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Stratus Update
April 13, 2012
Impressive new whites from Niagara’s icon-in-waiting

The whites from Stratus have always proven to be the most challenging and interesting wines produced at the ambitious Niagara-on-the-Lake winery. That’s certainly the case with the new crop of wines slated for release in the coming months.

It’s not that the red wines suffer by comparison. It’s more a case that the red blend and various varietal wines produced each year have been more or less on an even keel. Winemaker J-L Groux has always had a winning way with red wines — Stratus affords him more investment to patiently practice his craft.

The whites, meanwhile, continue to ebb and flow, as they have evolved apace with the vineyard and winemaking practices. The forthcoming 2009 Chardonnay, which is one of the early wines to showcase the influence of consultant Paul Hobbs, is bound to turn heads.

But the highlights of a tasting with J-L Groux proved to be the winery’s signature white blend as well as its first ever White Meritage and an impressive Viognier. This trio is among the most exciting releases yet from the high-profile property that is setting strong trends in Niagara. stratuswines.com



Stratus Vineyards 2008 Stratus White
Niagara-on-the-Lake, Niagara Peninsula $44
The Stratus White continues to evolve in positive ways. The new vintage is predominantly Chardonnay, Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc, with small additions of Gewürztraminer and Viognier. The resulting wine is fresher and leaner than past vintages, with greater potential for aging. The palate is appreciatively dry, fresh and focused, with nicely layered flavours that have benefited from long maturation in French oak (up to 626 days for some components). It is enjoyable now, but has the stuffing to evolve over the next five to seven years.



Stratus Vineyards 2009 Meritage
Niagara-on-the-Lake, Niagara Peninsula $48
Winemaker J-L Groux refers to this dynamic Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc as one of Stratus’ new adventures. An experiment to blend the two together made a beautiful wine right off the bat, he says. It wasn’t the plan to produce another white blend, but the result was impossible to ignore. This powerful white interestingly enough includes Sauvignon Blanc, which was the first grapes picked at Stratus, and Semillon, which was the last to come into the winery, even after the harvest of some varieties for Icewine. The finished wine offers an appealing mix of tropical and citrus fruit with some green notes in the form of asparagus and gooseberry. The focus and balance are just right. 120 cases. September release.



Stratus Vineyards 2009 Viognier
Niagara-on-the-Lake, Niagara Peninsula $38
After years of struggling with Viognier in the vineyard, the winemaking team at Stratus has come to grips with shepherding the variety to ripeness and maturity. The 2009 Viognier offers good intensity floral and apricot aromas, with a tasty core of tropical fruit and cream flavours. This is rich and focused on the palate without turning flabby or too oaky — common complaints of the variety, especially in warmer climes — thanks to a grapefruit acidity that refreshes the finish. The focus and balance are pitch-perfect, making this a wine that is lean yet solidly structured. 120 cases.

 


First Look
February 17, 2012

One of the few joys of February in Canada is getting a glimpse of the cavalcade of wines vintners are amassing for spring release. It’s also the ideal time to get a look at the first wines of the past vintage. That was certainly the case with the happy arrival of the new crop of Chardonnays from Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Lailey Vineyard. Derek Barnett has been featured often in VINES (here and here, for instance) for his knack with Burgundy’s classic white variety. He continues to impress with his latest editions.

My initial impression is that the 2010 Chardonnays have instant and more obvious charm than the stunning array of crisp, dry and marvelously focused wines Barnett managed in 2009. The 2009s are infinitely more exciting to my taste and will be the ones to hang on to, if you are thinking about cellaring. But the easy-going charm, riper fruit and classic character of the best of the 2010s make me think I am protesting too much. laileyvineyard.com



Lailey Vineyard 2010 Brickyard Chardonnay
Niagara River, Niagara Peninsula $30
The small batch Brickyard Chardonnay continues to showcase its distinct minerally character even in a ripe vintage like 2010. This is broader on the palate, with a riper core of appley fruit than previous releases, but offers fresh, focused character with oak spice adding to the length. I suspect this has a good future ahead of it. Drink now to 2020. 95 cases



Lailey Vineyard 2010 Chardonnay Canadian Oak
Niagara River, Niagara Peninsula $25
After a period of exclusively using barrels from Canadian Oak Cooperage, Lailey Vineyard brought a barrel from a new cooperage in Prince Edward County into the mix for this pioneering Chardonnay. The new addition adds to the fragrant and fruity character of the wine, contributing good oaky flavour, length and aftertaste. This is an elegant expression of Chardonnay from a warm vintage that has a decent future. Drink over the next four to six years. 140 cases.



Lailey Vineyard 2010 Chardonnay
Niagara Peninsula $20
There’s no mistaking the ripe character of the 2010 vintage here. There’s a good dollop of tropical fruit on the nose, with more traditional butter, cereal and popcorn notes in the background. Made in a rich style, with fermentation, full malolactic and 10 months aging in older barrels, this makes the most of its smooth texture while maintaining freshness and focus. 600 cases.



Lailey Vineyard 2011 Unoaked Chardonnay
Ontario $15
This distinctively dry and refreshing model of unoaked Chardonnay is exactly the kind of wine that winemaker Derek Barnett says he will enjoy this summer. Made with purchased fruit from the Beamsville area, there is appealing yellow apple, honeydew melon and orange peel notes and a zesty, bracing finish that freshens the palate. 900 cases.


