Welcome to Ontario

By Alan Kerr

Niagara wine scene is worth the drive

Ontario is a wine lover’s playground. Much like parts of Michigan, Ontario at this time of the year is a spectacle of colors. The wines, the landscape and the Niagara escarpment in particular make it a splendid place to visit.

There is much excitement in the region. Many wineries are showcasing the wines made in the growing seasons of 2010 and 2011, while the remarkable fruit of 2012 is still in the barrel.

There are close to 100 wineries in the region, making a condensed list of which ones to visit overwhelming. Most of the quantity production wineries can be found in local magazines, while the smaller wineries that don’t have the bucks to partake in costly advertising often remain unknown to visitors.

Niagara used to be known only for its ice wines, much to the credit of Inniskillin, a winery in the heart of Niagara on the Lake. It put the region on the global wine map after winning double gold at Vin Expo for their 1989 Vidal Ice wine. People travel to the region not just for ice wine anymore; accolades from global wine gurus proclaim its white wines and reds are becoming first rate.

Recently, there was much hype during the “Ontario Chardonnay, seriously cool” event held in London, England, where wineries showcased their cool climate Chardonnays before the world’s most notorious critics — British wine writers. “Ontario can now be taken seriously as a world-class wine producer,” said British wine writer Jancis Robinson.

Canada’s wine regions are governed by a strict set of rules devised by the Vintners Quality Alliance. They divided Niagara into two regional designations: Niagara on the Lake and the Niagara Escarpment. Both of these regions offer wines of uniqueness and a diversity of wine styles for both the novice and serious wine geek.

Driving from Michigan, the thirsty traveler first encounters the Niagara Escarpment. This starts east of the town of Stoney Creek and runs up to the city of St. Catharine´s, covering a distance of about 25 miles.

Halfway up the Escarpment is a section of flat land known as Beamsville Bench. The soils in this appellation are composed of gravel, sand, silt and clay, as well as shale, sandstone and limestone. One winery located in the heart of this bucolic countryside is Organized Crime.

The wines are made by Ross Wise. Wise uses minimal intervention in his quest to produce the best. The 2012 Viognier is laden with aromas of orange, apricot, fresh cut flowers and honey. It is truly a beautifully crafted wine. Niagara is making Syrah only in years that are warm enough to fully ripen, and Organized Crime’s renditions are always stunning. The owner, an animated lady originally from Belarus, is happy to relay her story on the origin of the winery’s unusual name.

For three years in a row, Tawse winery was named “Winery of the Year” by the folks who organize the Canadian wine awards. The wines made here best express the variance in the terroir within the region and are some of the best made in Ontario.

Owner Maury Tawse joined chef Ryan Crawford, who runs the kitchen at Stone Road Grille in Niagara on the Lake, to open a new farm-to-table-style eatery just outside of Beamsville. The restaurant is scheduled to open late in 2014.

There is no indication whatsoever that Pearl Morissette, a relatively recent addition to the Niagara scene, is a winery. There is no indication or signage suggesting a winery is tucked away behind a barn at the end of the dusty driveway just off Queen Elizabeth Way. The wines, however, are heralded as some of the best in the area.

Winemaker and senior partner Francois Morissette has been involved in the world of wines for many years. He was as a sommelier in Quebec before moving to the Burgundy region of France, where he spent seven vintages learning traditional approaches in viticulture and winemaking, along with some formal schooling in oenology. He worked for Frédéric Mugnier, a highly respected grower based in Chambolle-Musigny in the Cote d’Or and Domaine Roulot in Mersault.

It was during this time that Francois refined his knowledge for Pinot. The portfolio of wines is solely Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc and Riesling. Listening to the passion and intensity coming from Morissette is like listening to a three-star Michelin chef talk about his food. The “Black Ball” Riesling, so named because it was not deemed to have the typicity of Riesling by the Vintners Quality Alliance, is racy, slick and bursting with green apple acidity. The 2010 Cab Franc is possibly the best I have ever tasted from Niagara. Winery visits and tastings here are by appointment only.

Pondview is a fledgling winery that is quickly becoming recognized as a serious producer. They produce two levels of wines: The premium line, “Bella Terra,” offers seriously good wines at a reasonable price.

The well-structured and seriously ripe reds from the present 2010 release are worth seeking out. Their Cabernet Sauvignon in particular explodes with toasty aromas of casis and blackberry and also shows great potential for aging.

St David’s, an eye-catching village within the geographical boundaries of Niagara on the Lake, has its own viticultural appellation. One tiny gem tucked away from the main drag is Five Rows winery. Fruit for this vineyard comes from the Lowry vineyard. Historically, fruit was sold to local wineries, but in 2001 Wes Lowrey had the notion to produce the family’s wine using fruit from some of the oldest vines on the plantation. As the name suggests, production here is limited to 400 cases. The portfolio of Five Rows focuses on varietals that have a track record of showcasing the unique style and expression of the Lowrey Vineyard, as well as their characteristic representation of the St. David´s Bench Appellation.

The winery sources fruit from four estate vineyards, all located within the Four Mile Creek sub-appellation of Niagara on the Lake. Opa’s vineyard was the first, planted in 1956. All told, these are some very good and pocket-friendly wines.

These are just a few of the hidden gems to be found in the Niagara area. It truly is worth the drive to visit. The winemakers here work together and strive to make Niagara’s name known among the winemaking regions of the world. Slowly they are succeeding. Come find out for yourself.

Cheers. (Alan Kerr is a professor in the food and wine science division at the Niagara Culinary Institute. Regular Uncorked writer Michael Brenton returns next month.)