Tasting Note: Undercurrent Muscat-Sauvignon Blanc 2007 and other crazy wines from Creekside Estate Winery

Creekside is one interesting winery. They can make some very straightforward, accessible wines with a great quality-price ratio, as shown not only by their Estate series of wines (like that nice, pepper-strawberry driven shiraz), but also by the 60,000 some odd cases the same winemaking team makes for No. 99 Estates Winery, generally known as the Wayne Gretzky wines. Good stuff all around, star power or not on the label.

They can also make some serious, original reserve wines that are very often quite out of the ordinary. When I visited last summer with assistant winemaker Erin Harvey, I had the chance to taste a number of solid bottlings, including a delicious Close Plant riesling from the Butler’s Grant vineyard that I reviewed in a previous post. I was impressed by a 2007 Reserve Pinot Gris aged in French oak barrels, that was pretty wild and intense, with great spicy character and some wild aromas of prosciutto and cantaloup, and a long finish structured by a touch of bitterness.

I was also taken aback by the 2004 Lost Barrel, a mix of red grapes (“a bit of everything”, said Erin) made from the “tippings” (the dark, rich, sediment-laden stuff left at the bottom of barrels of red after they are racked) of top reds that are collected into a single barrel. After five years settling in oak, the wine showed up as a big, chunky, bloody, spicy, meaty, wild, wild thing with big whacks of fruit and intense flavors coming at you intensely. So much stuff that a slight whiff of volatile acidity felt refreshing, in all that unusual mass of vinous stuff.

Making a cuvée from the tippings is basically a crazy idea. But what’s beautiful about Creekside is that this crazy spirit leads to some of the most successful wines they make. (The spirit also permeates the way the cellar is organized: tanks are named after scientists, philosophers, filmmakers or… The Beatles. That last row of four tanks recently got a fifth one added, quickly named Yoko, as it was a late addition and proved to be a bit of a troublemaker. More on the workflow in this Creekside blog post.).

That’s where the Undercurrent series comes in – the place where Creekside winemakers really have the most of their winegeek fun. You want an almost-late-harvest sauvignon blanc? Why not. A once-in-a-lifetime cofermented blend of muscat and sauvignon blanc? You got it.

When I drove back to the Niagara, a couple of weeks ago, and stopped by to get a couple of bottles of the close-plant riesling, I also got myself a 500 ml bottle of this very unusual blend of varieties. We opened it this week, as a match to an oven-grilled halibut with herbs and olive oil, and a sort of corn-basil-sweet pepper salsa. Boy did that work well, as the mix between the freshness and slight grassiness of the sauvignon blanc and the highly aromatic, stonefruit-driven aromas and flavors of the muscat playfully blended with the sweetness of the corn or cut through the rich fish. One day after opening, the wine tasted even better, with a well-rounded feel and a touch of honey added to the mix.

The completely unusual aromatic profile explains why the label bears the words “Product of Canada” (showing it’s made from 100% Canadian grapes), rather than the usual VQA. The singular profile threw the VQA tasting panels for a spin, and since typicity is one of the factors that qualify a wine for the official appellation, the Muscat-Sauvignon Blanc got stock on its edge. It’s the VQA’s loss, really.

If you want to taste it, you’ll have to make your way to the winery. And do it soon, because that exact blend won’t be coming back. There is a 2008 blend of muscat, sauvignon blanc and gewurztraminer from 2008 on the way, but the addition of gewurz takes the whole thing in a very different direction. Another unique bottling – just like that 2007 sangiovese that my little finger tells me is also in the works…

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Ontario’s best rieslings: a collective tasting on Spotlight Toronto (and two extra tasting notes)

It’s nice when social media pushes the idea of social forward, encouraging collective thinking and group efforts. Like this Ontario riesling project that was proposed to a small group of wine writers and professionals by Rick Van Sickle, of the St Catharines Standard, and Suresh Doss, of Spotlight Toronto.