Whole Lotta Rosé
August 3, 2011

On a recent whirlwind tour of the Okanagan Valley, rosés proved to be the bottle we snagged most often to sip back at our lodgings. We snapped up the occasional stellar Riesling and stunning sparkling Chenin, too. But, mostly, we knew a good thing when we sampled it.

The move to make better rosé all across Planet Wine has been well documented, not least by us here. The Okanagan is more than keeping pace by crafting racy, refreshing and refined versions. Examples from the 2010 vintage seemed to burst forth out of the glass with even more charm and character. That’s why when it came time to settle in, decompress and reminisce after a long day of touring and tasting, the perfect memory aid to focus our attention on what’s new and exciting in the Okanagan proved to be something flavourful, fun and pink. Here are three favourites.



CedarCreek Estate Winery 2010 Pinot Noir Rosé
Okanagan Valley $17.90
This delicious rosé made a profound impression on us when CedarCreek winemaker Darryl Brooker sent along his first efforts for us to sample. Amanda Allison’s four-star review appears in this issue, but I think a rosé this good merits all of the attention we can lavish on it. The care and attention in making this 100 percent estate Pinot Noir truly make it stand out.



Mission Hill Family Estate 2010 Five Vineyards Rosé
Okanagan Valley $15.95 (229716)
This creative blend of Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Shiraz truly shows the vibrancy of the 2010 vintage in the Okanagan. There’s a crisp, clean edge to this wine that makes the berry fruit and citrus flavours really pop. A bolder style of rosé, this is enjoyable with or without a meal.



Road 13 Vineyards 2010 Honest John’s Rosé
Okanagan Valley $15.99
Road 13’s new winemaker J.M. Bouchard finished this expressive Gamay-based rosé by blending small amounts of aromatic white wines, such as Kerner, Bacchus and Riesling. We loved the cherry/berry flavours and the hint of pepper and sage that give it real personality.


Smoke Signals

Canada Day comes with its own demands. A tried-and-true recipe of barbecue, beer and fireworks gets some through the long weekend in fine form.  When it comes to wine selections, we think toasting the country with homegrown products is part of the patriotic package. Canada Day and Thanksgiving are the two major holidays where Canadian wine is an essential ingredient, right up there with ice cream or turkey. The trick is finding wines that play well with others, meaning smoke billowing off the grill, summery tunes blasting into the air and raucous family and friends who taste and voice their opinion. Good barbecue wines have to stand up to the smoke and noise — and typically please a wide variety of palates. Here are three selections I’ll be pouring this weekend.



Flat Rock Cellars 2009 Estate Pinot Noir
Twenty Mile Bench, Niagara Peninsula $19.95 (001545)
Tell-tale Pinot Noir cherry and savoury notes mark the aroma and palate of this generous red wine. Riper berry notes flesh out the palate, making this Flat Rock’s best Estate Pinot to date. flatrockcellars.com (LCBO Vintages)



Jackson-Triggs Niagara Estate 2006 Entourage Silver Series Méthode Classique
Brut Niagara Peninsula $22.95 (234161)
Entourage is a new label from Jackson-Triggs, which continues its
winning ways with classically made sparkling wine. Fresh and appealing on the nose, this is made in an easy drinking style that’s focused and flavourful. jacksontriggswinery.com (LCBO Vintages)



Peller Estate Winery 2010 Family Series Cabernet Franc
Niagara Peninsula $11.95 (582833)
It’s not often that you can get excited about Cabernets from Niagara that retail for less than $15. This bargain bottle is shaping up to be a go-to summertime red. It’s ripe, juicy fruit character make it standout from the crowd. peller.com (LCBO)


Cape CollectablesThree great South African wines to buy now

A fine selection of wines from South Africa gets the spotlight treatment in the upcoming Vintages release at LCBO outlets. The lineup centres on blends — both white and red — which keys in on one of the Cape wineland’s emerging strengths.

You’ll hear no complaints about the quality or comparative value of single varietal wines from South Africa, least of all from me. I think its Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc are the new rock and roll. Terrifically expressive wines that offer thrilling flavours and distinct character. The same case could be made for Chenin Blanc and Pinotage.

But the idea of blended wines has gathered steam in recent years, following in the wake of stunning wines like Marc Kent’s The Chocolate Block and Eben Sadie’s Columella and Palladius. The April 2 Vintages release features eight selections, each of which is well made, well priced and worthy of our attention. If I had to narrow my focus, I’d be sure to grab the following.



Ataraxia 2007 Serenity
South Africa $24.95 (148601)
Winemaker Kevin Grant crafts wines that are more about place than grape, which is to say he doesn’t pass on which varieties are used in the blend for this rich, luscious and seamless red. Instead, he’s looking to showcase the flavours of South Africa. The result is a layered red with a juicy core of fruit and incredibly supple texture.



Vilafonté 2006 Series M
Paarl, South Africa $39.95 (007757)
Series M is Vilafonté’s Merlot based red, offering a rich, savoury flavour profile that marks it as one of South Africa’s best Bordeaux-style blends. The price is a deal given the structure, complexity and age-worthy character.



