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…

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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.

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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.

Ontario, please clean up the Cellared in Canada mess

Things aren’t getting any better for Canadian wines on LCBO shelves. When I recently returned to Ontario, I was depressed to see that it’s still a struggle to distinguish between real Canadian wines (VQA wines) and Cellared in Canada wines that are made essentially (even totally, in British Columbia) from foreign grapes.

The bottles are mixed on the shelves, with a bottle of foreign plonk sitting beside another made from Ontario grapes. And you still can’t tell that the Cellared in Canada wines are foreign grapes from unidentified sources unless you look carefully at the small print on the back label. Why put that in small print if they’re proud to make them?

It’s a shame. And a crock.

Fortunately, there is a bit of movement on the issue, as forces are mobilizing to correct the situation and apply political pressure on the LCBO and the Ontario government.

In June, an article in the Financial Post talked about ongoing efforts by Seaton McLean, co-owner of Closson Chase vineyards in Prince Edward County, and others in the industry to stop the “clever con” that is undermining Ontario (and BC) wine growers and winemakers. In the article, McLean states that Ontario regulations allow Cellared in Canada wines to have 70% foreign content and 20% water (!), leaving room for as little as 10% Ontario grapes. Wonder why they’re cheap? 20% water will help cut down the price, for sure.

Most recently, Environmental Defence jumped on board the movement to correct this confusing mess. They’ve started an online petition to “Put the “O” back in LCBO”. Favoring local wines (made with local grapes) is coherent with a pro-environment outlook. Media events are scheduled to take place in Toronto and St Catharines on July 31, as I learned through a Facebook group called “Boycott Cellared in Canada wines” that has over 800 members and growing.

Mind you, the Environmental Defence petition isn’t perfect. Their call to increase the minimum Ontario content of CiC wines to 50% is a good start, and so is the call for the LCBO to “Increase access to more retail stores across Ontario to sell more 100% grown Ontario wine”. You’d think 50% Canadian (and no water, please) would be the minimum amount you should need before you can even think of putting the word “Canada” on the label.

However, another petition argument to “Increase the Ontario wine market share to 51% at LCBO stores throughout Ontario” is unrealistic: even if all Ontario producers had easy access to Ontario stores, they don’t make the volumes of wine to cover that figure. Besides, that would become a preferential treatment that wouldn’t last a minute under WTO and NAFTA rules.

Still, it’s good to know that people are organizing, and one can only hope that pressure will keep building for change. Maybe more action at harvest showcasing the effects of Cellared in Canada on grape prices and on actual Canadian winegrowers and winemakers?

Separate shelves for VQA and CiC wines would be an easy, short-term step that the LCBO could take that would make things a bit clearer for the consumers. My sources tell me that it’s already the case in British Columbia (even though both categories remain under a general “BC wine” banner).

What makes me curious, however, is that I haven’t found any significant statements on the issue by major wine writers like Tony Aspler, John Szabo, David Lawrason or Beppi Crosariol. Why won’t they weigh in, at least for consumer advocacy, by clearly stating the difference between the categories for their readers? Jancis Robinson sure has, repeatedly coming out in favor of Canadian wines being made from Canadian grapes. Which is what logic dictates.

Tasting note: Hernder Estate Wines 2000 Riesling VQA, Niagara Peninsula

Last night, I subjected my dinner guests to an experiment. Nothing cruel, I assure you. On the contrary.

You see, I’ve been a fan of Hernder rieslings for many years, and five years ago, I decided to try something. Judging from the balance and ripeness I tasted, I figured that they could keep for several years. So after a visit to the Hernder cellar, I put a bottle of their 2000 riesling (the regular cuvée, not even the reserve) in the cellar, and decided to wait. Until last night.

Boy, was I ever happy to have bided my time. The nose showed a bit of petrol and citrus fruit, right on opening, but after a few minutes, it blossomed into rich aromas of beeswax and honey, pastry and flower petals. On tasting, a bit of residual sugar had matured into a (more…)

What is a Canadian wine?

My recent summer vacation in the quiet and picturesque Manitoulin Island, in Northern Ontario, was a bit ginger-peachy – as far as wines go, that is. I had some lovely wine from New Zealand, France and Ontario, but was quite depressed by the “Cellared in Canada” section of the LCBO stores.

A few years ago, it seems to me there was a clear distinction, in the stores, between wines bottled by Canadian companies with hardly any criteria, and VQA wines, which require all grapes used in the wines to come from Canadian vineyards and, if a specific region is mentioned (like Niagara), from the region in question.

Now, it’s all muddled together in a single section, and what’s terrible about it is some of these wines are hardly Canadian at all. If you look closely enough at the labels, you’ll find out that the bottles are made of “a blend of Canadian and domestic wines”. And according to all the information I’ve read, that amount of Canadian wine can be as low as 10% or maybe even none at all, according to a well-informed blog. Frankly, tasting a Jackson-Triggs sauvignon blanc “cellared in Canada” was an extremely bland experience. There was nothing unpleasant about the wine, but there was hardly anything to be said about it either. It was very pale and without any character.

Quite a contrast with, say, a Peninsula Ridge sauvignon blanc (very well-balanced, to an extent I’ve rarely seen in Niagara sauvignon blanc), a Clos Jordanne pinot noir (perhaps the closest thing to the spirit of Burgundy on this side of the Atlantic), a Château des Charmes single vineyard chardonnay (like the St David’s Bench, which I’ve always appreciated over the years), or a Hernder riesling (I’ve had several crisp, balanced and ageworthy cuvées), all VQA wines that have lots of character, and all express a sense of place. The very nice and very typical mineral character of the best Niagara chardonnay can’t be found in a “blend of domestic and imported wines”, now can it?

The fact that a Cellared in Canada wine (whatever that means) can sit alongside a VQA wine without any clear distinction is, in my opinion, a retrogade idea that can only weaken the image of Canadian wine, an image that has progressed remarkably with the quality of the wines since the late 1980s. By muddling the whole question, the companies and authorities that are allowing this lack of distinction are harming local production and confusing consumers who should be able to make a clear choice. It seems to me that the only ones who benefit from this are big producers who can make a profit from using really cheap bulk wine from Australia or Chile in their big volume labels. In terms of winemaking, it’s the equivalent of blueberry yogurt made without any blueberries – a deceiving marketing ploy.

And here’s a disturbing thing. That bland sauvignon blanc I had was proudly claiming on its label that Jackson-Triggs wines are official wines of the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games. Better yet, Jackson-Triggs has released a special line of wines called Esprit, as part of its sponsorship deal with Vancouver 2010. And guess what. The official press release fails to mention anything about where the wines come from, and from what I’ve seen of the labels or any other information, they don’t seem to be VQA.

I’ll try to investigate this matter further to find out exactly what is going on here, but I’m quite worried. Vancouver 2010 seems like an amazing opportunity to make the world discover the wines of Canada. And Vincor, the Constellation subsidiary that owns Jackson-Triggs and signed the sponsorship deal, has plenty of great Canadian wines in its portfolio (including the beautiful pinot noirs and chardonnays from Clos Jordanne, or NK’Mip Cellars, a BC aboriginal winery they distribute). However, if the Canadian wine industry is to be represented by cheap globalized plonk, what’s the point?