Canadian as I am, I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I was unaware of the extent of the exciting vinous activity happening in Niagara, a couple of hours south of Toronto in Ontario. I vaguely remember a Niagara shelf at the LCBO when I lived in Toronto as a university student (but let’s be honest: when I was a student in Toronto ten years ago, I was mostly drinking Wolf Blass Yellow Label and other such “fashionable” Australian Shiraz, some with critters on the label), and I of course knew about Niagara’s famous icewine. But TasteCamp North in Niagara has fully opened my eyes to the charms of Niagara wines, which extend far beyond ice wines.
The three-day agenda was absolutely packed, and there’s no chance I’ll be able to describe everything with the detail it deserves. The organizers did an amazing job coordinating the event. We ate extremely well, and tried many, many, many wines. There were of course lows as well as highs, but in general I found lots to write home about. Just take a look at the hashtag #TasteCamp on Twitter to see thirty or more wine bloggers “writing home” about the wines they found in Niagara. The variety of grapes and styles of wine and experimentation happening in Niagara is pretty amazing. It’s a young wine region and is so far not terribly constrained by AOC-style regulations, leaving winemakers free to experiment. The varietals that seem most popular and most promising are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Riesling, and Cabernet Franc.
The weekend kicked off at Chateau des Charmes, where we were greeted with a glass of sparkling rosé and a talk by winemaker Paul Bosc, Jr. Paul spoke about the local appellation St. David’s Bench, which is in his opinion the best place in Niagara for full-bodied, structured reds, and about the “human intervention aspect of terroir,” which he sees as being very important.
We had the chance to act as guinea pigs in an interesting experiment: sampling three different barrel samples of the Equuleus 2010, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot that will be released in two years. The three samples were oaked differently: one in brand new oak with a medium toast, a second in brand new oak but with less toast, and a third with three-year old barrels. Paul took a vote, and will apparently consider our opinion (among others) in deciding what to do with the vintage.
The 2010 barrel samples were still young and tannic, but then we tasted a version of the finished product: the 2007 Equuleus from the Paul Bosc Estate. It was a very nice red, with flavours of cassis, cocoa, raspberries, strawberries, spice, a slight vegetal note and smooth tannins. It was full-bodied with a long finish, and I expect it will fare even better with a bit more age.
We had a lovely lunch provided by Spencer at the Waterfront, paired with more Chateau des Charmes wines. Halfway through the meal a woman came in and took the empty seat next to me. At first she told us she was the cleaning lady, but eventually we deduced that she was in fact the co-founder of the chateau, Mme. Bosc (Paul Bosc, Jr.’s mother). She grew up in Algeria and lived in France before moving to Canada, and she spoke to us about what it was like to move to Canada and open a winery in such a young wine region. “If there is an opportunity, if the door opens just a bit, put your foot in it,” she advised us. A very inspiring lady!
Next we returned outside, where several Niagara-on-the-Lake wineries had tables set up and were pouring wines. I didn’t get around to try everything, but the highlight for me was actually trying a couple more Chateau des Charmes wines, especially the 2007 Savagnin icewine.
At Hillebrand Estate Winery, our next stop, winemaker Craig McDonald spoke to us about wild fermentation. Wild fermentation means the wine is fermented using the yeast and bacteria that naturally grows in the vineyard and lives with the grapes all year round. This is as opposed to manually adding a commercial cultivated yeast to begin the fermentation. I’ve been hearing more and more about wild fermentation these days, as it is a hot topic among wine geeks. I’d love the chance to do some more structured tastings to draw my own conclusions about the differences in taste, which can apparently be quite vast.
You never really know what you’re going to get with wild fermentation, Craig told us. You have to play around, test things out, and stress the yeast a little until you find the strongest and dominant strain. He feels they’ve found the right balance with their Chardonnay, but it sounds like they’re still experimenting with other varietals, such as the Sauvignon Blanc we tried.
There were a few other wineries pouring at Hillebrand: Lailey Vineyard, Stratus Wine, and Thirty Bench Wine Makers. I liked Lailey’s 2009 Chardonnay (somewhat unusual, because much of the Chardonnay I tried in Niagara had too much oak for my personal taste) and especially their 2007 Pinot Noir. But it was Thirty Bench that got me really excited. I tried four of their Rieslings: the Steel Post 2009, Wood Post 2009, Triangle 2009, and the Winemaker’s Selection 2010. All were very good with a nice, refreshing acidity and should age well. I am very tempted to compare them to Riesling I had in Germany’s Mosel Valley. I was also quite impressed with the young winemaker, Emma Garner, whose passion for Riesling was evident. And then we tried their Cabernet Franc, which I also really liked. It displayed the typical green pepper notes but was nicely balanced with some red fruit. Forced to choose between their Riesling or their Cabernet Franc, I would be hard pressed.
It was about then that I knew I would have to return to Niagara to revisit some of these wines and wineries, starting with Thirty Bench.