The idea of heading north for the long immersion weekend on both sides of the Niagara wine region’s international border was not rocking my world. Despite looking forward to the vinous camaraderie of TasteCamp 2011’s wine writer gang, Niagara wines never competed for my attention or cellar space and doubt was raging that one weekend of tasting could have me trading out Batard Montrachet for Niagara Bench Chardonnay. Skepticism handicapped all possibilities that the couple hundred wines we would taste in Ontario and New York could generate any significant new enthusiasm for the region.
By definition, discovery travel displaces naivety with experience. It transforms preconception into worldliness and washes over willing, open minded participants in metamorphic fashion. So flying to Buffalo on a Friday morning with my cellar’s vintage treasures in a rear view mirror, I convinced myself to embrace the experience for all it wanted to show. And after three days, the preconceived disadvantages of challenging weather, short growing seasons, varietal indecision, ice wine dominance, and undeveloped winemaking experience reassembled themselves into a uniquely charming and accomplished regional wine personality that has held my attention ever since. While I found enough wines on the Ontario side fit for service to the most discriminating wino, sharing my simple two dimensional laundry list of those top bottles isn’t a fitting introductory path to Niagara. The region’s terroir and blissfully young, but crescendoing, winemaking prowess and culture surfaced as the critical third dimension for attractive expression in the absence of venerable credibility.
Love wine first for its expression and secondarily for its pedigree
The weather is a problem. No two vintages are really ever the same, and the advantages of climatic consistency that, say, California enjoys are lost around Lake Ontario. For example, bud break in 2011 is two to three weeks behind last year. Frost remains a looming enemy right through May. But instead of accepting a predetermined script for a shorter growing season with under ripened fruit, serious winemakers bravely face the challenges, relying on their developed knowledge to insure each vintage expresses its unique Niagara conditions in representative ways. Go ask a Niagara winemaker why the same varietal from identical vineyard rows in two different vintages can show significant style, construct, and flavor variation, and you will learn about flexible approaches in the vineyard, fanatic and frequent barrel tastings, and on the fly process adjustments for making the most of this fabric of inconsistent spring, summer, and harvest conditions. Frankly speaking, the inconsistency defines a piece of Niagara’s terroir.
I was struck with something Paul Bosc mentioned while we were walking through his vineyard just above the terroir forming Niagara Escarpment. Paul and his family are early movers in Niagara and proprietors at Chateau des Charmes, having planted full vinifera vineyards back in the 70’s with more than thirty years of acquired learning for harnessing the St. David’s Bench terroir where his winery is located and whose name he coined. With a nod to the hard work that begins in his Niagara vineyards, and a backhanded comment on non-interventionism, Paul quipped that “lazy, stupid people don’t showcase terroir.” And that is the story of Niagara. Immensely dedicated, vision fueled pioneers that now understand the advantages of their prehistoric geology and meaningfully defined sub appellations and are combining adaptive vineyard approaches (for example, low-to-ground trellising strategies to absorb stored heat) with state of the art winemaking facilities to work with the weather, not against it.
On Prowess and Wine Culture:
There is still a lot of barely passable wine made and sold in Niagara. I tasted them. They’re a sum result of the region’s short serious winemaking history, challenging weather, and schizophrenic approaches to experimenting with multiple varietals inside sub appellations and across the region in general. But, there are enough examples of spectacular results with Chardonnay, Riesling, and Pinot Noir to chart a course to overall credibility on the world stage. All three can be considered early ripening varieties, and that makes sense in a land of unforgiving weather patterns and indiscriminate growing seasons. Also, Riesling and Pinot are both so wonderfully expressive of terroir and Niagara’s prehistoric geologies and sub appellation awareness are great platforms for those varieties to express their micro climates and specific patches of land.
Visit the Bench area of the Niagara Escarpment and stop at Vineland Estates to talk with Brian Schmidt; you will quickly witness Riesling’s potential and the depth of varietal understanding that has evolved tending to their St. Urban Vineyard over the last thirty two years. Head over to Tawse Winery and chat it up with winemaker Paul Pender and discover the magic he creates with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir employing organic and biodynamic methods in their state of the art gravity flow winery. It will become immediately apparent why Tawse was selected Canadian Winery of the Year in 2010 by Canadian Wine Access magazine. And definitely don’t miss out on a visit with Ed Madronich at Flat Rock Cellars to embrace a level of enthusiasm he was infected with crossing France by bicycle and stumbling on his first mind bending wines and transported back home to Niagara. Along with his transplanted New Zealand winemaker, Ross Wise, their vision for Chardonnay, Riesling, and Pinot are consistent with the region’s certain and unfolding roadmap.
It would be an oversight not to mention the relative openness and connectedness the Niagara wine community enjoys and benefits from. All of the proprietors and winemakers I mentioned are active open participants in Twitter and express a high degree of authenticity with anyone showing interest in their work or the region in general. They are all supported by an accomplished and knowledgeable set of cheerleaders including world class wine writers and dedicated enthusiasts like Remy Charest, Rick VanSickle, Suresh Doss, and Tim Appelt. They are joined by a supportive group of young sommeliers that are developing an advanced perspective on Canadian wines and sharing the knowledge from Nova Scotia to Toronto. It is one giant cauldron of energy that is producing progress at warp speed.
The Ontario Niagara wine scene is worth a visit. There is great eating and hospitable lodging. I promised not to give a laundry list of wines, but I need to share some highlight stops you won’t want to miss. They were on our weekend wine parade route, ably selected by the area’s most knowledgeable local winos. Enjoy Niagara, and keep an open mind. Like me, you just might get over yourself discovering all that Niagara wine culture has to offer.
Recommended Winery Visits:
Chateau Des Charmes
Flat Rock Cellars