Niagara Revisited

When Vineland’s Kacaba winery first opened I thought that the wines were overly spicy/sweet, and overly priced. A recent tasting revealed that the winery is continuing as it started. However I did find one gem. The 2003 Cabernet Franc ($25.95) delivers the pure flavours and challenging vigour and vitality of this grape. Lots of old”“ fashioned red wine character ““ Ontario’s edition of Chianti. It’s starting to fade but shows the potential of this grape. Which must be the most-used line in Niagara’s wine history.

MALIVOIRE UPDATE JANUARY 2008 read all about it here

You gotta go. Once you’re off the highway and start visiting wineries, tasting, buying food at road stands, seeing stuff, and having meals you realize what a wonderful experience we have here. Sure it’s not as hilly as Tuscany but I think you can eat and drink as well as anywhere in the world. We’ve come a long in a short time.

You need at least two days, three would be better ““ especially if you want to take time to smell the roses. I like to do the Niagara- on-the-Lake region first heading down York Road to Queenston, and then up the beautiful Parkway. A little refreshment on the back patio of the Riverbend Inn and I’m in the zone.
You really have to visit Niagara to taste what local wine is all about. Little or no quality local wine appears on LCBO shelves. That is not to say that everything at the wineries good, far from it.

I’m happy to report that winemakers are at last getting a grip on how to make truly local wine. The days of Californian look-alikes are over (with the exception of wines made for competitions). I’ve made a list of wines that I think are uniquely Niagara ““ wines that have no equivalent from another country. See end.

Summary of wines: Riesling and Chardonnay are the top wines. Viognier and Pinot Gris are also good but limited availability. Gamay and Cabernet Franc are tops in red. Pinot is certainly there, and may eventually be the local hero. While everyone is producing big reds most of these feel contrived, flavoured or in some way unnatural. If you go to Niagara looking for editions of your favourite Shiraz you will be wasting your, and their time.

How to taste? Instead of thinking “˜do I like this?’ Imagine a context for every wine you taste. Ask the winery for “let me try a refresher! Let me try a rich white! Let me try something rustic to have with BBQ’d sausages! etc.” If you taste with no context in mind, you will end up buying wines that felt good at the time. And weeks later wonder why you bought them.

The Good Earth Cooking School is now offering prepared picnics to-go. All seasonally-inspired, farm focused and wine friendly. The Good Earth is located minutes off the QEW near Beamsville.

WINERIES RECENTLY VISITED (summer 2007) with my recommended Best Buys
(Listed geographically from Beamsville to Niagara on the Lake)

A few thoughts on the wineries and the wines:

Upscale, with a high end restaurant. French winemaker, Jean-Pierre Colas is re-learning his craft in Niagara. And doing well, especially with whites. Start with a delicious, refreshing 06 Viognier $13.95. (Coming to Vintages mid-Sept). Also check-out the charming, Non-oaked 06 Inox Reserve Chardonnay $19.95 shades of Pouilly-Fuisse. The 02 Barrel Fermented Chardonnay $19.95 is rich but quite gracious. In reds I liked the lighthearted feeling of the 02 Cabernet Franc $39.95. A lively, Elton John sort of wine.

Nouveau riche-style house nestled into the hillside. Pretty place but feels unsure of its style. Lunches indoors or on the patio.
Look for more focus in the wines now that Phil Dowell (ex Inniskillin) is in charge. Old Vines 04 Chardonnay $23.95 has glam but also feels slim and elegant. Classy stuff. The lively 05 Gamay $12.95 is super refreshing, a true local. You must try the semi-sweet Late Harvest Cabernet Rosé $23. An afternoon, or Thanksgiving daytime sipper. I like how all of these wines are true local expressions.

Not great on curb appeal but this little joint gets three awards from me: most improved wines, best tasting room person in Janine Hunink, and best wine descriptions by winemaker Natalie Reynolds. At the risk of getting gushy I also love the use of old rusted roofing tin in the sinage, and the option to taste at your own bar table. Improvements here are thanks to one of the former bad guys of local wine (Andres ““ Baby Duck) but more recently, Hillebrand and Peller. Thirty Bench has some of the oldest plantings of Riesling, and Natalie has crafted a range of superb wines $18 ““ $32. There’s also a decadent 06 Gewurztraminer $30, and a delish, well priced, Cab/Merlot blend called Thirty Bench red $22.

