Topic: TN: NiagaraCOOL 2005 Day One: Tours 'n Tastings in Niagara-on-the-Lake, ON
Author: Paul B., Ontario, Canada
Date: 20050809233511

Saturday the 6th of August saw a beautiful sunny day in Southern Ontario with a refreshing breeze moderating the intense heat of the 2005 summer. I've often thought about the fact that the Niagara Peninsula wine region really isn't as far from the Greater Toronto Area as the drive might lead one to believe; if you draw a straight line across a map of Lake Ontario, the distance seems to be all of 50 kilometres. However, two major slowdowns along the Queen Elizabeth Way on this day had me wondering if my two out-of-town friends and I would make our first stop on time for the 2 PM tasting.

Konzelmann Estate Winery

Robin and Howie watch as Bruno Reis of Konzelmann Estate begins the guided tasting.

Alas, we were late, but our timing was not affected to the extent that I had feared. As we pulled into the Konzelmann Estate parking lot, I caught sight of Howie and Robin completing the vineyard tour. With them were Ed Draves and Lee Green. The group was just getting ready to head inside for a tour of the winemaking facility and barrel room and then a tasting - all led by Bruno Reis, director of sales and marketing for Konzelmann Estate.

The first white poured at the tasting was the 2003 Pinot Blanc. I absolutely loved this wine for its glorious zestiness and laser-like crispness. I found a level of gutsiness and intensity in this Pinot Blanc that I have truly not seen in any other example that I've tasted from Ontario so far. This is definitely a wine of verve and character that I will want to buy in the future just based on this experience.

The 2004 Chardonnay was crisp and good as well, but I thought it lacked the intensity of the Pinot Blanc that preceded it. The wine was, nevertheless, clean and well made and a natural candidate for the dinner table.

Bruno Reis displays Konzelmann's excellent 2003 VQA Pinot Blanc.

Two Rieslings followed: a 2002 Riesling Dry and a 2002 Riesling Medium-Dry. A slight whiff of petrol and green-apple aromas were the defining characteristics here. I nearly always prefer bone-dry Riesling to off-dry Riesling, but when the wine has sufficient aromatic presence, even a medium-dry version offers plenty of intensity. I could actually see the medium-dry version working well with quite a few different foods. The Riesling sparkler was yet another iteration of the wine that offered undeniably food-friendly, palate-cleansing refreshment.

The 2003 Vidal "Golden Vintage" was a hybrid white after my hybridy vinous soul. Displaying classic Vidal aromas of pineapple, apricots and orange rind, I greatly enjoyed this wine and plan to include it on my list of whites to buy the next time I am over at Konzelmann's.

Ken and Ed glance across as Howie studies one of the reds and Robin takes a look at the label.

Of the two Pinot Noirs poured, my preference actually went to the non-reserve version. The premium bottling of Pinot, at least at this stage, seemed to have more of an overt oakiness to the nose; the regular 2004 bottling, however, showed clean and straightforward, light cherry and root flavours along with a very pleasing hint of barnyard.

Finally, the 2003 Merlot was a most intriguing wine, and not in the least what you would expect from a New World Merlot, should these words make you think "chocolate-covered cherries"; rather, the overriding aroma that I got in this wine was that of ripe sumac fruit. The '03 Merlot had an intense garnet colour and was very evocative of sumac - plus, it had great acidity and dryness, making it a perfect wine for the table like the great majority of our VQA reds.

The Riesling icewine was pure nectar - very similar aromatically in its primary fruit to Vidal icewine, I found, though maybe with more concentration. Over the years, I have preferred Vidal icewine to Riesling, and this day offered me a chance to recalibrate. I still think I prefer Vidal icewine, though both grapes produce amazingly intense elixirs.

On the way out from Konzelmann Estate at the conclusion of our guided tasting, what did I go and buy? A 2003 Baco Noir (the '0' sugar version; they also make a semi-sweet '2' which I don't like).

Stratus Vineyards

Wind machines dot the vinescape at Stratus Vineyards.

Stratus Vineyards is a new winery in Niagara, having just opened in 2005. The winemaker, J.L. Groux, was previously winemaker at Hillebrand Estates. The winery building is impressive, being designed with gravity-flow winemaking in mind and constructed with recycled materials. I particularly thought the huge, tall doors made for a neat effect. No matter how tall you are, you'll fit right in!

