Niagara’s Best Grapes of 2007
There’s an old adage that goes, “Getting winemakers to agree is like herding cats.” Hmm, maybe that referred to wine writers. I’m so confused. I was never good at keeping old adages straight. What I’m getting at is it’s impossible to get winemakers to agree. I asked 14 winemakers from Niagara about their top three grapes of the 2007 vintage, and got 14 different answers. I was just looking for grape names; imagine if I had been asking about philosophy of winemaking, technique or what closure they prefer — I could be writing all day. Though there was one thing upon which they all agreed: 2007 was an absolutely stunning vintage.
“… so good we would like it to repeat again and again,” say Elayne and Bruno of Alvento. “An extraordinary vintage,” explains Jaime Evans of Stonechurch. “There is little doubt the 2007 vintage was one of the best ever recorded in Niagara,” relays Michele Bosc, Chateau des Charmes. Thomas Bacheldar of Le Clos Jordanne calls it, “An aberrational year that made slightly atypical reds, but what a beautiful aberration!”
Yup, every winemaker agrees it was quite the year in Niagara. As for their favourite grape of 2007, that’s a different story. I asked for a top three, and no top three matched. The highest vote went to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir, followed closely by Cabernet Franc, Syrah and Chardonnay. From the newbie to the grizzled veteran, whatever the grape, winemakers knew they had something very special on their hands.
2007 was so special because of the 13-week drought — that’s three months of no rain to you and me. While most crops suffered due to the lack of moisture, the grapes loved it. The philosophy is that a grapevine has to suffer to produce good fruit. When it’s dry, vines have to dig deep into the soil to extract its moisture, and the deeper the roots go, the more complex the flavours in the fruit and subsequently the wine. Think about it this way: it’s the difference between a domesticated dog and a wild dog. The domesticated dog gets fed the same kibble every day, and he gets fat, lazy and unproductive, while the over-watered grapevine is happy to have its root lie close to the top soil to get its nutrition.
The wild dog has to forage for food, and when he gets really hungry, you never know what kind of exotic things he’ll dig up and eat; the suffering grapevine will follow the same path, digging deep into the ground for nutrients and water and it’ll pull up exotic, minerally flavours the deeper it goes. The dry spell caused the vines to search out food. Some younger vines with shallow root systems actually shut down because of the intense heat, but older vines, with their intricate and deep root systems, did much better.
So, with all this struggling going on, how did the grapes fare? “The fruit concentration was the best I have ever dealt with,” proclaims Natalie Spytkowsky of Rosewood Estates. “There are no green/herbaceous notes at all.” Natalie picked Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet Franc as her top three, and gave special mention to Chardonnay as a close fourth — and why not? Her 2007 Reserve Chardonnay ($30) is a perfect example of ageable, yet drink-now Chardonnay. It reveals a dusting of butter and vanilla scents, pleasant, not over-powering. Let it open and the fruit truly becomes larger than life, filling the mouth with pineapple and delicious apple — layer upon layer of exhibited finesse. With patience, you’ll be enjoying this one well in to the next decade. For Pinot lovers, the entry level 2007 Pinot Noir is already starting to garner accolades and awards with its depth and simplicity.
AJ (whose last name is a mystery, like Sting and Madonna) cites Merlot, Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer as Angels Gate’s top three performers. “The intensity of the fruit and varietal character is A++.” He was the only one to cite Gewürz as a winner in 2007, but that’s not surprising. The Angels Gate 2007 Gewürztraminer is from 10-year-old vines and has crisp mouth-filling flavours, a rosy citrus quality on the nose and spiced orange peel and great minerality on the palate.
But Rosewood and Angels Gate are high up on the Beamsville Bench; what about wineries in Niagara-on-the-Lake? Along with Pinot Noir and Merlot, Jeff Aubry of Coyote’s Run says Cabernet Sauvignon was a very impressive grape. “They have great ripeness and perfect balance, qualities that aren’t easily achieved … from year to year in the region.” Derek Barnett of Lailey Vineyard agrees — well, almost: he’ll take his Syrah over the Merlot. “A growing season that allowed the grapes to mature to perfection,” he says, “balanced acids with ripe tannins — what more could a little old winemaker want!”