Lammershoek Winery 2008 Roulette Blanc
Swartland, South Africa $16.75 (225458)
Creative white blends like this expressive mix of Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay and Viognier from Swartland have become some of South Africa’s best bottles. I especially like the wild and wooly complexity that comes from barrel-aging and wild ferment character. Lammershoek is one of the South African producers to watch and this is a great introduction to its range.


White OutThree bold whites to comfort this winter

Despite the bear hug embrace of red wines in our February/March issue, we’re not oblivious to the charms of richer, heavier styles of white wine during the winter months.
 
Red wines aren’t the only heartwarming option to ward off the frost and the cold. Here are three turbo-charged whites from Ontario with exotic, fleshy fruit flavours and a captivating oaky veneer. They’re not only mightily impressive; they also have the stuffing to weather the storm.



Hidden Bench Vineyards & Winery 2008 Nuit Blanche Rosomel Vineyard
Beamsville Bench, Niagara Peninsula $40
The inaugural 2005 vintage of Hidden Bench’s single vineyard Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon blend drew rave reviews. To my taste, ensuing vintages have gotten better and better as the oak component has been scaled back to let more varietal character shine thorough. The forthcoming 2009 vintage is the one to watch for, but in the meantime, this first-class 2008 showcases oak, richness and vitality in perfect harmony. hiddenbench.com



Inniskillin Wines 2009 Legacy Pinot Gris
Niagara Peninsula $34.95
The third release in Bruce Nicholson’s Legacy series for Inniskillin is the most unusual and exciting to date. The Legacy label represents the best wine from the vintage — there’ll be little debate about the quality of this stunning bottle. A winning white that combines richness and power with elegance, this is loaded with exotic fruit and boasts impressive structure and complexity. inniskillin.com



Stratus Vineyards 2008 Viognier
Niagara-on-the-Lake, Niagara Peninsula $38
Judicious oak aging lends this expressive white incredible richness and structure. Sadly only a mere 68 cases of the debut standalone Viognier at Stratus were crafted. Those lucky enough to snag a bottle will no doubt delight in this big, powerfully aromatic wine that’s also curiously refreshing. stratuswines.com


Brace YourselfThree fresh whites that awaken your senses

For me, the onset of spring always spells an opportunity for a fresh start. It's a time to embrace the shock of the new. For those looking to turn over a new leaf, I suggest you avert your eyes from the greyness outside, turn on every light in your house and have a glass of crisp white wine. Suddenly March evaporates to May, if only for a glorious stolen moment.

Here are a selection of wines that are marked by a delicious purity of flavour and an amazing natural acidity to help you and your wine cellar spring forward. Better yet, let's call them wines to enjoy while Mother Nature gets her attitude adjusted.



Viña Cono Sur Sparkling Brut
Bìo-Bìo Valley, Chile $13.95 (215079)
Here’s an exciting new release from Cono Sur, the Chilean winery that is a go-to source for great wines at a range of prices. This fresh and engaging bubbly is an innovative blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Riesling. It’s a fabulous fizz at a fabulous price — neither the taste nor the package says sub-$15



Robertson Winery 2010 Sauvignon Blanc
Robertson, South Africa $10.95 (129684)
Sauvignon Blanc always strikes me as the official wine of spring because of its zesty personality and green/herbal character. It remains the strong suit for South African winemakers who routinely turn out vibrant, flavourful whites like this well-priced example from Robertson Winery.



Ruffino 2009 Lumina Pinot Grigio
Venezia Giulia, Italy $12.95 (589101)
Ruffino looks beyond its Tuscan wine estates to source the fruit for this lively, lemony Pinot Grigio. There’s a creamy/buttery note that adds welcome complexity and weight to the palate, making this an ideal food wine with fish, seafood or pastas with a cream sauce.


White OutThree bold whites to comfort this winter

Despite the bear hug embrace of red wines in our February/March issue, we’re not oblivious to the charms of richer, heavier styles of white wine during the winter months.
 
Red wines aren’t the only heartwarming option to ward off the frost and the cold. Here are three turbo-charged whites from Ontario with exotic, fleshy fruit flavours and a captivating oaky veneer. They’re not only mightily impressive; they also have the stuffing to weather the storm.



Hidden Bench Vineyards & Winery 2008 Nuit Blanche Rosomel Vineyard
Beamsville Bench, Niagara Peninsula $40
The inaugural 2005 vintage of Hidden Bench’s single vineyard Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon blend drew rave reviews. To my taste, ensuing vintages have gotten better and better as the oak component has been scaled back to let more varietal character shine thorough. The forthcoming 2009 vintage is the one to watch for, but in the meantime, this first-class 2008 showcases oak, richness and vitality in perfect harmony. hiddenbench.com



Inniskillin Wines 2009 Legacy Pinot Gris
Niagara Peninsula $34.95
The third release in Bruce Nicholson’s Legacy series for Inniskillin is the most unusual and exciting to date. The Legacy label represents the best wine from the vintage — there’ll be little debate about the quality of this stunning bottle. A winning white that combines richness and power with elegance, this is loaded with exotic fruit and boasts impressive structure and complexity. inniskillin.com



Stratus Vineyards 2008 Viognier
Niagara-on-the-Lake, Niagara Peninsula $38
Judicious oak aging lends this expressive white incredible richness and structure. Sadly only a mere 68 cases of the debut standalone Viognier at Stratus were crafted. Those lucky enough to snag a bottle will no doubt delight in this big, powerfully aromatic wine that’s also curiously refreshing. stratuswines.com



Top Drops
The most memorable wines of 2010
  • First Impression: Raveneau 2006 Premier Cru Montée de Tonnerre offered a crisp and clean welcome to Chablis
  • Vault Sub-Zero 315W Wine storage unit, stainless with full-view glass door, $3200, subzero.com
  • Get Happy: Feudi Di San Gregorio 2008 Falaghina will bring a smile to your face
 

My ultimate wine memory of 2010 should have been enjoying a glass of 1969 Chambolle-Musigny during a visit with Bernard Repolt of Remoissenet in Beaune. After all, I was born in 1969 and Burgundy is one of the few places on Planet Wine that made something stellar that year.

