I grow weary of this conversation. You know the one. It starts with: “What is Ontario’s best grape?” And then it degenerates into an MMA brawl-like fistfight with fur flying in every which direction.
Chardonnay, you cry! Cabernet Franc forever, you boast! Pinot Noir, you shout! I prefer to sit on the sidelines, a wry smile on my face, sipping that which is heads and shoulders beyond what the rest of those wannabes can ever hope to achieve in Ontario. If you can’t see that now, there will come a time when you will. Oh, it will happen and it will be an epiphany the likes of which you have never experienced.
Do I have to say it? Riesling. There, it’s out there now. The elephant in the room; the elephant that really shouldn’t be there. It doesn’t need a cheerleader (or, rather, it shouldn’t need one). It just simply is THE ONE, THE ONLY. It makes my heart go boom, boom, boom.
How do I know this? Why do I know this? Do I have to explain? OK, pay attention here, this will be painful for more than a few of you.
RIESLING DOES IT BETTER and more often than any other grape in Ontario. Seldom is there a bad vintage for Riesling. Oh, it has its challenges (2007 comes to mind) but generally speaking no vintage is a disaster for Riesling. The same cannot be said for Cabernet Franc (2008, 2009, I’m talking to you), Pinot Noir (unless you like those big, masculine, earthy monsters with cannonball tannins, avoid the hot years) or Chardonnay (I can’t find a 2007 Chardonnay that’s still drinkable today). Our climate and our soil in Ontario (particularly Niagara) is tailor made for Riesling. Plant it, grow it, pick it, bottle it, drink it. It really is that simple. Then repeat every vintage. Nearly every winery in Niagara makes Riesling and it has charm at the $12 price point all the way up to the most expensive $35-$40 Rieslings.
You cannot say that about those other pretenders. Not everyone makes a Chardonnay, Cab Franc or Pinot that’s both affordable and tasty. In fact, there are a lot of those wines in the sub-$15 category that I feel give those varieties a bad reputation. You need to shell out for top Chards, you need to know your producer for top Cab Franc and Pinot (there’s a reason it’s called the Heartbreak Grape, because it will break your heart … not so with Riesling, it loves you unconditionally). There’s a lot of heartbreaking going on if you don’t know where to look in Ontario.
RIESLING IS SIMPLE, COMPLEX AND MIND BLOWING and I love them all for those reasons. I feel completely confidant when I walk into ANY (crap, I’m shouting a lot) winery in Niagara and buy a bottle of Riesling whatever the price. I know that inside that bottle I am going to be rewarded with crisp, fresh flavours that pop in the mouth and deliver a racy stream of acidity that actually prop up those fruits and make you pay attention. I know that Riesling will make my food better. I know I am going to be refreshed and rewarded with mouth-watering goodness. This is not true of the others mentioned above (and deep down you know that, too).
Even in its simplest form, Riesling is interesting. But throw in lower yields, single vineyards, a variety of clones and varying degrees of residual sugar, and, POW, you’ve just taken this versatile variety to soaring heights. And you did it without pulling a rabbit from the hat. YOU DO NOT NEED CARNIVAL TRICKS TO SPICE UP RIESLING… just find the right dirt.
Winemaker Brian Schidmt of Vineland Estates
WHICH BRINGS US TO THE DIRT. Why just last week I was enjoying sitting in Niagara’s most famous Riesling vineyard (I actually do that a lot, and I know that sounds horribly geeky and weird, but it’s true). It was the St. Urban Vineyard at Vineland Estates. Just me and a few of winemaker Brian Schmidt’s invited guests at the very back of the 45-acre vineyard planted by Germany’s Hermann Weis, the winery’s founder, in 1979 to his namesake Weis 21 Riesling clone, the most popular clone in Niagara.
A bit of history first (I’ll be brief): Weis, of the famous German estate Weingut St. Urbans-hof in the Mosel, saw the potential for Riesling in Canada, and decided to start a nursery in Niagara in the mid-1970s. He sold vines (the Weis 21 clone) to wineries from coast to coast, but was unhappy with the results because winemakers were blending his Riesling with the native grapes and hybrids of the time to make inferior wines. He resolved to plant his own vineyards on the Twenty Mile Bench, started his own winery called Vineland Estates (now run now by brothers Allan and Brian Schmidt), and the foundation for Riesling's explosive growth in Canada was born.