It would seem those in Niagara-on-the-Lake liked their Cabernet Sauvignon this year. Darryl Brooker of Hillebrand also gives the grape two thumbs way up: “It was able to reach perfect ripeness without us being forced to pick it early. We could pick on flavour and tannin development.” As for misaligned Merlot, Darryl waxed a little more poetically here. “It had a chance to reach a completely new flavour spectrum that we rarely see in Ontario. 24 brix Merlot is very unusual.”
With two out of the three Bordelais grapes hitting their stride in 2007, it’s no wonder the 2007 Trius Red is such a beauty: a nose loaded with black cherry, cinnamon, spice, vanilla, raspberry and lots more. Too tight and too young to be drinking early, this one was made for the cellar or a decanter; taste follows the nose and adds more berries, liquorice and some mocha/coffee notes, with more to come.
Sitting between the bench and the lake, the multi-award winning Creekside Winery used the aberration year to its advantage. Their reds of choice were Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz. Of the Shiraz, Matt Loney, Director of Marketing, says, “2002 opened the door to the possibilities of a ripe, more New World flavour profile.” Of their Sauvignon Blanc (their third best grape), “Heat pushed the style envelope into an interesting tropical fruit area — more like California than New Zealand.”
Darryl Brooker, while praising the vintage and realizing its potential for atypical wines, is a little more cautious in his approach to winemaking. “I think it is important that we still make wines that look like they come from Ontario, represent our own unique terroir. This took work and a conscious effort. It would have been easy to make flabby, overblown wines that did not represent our climate and conditions.”
In Ontario, one of our strengths has always been Riesling. This cool climate-loving Riesling seems to have been odd man out during this hot vintage, along with other aromatic whites, according to Natalie Spytkowsky (though Sauvignon Blanc did well in some isolated pockets). “It was mainly due to less acid production,” explains Mike Pillitteri of Riverview Cellars. AJ echoes this sentiment. “I would have liked to have seen more acid in the Rieslings.” And for Jaime Evans, “It fell short — it was too hot and the vines shut down.” Derek Barnett is willing to paint most (but not all) whites with a broad brush, but he’s not alone in his assessment. “I think there will be some early-maturing whites and we may look back in a few years and speak less kindly of them, but for now, they are great and drinking well.”
Aside from the blip in our Riesling radar, 2007 was exceptional and a cellar-worthy vintage, especially for the reds. Barnett points out, “The reds of 2007 are well balanced with great fruit ripeness and potential for mid- to long-term aging.” Of his Pinot Noir, Thomas Bacheldar says, “The reds are dense, Grand Cru style and will live a long time.”
While Michele Bosc stresses vineyard practices: “It wasn’t an easy vintage. Those who took meticulous care were rewarded with exceptional wines with glorious fruit/acid/alcohol balance with tremendous aging potential.”
However, those looking for the best of the best will have to be patient. There’s no rushing these wines to market. Many still rest in barrel, and one winemaker confided in me, “I may be releasing my 2008s before my 2007s are ready.” Terence Van Rooyen, professor and winemaker for Niagara College Teaching Winery, puts it a little more delicately. “If one allows the wine to develop on its own and does not force any aspect, the key to barrel maturation is that the wine will show you when its ready.”
2007 gave our winemakers something wonderful to play with, with many of the best still resting in barrel. Some early contenders are already out, though in the immortal words of Frank Sinatra, “The best is yet to come, and babe won’t that be fine, for wine.” Maybe I added a word or two, but I’m sure Frank, Darryl, Derek, Thomas et al. won’t mind.
Rosewood Pinot Noir 2007 ($18)
Great depth of simple, yet recognizable flavours. The nose delivers earth, cherry, cranberry and rhubarb. While the palate comes through with the promise of the nose, an earthy beginning turns to sour cherry and cranberry with fine tannins, good acidity, a dash of vanilla for taste and a shaving of cinnamon on the finish.
Coyote’s Run Cabernet 2007 ($16.50)
Loaded with black cherry, earthy-cedary nuances, lots of black fruit like cassis and blackberry, cinnamon, spice, a full mouth feel with good tannins and a dusting of bittersweet chocolate on the finish. Though still a bit closed at this time — I’d give it a year before opening and a cellar-ability potential of seven-plus years. Can’t wait? Then decant.