Niagara’s newest aiming-for-the-top winery. Big budget, restored old farmhouse and huge barn. Very good, high-end wines by a French winemaker Jean-Martin Bouchard. But not a place to take your drinking buddies. Silky, super-duper Estate 05 Chardonnay $35, citrussy, classy 05 Estate Riesling $22 and a super rich white Meritage called Nuit Blanche $40. The red equivalent, Terroir Cache $35, has a wonderful rustic, gutsy character. There’s a serious Rosé $18, and other high-end reds will be released later this year.

Mountain chalet with a great view from the tasting bar. And friendly, welcoming staff. Delicious off-dry Pinot Grigio $18, and 06 Sauvignon Blanc is also a yummy drink (but not for the serious Sauv fan). Rich, Alsace-style 06 Reserve Riesling $22 needs a year to evolve.

Am I entering a winery or a scrap yard? (Both appeal to me). It gets better once you see a café table set against a stone wall.
Steve Kocsis has some seriously old Chard vines and it shows in his wine. His 03 Barrel Fermented Chardonnay $16.15 may be the world’s best buy in rich whites. Manly and super concentrated ““ shades of wine made in Burgundy by a New Yorker. You must get some. The 03 Reserve Chardonnay $26.15 is more glitzy and glamorous. Vegas style.

A mini Portugese villa and gardens on top of the escarpment. Surreal! Rustic reds that taste best out of a clay cup ““ which they provide. Portuguese BBQ $14.95 (sardines, chicken, pork, etc) in the garden on Sat and Sun (noon-5:00).

Beautiful landscaping, striking entrance and serene tasting room. A modern space with traditional values. Estate wines are organic. Stylish Chardonnays $22-$36, Pinot Gris $18, Pinot Noir $28 and Rosé $16. My fav is the exuberant Gamay $16. A true local. (Coming to Vintages mid-Sept).

Welcome to my Chateau! Please close the gate! Well made, high-end wines in keeping with the fancy surroundings. Exotic Chardonnays and the 04 Cabernet Franc $29 is lush and sexy ““ shades of Pinot.

Simple spot but you can get a good pasta lunch, (but avoid the overpriced pizza). Killer Gewurztraminer $18. The reds have a gutsy, rustic character ““ 04 Pinot $25, Merlot $20 and Meritage $20 are all good food wines.

One of Niagara’s showpieces (best view), complete with a high-end restaurant. Outstanding Mosel-style Rieslings (at LCBOs), stylish Sauvignon Blanc $18 and Pinot Blanc $16.

No fancy resto at this old barn. Very backwoods, very rustic, very small, and very good.
Calamus 06 white $12 ““ fresh “˜n fun, and Calamus 05 Red $15 ““ earthy, rustic, are two of the best buys in Niagara. The 06 Pinot Gris $15 could pass for something fancy from France. And there’s yummy 06 non-oaked Chardonnay too. Bravo Calamus.
P.S. Arthur Harder is the consulting winemaker here and at Ridgepoint.

Novel, sky-pod winery set high on the escarpment that has done everything right in its first few years. Classic 06 Dry Riesling “˜Nadja’s’ $19.95 (coming to Vintages mid-Sept), lively, lovely 05 Chardonnay $16.95, rich, charming 05 Chardonnay “˜Rusty Shed’ $24.95, lively, Beaujolais-style 05 Pinot $19.95, and seductive 05 Pinot “˜Gravity’ $29.95.

A model of consistency in wine. Also showing innovation and good taste in developing the village of Jordan. Drinks, meals and beds at the Inn on the Twenty, and more of the same down the road at the Jordan Tavern. Good Riesling, (stunning 06 Estate Riesling $17.95) ChardonnayPinot at the LCBO and the following at the winery. Champagne styling meets Prosecco drinkability in the 04 Brut Sparkling $29.95, gorgeous fruit and delicacy in 06 Chenin Blanc $21.95 (garden wine), blockbuster flavours in 06 Gewurztraminer $19.95, raunchy, woodsy character in 04 Gamay Reserve $19.95 (anyone for wild boar), exotic flavours and refreshment in 06 “˜Indian Summer’ Riesling $24.95, and a new wine experience in the Ripasso-style 05 Cabernet Franc “˜La Penna’ $35. A charmer to savour in the winter.

