Slicing Up the Wine Map
It took the French some 200 years of trial and error to discover which grape varieties did best in which regional soils and macroclimates. This painstaking exercise in pragmatism was given regulatory status as the appellation system, AOC. In 2005, a mere 17 years after the amendment of Ontario’s Wine Content Act prohibiting labrusca varieties from table wine, the VQA announced that the Niagara Peninsula had been divided into two major regional appellations: Niagara-on-the-Lake and Niagara Escarpment. These were further divided into 10 sub-appellations to reflect the local climate and soil structures.
At a time when the consumer is still confused as to the meaning of VQA — given the amount of Cellared in Canada off-shore blends that proliferate on LCBO shelves — it may seem premature. But I believe it’s the right thing to do to start the research. According to J. L. Groulx, the winemaker at Stratus (who hails from the Loire Valley), the task of defining terroirs is a lengthy business. “I don’t think we’ll be finished in 200 years anyway,” he says. Since the active life of the average winemaker is 35 vintages, it’s going to take six generations of vintners before we really know what’s going on in the vineyards of Niagara. If you don’t plan on living that long, you can get a foretaste of what these sub-apps mean by comparing the Rieslings of Short Hills Bench on the Escarpment with those of Four Mile Creek on the Niagara plain. Riesling is the best variety to use as a control grape since its flavours, as a single unblended variety, are dependent on what happens in the vineyard rather than how it is treated in the cellar. Usually, Riesling is made in stainless steel so there is no wood influence.
The conventional wisdom is that the wines of the Escarpment, with its silty clay and limestone soils, will be racier, lighter and more minerally than those grown on the clay loam soils of the plain. When our group of wine writers blind-tasted two Rieslings from the two regional appellations, it turned out that the wine from Four Mile Creek on the plain (Hillebrand Ghost Creek Vineyard 2006) – although it had 28 grams of residual sugar, compared with 11 grams for the Thirty Bench Triangle Vineyard 2006 from the Escarpment – was much drier and minerally. The reason was the grapes for this wine had been picked at 17 Brix. So picking date is as crucial as terroir in determining the ultimate taste and suspected provenance of the wine.
Our group tried the same blind experiment to see if we could identify sub-appellation character with the following three red blends: 13th Street Meritage 2006 (Creek Shores sub-appellation), Jackson-Triggs (Niagara-on-the-Lake) and Lailey Vineyards (Niagara Peninsula). The consensus was that it’s very difficult to pick out terroir differences when the wine is a blend of different grapes and winemakers use a variety of oak treatments.
The next comparison was Flat Rock Cellars Riesling 2006 (Twenty Mile Bench) with 13th Street Riesling 2006 (Creek Shores). The Flat Rock showed marked petrol notes on the nose and Hillebrand’s winemaker Darryl Brooker (who used to be Flat Rock’s winemaker) remarked that the wine was under screwcap and he has found that Riesling under screwcap develops petrol notes much sooner than Riesling under cork. The final pairing was Château des Charmes 2005 Equuleus Cabernet Merlot 2005 (St David’s Bench) and Thirty Bench Benchmark Red 2005 (Beamsville Bench). The wines were both picked at the same Brix level (23.2), but the Thirty Bench had more perceptible acidity and less than half the residual sugar. I asked Darryl if winemakers had to acidify in 2005 (a very hot year). He said no. As an Australian, he’s used to acidifying reds. “When you carry a 22 lb bag [of tartaric acid] up stairs you begin to hate acidity,” he replied. Again, there was no way that sub-appellation differences could be judged by the blends. The more reliable marker of appellation differences, says J. L. Groulx, is to taste the juice of the grape at harvest rather than the finished wine.
Certainly there are climate and soil differences in the Niagara Peninsula that have to be taken into account. The farther you get from the lake, the warmer the temperature, although elevation is also a factor; but in general terms the diurnal temperatures (the difference between day and night readings) is much higher on the Escarpment than on the plain, which will account for the higher acidity. Ultimately, consumers will begin to take note of the flavour variances from the different sub-appellations. I only hope it doesn’t have to take 200 years.