Here we go, the purpose of our trip to Niagara - to meet this man, Charles Baker. The Toronto Star featured him in a piece, so I direct you there first. I won't regale you all with Charles' story - the Star does an admirable job, and I didn't go in with the impression that I was conducting an interview.
This was a great experience for me. Charles has a great philosophy for wine, and is passionate about riesling. Talking to him, you get a real sense that he's a true believer in Niagara - that there are parts of the Escarpment that have a story to tell. And that's the point, no? If a wine has no story to tell, then what is there to taste? The ego of the winemaker?
Charles is working on a project, focusing on single-vineyard rieslings. He's working with growers that share his philosophy of intense, terroir-specific wines with true vintage character. Currently, one grower has signed on - Marc Picone, of Picone Vineyard. You cannot compromise - Charles pays the grower by tonnage, and in fact, he's compensating the grower to cut yields. For example, to maintain quality, you pay for 5 tonnes, to entice the grower to cut down to 1.5 tonnes per acre. A sacrifice that shows in the bottle.
Truth in the bottle. Starting with the wine on the right. 2008 Charles Baker Stratus Picone Vineyard Riesling, VQA Vinemount Ridge. Lithe nose, with an intensity and energy that is just stunning for the vintage. Lots of pure fruit, but with an overt oily minerality that I see in many of the Beamsville rieslings I like - the only difference is the absolute intensity of the wine. This is where the low yields make the difference. The mouth shows a fine creaminess, with excellent extract. There's a beautiful texture to the wine, especially on the finish. Bright, aggressive acidity. Very, very impressive effort, and clearly shows the pedigree of the vineyard, and the people who farm it.
We're judging this wine far too early. We'll see how this develops in 5-8. An incredible wine, layered and balanced, with so much character.
The wine on the left is the 2009 Charles Baker Riesling, just fermented. Cloudy, but this is already showing quite well. The fruit shows a bit riper, but minerality shows. Acidity shines. All the wine needs is some time to clear up.
I was expecting greatness, but the wine surpassed what I thought I'd see. There's a great expression - again, I urge caution, as I'm not too sure we're clearly seeing a Niagara character yet. But these are fantastic wines, and with some age, I think the expression will become clearer. Much appreciation to Charles for being so generous with his time and his wine. You're onto something, and I can't wait to see (and taste) the Escarpment reveal itself in these wines.
Photos, courtesy of ROKChoi.