But I had a cold and couldn’t smell or taste a thing.

The lingering memory I have of what was otherwise a lovely afternoon was rolling this rare, expensive Pinot Noir around in my mouth and silently lamenting the missed opportunity to truly savour this once-in-a-lifetime occasion.

The past year has been overflowing with outstanding wines, many of which that have been shared with you in the pages of the magazine. If I had to narrow the field down — which is the whole point of year-end lists like these, after all — the following standout as the bottles with the longest lasting impression.

Viña Casa Marin 2008 Miramar Vineyard Syrah A visit with Casa Marin founder Maria-Luz Marin was the highlight of a barnstorming tour of Chile’s wine regions in August. Marin produces one of the world’s finest Sauvignon Blancs at her San Antonio estate — the 2009 Cipreses Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc is one of the all-time great sip and sigh wines. But Casa Marin’s light yet flavourful Syrah with bright red fruit and peppery character made the most profound impression. A mere 11.6 percent alcohol content means it was the most delicate reds sampled during the week-long tour, but it remains the one I cannot stop thinking about.

Domaine Francois Raveneau 2006 Chablis Premier Cru Montée de Tonnerre While there were certainly finer wines enjoyed during a tour of Burgundy in March, including those that were sadly obscured by my stuffed up nose, it’s the first wine tasted on that trip that stuck with me. Raveneau is one of the producers profiled in Kermit Lynch’s Adventures on the Wine Route, a book I reread every year, so it seemed fate that one of the domaine’s minerally and pure Chardonnays would be my welcoming toast to Chablis. The bright lemon/lime fruit and crushed stone flavour profile made it an utter delight to drink.

Château Margaux 2008 Pavillon Blanc Bordeaux doesn’t get much more blue-chip than Château Margaux, so the invitation to lunch with its general director Paul Pontallier comes with the promise of greatness. A selection of the first growth estate’s flagship and second wine, Pavillon, delivered an embarrassment of vinous riches that were sumptuously paired with dishes from George Restaurant in Toronto. As impressive as the red wines were, it was the lesser known white wine that I found to be the most captivating and involving. A mere 800 cases were made of this otherworldly barrel fermented Sauvignon Blanc. I sincerely doubt I will ever be lucky enough to taste another bottle.

2009 Ontario Pinot Noir This isn’t a case a single head-turning wine. It’s a matter of a whole category that has had my neck swiveling as I’ve tasted from cellar to cellar. Pinot Noir specialists Le Clos Jordanne, Tawse, Norman Hardie, Lailey and others produced their best efforts yet. The 2009 vintage will also put Hidden Bench on the map and will see Coyote’s Run release no fewer than five different labels. The potential of these wines in barrel is huge. If everyone manages to successfully capture that magic in bottle, we’re looking at a whole new benchmark for the variety in Canada.

Feudi Di San Gregorio 2008 Falaghina Context is king when it comes to wine appreciation, so I was originally inclined to think, at least, some of the pure affection I felt for this juicy and fragrant white could be attributed to the setting, the season and the company. Enjoyed on a sunny May afternoon, the friendly nature of this Italian white bested an interesting assortment of five other stylish white wines presented as part of two different wine flights at Crush Wine Bar in Toronto. This refreshing white from one of Campania’s most interesting producers has become my new favourite wine. Here’s hoping Crush has secured an endless supply.





Sunny Days

BEAUNE, France: Burgundy’s fairy-tale stone villages and the elaborate patchwork of vineyards surrounding each were illuminated by bright sunlight that seemed as good an omen as any for launching the 2008 vintage.
   
The setting is so pristine that a first time visitor becomes quickly suspicious that it has been art directed by Disney Imagineers to impress guests participating in the Grands Jours de Bourgogne, a weeklong festival taking place along the wine route.
   
Is it mere coincidence that every vineyard we pass is being pruned by workers that seem to come straight out of central casting? Their colourful sweaters and kerchiefs providing a striking contrast to the earthy background in which they toil.
   
Incredulity is strained to the limit when we come upon the celebrated Romanée-Conti vineyard and see a horse at work ploughing the fabled sandy-clay soils. Surely this is a scripted photo op for the passing parade of visitors…
   
But, it’s the real deal.
Our guide Marc Lafont, a native of the Rhône Valley who is studying winemaking in the region, assures that this is normal activity for the season. The farmer’s demeanour — to say nothing of the horse’s — suggest the gaggle of Canadian tourists tripping over themselves to snap a picture are a mild curiosity at best.
   
