About 100 kms south east of Toronto, the vineyards of Niagara Peninsula are just stone’s throw away. When feeling a slight tickle of adventure or desiring a more profound connection with nature than just city parks, driving to Niagara wine country makes for a pleasant day trip. Ontario’s wine industry is still quite young, however, the Niagara region is one of the oldest wine regions in Canada. With over 140 registered wineries in Ontario (55% of those located in the Niagara Peninsula), the wine industry is flexing some serious wine muscles these days.
Since coming back from Portugal I’ve sipped and tasted some of our local wines at various Toronto restaurants, wine bars and at the Wine Passport to Canada last month. Very impressed with what I’ve tasted, as an adventuring Torontonian I decided to sneak in a few trips to Niagara to catch up with what I’ve missed. Quite the contrast from the longstanding family estates of the Douro Valley or the small, artisan wineries lost in the Portuguese countryside that I had gotten used to, Niagara wineries are more on the glitz-glam side of things with price tags to match. Nonetheless, it’s worth exploring if you want to taste a bit of Niagara in the thick of it, in the vineyards and the cellars.
Pearl Morissette caught my attention when I tried the 2013 Cuvée Metis (blend of Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir) at Midfield Wine Bar in Toronto. The wine was exquisite: fruit-driven, juicy, bright and harmoniously balanced elegance and power. Structured from some grippy tannins and a spicy finish, it was energizing and vibrant. Visiting the winery was a bit like that wine, an energizing experience. Having the tasting room smack dab in the middle of the winery was a fantastic way to capture all that energy; serious yet playful, experimental yet purposeful. Started in 2007 by Quebec winemaker François Morissette and Toronto developer Mel Pearl, the winery is small in size but big in ambition and taste. For such a small winery they have all the bells and whistles to make wine geeks shout in glee, from French oak barrels, concrete tanks and a sidekick concrete egg, German and French foudres varying in size, and even a few amphorae (why not?). Patrick Fishman, winery operator, explained that Morissette’s focus is on producing wines that are expressive of the region and the unique terroir, which involves optimal grape maturity and phenolic ripeness, minimal intervention in the cellar, including wild yeast fermentation and low sulphur additions. But it also means understanding how the must/grape juice evolves in different vessels and over time. From their website they appear to apologetic for their approach stating “In this parcel of Niagara, we honour authenticity in everything we do… At times, we stand alone. But that’s fine. Our wine is not for everyone.” We sampled a few wines. The Cuvée Dix Neuvieme Chardonnay 2012 (see tasting notes at the bottom of page) was fantastic, so different from the 2013. After the tasting I understood that it was not an apology but a firm stance on what they are trying to achieve: wines with character, electrifying wines where no two vintages are the same, a vision that is unique with a no-bullshit approach. As a niche market producer, you can take them or leave them, but for me the wines are well worth checking out. For those interested, you can arrange a visit by calling ahead of time as they may be outside chasing cows and chicken. Tastings and tours are permitted, but they don’t do awards!
Cave Spring Cellars is a close neighbour to Pearl Morissette, just down the street. Their wines are easily found at any LCBO, which is how I was introduced to them, and at very competitive prices. Located in the heart of the village of Jordan, they are one of the oldest wineries in the region. Founded in 1986 by the Pennachetti family along with winemaker Angelo Pavan they are known for kick starting the Niagara wine industry and making world-class Rieslings along the way. A combination of factors contribute to their stellar wines: limestone, shale and sandstone soils, excellent location along the Beamsville Bench of the Niagara Escarpment, good soil drainage, and the beneficial warming and cooling effects of Lake Ontario winds which help ripening during growing season, prevents mildew and other diseases, and protects from frosts. They have the oldest plantings of Rieslings and Chardonnay in the region, dating back to the mid 70’s, and have younger vines in the Lincoln Lakeshore sub-appellation. They offer daily public tours at 1:30pm where you visit the various cellars of the winery, which was build in 1870’s, and was part of the Jordan Vinegar Works prior to being a winery. The tour itself is interesting as you get to explore the underground cellars of a historic building and imagine those humble beginnings. However, it may be a bit too short if you’re looking for more in depth information. You finish off the tour with two tastings in their stylish tasting room, which is where I spent most of my time (and money). The Rieslings are great, naturally, but a new favourite for me is the 2013 Gewürztraminer Estate (see tasting notes at bottom of page) Beauty!