Another interesting fact noted at Stratus Vineyards was the presence of wind machines in the vineyard. You don't see this sort of thing in most Niagara vineyards, but with the complete focus on vinifera here it makes sense - if you have the finances, of course - to do whatever you can to disperse those freezing air pockets that might just be cold enough to cause significant vine damage in the worst of winters. This seems all the more important if site topography is such that cold air pockets concentrate there.

Giant stainless steel tanks and wooden fermentation vessels at Stratus Vineyards.

The entire winery building at Stratus Vineyards is impressive - from the multi-level winemaking facility (grapes are brought in at the top level; fermentation tanks are situated at mid-level and the barrel room is at the lowest level), to the boutique/tasting counter and to the stunningly elegant room in which our guided tasting took place.

Charles Baker, director of marketing and sales, led our tasting at Stratus. The wines were impressively arranged and a number of excellent cheeses were served alongside fine, crusty bread. I especially loved the gooey, spreadable artisanal cheese from Quebec, which I hope to seek out locally.

Our guided tasting at Stratus Vineyards led by Charles Baker, director of marketing and sales. Counterclockwise from the bottom right are Robin, Lee, Howie, Ed, Ken, Chris & Marta and yours truly.

The 2002 Stratus B-F Chardonnay spent one year in barrels and was not racked off the barrels prior to bottling. Deep, rich straw hue with a big brassy-green glint; rich, toasty/roasty/meaty nose with big pineapple fruit. On the palate, it was firm, dry and warm. Lots of butterscotch here and big fruit, but also excellent acidity. It needs time to integrate, IMO.

The 2002 Stratus White is unique in that it is a blend of Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling in undisclosed proportions that vary from year to year. The colour was similar to that of the Chardonnay but the nose was quite different, showing complex beeswax and lanolin aromas over top identifiable Chard and Gewürz nuances. I especially enjoyed sipping the Stratus White after trying the pungent cheeses. An interesting effect that I noticed - I'm not sure to what extent this was true for the others - was that following the cheeses, the flavour of the Stratus White betrayed not the fruit component of the wine but rather some very toasty, oaky flavours. In any case, it was a combination that worked well for me at the moment.

Ed and Howie during the tasting at Stratus Vineyards, which featured excellent bread, cured beef and several intriguing artisanal cheeses to go with the wines.

The 2002 Stratus Merlot was made from vines planted in 1978. Deep, saturated garnet colour; aromatically plush but texturally austere Merlot with a full nose; a full, oaky red with some leathery notes as well.

Moving on, I next tried the 2002 Stratus Cabernet Franc. This red had a big, woody and herbaceous (dill-like) Cab Franc nose. Texturally, it was very tannic and tart. It fits into the general profile that I've come to expect from Niagara Cabernet Franc, but is definitely a wine of substance and should be pleasing to fans of the paradigm.

The cheese course at Stratus Vineyards.

Next up was the 2002 Stratus Red, a blend of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Syrah and Gamay - probably one of a kind in Ontario today. It had a round, somewhat high-toned red-fruit nose with a very enjoyably tart, largely acid-defined structure. I liked this one best among the reds.

The 2000 Stratus Riesling Icewine featured huge apricot/peach-syrup flavours. It was very clean and betrayed a viscous texture.

Leaving Stratus, I was favourably impressed by the top-notch tasting that we'd just attended, as well as the knowledge and professionalism of our guide, Charles Baker. I was also very favourably struck by the thought that future wines would carry a "Niagara Lakeshore" sub-appellation designator - something that is clearly desirable given the varying soils and microclimates existing along the Peninsula.

Château des Charmes

Château des Charmes as seen from the public parking area.

Previous to our NiagaraCool visit, I had been at Château des Charmes twice. The impressive Château is an elegant landmark and is surrounded by vineyards as you drive in. An impression of the Château appears on the labels of the wines as well.

All the table wines at Château des Charmes are made from vinifera varieties - and this is indeed one of my consistently favourite sources of VQA Niagara Peninsula vinifera. All the basic-level whites are clean, crisp and beautifully food-friendly; they've been some of my go-to whites for quite a few years. Among the reds, I have enjoyed the Cabernet-Merlot bottling and especially the Pinot Noirs - in fact, it was Château des Charmes that I looked to first when deciding to explore the infamous chameleon heartbreak grape.

Our tour began outdoors against the backdrop of the Château and the surrounding vineyards. The sun was already setting, but its warm glow and the rows of grapevines made for a memorable picture in my mind.