Lafont has earned our trust by this point of the journey. He has proved to be a consummate ambassador for the wines of Burgundy, pointing out interesting producers, especially ones who are working with the organic and biodynamic practices that he favours.
   
I quickly learn to interpret his personal rating system for producers, which ranges from “like” to “like very much” to “love.” Only a select few, receive the latter praise, including Vincent Dureuil, of Domaine Dureuil-Janthial, an up-and-coming producer based in Rully who is equally adept with red and white wines.
   
Producers he doesn’t fancy are met with a shrug of indifference and silence.
   
It’s at these various tastings that a clear picture of Burgundy’s 2008 vintage comes into focus. It’s much, much better quality than what has been speculated in press reports from French and British journalists who lamented the wet, cold conditions of the growing season.

When I encounter Jean-Charles Boisset, a Burgundian vintner who has strong ties to Canada through his involvement with Niagara’s Le Clos Jordanne, I have to ask about the negative press.
“What’s wrong the 2008 vintage?”
   
“You tell me,” he answered.
   
The 2008 growing season may have presented its share of challenges, but the wines in bottle are polished and elegant, particularly the whites which strike me as classic expressions. The riper, fleshier wines from the 2009 vintage promise to bowl over critics and fans alike.
   
These days, the sun truly shines upon Burgundy.



King of the Sandhill

There’s a saying in winemaking circles that it takes a lot of beer to make great wine. Usually it’s the volume of lager and ale consumed during harvest by thirsty winery workers that inspires that adage, but in the case of Sandhill’s Howard Soon it speaks to his prior work experience.
   
Soon spent five years at Labatt Brewing Company before landing in the Okanagan Valley in 1980 to start his winemaking career at Calona Vineyards.
   
Over the course of three decades, the pioneering winemaker has seen the British Columbia grape and wine industry evolve from producing blended wines with Germanic and French-sounding names from hybrid varieties like Okanagan Riesling and De Chaunac to award-winning varietal wines from Shiraz, Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Franc.
   
Soon’s work at Sandhill, the upscale sister winery to Calona which was established in 1997, has helped define the character and expression of wines from the southern Okanagan. The vision for the winery is to produce single vineyard wines from four sites, the winery’s own estate and three independently owned vineyards including the Phantom Creek Vineyard.
   
“It’s where our future is,” Soon says of the single-minded, site-specific focus that Sandhill employs. It’s equally implied by Soon that making wines from specific vineyards and specific places is the future of British Columbia’s industry as a whole.
   
To hear Soon talk about his new releases like his Single Block Chardonnay and Single Block Merlot from the Sandhill Estate, it’s clear Soon hasn’t lost any of his interest or passion for winemaking. It’s also clear he firmly believes Sandhill’s next wine will be better than what was produced in the past.
“It’s not passive like watching television,” he says of winemaking. “You have to be involved. You still have to think about things and make decisions.

“That’s why computers can’t make (wine).”



Summer of Chardonnay

Ed Madronich is offering a different spin on the ABC wine consumer. Instead of flying the Anything-But-Chardonnay flag, the owner of Flat Rock Cellars is actively promoting Another-Bottle-of-Chardonnay to visitors of his estate winery in Jordan, Ont.
   
“I love Chardonnays from all around the world and I particularly love the Chardonnays produced here in Niagara,” said an enthusiastic Madronich, who was recently named chair of the Wine Council of Ontario.
   
Flat Rock Cellars tasting bar is presenting the winery’s 2007 Unplugged Chardonnay and its 2007 Chardonnay Estate (a blend of 60 percent barrel-fermented Chardonnay with 40 percent tank-fermented Chardonnay). These are classically made, terroir-driven whites that retail for $16.95. Both offer great value for the price, with the minerally and citrus/tropical fruit flavoured Unplugged Chardonnay loudly broadcasting the quality of the Flat Rock Cellars vineyard’s limestone-rich clay soils on the Niagara Escarpment. It’s truly something special.
   
Flat Rock’s lineup is also nicely complimented by the barrel-fermented 2007 The Rusty Shed Chardonnay and an extremely impressive 2006 Chardonnay, a top-of-the-line bottling that was given lots of TLC by Flat Rock’s meticulous winemaker Marlize Beyers.
   
Balance, elegance and oak integrations are the hallmarks of Beyers’ winemaking style, which make Flat Rock’s Chardonnays a different breed from the over-blown and buttery whites that created a backlash against a grape varietal that continues to be a superstar in cool climate regions. Read more at http://www.flatrockcellars.com/posts/view/39



Try Nyarai

Nyarai Cellars (pronounced na-rye) takes its name from an South African word meaning “humility or be humble.” According to winemaker Steve Byfield, a longtime assistant winemaker at Southbrook Vineyards, Ridgepoint Wines and Calamus Estate Winery, it didn’t feel right to market the new virtual Niagara winery under his own name. “If I had been in the industry for 10 or 15 years like an Arthur Harder or Derek Barnett maybe I’d feel comfortable doing that.”

Originally developed to be a Sauvignon Blanc specialist, fate conspired to have Byfield increase the production for his first release. Nyarai’s opening portfolio includes a barrel-fermented Chardonnay, a peppery Syrah and a plummy Cabernet-Merlot blend in addition to the Sauvignon Blanc he originally set his sights on. The packaging is smart — everything is bottled under screwcap — and the prices are right. A reserve tier Cabernet-Merlot from 2007 continues its slumber in barrel. If the early release red blend is any indication, it’s one to watch for. Visit nyaraicellars.com for more information.


