February 20, 2008, about four and a half months from my last trip down to Niagara. Interesting to see the area in winter, when last time we went, it was still a fairly mild autumn.
I went down this time again with my dear friends, in a group of 6. The purpose for this trip was firstly to enjoy the day with friends and secondly, I wanted to focus on the small, artisanal producers of Niagara.
My original list was for 6 wineries, 2 of which I was quite familiar with. I wanted to focus on the Burgundian varietals chardonnay and pinot noir. Overall, it was a smooth day, we tasted upwards of 80 different wines and everyone arrived home safely. I'll go through the 9 wineries we ended up visiting, and my thoughts on each producer. I don't want this post to be too long.
1. Malivoire Wine Company
Our first stop of the day. They were featured in an LCBO release. The gentlemen inside was friendly, knowledgable and most importantly, honest. He was honest about the harvest, honest about their wine-making philosophy, and honest about recognizing other producers as well. Just a joy to talk to. I started with both their chardonnays, their main line and their more exclusive Moira line. I also tried their pinot noirs. Having gone through a wide spectrum of both red and white wines, I was very, very impressed. You really get a consistent level of aroma, flavour, and quality through their entire line, something that not many wineries can achieve. And the acidity! My goodness, what gusto!! I've never had a better chardonnay, period. PERIOD. Both their single vineyard and lower end bottle is fantastic, just this beautiful blend of fruit and minerality, with this flavour that is intense, focussed and clean. Wonderful. Unfortunately, the price is set quite high. The Moira line, which I was interested in, goes for $36 and up. Can they justify setting the price so high? It's hard to say. I think it's about economics - small vineyard, small yields, you have to at least break even. So yes, I believe that they are over-pricing the wines, but my goodness, what marvelous wines!
2. Flat Rock Cellars
This is one of my favourite producers of pinot noir. I've written about this before, look it up here. This time though, I wanted to try a wider variety of their wine. I tasted their riesling as well as their new Gravity Pinot Noir. The rieslings were good - really noticeable petrol on the nose, but very lively with their trademark acidity. Lovely, just a really classic, well-structured riesling. Their Gravity - I wasn't very impressed. Maybe it was due to storage, since it could have been opened for days. What was most interesting was the pinot noir clone sample she poured me. It was never released for sale, just sort of an experiment by the growers. And it was very interesting, quite unlike the pinot noir they have on the market. I left with 2 bottles of riesling.
3. Creekside Estate Winery
This was not one that we had planned to go to. It was new to me, so I tried almost their entire line. I felt that their blends, both red and white were...ok. They had nice complexity but in a much softer and approachable style. For the beginning wine-drinker. What was more interesting was that the lady there matched us glass for glass. Can't imagine how many bottles the staff there goes through annually!
4. Hernder Estate Wines
This was also a spur of the moment decision. It looked grand on the outside, all wood structures on a very large property. Once we went inside, we realized that they do about 200 weddings a year, as well as make vinegar, jam, fruit liquers, etc....just about everything. The old lady was very nice, so I don't relish saying this; honestly, as honest as I can be, their wine was fucking shit. It was the worst and saddest excuse for wine I've ever tasted. No lie. I mean - I feel embarrased for whoever makes this stuff, because it really is undrinkable. The chardonnay we had is seared into my memory and palate. Incredible amounts of grassiness and vegetal qualities of the worst kind, obscenely underripe and overoaked. Really, quite literally, I'd rather drink original Listerine than this. My goodness. All the weddings they receive must be going to their heads.
5. Henry of Pelham
This estate was a lot of fun. Its a very big producer so naturally, I've never been very much of a fan. But the lady at the bar was so much fun to talk to. She really was. And she refused to charge us for the tasting and even gave us some chocolates for the road. I tasted their entire line of white wines, from their chardonnays to riesling to sauvignon blanc. And I tasted their pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, and also their sparkling wine. The sparkling brut was interesting - blend of pinot noir, chardonnay, and petit meunier - the classic Champagne blend, in a golden style, a white wine. It was delicate, a lot of pretty aromas but lacking the more austere quality in a true champagne. It's a shame, I would have bought a bottle. The wines in general were serviceable and non-offensive. Meaning I don't mind drinking them for dinner at all, but nothing that blows my mind. Well, their pinot noir was good. Soft and supple, nice fruit. Overall, I had a good impression of their wines, which goes to show that not all big producers are bad. Of course, the lady there definitely had something to do with changing my perception!
6. Chateau des Charmes
This place again. You know how I feel about this place. But Ming had never been here before, so we just popped in quickly. They had the top of the line blend, the Equuleus, a blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and merlot. A classic Bordeaux blend. I thought it was interesting, nice fruit and firm structure, but not as concentrated as I'd expect it to be. They also produce a sparkling wine. Overall, my impression has not changed. They make drinkable wines, but nothing to go crazy over.
7. Coyote's Run Estate Winery
I was excited to go here, as I'd heard a lot about this place. But it was arguably the worst experience of the day. The man working there was the cockiest, most stuck up jackass I've ever met. He wouldn't even look me in the eye when I was talking to him. Give me a break. Really, give me a fucking break. Anyways, what was interesting about this winery was that for their chardonnays, the winemaker uses Hungarian oak barrels, instead of the more typical French or American. It's the first place I know that openly admits to using them. Their wines in general, the chardonnay and pinot noir - again, a more fruit-forward, juicy wine. I just don't get a sense of style, besides the noticeable spiciness of the Hungarian oak. Maybe because he was sucking all the fun out of the room.
8. Lailey Vineyard
This is another producer that I'm familiar with, whose pinot noir I used to believe was Niagara's best. This time - maybe its the storage again, or the icy cold woman behind the counter. But it lacks the focus, the intensity of Flat Rock's pinot noir. It's still a good wine, but maybe my taste has changed since last July. It's still wonderful. What was disappointing was that she wouldn't open a bottle of cabernet franc for me to taste. What the hell. I didn't know what I needed to do to get her to let me taste it. So I didn't buy anything.
9. Peller Estates
Again, another big winery, a huge property, with a restaurant, offices and ballroom. Our last stop of the day. It looked really nice instead - beautiful tasting room, lots of wine accessories on sale. So I was a bit leery about their wine. Turns out I was right about this one. I don't understand their use of oak, a theme that runs across their entire line. Much too manipulated, just too much oak. So much that for some wines, you have to dig really deep to find the fruit, and at times, you just can't. But the top of the line, the Signature Series Cabernet Sauvignon fared better. Nice nose of red fruits, nicely concentrated with still a tight core. But, hints of smokiness and tar are coming out. This 2002 still needs some age. Their sparkling wine has a good story - they use their vidal icewine as a dosage, after they disgorge the yeast. The nose is all icewine. It lacks complexity and I think it's too much - this is a demi-sec. I don't agree with the philosophy of this producer. To me, they seem like they organize their lines according to wine-making method, instead of vineyard selection. I disagree firmly with that. The winemaker doesn't make the wine, the vineyards do. A lot of the differentiation of their wines comes with whether they ferment in stainless steel or oak barrels, how long they age in oak, and whether they bottle age in their cellars before they release they wines.
I thoroughly enjoyed the day. We had a lot of wine, learned some new things about the area, and have a clearer picture of the differences in terroir. And there is a clear difference between the Beamsville area and the area around the Niagara River. This is getting too long, but I will post some pictures up, as soon as Rocky sends them my way. Next post, I still have some things to say about Niagara as a whole.