So, Brian Schmidt guided us to a table set up snuggly against the south border of the St. Urban Vineyard at 864 feet, the highest point in the vineyard and one of the highest points in Niagara. As we sat with a view of the gorgeous vineyard, planted on hardpan clay on top of mineral-rich limestone, looking north with a protective berm to the south, he started hauling out treasures from the past and a peek into the future.
St. Urban Vineyard Rieslings from 1989, 1993, 1995, 2002, 2004, 2008 and the 2011 Elevation Riesling (try a vertical like that with your beloved Chardonnay or Pinot!!!!, sorry I digress). The 1989 version of this historic Riesling was one of the first wines approved under the VQA badge of quality. To taste it now, 23 years after it was made, comes under that category mentioned above: Mindblowing. Still a whiff of freshness but loaded with tertiary flavours of beeswax, toasted almonds, caramel and candied citrus. It tugged on the palate between tart and sweet and had already gone through its petrol-mineral phase leaving a delicious waxy hint of lanoline. This is why I love Riesling. The journey from fresh and racy to its final happy place and all the points in between make it so unlike any other grape variety.
As we sipped through the 1993 (perfumed, faded, dried fruit), the 1995 (appearing as the oldest wine with caramel apple, toffee, nutmeg and an almost sherry-like quality), the 2002 (in a very nice place right now with classic petrol, vibrancy, apple-citrus), the 2004 (THE BOMB, so gorgeous with buckwheat honey, sweet petrol-minerality, and marzipan), the 2008 Elevation (rousing pear-citrus-apple, minerals and verve) to the newest Riesling on the block, the 2011 Elevation (grapefruit, citrus, white peach and minerals), I am only reminded of why Niagara Riesling has this hold over me.
Schmidt knows he inherited a gift from Hermann Weis, and views his job now to be the custodian of some of the finest Riesling in the country, I would say world-class. “Hermann Weis established the St. Urban Vineyard,” Schmidt says. “I don’t want to screw with it. The signature stands on its own.” Indeed it does.
STILL NOT CONVINCED? For me, it is so simple. No other grape variety can match the pure perfection of Riesling. It is a natural beauty that needs no extra glam, no trinkets or baubles, and certainly no masking agents to fully express itself. It’s easy to grow, and doesn’t need a whole lot of coddling in the vineyard or the winemaking process. And, well, it’s awesomely delicious right out of the bottle, or left to age gracefully as it sheds the tautness of youth.
And, oh my, the flavours — from juicy citrus to peaches and tropical fruit, all delivered in a highly refreshing style due to the electrifying natural acidity that defines this variety. It is what makes it such a versatile and food-loving wine. Riesling is everything all the other grapes want to be. I asked one of the great Riesling winemakers in the world, Pierre Trimbach from Alsace, what the crucial element in making great Riesling and he told me this: The secret to great Riesling, he said, can best be summed up this way: "First is balance. Second is balance. Third is balance. And the rest is blah, blah, blah. The key is not too much of this, and not too much of that."
And that is so true. Nearly 19 per cent of all vineyard acreage in Niagara is planted to Riesling, second only to Chardonnay for most-planted grape. The interesting thing about Riesling in Niagara, and why it’s so popular, is its ease of growing it in nearly every appellation. You can find interesting Rieslings for as little as $10 a bottle, and it’s widely produced. It doesn’t suffer from a “poor” vintage like other varieties. But, there is no question that the finest examples of Riesling in Niagara come from the wave of “single-vineyard” wines being produced from the Niagara Escarpment Bench vineyards, and, to a lesser extent, in pockets of Niagara-on-the-Lake.
The style of Riesling in Niagara runs the gamut from dry to sweet, but the best display a playful tug between sweet and tart citrus fruits with racy acidity for balance and underlying wet-stone minerality. Oh yes, Riesling rules the roost in Niagara. It is the greatest grape variety Canada has to offer to the world.
I rest my case.
Wines In Niagara
Written by Rick VanSickle
Rick VanSickle is a freelance wine writer who works, lives and plays in Niagara.