Stonechurch Syrah 2007 ($25)
This is Syrah, no doubt. Great nose with lots of meaty, bacony and leather notes; the palate follows the nose while adding game and white pepper to the mix in the mouth … a beauty of a Syrah.
Stonechurch Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2007 ($20)
This wine has a ripe red fruit nose that smells like it’ll be sweet and juicy, but instead it delivers a more tart sensation, especially on the finish where cranberry comes a calling. There’s also some pretty big spice that carries all these flavours along.
Hillebrand Trius Merlot 2007 ($14.95)
The nose smells of blackberries and chocolate, with much the same on the palate … simple but very tasty with a long lingering finish and smooth supple tannins. A steal of a wine.
Lailey Vineyard Syrah 2007 ($25)
The nose is smoky with blackberry with hints of floral. The palate delivers complexity with vanilla-caramel, smoky black fruit, a little cherry, some herbs, oakiness and a smoked meat quality that’s very delicious.
Lailey Vineyard Pinot Noir 2007 [Canadian Oak] ($35)
The nose is your basic Pinot Noir experience: cherry, vanilla, a touch of earth with hints of floral — a little tight because of its jeunesse. In two years, this is going to be the wine that’ll turn you into a Pinot Noir fan. The palate wows with a mixture of sweet and sour cherry, cranberry, vanilla, cinnamon and spices, all wrapped up in a gentle cedar blanket with a touch of violets on the finish.
Chateau des Charmes Gamay Noir “Droit” 2007 ($16.95)
Believe it or not, this wine is unoaked, yet it smells and tastes oak-influenced with deep dark colouring. The nose is full of cherry and raspberry with a touch of cinnamon, clove and allspice. The palate is big, with ripe tannins, big cherry flavours, peppery nuances, and a black cherry finish with great acidity. Round and soft with a big presence in the mouth.
Niagara College Dean’s List Pinot Noir 2007 ($32.95)
This wine took home best Pinot Noir at the 2009 Cuvée awards. It has a sweet layered nose of cherries, raspberries and a touch of vanilla. The palate is just as pleasing, doling out great fruit taste like cherries and strawberries along with hits of cinnamon and firm silky tannins on a smooth finish.
Cattail Creek Merlot 2007 ($18)
The nose is big on cherry right from the get go — while in the mouth it’s more complex, but still with those cherries: black cherry with a little blackberry mixed in. There’s also a bittersweet chocolate note and firm yet approachable tannins. Ready to go right now, but will benefit from 5-years-plus of age.
Angels Gate Pinot Noir 2007 ($25)
Huge dark fruit on the nose with blackberry taking the lead, nutmeg and a touch of earth with a smoky-leathery presence. On the palate, it’s got big fruit and robust tannins. These should even out with some time. It shows excellent length and cellar-worthiness.
Cave Spring Cellars Gamay 2007 ($12.95)
There’s a rather pleasant earthiness that gets up the nose along with raspberry and rhubarb smells. In the mouth, it’s a red berry bowl of flavour, lots of cherry and raspberry with a strawberry-mineral finish. Great wine to chill and enjoy.
Creekside Cabernet 2007 ($13.95)
Cinnamon, red fruit and spice greet the nose, while red and black fruit it on the tongue with good spice, nice tannins and lingering finish. Great price too.
EastDell Pinot Noir 2007 ($14.75)
What you’d expect from Pinot: earthy, raspberry and sour cherry; the palate is nice ripe fruit with good tannins. A thoroughly enjoyable Pinot.
Flat Rock Pinot Noir 2007 ($19.95)
One of the best entry-level Pinots from Flat Rock I have ever had. Cinnamon, oaky, berry bowl on the nose, but it’s the palate that shines best here with beautiful cherry and other red fruits. And the finish: oh yum.
Harbour Estates Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 ($13.15)
No-brainer here: strawberry and raspberry are prominent on the nose, the taste is smooth red fruit-oriented with cinnamon, spice and silky tannins, another great price.
Vineland Cabernet Franc 2007 ($12.95)
This wine was the first 2007 red out of Vineland’s door and it showed great potential for aging — especially at such an attractive price. The nose is black and sweet cherry, tobacco and cassis. The mouth shows a smokiness, along with big, rich tannins, black fruit, oaky woodsy notes and some vanilla on the finish. Aging potential: 5 years easy, if not more.