Our tour, led by Paul-André Bosc, begins against the backdrop of the vineyards and a warm evening sun.

At the time of this visit, the grapes all seemed to be coming along beautifully. Pictured here are some Auxerrois vines with beautiful, healthy-looking fruit that really does look happy basking in the sunshine. I will be most eager to try the 2005 Château des Charmes Auxerrois once it's bottled and released, for the simple reason that I will always have this visit in mind when I enjoy that wine.

The tour continued with a visit to the winemaking facility inside the Château. The first wine served was the Brut, Méthode Traditionelle, a blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Pale straw colour with excellent beads; crisp, biscuity aroma; excellent texture on the mid-palate. Fantastic acidic grip; cleansing and pure, and gorgeously dry.

Auxerrois grapes bask in the summer sun at Château des Charmes estate.

Once seated for our formal tasting, we started out with the 2004 Sauvignon Blanc, St. David's Bench Vineyard. This Sauvignon had a beautiful "green" nose of asparagus and green beans, with ripe currant fruit and tropical-fruit overtones. The exact same flavours replayed on the mid-palate. This was excellent, dry and flavourful - truly a wonderful Ontario Sauvignon Blanc.

Next up was the 2003 Riesling, a new release. It had a pale, bright, clear straw colour. The nose was extremely perfumey with beautiful floral aromas, some heavy petrol and strawberry too. It was crisp and bright and intensely food-friendly with fantastic definition and structure.

Following this Riesling was the 2004 Riesling, Estate Bottled. This one had a similar hue to the 2003 example, but was beautifully - differently - aromatic: it had a piercingly floral, complex, petrolly, youthful nose. Crisp and perfumey, forward and bright, with a huge structure. Excellent!

Château des Charmes founder & president Paul Bosc speaks to the group with Howie and Robin seated nearby during our tasting of the winery's top wines.

Another new release was the 2004 Gewurztraminer, St. David's Bench Vineyard. The Gewurz had a similar colour to the Rieslings that preceded it. Brightly floral, crisp and youthful - it was a beautiful, youthful example of top-notch Gewurz. Pure, clean, and spot-on.

Finally, among the whites, was the 2003 Chardonnay Musqué, Estate Bottled. This was a variety that I had seen so many times, but had never tried up to this time. The wine had a comparatively quiet, light muscat aroma and was crisp and fresh. Good, but I liked the preceding wines more.

Starting off the reds was the 2003 Gamay Noir 'Droit', St. David's Bench Vineyard. This is a unique clone of Gamay found only at Château des Charmes. The wine was medium garnet-ruby with an intensely complex, meaty, Syrah-like pepperiness to the nose. The wine is unoaked. On the nose, strawberries and pepper began to emerge in due time. Intensely peppery, wonderfully dry and spicy ... I really enjoyed this red and made sure to buy a bottle after the tasting.

The 2001 Cabernet Franc, St. David's Bench Vineyard had an intense, deep dark garnet colour. The nose was vegetal - common to many varietal Cab Franc wines, it seems. It was alright, but not my favourite. Some complex green-pepper spice and bright notes too. For me, the Gamay Noir 'Droit' came out way ahead.

Chris, Marta and Paul B. at the Château des Charmes tasting.

The 2001 Equuleus, Paul Bosc Estate Vineyard is a Bordeaux-type blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. Intense, spicy-berry nose; well composed with good structure; bright and tannic - really very well structured. It is youthful and shows excellent ageworthiness.

Finally, we moved on to two Riesling stickies. The first of the two was the 2000 Late Harvest Riesling, Estate Bottled. Rich, golden colour; deep yellow-gold. Intense honeyed-apricot nose; very crisp and sweet. Concentrated and nectar-like.

The last wine in the lineup was the 2001 Riesling Icewine, Paul Bosc Estate Vineyard. This icewine struck me as essentially similar to the above late-harvest Riesling but much sweeter, being intensely sweet with honey-like overtones. Super-concentrated - pure, wonderful grape essence.

Many thanks to the Bosc family for this most informative and enjoyable, up-close look at the winery operation and their premium bottlings. It was a truly fantastic experience that I will remember as I plan to continue visiting this wonderful estate in the years ahead.

And that's it! Day One of Niagara Cool focused nearly entirely on vinifera. My write-up on Day Two - the Picnic - will be posted in the very near future. Stay tuned!