Nyarai Cellars 2007 Cabernet Merlot
Niagara Peninsula $18

A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Syrah that was aged 13 months in French oak, this stylish red offers generous plummy fruit and chocolate notes. Supple texture and polished tannins make this enjoyable now and over the next three to five years.


Nyarai Cellars 2008 Sauvignon Blanc
Niagara Peninsula $18

This is an enjoyably round and full flavoured Sauvignon Blanc, with melon and tropical notes as well as zesty grapefruit flavours. It’s a nicely balanced and made in a style that’s ideal for sipping by the glass.


Flag-Waving Favourites


Cave Spring Cellars 2007 Chardonnay Musqué Estate Bottled
Beamsville Bench, Niagara Peninsula $15.95 (246576)
   This dry white wine is sure to go down as one of the finest Chardonnay Musqués produced at Cave Spring. It has the viscosity that characterizes this more aromatic clone of Chardonnay, but doesn’t lose its pitch-perfect balance. The spicy, Muscat style flavour profile makes it a natural for grilled or pan-roasted fish dishes. cavespring.ca (Vintages July 19 release)


Cave Spring Cellars 2007 CSV Riesling Estate Bottled
Beamsville Bench, Niagara Peninsula $29.95 (566026)
    This is a surprisingly vibrant and delicate Riesling considering the atypically warm growing season of Niagara’s 2007 vintage. Cave Spring’s older vineyards weathered the hot, dry conditions better than most, which helps explain the purity of expression here. Look for fresh citrus fruit and classic mineral richness on the palate. Enjoy now to 2013. cavespring.ca (Vintages July 4 release)


Road 13 Vineyards 2008 Old Vines Chenin Blanc
Okanagan Valley $18.99 (450890)
    Road 13’s Old Vines Chenin is produced with some of the oldest vinifera vines in the Okanagan. This thrillingly aromatic white reveals floral and peachy aromas and is rich, steely and positively bursting with fresh fruit on the palate. It’s hard to envision a more perfect Okanagan white wine. road13vineyards.com


See Ya Later Ranch 2007 Barrel Fermented Semillon
Okanagan Valley $22.99 (116194)
    This barrel fermented Semillon is marked by citrus, pineapple and honey aromas mixed with toast and vanilla notes from the oak expression. Nice and fresh on the palate, fermentation and aging in French oak has added richness, enhanced the texture and imparted a lingering spicy finish without sapping the wine’s zesty personality or balance. sylranch.com




Dynamic Duo

Just tasted two wines that likely won’t be around by the time our September/November edition comes out. Here’s the head’s up on two not to be missed summertime wines.


Laurenz V Fine Wine 2007 Laurenz und Sophie Singing Grüner Veltliner
Niederösterreich, Lower Austria $18.95 (087627)
Here is a lively and refreshing model of Grüner Veltliner from two of the many descendants of Austria’s famed winegrower, Lenz Moser. I love the dry, minerally style that features a healthy sprinkling of white pepper on the lingering finish. Originally released in January at Vintages outlets in Ontario, this fresh white is tailor-made for summer sipping.


Tenuta Cocci Grifoni 2005 Le Torri Rosso Piceno Superiore

Marches, Italy $18.95 (994863)
All of the talk about how good the 2005 vintage was in Bordeaux brings to mind just how good the 2005 vintage was practically everywhere vines are planted on Planet Wine. This flavourful, earthy red, with its vibrant charm and Italian personality, goes a long way to showing how great bargain bottles of Italian reds from 2005 can be. A blend of 60 percent Montepulciano and 40% Sangiovese, this has bright red cherry fruit, with dried herbal and mineral notes.  I love the food-friendly charm and the back label copy that explains this bottle of wine a product of “just grapes, wood, time, bottle…” This is a good value red that will drink nicely over the next three or four years. Currently available at LCBO Vintages outlets.



Argentina's Way

The Argentina Icons tasting last night at the Park Hyatt Hotel in Toronto was notable for what was — and wasn’t — poured. The 13 glasses were an effective showcase of the diversity of the grape and wine industry in a country that ranks as the world’s fifth largest wine producer.
   
Two whites were presented: a Torrontés from master winemaker Susana Balbo’s Dominio del Plata Winery and a oak-aged Friulano, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Torrontés blend from the Bodegas François Lurton. No 100 percent Chardonnay — not that I minded!
   
Four Malbecs represented the vast range of regional expression and winemaking styles. It was interesting to experience such differences in the glasses and to learn that the country’s wine authorities have identified 22 clones of the grape in Argentina. The backlash against Malbec from Mendoza has already started in some circles, which strikes me as a tad premature (even on the bargain wine front) as we’ve yet to experience the best of these special old vine vineyards.
   
The other glasses contained an impressive array of red wines, including one Shiraz, one Cabernet Franc and a Bonarda, produced from a grape originally believed to be from the Savoie region of France. Unexpectedly only one Cabernet Sauvignon was featured, which was a shame given the success that Argentine vintners have with the varietal.
   
