Cuvée is just over a month away and that also means Brock University's Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute (CCOVI) will be hosting its annual Experts' Tasting.
After all the celebrating at Cuvée is complete, winemakers and industry experts gather at Brock university the following morning for an invitation-only tasting and a chance to honour the recipients of the VQA Promoters' Awards. While Cuvée is all about celebrating excellence in wine growing and making, the VQA Promoters' Awards recognise the other side of the Ontario wine industry. The hard working people in the hospitality industry, LCBO, wine education and the media who have a deep love for VQA wine and tirelessly showcase and celebrate some of Ontario's best juice through their work.
For its 25th anniversary, Cuvée has changed formats and gone back to something a little closer to its roots. In recent years Cuvée was always proceeded an intensive blind-tasting by the winemakers where they would aim to select wines that stood out from hundreds submitted (each participating winery could submit up to four wines and a red and white sold through the LCBO in the Best LCBO Red and White categories). Wines that tasted a step above were then recognised at an awards ceremony at the Cuvée Gala. But if no wine in a category tasted award-worthy at the tasting, like Pinot Noir in 2011, no award was handed out at the gala. Although the celebration and peer recognition of the awards was appreciated by many, there was also many who felt the awards became the sole focus at Cuvée rather than the “celebration of excellence in Ontario winemaking” it is billed as. As a result, this year's Cuvée organising committee invited winemakers to simply pour their personal favourites from their winery's line-up. The thought process is to move the Cuvée away from a competition to a more inclusive format that would allow winemakers to showcase their personality and focus on a particular facet of what they love about their corner of Ontario wine country.
But even with a dramatic format change to Cuvée, the Experts' Tasting will remain untouched. That's a very good thing as the tasting explores some of the province's best wine and is always focused around a theme to provide some greater insight. With a nod to the 2010 vintage (considered one of Ontario's best particularly for bigger reds) this year's theme promises to explore VQA wines made from Bordeaux red grapes. As a thank you to those who take the time to nominate someone for a VQA Promoters' Award, nominators have a chance to attend the tasting if their nominee ends-up being selected as the winner. The deadline is this Friday Feb. 1st and all the details including guidelines and a form, which makes submitting your nominee quick and easy, are here. But to give you a little further incentive below is a little recap of last year's tasting.
The 2012 Experts' Tasting focused on grape that's an obsession for many wine lovers—Pinot Noir—something that was demonstrated during the second flight titled the Quest for the Holy Grail. After tasting through the flight of seven wines blind, Creekside winemaker and CCOVI alumnus Rob Power spoke about working with the grape. Although Pinot Noir isn't the focus at Creekside, Power and his team have made some formidable Pinots from their Queenston Road Vineyard. He likened his perspective to that an outsider compared to Pinot-focused winemakers Ross Wise, Jay Johnston and Thomas Bachelder, who also presented flights. But that also gave him the freedom to take the grape less seriously and incorporate equal parts humour (with his own David Letterman-style Top 10 of why it's such a heartbreaker) and perspective about how it pushes grape growers and winemakers to be their very best. When the wines were revealed, two of the wines were from the 2008 vintage but from different wineries; another two were from the same vintage and winery, but at two different price points; and the other two were from one winery's top-tier reserve label, but the vintages were five years apart. That line-up made for a great compare and contrast exercise and show a lot about your preferences as a taster. The 2007 wines had big expressive noses and rich, ripe berry fruit flavours, which were pleasant on their own, but when compared to a cooler year like 2008 lacked a nuanced elegance that I look for in Pinot. The standout of the flight was Jackson-Triggs' 2008 Delaine Vineyard Pinot Noir. It had the classic Niagara profile of cranberry and sour cherry along with some interesting spice and violet notes, while still retaining a balanced elegance that wasn't too big, nor too small feeling.
