You don't need to visit a local winery in autumn to learn that those in the wine industry are a hard working bunch. But with that work-hard mentality also comes a desire to celebrate and recognise accomplishments. The premier event for that is next week's 2012 Cuvée wine awards.
The Oscars of the Ontario wine industry, as they've been dubbed, are complete with a red carpet, an awards ceremony and a gala celebrating some of the industry's best wines. Despite all the glamour, the awards began humbly as a wine tasting fundraiser that benefits the local community and celebrates the best VQA wines alongside the region's gourmet cuisine. The event has grown in stature to reflect that industry's growth but remains true to its modest beginnings with proceeds going to Niagara Community Foundation.
Although there are countless wine awards, many of which benefit charity, one of the things that separates Cuvée is that it's essentially peer-judged. After all who knows local wine better than the people who make it? Earlier this year 51 Ontario winemakers gathered for a blind tasting and judging of a record number of wines. In total, 64 wineries submitted the 264 wines that they thought were the best in their line-ups.
Those top scoring wines will finally be revealed on March 2nd at the Cuvée awards ceremony. Guests will be able to taste them at the gala reception and mingle with winemaking teams that evening.
Earlier this week I was invited to a preview tasting. So as not to ruin the surprise, it wasn't revealed whether any of the wines were winners. All I know for certain is that the individual top-scoring wine from participating wineries were poured. In other words, there were some wines that will be taking home hardware next week. Below I've listed a few of my favourite wines from the tasting that I think you should seek out regardless of Cuvée's results.
If there was one thing to take away from this tasting it's that Ontario consistently does Riesling very, very well. In fact, Riesling was by far the most common single variety there and the range of styles produced was also fantastic. There was everything from the lighter floral and citrus wines, to taught-mineral driven ones and even some fleshy stone-fruit rich examples. But the very best wines out of this fine group were done in an off-dry style balanced with high acidity. This sweet-sour tension is becoming a signature style for some Niagara's best producers.
My stand out was the Cave Spring 2009 CSV Riesling. It first draws you into the glass with a wet-rock limestone minerality. That mends seamlessly with a lime marmalade, tangerine and that nutty kernel you get after polishing-off a ripe peach. It then finishes with an exciting citrus-mineral tension. That tension also plays a key role in the sugar-acid balance. It's just slightly off-dry with a touch of residual sugar to balance off the Katana-sharp acidity that makes 2009 whites so thrilling.
The talk on the floor at last year's Cuvée gala was that there was no award given out for Pinot Noir. At Cuvée if the winemakers don't feel any wine merits the distinction of an award in a category, then it simply isn't handed out that year. But that might change this year with Pinot Noir from 2009 being submitted—a vintage universally praised by winemakers as one the best ever for that grape. Of the 2009 Pinots poured at the tasting Flat Rock's Reserve was a highlight. It had the hallmark classic Niagara sour cherry aromas, but also some riper dark berry and cola notes that are a little more unusual in the local take on Burgundy's favourite prodigy. On the palate a pure cherry core was supported by strawberry, blackberry, vanilla and spice before finishing on a roasted beet and cherry-mineral combination. It also possessed that unmistakable silken texture that only Pinot can delivery. It's wonderfully balanced with tannin, acid and feel all working in perfect harmony.
As exciting as that Pinot was my favourite red came courtesy of Burgundy's other red grape—Gamay Noir. Just like its more famous cosmopolitan cousin, Gamay can be difficult to get right. But on a good site and in the hands of a thoughtful producer it can truly surprise with great depth. The 2010 vintage of 13th Street's Sandstone Old Vines is one of those Gamays. Bright red cherry, black plum and blueberry are joined by roasted herbs, pepper spice and clove notes. That pepper and cherry-berry combination stays through to long satisfying finish. Tannins are young and grippy, but well integrated and a bright medium plus level of acidity will work beautifully with food. This wine also has a nice soft mouthfeel that will allow it pair as well with chicken or arctic char as it would with a herb roasted pork loin or squab.
My favourite wine of the tasting was Creekside's 2010 Reserve Viognier. For the past few Cuvée awards this wine has taken home the best Limited Edition White or Viognier. Given that this was Creekside's top scoring wine this year I would be shocked if it didn't do it again. The 2010 version is everything you'd want in a Viognier. It's like walking through the tropical fruit section of the produce department. There's ripe pineapple, papaya and starfruit. Joining that is a secondary layer of white flowers, apricots and a touch of that herbal pyrazine character that you get in Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc. Most importantly it nails that rich, but not heavy feel reminiscent of buttermilk. And it has a nicely balanced medium level of acidity that gives way to a lingering papaya finish.
Since its inception Cuvée has been as much about pairing some of the best locally produced food as it is about celebrating the local wine industry. So expect some interesting and delicious bites from winery chefs: Jason Parsons of Peller Estates, Paul Harber and Collin Goodine of Ravine Vineyards' Bistro and Justin Downes of the Restaurant @ Vineland Estates Winery. Chef Ray Taylor and his team at the host Fallsview Casino, who provided much of the food at Icewine Festival Gala, should have some exciting food planned as well.
If you can't make it to Friday's Gala participating wineries throughout Niagara will be pouring and selling Cuvée winners, often for a limited time before they are released later in the year. Wineries also tend to use the Saturday and Sunday following the gala as an opportunity to pour exceptional flights including limited edition wines, back vintage wines and even tank samples. This is all part of a passport program called Cuvée en Route. It's a very good opportunity to experience how some older vintages are tasting and give you a clue on how the current and upcoming vintages may evolve. With that in mind some interesting stops to consider for your Cuvée en Route touring include Henry of Pelham, which is pouring its Merlot from 1997, 1999 and 2000. Jackson Triggs is offering a vertical of its famed Delaine Vineyard Syrah from 2005 through to 2007. Peninsula Ridge is presenting a horizontal flight of its Syrah, Cabernet Franc and Arcanum red blend all from the 2002 vintage.
If you love local wine get down to Niagara next weekend. It really is one of the best times of the year to taste the finest Ontario has to offer.
When: March 2nd-4th
Where: Niagara Fallsview Casino on the 2nd and then participating wineries throughout Niagara on March 3rd & 4th
Cost: $200 for a Cuvée Gala ticket which includes Cuvée en Route privileges.
$30 for a Cuvée en Route passport
Cave Spring 2009 CSV Riesling
Flat Rock 2009 Reserve Pinot Noir
13th Street 2010 Sandstone Old Vines Gamay Noir
Creekside 2010 Reserve Viognier