Six writers, including this guy who does The Wine Case blog, were included in the informal panel and submitted a series of wines. It was noticed, among the reviews submitted, that Cave Spring and Thirty Bench came up quite often in everyone’s lists. Discussions ensued about how to process and package the whole thing, various opinions were expressed, and finally selections were made and posted here. It’s quite a nice list, with a nice price range, starting at as little as 12$. (Why anyone would rather drink Cellared in Canada when good VQA wines are available at such reasonable prices is beyond me.)

I had two more choices in my list which weren’t included in the already long list provided on Spotlight Toronto. Wouldn’t want them to go to waste, so here they are, exclusive to The Wine Case.

Creekside Wines Close-Plant Reserve Riesling VQA Twenty Mile Bench
The folks at Creekside are at their most interesting when they get experimental – as they do with their whole Undercurrents series. This could be an undercurrent, but its steady quality, over the years, has made it a regular part of the Reserve series. Drawn from a closely-planted section of a particular vineyard (Butler’s Grant) dating back to the 80s – an experiment gone absolutely right – the wine has remarkable personality and originality. Part of the wine is aged in oak, but you don’t sense it much, as you concentrate on the clover, pear, quince and ginger ale – yes, ginger ale – that just jumps from the glass.

Hidden Bench Felseck Riesling
Owner Harold Thiele and winemaker Jean-Martin Bouchard may be focusing on Burgundy varieties, but that doesn’t mean they take other grapes for granted. Their rieslings tend to have a steely, clean feel to them, with a good mineral backbone, to which the Felseck vineyard, located just east of the winery buildings, seems to add an extra depth, along with hints of flint stone and, in the 2007 vintage, lovely flavors of pear and caramelized apples. Nice to hear they’re planting more.

Now, I’m going back to Niagara on Tuesday, and should be tasting more rieslings from Fielding and Flat Rock. And hopefully dropping by Creekside to pick up a bottle of that Close Plant. Work, work, work…

Cellared in Canada: changes in the stores and labels, but no help for Ontario growers

Note: I was originally hoping to post this article on Friday, but an overly busy schedule and a forgotten note pad with essential quotes are causing its publication to coincide with the beginning of the second Regional Wine Week, championed by Drinklocalwine.com. At first, I was disappointed about this coincidence, as I was planning to start with reviews of Quebec wines. But in the end, it seems more and more appropriate to me, as the whole issue of Cellared in Canada is central to what it means to drink local wine. Posts about Quebec and Ontario wines will follow this week.

Sheep mowing rows of 100% Ontario grapes for VQA wines at Tawse Winery, in Vineland, in the Niagara Peninsula

Sheep mowing rows of biodynamic, 100% Ontario grapes for VQA wines at Tawse Winery, in Vineland, in the Niagara Peninsula

Things are moving quickly to change the labelling and the shelving of Cellared in Canada wines, which had been generating growing controversy over the last few weeks in Ontario and British Columbia. Though this may be good news or fans of VQA wines, there seems to be very little chance that this will help resolve the grape glut that will mostly result in some 8,000 (maybe even 10,000) tons of Ontario wine grapes to be dropped to the ground by their growers.

Last week, Vincor and Peller moved to stem the growing turmoil surrounding Cellared in Canada wines, these mostly-foreign blends that have been insistently sold by their bottlers as Canadian products. Since then, things have kept on moving quickly. According to a Canadian Press article, British Columbia’s Agriculture minister, Steve Thompson, stated that CiC wines were to be moved out of the BC wine section of BC Liquor Distribution Branch store (where they had no business in the first place). The particulars of the repositioning are being left to the BCLDB, however.

The Ontario Wine Council launched a consultation process to discuss relabelling and rebranding of the Cellared in Canada wines, a review that should be completed by the end of the year. The Wine Council sent out a letter to “elite opinion leaders”, to get their feelings on how the blended wines should be sold and labelled. The letter states:

The Wine Council has formed the Industry Working Group on Label Clarity to develop industry-led improvements to the labeling of blended wines.

