It's been a sultry, thirst-inducing summer in Southern Ontario. But connoisseurs of local wine have only begun to salivate as Niagara begins to crush what is shaping up to be one of the best growing seasons on record. Grape pickers are out in full force this week in one of the province's earliest harvests ever.
"We started picking on Friday," said Harald Thiel, vigneron-proprietor at Hidden Bench Vineyards and Winery in Beamsville, Ont. "I think we're getting great maturity levels."
An early start to the grape harvest augurs well for the cool-climate region, particularly for late-maturing red varieties such as cabernet sauvignon and merlot, which struggle to reach full ripeness most years.
At Château des Charmes in Niagara-on-the-Lake, picking started on Aug. 25 for pinot noir grapes destined for sparkling wine.
It was "certainly the earliest, by about a week, that anyone on our production team can recall, and there is a lot of institutional memory with our production team," said Michèle Bosc, the family estate's director of marketing.
Hot days, which yield high sugar levels, combined with cooler nights that preserve acidity spelled a nearly ideal summer. And while the season's ultimate success depends on relatively clear skies over the coming weeks, some say 2010 could trump 2007 as one of the best vintages ever.
"The great thing this year is [that]we got rain when we needed it," Ms. Bosc said. "This is a stark contrast to 2007, when we had drought conditions and vines were stressing and shutting down."
The first wines from 2010 will arrive in stores several months from now, starting with short-aged whites such as riesling and gewurztraminer. Those will be followed by oak-aged whites such as chardonnay in about a year, and finally the full-bodied reds, which can spend 12 to 24 months maturing in barrel.
In the meantime, though, consumers can taste the fruits of something else that's swept across the Niagara landscape in recent years: change. New, outstanding wineries such as Hidden Bench and Megalomaniac have sprouted, yielding some of the peninsula's most impressive premium offerings, as my recent swing through the region showed.
At the same time, several long-established estates played musical chairs, trading cellar talent and tweaking styles to coax out flavours to better reflect the region's soils and microclimates.
Jean-Pierre Colas, a Frenchman who moved to Peninsula Ridge winery 10 years ago, jumped last year to boutique producer 13th Street and was replaced by Jamie Evans, formerly of Stonechurch Vineyards. Marco Piccoli, an Italian now at Jackson-Triggs, and Bruce Nicholson, a Niagara native who recently moved east to Inniskillin from Jackston-Triggs's Okanagan Estate in British Columbia, are hitting their strides.
"We're really seeing the strength of the winemaking across the region," Mr. Thiel said. "They are getting numerous vintages under their belt and are expressing the terroir of the region really well."
And there have been more recent shifts whose results won't be seen for some time. Thomas Bachelder, who crafted many of the country's best pinot noirs and chardonnays, recently left Le Clos Jordanne to start a consulting business that will see him work with a host of other wineries. He's been succeeded at Le Clos by Sébastien Jacquey, formerly Le Clos's assistant winemaker. And Marc Bradshaw of Pillitteri is scheduled to leave his post soon and will be replaced by Alex Kolundzik, the VQA winemaker at Vincor Niagara Cellars.
Here's a selective snapshot of the new Niagara. Most selections are available only directly through the wineries.
Angels Gate (Angelsgatewinery.com, 905-563-3942 ).
Winemaker Philip Dowell arrived in 2007 after a peripatetic career in Canada and his native Australia. The former chief winemaker at Australia's celebrated Coldstream Hills), he moved to Niagara in 1998 to work at Inniskillin and has lately become a champion of Niagara's sparkling-wine potential. "I'm seeing a lot of the yeasty characters [in chardonnay]that you see in Champagne," Mr. Dowell told me.
Top picks: Angels Gate Archangel Sparkling Chardonnay 2008, $19.95 (juicy green apple and subtle yeastiness, with a hint of wet stone and lively acidity: Score 90, Alcohol 11.5%); Angels Gate Mountainview Chardonnay 2007, $18.95 (full-bodied and creamy, Meursault-like, with ripe grilled-pineapple and good balance: Score 90, Alcohol 13.5%).
