanks to all of the participating wineries and especially to Jennifer Hart of Flat Rock Cellars. All the wines were supplied as trade samples and tasted sighted. As many of these wines are not consistently distributed in the US, and because I could only find pricing in Canadian dollars for most of them, I’m going to avoid mis-valuing these wines by not assigning values to them as would normally be my standard procedure.
2015 13th Street Gamay Noir – Big cherry nose with beef smoked over hickory and some tangerine. It’s a little skunky, but not in a bad way. Funky and appealing aromas. The palate is slightly tannic and offers nice acidity in balance. Flavors offer ripe cherry, cranberry and quite a bit of raspberry to go with some game. Very interesting gamay offering flavors unusual in the varietal grown elsewhere. 89 points.
2014 13th Street Gamay Noir Reserve Sandstone – Wonderful nose of peppered salmon jerky, mushroom funk, cherries and black pepper. The palate offers fun flavors of acai, raspberry, blood orange, turkey jerky and iodine. Not a ton of depth but oh so enjoyable. Very intriguing terroir shows in this wine. 91 points.
2013 Bachelder Chardonnay Wingfield Block Wismer Vineyard – The nose is quite pretty with mango, pineapple and perfumed flowers. There’s also a bit of chalk. The palate is lush without being heavy, and the acid is well balanced with sweet starfruit, pineapple, lemon and peach. There’s a diversifying kick of white pepper. A solid, complete chardonnay. 90 points.
2013 Bachelder Pinot Noir Lowrey Vineyards – The nose offers macerated cherries, smoke, pepper, rose and dandelion. It offers a full, ripe and shiny mouth feel in a medium body that is nicely rounded with sweet cherries, black pepper and tangerine. There is also a bit of cocoa, pipe tobacco and tar. The flavor profile is a complex one, though it lacks significant depth. Nevertheless, it’s an impressive, classy effort. 90 points.
2015 Cave Spring Riesling Cave Spring Vineyard – The nose smells of tennis ball gas, straw, honey, pepper, guava and a lot of citrus zest. The palate is a tad bit effervescent and dry with nice limey acidity. There seems to be more flavor here that could be teased out with just a touch of residual sugar. 86 points.
2015 Cave Spring Pinot Noir – This offers a very pretty nose of dark cherries, plums, a variety of baking spices and some herbal qualities. The body is full with polished tannins. The flavors include chocolate covered cherries, celery, Herbs de Provence, black pepper, cinnamon and orange zest. It has the requisite depth and acidity to improve over the next few years if cellared properly. 91 points.
2013 Charles Baker Riesling Picone Vineyard – Big tennis ball gas on the nose, a little kerosene and a lot of chalk. The palate coats the mouth with seeming sweetness in what is a dry offering. There is honeyed kumquat, white pepper, slate and peach. The acid is kicking on the finish which dries the palate a bit too quickly. A good effort. 90 points.
2012 Flat Rock Cellars Chardonnay The Rusty Shed – A modest nose of citrus and mothballs. The palate is light, lush and a little soapy. There is a little sour citrus and green apples combined with sweet peach. Starfruit and white pepper round out the flavor profile. Lacks in weight – feels a bit watery – and complexity but is pleasant enough to sip. 87 points.
2014 Flat Rock Cellars Pinot Noir Twenty Mile Bench – The nose offers macerated cherries, rhubarb and pickle juice. The palate is heavy and offers dark fruits. There are significant barrel notes of cocoa and hazelnut, although a bit of greenness, tar and smoke emerge. A bit too judicious use of oak on this as it seems to be beating down more interesting flavors lurking beneath it. 88 points.
2012 Flat Rock Cellars Pinot Noir Gravity – The nose is smoky, offering cherries, herbs and charred barrel notes. The palate is light but offers good density and robust grainy tannins. There is pickle juice, tart red fruits, smoke and tar. However, all of this is unfortunately beaten down by heavy toasted barrel notes. Less oak would have produced a more nuanced and complex wine. 88 points.
2016 Malivoire Pinot Noir Rosé Moira Vineyard – Smells and tastes like Yoplait strawberry banana yogurt, likely the result of an unplanned rose in which leftover juice was hit with a random yeast strain. 75 points.