Our Board gave this committee a strict timeline for response – it has been mandated to report back by December 31, 2009 in order to ensure attention to this important review and to demonstrate that  we are serious about implementing improvements on a timely basis.  Neverthelessthe process will be comprehensive with a thorough examination of potential changes. Among the elements to be reviewed will be:

  • Wording on labels including use of CIC
  • In store signage and shelving – both at LCBO and WRS
  • Look alike labels/Look alike logos
  • Logo for CIC brands
  • Font size/typeface issues and location on labels
  • Measuring consumer reaction to demonstrate that clarity is present/has improved

Jancis Robinson, who did so much to put the issue to the fore, is among the elite opinion makers that the Wine Council has asked to take part in this consultation.

The National Vintners’ Association is also involved in the process, indicated Bruce Walker, Vincor’s Executive Vice President for Government Relations, in an interview with The Wine Case. “It is our intention to resolve this at a national level”, he stated, confirming that the process exceeds the boundaries of BC, where Vincor and Peller made their first announcements last week.

This national perspective has a lot to do with labelling, as bottlers need to comply with Federal labelling standards, Mr Walker continued, stating that the question at hand for the makers of Cellared in Canada wines is: “What can we include beyonde the bare minimum of mandatory labelling?”. VQA products, he pointed out, correspond to the standards for “Product of Canada”, a category that requires virtually 100% of the contents of a particular product to be from Canada: 100% Canadian grapes will do the trick. As for “Cellared in Canada, made from a blend of foreign and domestic grapes”, Walker states that the wines are compliant with federal decisions regarding labelling that go back to 1996.

Indeed, despite frequent complaints regarding the small print and the minimal, back-label-only information about the origin of the contents, it is true that CiC wines are compliant with the “bare minimum” requirements of labelling. But in the same way that complying with the bare minimum of nutritional requirements in the food industry hardly creates health food, can we say that current wine labelling and shelving standards are enough to make things truly clear for and beneficial to consumers? Vincor and Peller are looking to “improve clarity”, but the final results of this operation “will have to be seen”, adds Walker.

Others are more enthusiastic about the fact that things are moving ahead: “We agree that more transparency in labeling would be incredibly beneficial, as the confusion surrounding the “Cellared in Canada” issue hurts all of us in the local wine industry!”, Mission Hill winery’ director of public relations, Lori Pike, wrote in an e-mail to The Wine Case. (An interview request with Andrew Peller has remained unanswered so far.)

Mission Hill, or more precisely, its parent company, the Mark Anthony Group, has indeed gone to more pains than many other Canadian bottlers to make the distinction between its VQA wines and Cellared in Canada wines. Mission Hill, Ms Pike points out, is 100% VQA, while CiC wines are produced by a sister company, Artisan Wines. Also, she stated:

Artisan has taken an industry leadership position on the Cellared in Canada issue.  They do make some other brands with domestic and imported grapes, however they are one of the very few (only CIC wine?) that states quite clearly on the front and back labels the grape origin, with their Wild Horse Canyon wine.  It is comprised of grapes sourced from British Columbia, Washington and California, which they have termed a “west coast appellation”.  The winemaker makes the wines with a different percentage of grapes from each of these regions every year depending on the variability of grape quality and flavour each season so that she has consistency from vintage to vintage.

Whether or not an artificially created “appellation” aimed at “consistency” is a good thing for the wine world is a question in itself, but it must be said that in terms of branding, Wild Horse Canyon wines have the advantage of avoiding confusion created in other brands. Jackson-Triggs Cellared in Canada wines, for instant, sports a label design that is incredibly close to that of VQA wines (same typeface and design, except for the color), and the grapes’ country origin is not specified.