Hidden Bench (Hiddenbench.com, 905-563-8700 ) Not so "hidden" any more, this boutique producer released its first bottles in 2007 and has been selling out its inventory faster than front-row seats at a Justin Bieber concert - despite its eyebrow-raising prices. Top picks: Hidden Bench Nuit Blanche 2008, $40 (to be released Sept. 18, this white Bordeaux blend of sauvignon blanc and semillon is silky, with big flesh and flavours of peach and flinty stone (Score 91, Alcohol 13.2%); Hidden Bench Tête de Cuvée Chardonnay 2007 (full-bodied and opulent, with toasty pineapple and lime zest); Hidden Bench La Brunante 2007, $85 (one of Canada's top reds, full-bodied and teeming with sweet raspberry jam balanced by fresh acidity: Score 92; alcohol 14.3%).
Thirty Bench (Thirtybench.com, 905-563-1698 ) Ontario native Emma Garner rose to the wine maker's position this year after five years at this small-lot riesling specialist. Her stamp won't be seen till next year, though the offerings here have won a strong following.
Top pick: Thirty Bench Riesling 2009, $18.50 (light-bodied and dry, with peach-like fruit and good balance: Score 89, Alcohol 11.1% ).
Megalomaniac (Megalomaniacwine.com, 1-888-634-2561 ) Owner John Howard has a flair for tongue-in-cheek labels, but the juice is all serious. Two years ago he snapped up Sue-Ann Staff, formerly of Pillitteri and 20 Bees, who is producing some of the best-value premium wines in the country, all of which help support a charity that brings Internet access to hospitalized children.
Top picks: Frank Cabernet 2007, $24.95 (juicy cherry at the core of this ripe, delicious red, accented by the slightest hint of bell pepper: Score 91, Alcohol 13.6%); Homegrown 2006, $12.95 (an innovative, off-dry blend of riesling spiked with 3.5 per cent Riesling icewine, fresh, floral and fun - a great-value match for Asian fare: Score 86, Alcohol 10.5%).
Château des Charmes (Chateaudescharmes.com, 905-262-4219 ) A consistent producer of well-priced wines, this estate managed to craft very good whites from the 2008 vintage. Top picks: Château des Charmes Old Vines Riesling 2008, $16.95 (coming soon to Vintages stores in Ontario; a dry white with stone-fruit, citrus and faint, German-style notes of slate and kerosene (Score 90, Alcohol 12.6 %); Château des Charmes Chardonnay Musqué, $16.95 (an unusual clone of the chardonnay grape and big strength of this winery, grapy and floral, with crisp apple-like fruit: Score 88, Alcohol 13%).
Jackson-Triggs (Jacksontriggswinery.com, 1-866-455-0559 ) Affable winemaker Marco Piccoli, a native of northeast Italy, loves describing the flavours in his wines, and he is showing a deft hand at drawing out the best from his grapes.
Top picks: Jackson-Triggs Fumé Blanc 2009, $24.95 (to be released in the next few weeks, this excellent oak-aged sauvignon blanc reminds me of the classic fumé from Robert Mondavi in California, silky smooth with notes of pear and citrus: Score 90, Alcohol 12.8%); Proprietors' Grand Reserve Meritage 2007, $25.95 (lovely black-forest-cake flavours with hints of vanilla and tobacco: Score 90, Alcohol 13.7%).
Inniskillin (Inniskillin.com, 905-468-2187 ) Winemaker Bruce Nicholson arrived in 2007 after a distinguished run at Jackson-Triggs's Okanagan Estate, where he won "shiraz of the world" at a major London competition for his 2004 Grand Reserve Shiraz. "Coming to this region was like starting over," he said of Niagara's cooler climate. He's adjusting quickly, in particular improving Inniskillin's reds.
Top picks: Inniskillin Two Vineyards Cabernet Franc 2008, $22.95 (juicy and slightly astringent, with a faint hint of red bell pepper underpinning ripe red fruit: Score 89, Alcohol 13.5 %); Inniskillin Winemaker's Series Barrel Aged Pinot Gris 2009, $19.95 (medium-bodied, seductively oily texture, with ripe peach and red apple lifted by fresh acidity: Score 88, Alcohol 14%).
Next week: a full-length profile of Jean-Pierre Colas and the transformation at 13th Street .