Drinking around the Niagara peninsula

Canadian wine. It’s not really a phrase to set the world on fire, is it?

IMG_4861The thing is, when you’re on the same basic latitude as most of Burgundy – with a lake shore microclimate that keeps the air warm and fresh – you’ve got a shot at belting out some serious grapes. Pinot Noir, Riesling, Cabernet Franc, a bit of Chardonnay – it’s all going on around the Niagara Escarpment. There’s Syrah and Gamay in the mix, too; not to mention the funky hybrids and the icewine. No, Ontario’s got a lot going for it as wine growing country, and the actual oenology is getting serious.

In 2011 we visited wineries around Lake Erie, and were not wowed. In 2015, we spent three days tasting around the Niagara Peninsula. Four years had passed, and the grapes we saw on the vine in 2011 were now on sale in bottles. We hit a different region, one or two more up-scale wineries, and had a knowledgeable local guide. That is to say: I don’t honestly know if the wine has got better, or if we were just drinking better wine, but it was pretty great.

Most of Canada’s wine is produced in Ontario, in one of the three VQA appellations in the south east around Niagara. Those are: Niagara Peninsula, Lake Erie North Shore, and Prince Edward County. These then get divided a bit more, basically to simplify tourism.

Konzelmann winery, from the "clone stamp tool windows" school of architecture...
Konzelmann winery, from the “just clone stamp  the windows” school of architecture…

New wineries were springing up, some of them clearly reflecting a serious investment. The ones taking pains to look like cutesy ad-hoc little barns were often meticulously restored period buildings. Others were polished ultra-modern visitors centres with restaurants, and some were faux-chateau monstrosities. Gatsby’s mansion with a Loire Valley frisson.

Wine is undoubtedly now big business in Ontario, and we were quoted a huge spread of figures suggesting there were anywhere between 150 and 200 wineries currently trading.

Asking around, the story differed, but the rising demand seemed to be largely domestic, with a bit of a general spike in exports, and a few people pointing a finger at China, which has apparently found a serious taste for icewine. Hard to blame them really, it’s delicious.

Three favourites

By and large, the better wines we had in the Niagara region had a French skew. You can expect tannin and oak and interesting structure. There’s very little of the Barossa Valley big fruit going on – for better or worse, it’s Syrah, not Shiraz.

Here are some I liked.

SUE-ANN STAFF

IMG_4860Named after the current owner, this place is just utterly lovely. The Staff family have been growing grapes for five generations, and living in the area long enough that the farm can be found on Staff Avenue. When you visit you’re basically tasting wine in a family kitchen, and their website offers dedicated bacon pairings for most of the wine

Sue-Ann has been making wine for a while and for a variety of wineries before moving to concentrate on her own, and they’re great. There’s a new sub-brand called Fancy Farm Girl which is all about the easy drinking, with a great rose fizz, and storming label design that riffs on fashion illustration. The real action, however, is in the reds. I brought back a bottle of their 2011 Cabernet Franc, and it’s punching well above its weight. There’s dark cherry and tobacco notes, with bigger fruit than some of the other Cabernet Franc we’d tried in the region. They’re not over-slavishly shooting for Bordeaux , and instead having a bit of fun. The tannin and acid aren’t too strong, and it’s generally a balanced delight.

The Baco Noir by contrast is much more muscular. It’s drink-me-now table wine (£8-ish, exchange rate permitting), and a bit like a Beaujolais Nouveau that got into the leather scene. It mixes in some earthy herbs and pepper for good measure. Baco is a super-hardy hybrid, and not particularly fashionable. But hey, nobody was drinking straight up Carmenère five years ago.

FIVE ROWS

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It’s a field and a barn, and it works.

Starting in 2001 with the five rows of Pinot Noir that gave them their name, these folks are making elegant French-inflected reds, and exciting whites in relatively small batches.

We tried a Pinot, a Syrah, and a Riesling. The reds are good – the Syrah especially. It’s Rhone-ish gentle with just a little tannin. But it’s also fifty dollars. We’ll come to that.

The Riesling is fantastic. It’s got that floral nose a bit like a Gewurztraminer, with some citrus in the body to balance. There’s a little peach and no too much sweetness. I could sniff this all day, the nose is just so rewarding and complex. If you want a Riesling that doesn’t run headlong to petrol I would recommend the shit out of this one.

The problem here, however, is that in a half decent UK wine merchant, you can drop the equivalent of the $50 (CAD) that Five Rows are asking for a bottle of red, and grab something that mops the floor with them. Locally, that’s harder to do, but this is a tough sell as an export. It’s not that they aren’t making good wine; they are. It’s that for ~£26 you can buy a really good bottle of the actual French stuff they’re riffing on. Or, you know, one of these.

WESTCOTT

IMG_3576I hope you like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Because that’s all these guys do, and they do it hard. They also do it in a converted Mennonite barn, imported French oak fermenters, and expensively landscaped surroundings. If you just looked at the winery and the website, Westcott would seem like a cash-sink vanity project, a kind of over-produced cover version of the Côte d’Or.

Thing is, it tastes cracking. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy the wine at all. “Too fussy too tannic, and oaked chardonnay can fuck right off” is more or less what I said as we turned into the driveway. But it’s great. There’s good fruit balance, and a bit of plum to some of the Pinot. They do the chardonnay both with and without oak, and the oaked Reserve Chardonnay is a great, rich example of the style.

Briefly on the big players

There are a few producers cranking out a shit-tonne of Ontario’s wine. Some of it’s quite good. Konzlemann and Peller make a lot of icewine, and a credible general selection. Jackson Triggs and Iniskillin are some of Canada’s largest wine producers, and Iniskillin’s icewine really is quite tasty. Henry of Pelham is a little smaller, but still a stalwart of the LCBO, and worth a quick mention because their Baco Noir makes a fantastic inexpensive table wine. If they sold it here, I’d neck buckets.

Other small outfits

IMG_3639So, where else is nice? Tawse, and their sister vineyard Redstone are promising. There are regulations governing the acreage a single winery can cultivate, but not that a corporate entity can own. So some organizations are developing what you might think of as imprints. Tawse make decent Cabernet Franc (including the icewine version, which has a great orange peel vibe), a Meritage that’s chasing the tannin a bit hard, and their Quarry Road Gewurztraminer is floral and delicious. With Redstone they’re going fresher and a bit more modern. The Syrah and Merlot are credible.

Kacaba make a slightly unusual Gewurztraminer icewine. It’s less of the fruit peel, with a full, oily mouthfeel and some tropical flavours. Lychee, maybe? We bought some of this, and I doubt we’ll regret it. I didn’t rate their Merlot.

13th Street is done up fancy, like a small modern art gallery. Their Gamay Noir is interesting. Almost entirely unlike Beaujolais, it’s light with some fruit, but more tannic and savoury. Their Essence Syrah is a spicy good time.

IMG_3554With the exception of the odd icewine, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything Canadian on sale in the UK. A quick search turns up only a few sites with anything, and Berry Bros have a few paragraphs of waffle, but nothing on sale. The best Amazon can manage is an out of date Dummies guide and some marked-up icewine.

If anybody knows anywhere that reliably stocks Canadian wine in the UK, do leave a comment. Otherwise, it’s a bit tricky to put your hands on this stuff without forking out for a plane ticket. That’s not ideal, given the quality is already struggling against the cost in places. But I really did rate a lot of what we tried.

It would be nice to see a bit more original character, and maybe some bigger fruit win out over the French influence, but there’s quality wine coming out of Niagara, and I really would encourage you to try it if you see it.

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The ones I brought home.

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