Regional Wine Writing Project: Napa North? How about Burgundy West?

When I decided to take part in the Regional Wine Writing Project, I started with Quebec, my homeland, which deserves a full introduction to just about anyone that is not a wine lover in Quebec itself. That was easy, in other terms, because just about everything remains to be said. Writing about Niagara, which is, to say the least, more often discussed (and whose wines are more readily available to US readers, as a look through Wine-Searcher.com will tell you), was a bit more of a bind. Where to start?

What finally got me started was a recent Globe and Mail article by John Szabo, where the Niagara region was ambitiously nicknamed Napa North. I have mixed blessings about the term (and so did the numerous readers who posted comments about the article). I get the intention: pointing out the growth in quality in the Niagara Valley’s production, and the region’s ability to produce high-end wines. However, evoking Napa also brings forth images of big ripe cabs with high alcohol, even higher prices and a heck of a lot of marketing power.

Which is clearly not the way to go, as far as I’m concerned. Being based in Quebec, I don’t have easy access to the full range of Niagara wines, but every time I’ve tasted a Niagara wine that emphasized words like “big” and “full-bodied”, especially in cabernets and bordeaux blends, I’ve been disappointed: too much oak for the fruit, rough tannins from extraction… The kind of thing that Gary Vaynerchuk would call a (latter-day) Roger Clemens wine: overly and artificially pumped-up – and thus, out of balance.

On the other hand, one of the first wines that really impressed me, as I discovered Niagara wines, was the 1998 Trius Red, a blend of almost two-thirds cabernet sauvignon with cabernet franc and merlot from an exceptional vintage that produced accessible, yet long-lasting wines. Very ripe flavors, supple tannins, expansive aromas, all at a moderate alcohol level of 12.5% (it’s now gone up to 13.5%, with more merlot in the blend, for the 2006).

Finesse, more than power, was key: from the same vintage, a Reif Estate reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, opened around 2004, was rough around the edges, with the wood masking whatever else was going on in there. From my tasting experience, it’s the kind of thing that doesn’t fade easily over time, not just a sense that the wine wasn’t ready for drinking.

Anyway.

Overall, I’ve been more impressed with the burgundian side of the Niagara valley, both in red and white.

Dry chardonnays with structure and a very distinctive flinty, mineral character, from the Niagara Escarpment’s limestone soils, are among my favorites.  One great example is Peninsula Ridge’s unoaked chardonnay – made by a renowned former Chablis winemaker, Jean-Pierre Colas – and clearly reminiscent of chablis.  The best-made of the more oaked styles, like the Château des Charmes St David Bench chardonnay, keep that character shining through.

But the kicker, recently, has been the emergence of top-of-the line pinot noir from the likes of Clos Jordanne, a surprisingly artisan (and biodynamic) joint-venture between Vincor and Boisset, the largest wine groups in Burgundy and Canada. Though the vines are still extremely young (2004 was the very first vintage), the depth, subtlety and well-defined character of the wines is already startling. What Clos Jordanne tells us is that the relatively cooler Niagara could provide some subtle, refined pinots that could clearly rival Burgundy. Can’t wait to see Clos Jordanne evolve.

In the meantime, I have to delve back into the great pinots I tasted nearly a decade ago, when I had a column on Canadian wines for Via Magazines: lovely stuff from Inniskillin, Stoney Ridge or Henry of Pelham, for instance. And then again, I haven’t yet tasted the pinots from Tawse, Creekside or Hidden Bench, about which I’ve heard absolute raves. More on that soon, I hope.

Hey! How about Alsace West?

In insisting on the burgundian side of things, I realize that I’m underplaying another consistent performer of the Niagara vineyards: riesling. I’ve regularly enjoyed the expressive, aromatic whites produced from that alsatian grape, whether in a dry or off-dry style. The Niagara has found its own style with that grape, somewhere between Alsace and Australia, with a more forward style than the former, and a slightly more restrained style than the latter.

Try wines from Cave Spring, Vineland, Hernder, Henry of Pelham or Konzelmann, among others. They all age gracefully and provide great quality at very reasonable prices, uninflated by the chest-thumping that often strikes cabernet-based wines. You won’t be disappointed.

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