The next flight aptly titled Some Like it Hot featured all wines from the 2010 Vintage. In my tasting notes the words juicy and ripe were a common descriptors. In fact, the Niagara wines didn't seem out of place against a ringer from New Zealand (a country that I find produces plush, ripe Pinot) that had a bit of a ripe tropical undertone and intense fruit preserve character to it. Now, the Niagara wines from that year still tasted like cool climate wines, but tasted a little juicer and more opulent—what you'd expect from a warmer year. For me the balance of tannin and acidity as well ripe black cherry, wild strawberry and licorice spice of the 2010 Hinterbrook made it the personal favourite of the flight.
The next flight titled A Perfect Storm was the standout of the tasting. All the wines were from the cool and fairly wet 2009 growing season which saw some late, warm near-summer heat through September and into October. That gave Pinot Noir a chance to ripen slowly and the unseasonal warm, dry weather during the critical last stage of ripening ensured minimal breakdown of its infamously thin-skinned and tightly-packed bunches. In short it was an apt descriptor for what was probably one of Ontario's finest Pinot Noir growing seasons.
What struck me about this flight was the quality of the wines. They were all aromatic, nuanced, expressive and elegant. But the biggest compliment was probably that not only did the Ontario wines not seem out of place when tasted against the ringer from Nuits-Saint-Georges, but the majority of them tasted brighter and showed more expressive flavours and depth. A wine that really stood out as delivering a little something extra was Lailey's Lot 48. Along with sour cherry there was an intriguing wild strawberry and savoury mineral combination that gave this wine a distinct signature and provided the kind of taught tension that excites Pinot-philes. Still it was the combination of earth and fruit in the Good Earth Pinot that made it my standout of the flight. It was beautifully balanced between the earthy notes of: roasted beets, mushrooms and wet forest floor and the fresh fruit flavours of: cranberry, sour cherry and rhubarb. Add a silky mouthfeel and a balance between bright acidity and tannin and you have a wine with all the captivating elements of a great Pinot.
The final flight, Pinot Noir: Appellations and Terroir had the least creative name, but was probably the most interesting. Post-tasting but before the wines were revealed, winemaker Thomas Bachelder led a crowd-sourced exercise asking the group to help describe the unique characteristics of some Niagara sub-appellations as well as the wines in the flights. With the wines and their sub-appellations revealed at the end of the exercise, the notes were looked at again to see if there was a correlation. The conclusion was the group had a difficult time coming to a consensus on characteristics that would definitively identify a wine as being from a particular VQA sub-appellation in a way that people identify the deep colour and intensity in the Pinots of Burgundy's Gevrey-Chambertin for example. Part of that probably has to do with vine age and freedom in the vineyard and cellar to experiment. That experimentation is something you want in a young wine region where tradition and expectations have yet to establish best practices. In fact, the consensus was at this point was there are probably more commonalities than differences between the Niagara sub-appellations. The Tawse Cherry Avenue, Flat Rock Reserve and Rosewood Reserve all from 2009 and all from the Twenty Mile Bench sub-appellation, shared a compelling and pure sour cherry note along with an interesting savoury component. Even though they are all from different vineyards and have a distinct flavour profile from a range of other notes, they all possessed a great tensions and the primary cherry note which tied them together. The hope is that these common threads and the subtle differences between the sub-appellations become even more apparent with time.
In between the flights the VQA Promoters' Awards were presented. The LCBO's Ontario wines product manager Astrid Brummer, Allen's proprietor John Maxwell, Cave Spring's vice president and winemaker Angelo Pavan as well as Cuvée co-founder and 13th Street founder Ken Douglas were well-deserved in the recognition they received for their significant contribution to the industry.
Overall the Experts' Tasting is a great blend of discovery, insight, education and humour. What CCOVI does to further the experience, knowledge and education for the Ontario Wine Industry with this tasting is invaluable. I have no doubt that 2013's will be equally as memorable so if you know someone in the Ontario wine industry whose hard work deserve recognition, I highly recommend submitting his/her name to CCOVI because you don't want to miss out on a opportunity to attend this tasting.
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.