J-T Cellared in Canada labels differ only in color with those of their VQA wines

J-T Cellared in Canada label design differs only in color with those of their VQA wines

Vincor has certainly become conscious of the branding problem with Jackson-Triggs caused by the cohabitation of CiC and VQA wines within the same company. “J-T Cellared in Canada labels should go”, stated Bruce Walker. “We’ll see a change in the not too distant future”.

A planned change

The reason Vincor is able to start moving quickly is because the process of redefining Cellared in Canada actually “started 3 or 4 months ago”, when a Cellared in Canada subcommittee was created, explains Vincor’s executive vice-president. This is what allowed Vincor and Peller to come to the Vancouver Sun editorial meeting of October 1 with mock-ups for new label and a possible category name change (“International Canadian Blend”).

The fact that the industry was already at work also largely explains why the Ontario Wine Council consultation has been started so quickly after Peller and Vincor first came forward, and why the process deadlines are so short. This “high priority” process is to be completed by the end of December, with the consultation phase concluding by the end of November. Implementation will begin in the New Year, with a gradual phasing out of old labels. “At Vincor, we’ve stopped reordering labels” for the current CiC labels, says Bruce Walker, pointing out that the timelines for completing the change will vary, according to inventories and sales of the various products involved. Shelving will likely change more quickly than labelling, because of these production constraints.

In the case of British Columbia, where the Olympics have been presented as a deadline for clearing up the confusion surrounding Canadian and non-Canadian wines, as thousands and thousands of international visitors get ready to travel to the province, it is not clear that the labelling can be changed in time for the big event. At least, the Olympic-label wine Esprit, originally launched as a Cellared in Canada product, has been bottled with 100% VQA wine since July 1st. That way, the Canadian Olympic Wine, part of Vincor’s sponsorship of Vancouver 2010, is now being made with 100% Canadian grapes.

Ontario’s growing pains

While things are looking up in the labelling department, the change will do nothing to solve growers’ problems, for those who did not have a contract with a winery ahead of the 2009 harvest.

For Vincor, the current grape glut is due to “speculative growers” who decided to grow grapes without a contract in hand. Clearly, they are not in Vincor’s plans. “Can we buy all the grapes that don’t have a home? We can only buy what we can sell. So that can’t happen in the year we’re in”, says Mr Walker, who even went as far as saying that the Ontario governement “encouraged bad behavior” by bailing out growers who were stuck with 4,000 tons of unsold grapes last year.

Asked if growing purchases of foreign grapes by bottlers of Cellared in Canada products could be at least partly responsible, he insisted that “we have not been increasing our foreign content” in those wines, and that a lot of the CiC wines sold in Ontario by Vincor contain significantly more than the 30% minimum required by law. In the case of BC, Vincor CiC wines always hold some Canadian content, even though there is no minimum content: Mr Walker was unable to specify amounts for any of the BC bottlings, however.

The executive vice-president of the Constellation subsidiary went on to give a spirited defense of Vincor’s role in promoting Ontario wines and bringing them to market. A defense that also gives an idea of the weight the company carries in the Ontario industry: “We buy the most grapes in Ontario, and we are the largest producer of VQA wines in Ontario. We work on a long-term basis with 85 growers, and we buy a quarter of the total Ontario crop: two thirds for CiC, and one third for VQA.”

He also stated figures according to which a 10$ bottle of Cellared in Canada wine brings 6.67$ in revenue to the local wine industry, while a foreign bottle only brings in 72 cents. Half the crop of Ontario wine grapes goes into Cellared in Canada.

For Mr Walker, another factor that makes buying more grapes difficult is the presence of a marketing board for Ontario grapes. The price paid for the grapes at harvest is a predetermined amount negociated between Grape Growers of Ontario and the Wine Council of Ontario (see here for details). That price has to be paid for any and all grapes, regardless of quality. Buying an oversupply of grapes at a lower price would be illegal, contrary to what has been going on in places like California.