Low budget facility but there’s a shaded deck with food coming off the grill. And below ground is one of Niagara’s largest barrel cellars where some fun guys craft good wines. Recommended wines to follow.

This long established, four guy, hobby operation that has produced some really good wines. Most with individual statements. Open Saturdays only. Funk 06 Riesling is good enough to warrant $24.00, 04 Chardonnay Reserve has a perfect mix of richness and zest, and my fave, Sandstone 05 Gamay Reserve $26.00 is earthy and Chianti in style. The white blend 06 Et Ceteras $22.00 is good enough to be house wine at a top restaurant. While the rustic red blend, 05 Et Ceteras $22.00, could hold its own at an Italian restaurant. These guys really deliver local.

Hands-on family operation that’s been one of the cornerstones of Niagara wine. Old coaching inn, interesting Canadian art collection and light foods and local cheeses available on the patio. Very good wine at all price levels and at last, a smarter-looking label. Excellent Riesling, Chardonnay and Baco at LCBOs. At the winery there’s super refreshing sparkling, Cuvee Catharine in white or Rosé $29.95, a gutsy/rich Baco Reserve $24.95 and a very Burgundian 05 Pinot Reserve $24.95. and

Imposing Chateau surrounded by beautifully manicured vineyards. Rose bushes everywhere ““ very formal, very French. Bossman Paul Bosc is one of the founders of the modern Canadian wine industry. A huge range of wines at all price levels. Check out the St David’s Bench whites: herbaceous and tangy 06 Sauvignon Blanc $15.95, tasty, floral fresh 06 Viognier $25.00, and bold flavoured 06 Gewurztraminer $19.95. The 05 Gamay Noir “˜Droit’ $15.95 has a wild country character similar to bistro wines in France. Great with a paté or cheese platter. The 04 Cabernet/Merlot $19.95 also has French heartiness. All the reds need a food partner.

Longtime Niagara winemaker Jamie Macfarlane and brother Douglas, have just opened and are specializing in Icewine. A house white and red will also be available on their patio. Located in a lovely old Peach barn, set back from the Parkway.

Simple, no frills winery with a long eastablished following. Everything gets sold on site. John Marynissen claims to have some of the oldest Cabernet vines in Niagara. Sandra’s Summer Blend (white) $11.95 is an off-dry party sipper. Buy of the year in local red is the rustic 02 Cabernet/Merlot $14.95. It’s wine the old way ““ earthy, honest and a bit challenging. I asked how they got the amazing traditional Bordeaux-style flavours? “Easy, John is too cheap to buy new barrels.” Call today and order a case for fall and winter roasts and casseroles.

The old lady of Niagara is getting a facelift which includes a large piazza. Montague Vineyard 04 Pinot Noir $24.95 is a must-have for fans of the earthy, invigorating Burgundian style. A wine that builds in the glass and knows how to flatter a simple herbed chicken.

Smart, modern tasting room in an old barn. Still a bit of a secret despite turning out some excellent wines. Lailey 06 Riesling (sold out) is one of the local hits of the year. Spring-like freshness, gorgeous Summer flavours and a joyful feeling. Not the austere style that Niagara does so well but more of an afternoon or early evening gulper. The kind of wine that could convert the world to this grape. The 06 non-oaked Chardonnay $15.95 is tangy dry with pure, mineral Chablis-style character. Best I’ve tasted in this category. Lailey Vineyard 05 Chardonnay05 Zweigelt $14.95 is light and super refreshing. More tart than most whites. Could be Baco’s biker cousin. Lightly chill. I found the 04 reds to be a bit faded.