Tawse Winery is a little different than the previous two wineries. First, they do do awards. In fact, plenty of them which is how they were named Winery of the Year in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2016 (this is based on the most medals awarded at the National Wine Awards of Canada). But Moray Tawse’s vision, the man behind the winery, was to bring Old World elegance and finesse to the New World and win as many awards as he could. Ambitious? Yes. But then again so is farming organically and biodynamically and making a gravity system winery which works on geo-thermal energy and then adding a second winery down the road and to win as many awards as he could. That sounds like a lot of work! Did he succeed? Yes. With winemakers Rene Van Ede and Paul Pender (along with Pascal Marchard as consultant) they are producing a portfolio of over nine different varietals in various styles, not just Burgundy red and white. However, the signature Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs are well-made showing a great understanding of the soils, the climate and how to work the grapes in the cellar. I especially liked the 2012 Robyn’s Block Chardonnay and the 2013 Cherry Avenue Pinot Noir (see tasting notes below). The winery attracts plenty of visitors. When I visited during a hot, beautiful summer day the place was bumping with visitors from Quebec, Ottawa and the US who delighted in the wines and views. The winery is impressive. The tasting room has full view of the five floors through a glass window/wall where visitors can watch how grapes go through the various stages of production. During harvest this would be quite the sight. Without a doubt, Tawse Winery is aiming high and getting the credit rightly deserved.
More of Niagara to come.
Pearl Morissette Cuvée Dix Neuvieme Chardonnay 2012
Intense yellow colour, almost on the golden side. Honeyed and sweet spiced nose with a mix of ripe stone fruit and citrus (lemon). On the palate, it is dry with good weight, nice meatyness and balanced acidity due to a small percentage of Riesling added. Same fruit as nose with some waxy and floral flavours. Wonderfully long, rich finish. A wine to think about (in a good way). Wild yeast fermentation in barrel and concrete, spending 18 months on lees. 13.8% abv
Pearl Morissette Cuvée Madeleine Cabernet Franc 2012
Pearl Morissette knows what to do with Cabernet Franc because this one is forever in my mind and my heart. Gorgeous colour, deep ink ruby/purple. The nose has lovely mix of raspberry, blackberry, earthyness and flint/wet stones. Medium to full-bodied with firm tannins yet with fresh acidity. The palate is showing blackberry, spice, and graphite. Lots of depth in this one and exciting to see how it will age. 13.8% abv
Cave Spring Riesling CSV 2014
Aromas of citrus, pear, and orange peel are the first to come forward, with sweet floral tones that linger. The palate is off-dry with mouthwatering acidity, really fresh. Flavours of lime, stone-fruit, and licorice combine wonderfully to end off with a mineral finish. Confident in its subtly at the moment, but ageing will only bring out the best. Very good. 11.5% abv
Cave Spring Gewurztraminer Estate 2013
Medium straw yellow with some gold highlights. Perfumed nose of lychee, roses, white flowers and peaches. The palate is off-dry, medium (-) acidity and medium body. Fantastic spicyness of white flowers and ginger that linger on the finish. 13.5% abv
Tawse Winery Robyn’s Block Chardonnay 2012
Nose of pineapple, stone-fruit and apples combined with toasty aromas and minerality. The palate is full-bodied, creamy and has pineapple, candied fruit and toastiness to a nice smooth finish. Very good Chard. 13% abv
Tawse Winery Cherry Avenue Pinot Noir 2013
A lovely Pinot that displays aromas of red cherry, black pepper, plums and some earthyness and minerality. On the palate it is smooth, medium bodied. Slightly smokey and earthyness mixing in nicely with the juicy cherries and spice. Finishes with firm but velvety tannins. 13% abv