WineLine No. 34
Written and © copyright by Dave McIntyre
Oct. 7, 2003

Oh! Canada?

Dear Friends -

Say the words "Canadian wine" to most U.S. oenogeeks, and they'll say, "Oh yeah, Inniskillin makes nice ice wines, but they're sooooo expensive." Which is their way of saying they've heard of one Canadian winery, but they've never tasted any Canadian wines.

What a pity. I usually avoid writing about wines that nobody can find, but I believe true wine lovers are always curious about new regions that are making exciting wine. And maybe some enterprising importer can start planning a trip to romantic Niagara Falls. For after spending a long weekend tasting wines in that city and the nearby Niagara wine region on the south shore of Lake Ontario, I can definitely report that Canada is about much more than ice wines.

And Canada is about more than Inniskillin, though based on my limited investigation, that winery, which launched the current wine boom in Ontario when it was founded in 1975, remains at the top of the heap. The Inniskillin 2000 Founders Pinot Noir and 2000 Founders Chardonnay were my favorites at the second annual Niagara Wine & Food Classic in Niagara Falls in early September. The Pinot Noir was among the best New World Pinots I've ever tasted, lush and silky in texture with a knee-buckling aroma of lavender and violets. The Chardonnay burst with tropical fruit flavors on a crisp attack that softened to a full, complex and toasty finish that made me want to float around the tent for awhile and savor the flavor instead of rinsing my mouth with another wine.

But the real good news is that there are plenty of competitors scrambling to topple Inniskillin as the king of "Nag-ra." Contenders to the throne include Cave Spring Cellars, makers of thrilling dry and semi-dry Riesling, as well as dynamite ice wines (including a lush Chenin Blanc); and Henry of Pelham, with an elegant reserve Chardonnay fermented partially in barrel and partly in stainless steel to achieve a French sensibility, and a tightly wound reserve Riesling packed with mineral and citrus zest and a refreshingly long finish. Pillitteri Estates mounts a serious challenge for the ice wine crown, with a line (including Cabernet Franc and even the red hybrid Chambourcin) of elegantly styled stickies that aren't so sticky. They would marry well with cheeses or fruit-based desserts, while other ice wines demand to stand alone as dessert.

There's an upstart winery called Kacaba Vineyards, where young winemaker Rob Warren is farming without pesticides or herbicides and growing only red varietals (Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Syrah) despite the northern latitude. Warren makes terrific whites from purchased grapes, including the Alsatian-styled 2002 Pinot Gris. He's understandably excited about his 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon - tasted from barrel, it showed well-sculpted tannins along with ripe and supple fruit and a minty finish that should integrate nicely before the wine is released in another year or so.

Syrah is enjoying a boomlet in the Niagara region. "We thought it would be a good grape for Niagara because we can't guarantee a long growing season, and syrah will show well no matter when in the harvest cycle you pick it," Warren explained as we walked through his vineyards on the Niagara escarpment, with Lake Ontario and the Toronto skyline visible in the distance. "Picked early, it displays bell pepper, white pepper and spice. Later, it develops plummy red fruit characteristics."

Talk about your upstarts: Some of the best wines I tasted were produced at the Niagara College Teaching Winery, where Jim Warren (no relation to Rob) is training the next generation of Canadian winemakers. Jim Warren was an early pioneer in the Niagara region and is now mentoring cadres of about two dozen future oenologists. The wines produced by last year's students (i.e. the 2002 vintage) include a gorgeous Cabernet Sauvignon and a spicy, lush Cabernet Franc, proof that the future is bright for Canadian wine.

Niagara has its challenges, most notably the same sort of vintage variation that afflicts wine regions throughout the Eastern United States. The 2001 vintage started well, but much of the wine turned funky in barrel or bottle. The problem was attributed to an Asian variety of ladybugs that landed in the vineyards at harvest time due to unusual weather patterns. The taint was variously described to me as a real stink ("ladybug farts"), or the smell of raw potatoes, or just a flaw that deadens the fruit the way a mild cork taint might.

Because of the ladybugs, Kacaba decided not to release any 2001s, and other wineries pulled theirs from retail outlets. Some winemakers talk of the ladybugs the way winemakers the world over dismiss a late spring frost or early fall rains - it hit other wineries, but because of superior elevation/drainage/skill etc. Having just raved about Niagara wines, I'm reluctant to condemn an entire vintage; however, 2001s are definitely wines to taste before buying. The good news is, if the taint is there it should be noticeable, and if the wine is showing well now, it is probably taint-free.

That said, the 2002 vintage was spectacular. The harvest featured large crops with unusual ripeness, and the reds I tasted from barrel samples at a few wineries promise to be outstanding. The vintners paid for that vintage's success, however, with an unusually harsh winter that has reduced crop levels for 2003 by as much as 60 percent to even 90 percent, followed by the long, wet spring that delayed veraison, the first appearance of grape color at mid-season. In early September, they were hoping for an extended dry spell leading into harvest.

Some other wineries to look for should you happen to be in the area, or elsewhere in Canada: Chateau des Charmes, Hillebrand Estates, Jackson-Triggs, Peller Estates and Strewn.

Best of all, Niagara's table wines tend to be attractively priced. They need to be competitive against cheap U.S. imports, but I believe it also reflects a sensibility that wine belongs on the dinner table, not in the trophy case. Memo to importers and restaurateurs: If you could get a wine that retails for $15 Canadian but tastes as good as a Californian costing $25 American well, you do the math.

So what about those pricey ice wines? The sticker shock comes from more than low grape yields. Under Canadian law, the "ice wine" designation is available only for wine pressed from grapes picked at minus-8 degrees Celsius or lower. Any warmer and the grapes will be mushy, not fully frozen; much colder and it could be impossible to squeeze any juice. That makes for frequent calls to the weather station during ice wine harvest season.

"It is expensive to have crews on standby to rush out to the vineyards once the temperature drops, only to have to send them home because the weather changes," explained Jamie Slingerland, vineyard manager for Pillitteri Estates.

And although Ontario boasts of being the only wine region in the world that can guarantee an ice wine harvest each year, the mild winter of 2001 almost proved that wrong. That vintage, Pillitteri did not harvest the last of its ice wine grapes until late March - of 2002. The mild winter meant more losses to birds, who figure out ways to get around the nets protecting the vines. And some grape varieties, such as Cabernet Franc and Riesling, tend to shrivel up and lose their juice sometime in early January, Slingerland explained. That left only the workhorse Vidal, which retains more of its juice later into the winter (which helps explain that hybrid grape's popularity among ice wine vintners).

"In 2001, we lost our shirts (on ice wine)," Slingerland said, smiling over a glass of Pillitteri's 2002 Gewurztraminer Ice Wine. "In 2002, we earned them back."

Where to Read About Canadian Wines Online:

Canada not only has an active wine industry, but some very prolific and opinionated wine writers as well. Luckily for those of us south of the border, some of them are online, eh?

Richard Best is "The Frugal Oenophile," providing no-nonsense commentary and reviews, focusing, as the title suggests, on wines that won't break anyone's bank. His web site is http://www.frugal-wine.com, and he offers monthly e-mail newsletters and weekly wine suggestions.

One name that seems to keep bobbing up like a cork in a dump bucket is Natalie MacLean, who writes engagingly about wine and the culture surrounding it on her web site "Nat Decants," at http://www.nataliemaclean.com. Check out her article on "Drunken Adjectives" for a hilarious and dizzying spin through the vernacular of inebriation. I laughed so hard, I needed a drink. Natalie's articles now also appear on http://www.wineloverspage.com, home to great wine writers from all over.

Cheers!
Dave McIntyre

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