That said the highlight of the tasting came in the form of three blends that featured Malbec and Cabernet in leading roles. The rich and savoury Finca Flichman 2006 Paisaje de Tupungato ($18.55, a steal) was a mix of Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The surprising Bodega Septima Codorniu Argentina 2006 Gran Reserva ($27) blends Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon with Tannat to great effect, while the biggest wine of the night was Bodega Monteviejo 2005 ($31.90). This blend of Malbec, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot boasted impressive ripeness, richness and complexity. It’s not my style of wine, but I completely understand anyone who falls head over heels for considerable intensity and depth of flavour.



Light Fantastic

As I type this, our May/June issue is on the press. Subscribers can watch for the book to land on their doorstep sometime next week. If you’re not a subscriber (why in the world aren’t you?), retailers should start stocking it by month’s end. Ask for it by name at your favourite magazine shop.
   
The May/June edition is our annual salute to white wine of all sizes and styles. It’s always an enjoyable book to pull together, typically because we start working on it during the height of winter when all daydreams revolve around being outside and enjoying the warmth of the sun. All of our books involve a certain amount of wish fulfillment in its editorial outlook, but the desire that fuels the Fresh Whites issue always seems much more extreme and earnest.

As a result, we had a lot of fun unearthing new wines to share with you and finding creative ways to pull the issue together. Wait until you see the images that art director Claire Triassi and photographer Jeffrey Kirk compiled for our cover and feature story. Absolutely stunning.
   
Work at Vines HQ continues, but there’s the welcome relief of not being on deadline pressure. Our contributors are working on the travel features and lining up more bottles to taste and evaluate for our July/August edition. It’s an organic process that has become refined over the past 11 years of publishing. We’re thrilled to have your interest and attention and promise to keep you engaged and informed about what’s new and noteworthy in the world of wine. Cheers!
   
For more behind-the-scenes insight about the activites at Vines, follow me at http://twitter.com/waters_wine



Presidential Pops

News that Barack Obama toasted his November election with Graham Beck Brut, a non-vintage sparkling wine from South Africa spurred even more interest in a country whose wine exports to North America are gathering steam. Six bottles were served to supporters on that historic night.

Reportedly Obama and his wife, Michelle, first enjoyed the stylish bubbly the previous February at a favourite Chicago restaurant. That night they were celebrating Obama winning the Democratic nomination for president. Soon after they placed the order for more to have on hand on election night.

In both cases, I’m guessing President Obama was aware of a broader significance. Graham Beck Brut was the wine served at the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as South Africa’s first democratically elected President in May 1994. By that virtue, it’s the best bottle to celebrate sweeping change.

Political pedigree aside, it doesn’t hurt matters that it tastes really good. The wine has a lively, refreshing character with a pleasing mix of fruity and toasty flavours.

Readers in Ontario don’t have to take my word for it. It’s featured as part of the February 14th Vintages release at the LCBO. Taste it for yourself. Best of all, its price is as low as I have ever seen it — $18.95 per bottle. That’s probably less than a President Obama bobble head costs.




Celebrating and Mourning a Wine Pioneer

Canadian wine’s coming of age has at least one sad side effect. We’re starting to lose some of the pioneers who helped push things forward.

John Marynissen, who died January 2 at the age of 84, played an important role in shaping the modern wine industry.

Marynissen purchased his first farm in Niagara-on-the-Lake in 1953, the year after he and his wife, Adriana (Nanny), emigrated from Holland. He later added a second farm, bringing his holding to 70 acres. As a grape grower, he gained a solid reputation for the quality of his fruit. Inniskillin — Marynissen’s neighbour — used his Marechal Foch grapes in its first vintage, 1974. The forward thinking grower started planting more European varietals the following year, including what ranks as Ontario first — reportedly Canada’s — planting of Cabernet Sauvignon.

Those Cabernet Sauvignon vines were planted in 1978, the same year Marynissen was named Grape King, a peer judged award honouring great vineyard management during the annual Niagara Wine Festival.

Marynissen was also amassing awards as an amateur winemaker. His 1987 Riesling took top honours in the estate bottled category at the American Wine Society judging in 1989. (His 1989 Chardonnay was named best in show at the same competition the following year.) Such recognition along with the strong endorsement of Marynissen’s supportive family and friends propelled Marynissen to start up Marynissen Estates in 1990. He was 65 at the time.

Success came quickly. Marynissen’s 1991 Cabernet Sauvignon bottlings changed many people’s minds about red wines from Ontario. Marynissen produced three varietal Cabernet Sauvignons that year, one from the newer farm (Lot 66) and two from the original site, Lot 31 A (aged in American oak) and Lot 31 F (aged in French oak). Each was absolutely first-rate, and are still rumoured to be drinking nicely. Alas, my few bottles are long gone.

Marynissen’s abilities weren’t limited to Cabernet Sauvignon. He produced noteworthy Merlots, Chardonnays and was among the first in the country to experiment with Malbec and Petite Sirah. The small amounts of those experimental bottlings were sold to loyal customers and other insiders who knew enough to ask about them. The winery’s small production and humble character kept it from being a household name.