Clearly, Vincor would like the marketing board and uniform pricing go, and be replaced by a “market driven pricing system”. Grape Growers of Ontario have proposed a two-tier pricing system (a higher price for VQA, a lower price for lower-quality destined to Cellared in Canada wines), but have been turned down so far by the Wine Council of Ontario. Bruce Walker doesn’t see any significant change happening before the next harvest, as long-planned purchases are already completed for 2009.

While a system that would encourage better price for better-quality grapes, and allow a more flexible supply management, do seem desirable in theory, Walker himself recognizes that a transition from controlled price to market-driven pricing “is difficult for suppliers”. With the weight of big players like Vincor and Peller, it’s hard to see how growers could achieve a strong negotiation position in an unregulated grape market.

Question marks

Though the lack of pricing flexibility in Ontario does seem like a significant issue, some questions remain. It is a little difficult to see how a 5 or 10% increase in Canadian content in the CiC wines, even at current prices, could result in a drastic increase in the price of those bottles. Certainly, it seems outlandish to claim, as Ontario Wine Council president Hillary Dawson apparently did, that the price of Cellared in Canada wines could shoot up to 18$ or more if the Ontario grape content was increased. There are, after all, VQA wines sold in Ontario for as low as 11 or 12$ at the LCBO – including Vincor’s OPEN brand.

Also, if Vincor is putting in “much more” than 30% Ontario grapes in CiC wines, why would it worry about seeing the minimal requirements rise?

Whatever the end result of the current efforts being undertaken by producers of Cellared in Canada wines, the current situation has clearly got to stop.  As Calgary blogger CDUB put it, the category, as it is now, challenges many areas of common sense that apply for a number of other products:

If a shirt is made in China but I’m wearing it, can the tag say “worn in Canada” and be offered for sale in a local-products store? Would it be allowed to dominate prime shelf space?

As we are in the middle of the LCBO’s Go Local campaign, where VQA wines are promoted… side by side with big signage for Cellared in Canada wines, that is indeed a very good question.

Tasting note: Cave Spring 1995 Beamsville Bench Riesling Icewine, Niagara Peninsula VQA

A little oxydation can be a good thing, now and then. Not only for all these wonderful, “geeky” wines from Jura, as Eric Asimov points out in his New York Times column this week (where he rightly praises the Ganevat Trousseau as a great steak wine… but that’s another story). It can even be true for wines that are not, by design, meant to be oxydated.

Take this 1995 Riesling Icewine from Cave Spring that a good friend of mine recently brought me at a dinner, with a bit of doubt about its condition. There was a tiny bit of leakage on the edge of the cork, and the wine, which he had dug out of a less-travelled part of his cellar, was showing a lot more color than one would usually expect from an (usually bright-gold) icewine.

Was it past its prime? Still drinkable? Hard to tell.

IMG_4170

Instead of opening it with the evening’s dessert, I pulled out a 2001 Ambre from one-0f-a-kind Swiss wine producer Christophe Abbet (see a few words about him here), a fabulous, voluntarily oxydative dessert wine made from late harvest marsanne and arvine. It showed intense candied orange and caramel flavors, and a remarkable freshness, due in good part to arvine’s natural acidity. Not a bad pick at all.

So, my friend did not get short-changed in this exchange of sweets. But neither did I, as I discovered on opening it last week.

The color, when I poured it, was a bit worrisome, as the photo here shows. Dark caramel, almost terra cotta colored, it looked as though it had gone overboard. But the aromas, however, told a different story.

You could sense the oxydative character, with a good dose of baked apple showing up right from the start. But as the wine opened up and met with more oxygen, it started going towards caramelized sugar and, gradually, apricot jam, with a tiny touch of something more earthy, like wet autumn leaves. Nothing rough or tired there, I must say, and the still bright acidity kept it quite fresh and pleasant, with apricot and orange flavors and a touch of spice showing up, with still nice length.