2012 Malivoire Pinot Noir Mottiar – Smells of a natural gas leak, burnt rubber and raspberries. Tastes of ground cherry pits and gasoline. 75 points.
2015 Malivoire Gamay Small Lot Beamsville Bench VQA – Pretty red fruit on the nose along with black pepper and orange peel. The palate is medium bodied with noticeable tannic structure. The raspberries and huckleberries are quite juicy, which give way quickly to a watery sensation with watermelon and orange juice flavors that suggest high levels of lactic acid brought on by inoculation through a foreign yeast strain or two. Detrimentally over-engineered. 85 points.
2014 Norman Hardie Chardonnay Unfiltered – The nose is zesty and features straw and assorted roasted nuts. It’s lean bodied and offers exceptionally bright acid with textured lemon and lime zest. That the high level of acid is so out of proportion to the lean body suggests over acidulation. 86 points.
2014 Norman Hardie Chardonnay County – The nose is dominated by malolactic influences and is supported by nutty aromas while the palate is extremely zesty and bright with almond and peanut flavors. It strikes me as being overly acidulated as the acid is far out of balance with what is a very light body. 85 points.
2015 Norman Hardie Pinot Noir Unfiltered – Fantastic nose of pretty red fruits and flowers with just the right amount of tar and smoke. The palate is quite juicy offering raspberry, huckleberry and cherry to go with a little cocoa and parsley. An easy and pleasant drinker. 89 points.
2014 Norman Hardie Pinot Noir County – The nose wreaks of Brett and manure while the palate is filled with plastic flavors and bright fruit. It is quite watery and has a hint of effervescence. Neither undrinkable nor desirable. 80 points.
2013 Southbrook Winery Chardonnay Poetica – Unfortunately corked, not rated.
2015 Southbrook Winery Vidal Orange Wine – Nose: Brett band aid, Styrofoam and big apple cider vinegar. Not particularly pleasant. The palate is light, lean and musty. Sweet and sour flavors, very reminiscent of a light mead. There were some issues in the winemaking with this one, likely some quality control lapses. 79 points.
2013 Stratus White – The nose offers abundant peach and plastic with a slight whiff of parsley. The palate is lush and smooth, but the low acid turns it flabby in a hurry. It tastes of peach, white pepper, honey and marzipan. This is potentially showing its age and should be consumed sooner rather than later. 88 points.
2013 Stratus Cabernet Franc – The nose is meaty, savory and dark in its bramble berry, blood and smoke notes. The palate is medium bodied with tannins that release with air. It offers flavors of asparagus, beef jerky, oranges, strawberries and cherries and shows discernible but constructive charred oak influence. A nice twist on cabernet franc, I quite enjoyed this despite its slight watery sensation. 90 points.
2012 Stratus Red – A reserved nose of dark fruit and smoked salmon jerky. The palate seemed nondescript, but still enjoyable. Dark fruit was in abundance as was a sense of loam and dark Earth, but it is all overshadowed by too eager a use of oak. It offers a bit of vegetal flavors and finishes with a big pepper kick. 87 points.
2013 Tawse Chardonnay Quarry Road Vineyard – Nose: very zesty Meyer lemon and lime, stone fruit and a lot of slate and chalk. There is also some smoke, petrol and a little lees must. The palate is lush, creamy and dense with nicely balanced acidy that keeps the wine from becoming heavy or cloying. The oak treatment and fermentation adds nice weight and structure to the palate without bringing any of the annoying butter, toast or oily peanut tagalongs. There is lemon curd, peach, dried apricot, parsley, celery, grass, a hint of spearmint and some nice limestone. This is good stuff. 92 points.
2013 Tawse Pinot Noir Cherry Ave Vineyard – The nose offers mint and stewed dark berries and plums. The palate is quite tannic – give this a good decant or a few more years in the cellar – and full bodied. There is a little bit of kerosene kick, but it’s in good balance with ripe cherries, white pepper, bitter herbs, dandelion. Intriguing but not terribly complex. 88 points.