A highlight of visiting Marynissen Estates during the latter half of the 1990s was being able to taste a vertical of Cabernets or Merlots, the current vintage alongside older wines, conducted by John’s daughter Sandra Marynissen. Sandra and her husband Glen Muir took control of the winery in 2003, but John continued to play a consulting role to the end.
Some Marynissen wines are featured by savvy restaurants and occasionally can be found at the LCBO. Otherwise wine lovers have to make the pilgrimage to the family winery, located near the Niagara Parkway, to savour a taste of history. www.marynissen.com


What Becomes a Legend Most?

The LCBO’s Vintages arm pulls out all of the stops for its pre-holiday release. “So Fine” runs the tag on the cover of its December 6 catalog. Inside there’s an overwhelming supply of fine wines from around the world and a top-notch selection of Ontario offerings. Industry watchers are bound to watch if the Wine of the Month, the Le Clos Jordanne 2006 Village Reserve Pinot Noir ($30, 033894) will continue to sell out in a matter of hours after its release. At $30, this is the most expensive wine of the month ever offered.

I’ll be interested in seeing which of the blue-chip bottles from around the world get snatched up first. Consumers are bound to be pretty selective this year, given the current state of economic affairs. It will be interesting to see where people will spend their money. Given that I’m currently engaged in long-term planning for our editorial coverage for 2009, I’ll be watching the trends.

Beyond the Le Clos Jordanne Village Reserve Pinot and the Tawse Pinot Noir, I’ll be keen to pick-up the Viña Santa Rita 2007 Floresta Sauvignon Blanc ($19.95, 680959) from Chile’s Leyda Valley. I’ll also be scooping up some Springfield Estate 2006 Whole Berry Cabernet Sauvignon ($26.95, 063834) from the Robertson region of South Africa. Both are individualistic regional wines that promise to please both my palate and pocketbook.

 

 




Baby Huet



Wine lovers in Ontario have a crack at a white wine from one of the great biodynamic producers in the August 30th Vintages release. The 2007 vintage of Domaine Huet’s Le Haut-Lieu Vouvray Sec is featured as part of a portfolio that has a strong focal point on the wines from Spain and Portugal. At $30.95, it’s something of a splurge. But a wine this uniquely compelling makes it worth the investment in my books.
This 100 percent Chenin Blanc broadcasts the waxy, mineral expression common to Loire Valley whites, with appealing fruit, refreshing acidity and remarkable focus. That freshness and focus make supremely enjoyable to drink now with food (it marries well with mushroom risotto or mushroom sauces), but don’t forget Chenin Blanc’s capacity to evolve in the bottle. Like Riesling, dry Chenin Blanc can be austere stuff, possessing massive acidity that allows them to age gracefully.
My advice is to buy two bottles: one for now, one for six (or more) years hence. That way you can see how this satisfying white becomes more multidimensional and complex over time.

DOMAINE HUET 2007 LE HAUT-LIEU VOUVRAY SEC
Loire Valley, France $30.95 (705764)
Visit www.vintages.com for more information.



Buyers Guide

Our annual Buyers Guide issue is on press today (August 15, 2008). At 96-pages, it is our largest issue of the year (so far) and is crammed with as many wine reviews, tips and tidbits we could shoehorn into our editorial space. As always is the case, there were plenty more praiseworthy wines we wanted to celebrate in our pages, including the exciting new 2007 County Pinot Noir from Norman Hardie and the rich and spicy La Capitana Cabernet Sauvignon Barrel Reserve from Viña La Rosa.

Norm’s wine and its stunning cellarmates will get their due in our next issue, the 100-page 10th anniversary spectacular! But that La Capitana Cab comes out tomorrow. There’s little hope it will be around when the Harvest (November/December 2008) reaches readers. So consider this fair warning…

I find Viña La Rosa reds always interesting and enjoyable. They are complex wines, with earthy, cedary and spicy notes that add appeal to the aroma and flavour. A wine like this young Cabernet Sauvignon seriously benefits from a short spell in a decanter. It helps the wine open up to reveal its true character and makes for a more impressive, more complete wine. This, like many of the Chilean wines featured in the LCBO’s spotlight release, offers great value for the money.

Viña La Rosa 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Estate Grown, Barrel Reserve Cachapoal Valley Chile $16.95 (068429) Released August 16 at LCBO Vintages outlets. Visit www.liffordwineagency.com or www.larosa.cl/ingles/home.asp for more information.



Lifetime Learning

When I'm introduced to people as a wine writer, inquiring minds want to know what wines they should be drinking.

They're looking for names and vintage dates of good values. Price matters.

But I also sense something else at the root of these questions. These people are looking to upgrade their cultural experiences.

“Drinking wine is simple,” I invariably say. "You should drink the wine that tastes best to you. Likewise, you should drink it with the food you prefer.”

To my mind, wine appreciation is best approached with a sense of fun and enjoyment. The same goes for pairing wine and food, which has been elevated to something of a science by well-meaning Californian wine lovers.

The thing is, however, nothing makes me lose my appetite faster than listening to a wine geek agonize over the wine list looking for “the perfect match” for their selected dish.

As Master Sommelier Andrea Immer-Robinson, author of Great Wine Made Simple and Great Tastes Made Simple says, “The thing about wine is you are forever a student. That's what makes it so wonderful. You're never at risk of knowing everything and you're never at risk of being bored.

“There are always new things to learn and discover. You haven't seen it all or done it all, and you won't. You can spend a lifetime trying and enjoy the heck out of that."

Amen to that.


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