Of course, the high sugar and high acidity in icewine certainly have a good part to play in making it ageworthy and resistant to oxydation. But the extent to which this wine had withstood it – combined with the great impression a four-year barrel-aged icewine from Nova Scotia made upon me last spring – tells me that there could be considerable interest in working that frozen treat with long ageing in oak, which could well bring it more complexity, without taking much away from it.

Canadian Icewine: Quality and Diversity from Coast to Coast

I used to love Canadian Icewine and its less expensive, but often quite as tasty counterpart, the late harvest. And then, for some odd reason, I practically stopped having it.

Over the last few months, however, I drank icewines from Ontario, British Columbia, Québec and Nova Scotia. And baby, I’m back.

Those were fine, fine wines, with all the apricot, honey and floral aromas and flavors you’d want, the acidity needed to balance out the concentrated sweetness. What struck me the most, however, was the diversity of styles – a much greater range than I would have expected.

Let me give you an idea of this range of styles by giving tasting notes from West to East. (more…)

Tasting notes: Le Clos Jordanne, Le Clos Jordanne Vineyard 2006 chardonnay and pinot noir, Twenty Mile Bench

I’ve been a fan of Le Clos Jordanne wines since their first release, the 2004 vintage, two years ago. Made from young vines, they may not have had the depth of great wines, but they certainly showed the promise. It was terrific to taste pinot noir that from the Niagara that had such a clear sense of place and such a remarkable balance and restraint.

This certainly has a lot to do with…

To read the rest of this review, go to winecase.ca, the new home for The Wine Case blog. New updates are now all on winecase.ca.

Tasting Note: 2006 St Davids Bench Vineyard Gewürztraminer, Château des Charmes

A founder of modern Niagara viticulture, Château des Charmes has long been one of my favorite wineries from Ontario. This solid and constant estate was founded in 1978 by Paul Bosc, a fifth-generation French vigneron whose family had come from Alsace through Algeria before being seduced by the Niagara’s winegrowing potential. It became an early standard-bearer of the movement towards vitis vinifera and the development of quality wines from the area. With Inniskillin and Cave Spring, the Bosc family was one of the very first to obtain a licence to produce and sell wines in Ontario in the post-Prohibition era.

Among the various lines of wines produced at Château des Charmes, my favorite has always been (more…)

Tasting Note: Creekside Estate Winery 2006 VQA Cabernet, Niagara Peninsula

On my short vacation on Manitoulin Island, last August, I took a minute to stop by the Gore Bay branch of the LCBO to grab some wine (and a bit of cider), and chanced upon a bottle of 2006 VQA Cabernet by Creekside Winery, which I’d heard much good about in the last few months.

Among other things, Creekside scored high in the most recent Canadian Wine Awards and was a finalist for Winery of the Year.

Of course, to get a full sense of what the winery is about, (more…)

Confusion in the Cellar(ed in Canada)

The Cellared in Canada wine category, as I’ve written previously on this blog, is a marketing category whose first aim, it seems, is to create confusion with actual wines from Canada, since in fact, it can contain practically no Canadian wine, as opposed to the 100% homegrown VQA wines. Which doesn’t stop the LCBO from selling them side-by-side and mixed together on the shelves.

Apparently, the category has reached its goal perfectly. Now, even the LCBO is confused.

As an article in the St. Catharines Standard stated, last week, (more…)

Wine Blogging Wednesday (Thursday?) #44: Chinon Thélème 2003, Alain Lorieux

So here I am, this morning, recovering from my shift at the paper last night, deciding to hop on the Wine Blogging Wednesday bandwagon, for edition number 44, and I check out when in April it’s going to take place, and when I look at Gary Vay-Ner-Chuck’s Wine Library to get details, I find out that it’s supposed to be done on April 2nd. Oh Great. I’m late and I haven’t even started.

But hey, the theme was irresistible: French cabernet franc, which I’ve always loved. So I just flew to my neighborhood SAQ store and immediately looked for (more…)