One of Niagara’s liveliest, jazziest winery experiences. Brilliant modern design that showcases the vineyards. Tina Dehondt and her enthusiastic young staff create a nice buzz. Take the tour and see it all. And pick-up some great everyday wines at everyday prices. The 06 Dry Riesling $10.95 is an A1 refresher at the best price in town, and Sauvignon Blanc fans will not be disappointed in the 06 at only $13.95. In reds the 04 Cabernet Franc/Cabernet Sauvignon is a great everyday drink for only $11.95. For a light, summer red try the lively 04 Pinot Noir 05 Delaine Vineyard Riesling $19.95, and the very French-style, earthy 05 Syrah

Niagara’s most stylish/arty/serene winery. You don’t taste wines here, you experience them. Expensive but very good.
Riesling 06 $35.00 is steely and intense. Needs a few years. Stratus 04 White $38 blurs the grape variety thing and delivers a new experience that’s part freshness, part exotic and a lot of WOW. Would be a star on the world stage. Stratus 04 Red $38 is super concentrated and in need of a big steak. Coming in September is a classy, invigorating 04 Petit Verdot $32. $24.95 is the Niagara style at its best ““ vitality up front with richness and flavours lurking behind. Invigorating, teasing and easy on the make up. In red the $13.95. In premium wines check-out the lovely citrussy $29.95.

Charles is the sales director oat Stratus but he makes a tiny quantity of his own Riesling each year which he sells online. The 06 ‘Picone Vineyard’ Vinemont Ridge $35 cuts right through the Niagara Riesling world offering a bit of everything. Especially drinkability. Off-dry and worth aging.

Another one of the old gang that has had a make-over. The place now feels like a mini village. Explore the new look-out tower, beautiful patio, big stylish restaurant, and vineyards. Tasting room can be very busy but staff are good at hospitality. An awful lot of wines ““ something for everyone. Side note: Hillebrand’s Jazz&Blues festivals (July&Aug) are a great way to spend a summer afternoon. Very stylish picnicing.The Artist Label series are VQA in the 06 vintage and the entire line offers good expressions of the grape varieties at reasonable $12-$14 prices. Favourites are the pretty Muscat, the wild Sauvignon Blanc, the rich Pinot Gris, the easy-drinking Meritage and the refreshing Gamay. Trius 05 Dry Riesling $13.95 is more refreshing than in the past and the new Trius 06 White $18.95 is a fun blend of Alsace grape varieties. A tasty mix of tartness and sweetness ““ perfect with white meats, or Sunday brunch.The Showcase line has classic 06 Dry Riesling $19.95 and lush 05 Chardonnay $35. Some of these wines are available at Hillebrand/Peller stores called Vineyeards.

IT’S ALMOST BUILT”“ JOHN HOWARD sold Vineland Estates ten years ago and went into retirement in his Niagara Chateau a mile up the road. Or so we all thought. Turns out he’s been buying and planting vineyards, constructing an amazing old-world style cave/winery and making wine.

Howard is part of an Irish steelworker family who built the first TD Tower in Toronto and several bridges over the St Lawrence, and I cannot help thinking that this winery is going to be his legacy. With emphasis on “˜ I did it my way’.

For help, Howard has experienced Niagara hands in vineyard manager Duarte Oliveira and winemaker Andre Lipinski, and the first batch of wines are promising and not over priced at $16 ““ $25. Best of all, they come with the most entertaining wine names and labels in the industry.

The brand is MELALOMANIAC and the labels feature faceless characters in different formal clothing, along with a playful character description of the grape variety such as: Contrarian Sauvignon Blanc, SonOfaBitch Pinot Noir, Narcissist Riesling and My Way Chardonnay. Move over Bonny Doon.

Niagara needs characters like Howard who dare to inject personality and humour into the hyper-conservative wine business. For some, he will be the idle rich man playing with wine but if the product is good, I’ll certainly be cheering him along. Check my next eletter for a report on Megalomaniac wines coming to Vintages in December. You may order the wines online.

Locals that have a character setting them apart from wines coming from anywhere else in the world. I had to omit a dozen Rieslings because there are just so many. I’ll update this list as I discover more, and maybe we can have an event around these wines and their connection to mood a
nd food.

