With its giant periwinkle wall and an interesting line-up of new releases and library wines at the tasting bar Southbrook is always a great place to visit when your touring in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
The Connect line is a good entry point into the world of organically-grown and biodynamic Niagara wines; the Triomphe line consistently delivers great wines at affordable prices; and the top-tier Poetica Chardonnays and Cabernet-Merlot blends always impress with their elegance and depth. But it is the Whimsy! Line, slotted between Triomphe and Poetica, that often contains my favourite Southbrook wines. Whimsy! is where winemaker Ann Sperling, associate winemaker Scott Hamilton, assistant winemaker Regan Kapach and their team really get to have some fun. And it always shows in the glass. That playful artistic spirit is also reflected in the label that is reminiscent of an artist's sketch with unfinished edges and a rainbow of colours resembling watercolor test patches.
This year's Whimsy! line-up was officially released earlier in the summer at a little celebration dubbed Taste the Place. Guests could choose to tour the vineyard with members of the winemaking team or proprietor Bill Redelmeier and learn about the wines as they tasted them amongst the vines that produced them. Another option was to simply taste through the line-up inside while enjoying special cheese pairings from Monforte by sommelier and hospitality manager Britnie Bazylewski.
Southbrook is a also a big proponent of the gourmet street food revolution that has developed in Southern Ontario over the past two years. So they invited the truck that started it all, El Gastrónomo Vagabundo, to serve-up their globally inspired, locally-made cuisine, including their legendary fish tacos. The delicately, crisp and flaky cod, wrapped in a corn tortilla and topped with the sweet-spicy combination of the house-made smoked pineapple-habanero hot sauce, is great fuel for touring vineyards. El Gastronomo was joined by Niagara's new gourmet seafood street food vendor, Tide and Vine. Proprietors Mike Langley and Kat Steeves are bringing top-quality seafood, like briny east coast oysters, both freshly sucked and barbecued, directly to the wineries where guests can pair them with the crisp whites Niagara does so well.
Of the current Whimsy! line-up the reds are what stand out. The 2010 Uncloaked Merlot is an interesting wine because although Merlot is something the winery has always worked with, it's a grape you rarely see on a Southbrook label without its partner Cabernet. Upon trying the Merlot from the warm and balanced 2010 vintage, the winemaking team thought it was worthy of a single varietal bottling. They even played on that notion calling it Uncloaked, which is fitting because it's a blend of seven older barrels.
With no new oak, it's a very fruit-forward Merlot and that shows with plenty of dark fruit on the nose. A combination of cassis, black plum, black raspberry, blueberry and violets really reminds you of the pleasures of late summer desserts. If you close your your eyes and take a sip that's exactly what you'd swear you're enjoying, as a touch of cedar, vanilla and cookie spice join all that dark fruit on the black raspberry-prominent finish. This isn't a big, brooding, tannic monster of a Merlot either, which is what you sometimes encounter with Ontario Merlots. Instead it's nicely balanced with a medium-feel, tannins and acidity. Paired with the salty and rustic flavours of Monforte's Toscano pecorino-inspired cheese, the fruit flavors are even more amplified and the smooth tannins are accentuated.
The 2009 Whimsy! Renewed Rows is a classic cool-vintage Niagara Cab Franc. The interesting name comes from the winery having just celebrated its 10th anniversary last year. This is the third vintage in a row Southbrook has produced a Cabernet Franc under the Whimsy! label—clearly it's a grape the winemaking team likes playing with. This vintage got its start in a large oak fermentrr and then spent a about a year in a mixture of new, second fill and neutral French oak barrels before the final seven barrel cuvée was assembled. It has a wonderful perfumed nose of crushed red raspberry, currant, cherry and blueberry. That's all realised on the palate and backed-up with the unmistakable roasted herbs, smokey tobacco and cedar that makes Cab Franc so distinctive. This Cab Franc is a little lighter in body, likely owing to the cool vintage, but it has a nice elegance with medium tannins and some great acidity that will shine with the right dish like a herb-crusted roast leg of lamb. It also pairs wonderfully with the creamy soft-rind Monforte tarragon covered Bliss. The tarragon and licorice and lavender hints mingle with the Cab Franc's herbal notes.
The stand out of the current Whimsy! line-up is one that ironically wasn't even supposed to make it to retail shelves. The 2010 “Who are you Callin' Petit?” Petit Verdot was very limited production so it was offered exclusively to wine club members initially. When all of it wasn't snatched-up, it was released for sale in the retail boutique. That may have something to do with the fact that Petit Verdot rides far behind Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in first class, Cabernet Franc in business class and even Malbec and Carménère in economy on Bordeaux grape airlines. In fact if Petit Verdot were on a Bordeaux grapes international flight it would probably be suck in that cramped economy seat next to the lavatory that doesn't recline. Talk about being under-appreciated!
Just like its irreverent name, this wine has some serious moxie. It first draws you in with an alluring combination of black fruit and lilacs. But it's once you take a sip that this wine really announces it's here to make a statement. It has an intriguing combination of ripe black currant, black raspberry and plum that's supported by an undercurrent of leather and earthy sage. With firm tannins, a strong medium plus acidity and a meaty texture with the grape's characteristic fuzziness, this is a great wine to cellar or pick-up, to decant over dinner, as summer winds down and we move towards fuller-bodied reds.
Overall this year's version of the Whimsy! line just might be Southbrook's best line-up of that label. That's saying a lot because it represents some of the most innovative and exciting wines in the Niagara-on-the-Lake winery's portfolio. But even more importantly it's a reminder that there's still a very important place for creativity, experimentation and a playful inquisitive spirit in the Niagara wine scene.
Southbrook 2010 Whimsy! Uncloaked Merlot
Southbrook 2009 Whimsy! Renewed Vows Cabernet Franc
Southbrook 2010 Whimsy! “Who You Callin' Petit?” Petit Verdot
Written by Mike Di Caro
Michael Di Caro covers all things vinous at Spotlight. His lover affair with Ontario wine began over a decade ago and he’s been in front of tasting bars trying to sweet talk staff into pouring a taste of a library wine or the latest unreleased bottle ever since. Since good wine can’t be made without great grapes, you can also catch him amongst the vines trying to persuade the winemaker into revealing his/her next big thing for you on Spotlight. His epicurean tendencies don’t just stop in the glass either. During the rest of his free time you can find him searching for the perfect bowl of Dan Dan noodles, exploring the city’s best tasting menus or baking cookies and mucking about in the kitchen.