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An Unlikely Area Producing Very Likeable Wines
By Michael Apstein
Sep 22, 2009
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The Niagara Peninsula is as unlikely a place as you can imagine for producing fine wines.  Let’s start with the obvious.  It’s in Canada--and not Western Canada where more temperate climate prevails.  The Niagara Peninsula is a strip of land in Eastern Canada separating Lake Ontario from Lake Erie.  And in case you’ve forgotten, Buffalo, with its hundreds of inches of snow each winter is on Lake Erie, the only one of the Great Lakes that actually freezes in the winter.  In some places winegrowers actually mound snow around the base of the vines in the winter to protect them from the cold. 

It sounds like a good place to make ice wine--and it is--but more on that in a subsequent column.  More surprising, winemakers are producing excellent dry table wines made from Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling, and other Vitis vinifera grapes.

Stellar Pinot Noir

Starting at the top is Le Clos Jordanne, a joint venture of Vincor Canada (part of Constellation) and Boisset from Burgundy, that is making stunning Pinot Noir and Chardonnay under the guidance of winemaker Thomas Bachelder.  (You know when the French start investing in a place there must be something to it.  Just look back thirty years to sparkling wine production in California and twenty years to the Drouhin’s involvement in Oregon.)  Truly a garage operation, the winery is located in an industrial looking green building on the service road that parallels Queen Elizabeth Way, one of Canada’s major highways (plans are in the works for a new winery designed by Frank Gehry).  But the wines are not at all “garagiste” in style.  Rather they are layered, suave and long, the epitome of fine Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Using the Burgundy model, Bachelder makes a “village” wine from grapes from their four vineyards, wines from the individual vineyards and a wine from one section of the vineyard.  Even though it’s a young venture--the first plantings were only in 2000--he has found a distinct difference in both the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from adjacent vineyards.  The vineyards, Le Clos and Claystone, are within 50 yards of one another, but are separated by a steep ravine.  He’s smart enough to know he cannot explain what precisely is responsible for the difference in the wines--drainage, soil, slight difference in exposure--but notes the differences are similar stylistically for both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  He believes there is great diversity of the soil even in adjacent vineyards as a result of erratic glacier movement thousands of years ago, and that the ravine marks a transition of soil types.  Tasting his stellar wines from barrel makes a powerful argument that place matters here on the Niagara Peninsula.

Le Clos Jordanne is not the only winery that takes advantage of the diversity of soil and site. Coyote’s Run Estate Winery makes two dramatically--and refreshingly--different Pinot Noirs from adjacent vineyards.  One vineyard has darker clay soil and gives rise to their Black Paw Pinot Noir, which has a Côtes de Nuits-like earthy intensity.   The adjoining vineyard is replete with a lighter red clay soil that produces their Red Paw Pinot Noir, a lighter, red-fruited stylish wine more reminiscent of a wine from the Côtes de Beaune.

The Niagara Escarpment Makes it Possible

Although winemakers point to the 43 degree latitude of the Niagara Peninsula (on a level roughly with great wine growing areas of France and Oregon) to dispel the notion that it’s not too cold in this part of Canada for fine wine, it’s really the Niagara Escarpment coupled with Lake Ontario that makes it possible.  (After all, Vladivostok, on Russia’s east coast is also on the same latitude, demonstrating that latitude alone does not determine the ability to make fine wine.  A more important factor is whether the vineyards are located on the eastern or western side of a land mass.)  The Niagara Escarpment is name given to a 1,000-mile ridge that runs from upstate New York to Wisconsin.   On the Niagara Peninsula this several hundred foot high ridge traps warm air rising from Lake Ontario and forces it down onto the vineyards, warming them and creating a constant air flow that reduces the chance of frost and helps keep the vines free of disease.

A Place for Pinot

Bachelder notes that the Niagara Peninsula is beneath everyone’s radar for the moment.  But that won’t last forever.  He’s already seeing a lot of investment and new wineries popping up like mushrooms in the rain, focusing on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. 

Another sign that the area’s on the way up is movement of winemakers from the established leader in the region, Inniskillin, to establish their own labels.  Just as Warren Winiarski peeled off from Robert Mondavi Winery to start his own winery in Napa, David Sheppard’s departure from Inniskillin after 20-plus years to found Coyote’s Run Estate in 2003 shows that those who know the area best believe in its potential. 

Although the major focus of the Niagara Peninsula now is its glorious ice wine, Pinot Noir does has a promising future here because the soil and climate is right for producing elegant complex wines without high levels of alcohol or overripe flavors.  Riesling, Viognier and Pinot Gris have great potential as well, based on samples I tasted from Twenty Twenty Seven Cellars, Chateau des Charmes and Calamus, respectively.   But in another ten years, I wouldn’t be surprised if Niagara Peninsula stands with Oregon, parts of California, and New Zealand’s Central Otago and Martinborough areas as a top place for Pinot.  

If You Go

The area, sometimes called Napa of the North, is, as the Michelin Guide would say, “worth a journey.”  Accessible by car from either Buffalo or Toronto, wineries are easy to visit because of the relatively compact landscape and--unlike Napa--a multitude of roads crisscrossing the area.  Inniskillin and Jackson Triggs are two wineries set up to receive visitors easily without appointments.  An indispensable book to take is The Wine Atlas of Canada (Random House Canada) by Tony Aspler, one of Canada’s leading wine authorities.  Beautifully laid out and well written, it provides succinct description of the wineries as well as contact information.

The area offers plenty--Niagara Falls for starters--in addition to winery visits.  There’s the charming town of Niagara on the Lake, home to The Shaw Festival, an extraordinary theater schedule (not just Shaw plays) with three stages each featuring an average of at least two plays daily (even short ones at 11:30 AM as a lunch break).  The River Bend Inn is well-appointed “grand house” style hotel conveniently located to wineries and a quick three-minute drive to the center of town.  It also has an inviting outdoor patio overlooking vineyards, for breakfast or a late afternoon respite.

Although many wineries have excellent restaurants attached to them, don’t miss the Stone Road Grill in Niagara on the Lake because it has an extensive, all-Ontario wine list.  But my personal favorite--and the place to start any visit to the region--is Treadwell’s, a restaurant with a fabulous riverside location in Port Dalhousie, the charming port area of the otherwise undistinguished city of Saint Catherines.   Owner and sommelier James Treadwell has a well-selected and extensive list of wines by the glass (tasting portions or drinking portions) that allows you to explore the local wines--and plan visits based on what you taste--at one stop.  Take his advice and you will not go wrong.  The food is imaginative without being precious or overwrought.