• Angels Gate 04 Old Vines Chardonnay $23.95 is glam but also feels slim and elegant. Classy stuff.
• Angels Gate semi-sweet Late Harvest Cabernet Rosé $23. A novel sipper.
• Thirty Bench Rieslings ““ a range of superb wines $18″“$32.
• Malivoire exuberant Gamay $16.
• Calamus earthy, rustic 05 Red $15.
• Calamus stylish 06 Pinot Gris $15.
• Flat Rock Cellars classic 06 Dry Riesling “˜Nadja’s’ $19.95
• Cave Spring classic 06 Estate Riesling $17.95
• Cave Spring gorgeous fruity, delicate 06 Chenin Blanc $21.95.
• Thirteen Street Sandstone earthy 05 Gamay Reserve $26.00.
• Thirteen Street delicious white blend, 06 Et Ceteras $22.00
• Henry of Pelham gutsy 05 Baco $12.95, and richer Baco Reserve $24.95.
• Henry of Pelham sparkling Cuvee Catharine, in white or Rosé $29.95
• Ch. des Charmes wild country 05 Gamay Noir “˜Droit’ $15.95.
• Marynissen wonderfully old-fashioned, rustic 02 Cabernet/Merlot $14.95.
• Inniskillin earthy, invigorating Montague Vineyard 04 Pinot Noir $24.95.
• Lailey spring-like, non-oaked 06 Chardonnay $15.95.
• Lailey Vineyard elegant 05 Chardonnay $24.95.
• Jackson-Triggs brilliant everyday 06 Dry Riesling $10.95.
• Jackson-Triggs lovely citrussy 05 Delaine Vineyard Riesling $19.95.
• Jackson-Triggs earthy, mysterious 05 Syrah $29.95.
• Stratus intense 06 Riesling 06 $35.00.
• Stratus nothing-like-it 04 White $38.
• Hillebrand fun Artist Label 06 Muscat.
• Trius semi-exotic 06 White $18.95.

PLACES TO EAT in Niagara

Two great new additions to the restaurant scene:
Nicely understated small restaurant with a pretty side patio. Ryan Shapiro cooks modern twists on bistro food with emphasis on local ingredients. And partner Donna Thomponson opens reasonably priced local wines. I mean local ““ Beamsville only.
3457 King Street W. (w. of Victoria Ave), Vineland 905.562.3457

OLD WINERY RESTAURANT (Niagara on the Lake)
Tony Deluca’s new restaurant is modelled on the Italian trattoria ““ a big room filled with people enjoying affordable food and drink and making a lot of noise. You choose from wood fired pizza, pasta, steak, chicken, chop, or fish ““ and a wine list with the lowest prices on earth. Large patio too. How can you resist.
2228 Old Stone Rd., Niagara-on-the-Lake 905.468.8900

A couple of expansions:
STONE ROAD GRILLE (Niagara on the Lake)
My favourite Niagara restaurant has expanded so there’s more room for folks to join the nightly party. Perry and Heidi Johnson’s Stone Road Grille is a cross between French bistro and English pub ““ fun atmosphere but with a serious commitment to the food (chef Ryan Crawford) and drink (sommelier Jesse Harnden). If you value hospitality and good times this is the place to be. Jesse gets my vote for best service person on the planet. When will we see top service people get the fame of top chefs???
Mississauga Rd/Mary Street, Niagara on the Lake 905.468.3474 (sign outside says Rest)

This has always been a bit of a secret since it’s tucked in behind the winery ““ overlooking the vineyards. Now with more tables, elegant patio and a smart, Californian atmosphere. And Chef Frank Dodd is happy too that the kitchen has expanded. Taste a few wines, eat well and stroll the grounds.
1249 Niagara Stone Road, Virgil 1.800.582.8412

Also recommended:
NIAGARA COLLEGE (Glendale Campus) Dining Room
ON THE TWENTY (Cave Spring) Jordan and JORDAN HOUSE TAVERN (road house food)
PELLER ESTATES (Niagara-on-the-Lake)
RIVERBEND INN (Niagara-on-the-Lake) lunch on the patio is lovely

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1 Comment

  • What I really miss are the humble yet wonderful varietal Bacos and Fochs that were so easily available at many Niagara wineries just a decade ago. I’m thinking of the old Lakeview Cellars first and foremost: they had a varietal Baco, a varietal Foch (amazing quality), and even a varietal Dechaunac. Then there was Hernder’s Baco, which somehow always appealed to me a tad more than H of P’s – even though the latter deserves tremendous praise for not giving up on Baco despite the intense pressure to “viniferafize” everything. I still think that too many wineries gave up on Foch, when Foch grows so well in our climate and should be one of the mainstays of our “vin rouge ordinaire” or table-wine genre. We continue to need good locally grown and made table reds in the $7-$8 range.

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