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Winemaker Jean-Pierre Colas spills on Niagara's wine establishment Add to ...

Winemaker Jean-Pierre Colas is hunched over one of his prized barrels in the cellar of Vignoble Rancourt, a tiny, little-known estate in Niagara-on-the-Lake. He draws out a sample of inky-purple merlot with a glass tube and releases it into a tasting glass. Then, as a reporter starts asking sensitive questions, he gets up on something else he's fond of - a soap box.

"Cabernet sauvignon is heresy, a crazy, stupid idea," he says, dismissing the late-ripening grape as ill-suited to Niagara's cool climate. "If you have one ripe year out of 10, what do you want to do with the other years?"

His contempt for underripe cabernet sauvignon and Niagara's addiction to the grape is just one in a litany of lamentations that have made him something of a pariah in the region since arriving with a splash at Peninsula Ridge Estates Winery in Beamsville, Ont., from his native France in 2000.

Pinot noir, the grape some of his colleagues champion as Niagara's great red hope? "I'm not convinced," says Mr. Colas in a thick French accent, decrying the vast majority of local pinots he's tasted.

And don't get him started on Ontario's Byzantine wine-industry standards, largely overseen by the Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA), or the Liquor Control Board of Ontario. They tend to favour big-volume producers over small-batch craft winemakers, he says.

It's not the kind of talk one normally hears from Ontario's generally collegial winemaking community, at least not on the record. But now Mr. Colas is beyond the caring stage, having departed Peninsula Ridge last year after a clash with owner Norm Beal over commercial direction and Mr. Colas's vocal disdain for the LCBO.

"He had a bit of an attitude problem and that hurt our business," Mr. Beal says. "I think the LCBO are and can be great partners for our industry." (For the record, Mr. Colas says he left of his own accord, while Mr. Beal says the divorce was "mutual.")

Mr. Colas, 48, is now splitting his time between two smaller estates, consulting to fledgling Vignoble Rancourt and, more notably, acting as chief winemaker at 13th Street Winery, a distinguished boutique operation that recently changed ownership.

If my recent sampling of the forthcoming offerings at 13th Street and Vignoble Rancourt are any indication, he could be writing the first page of a dynamic new chapter. In the meantime, he's also clearly getting a kick out of working closer to the soil, at least as big a kick as he's been getting out of flinging mud. "I feel more happy, I feel more independent," he says.

Despite his flair for button-pushing, Mr. Colas isn't easily dismissed. Prior to joining Peninsula Ridge, he had for 10 years been head winemaker at Domaine Laroche, a large producer in Chablis.

While there, he garnered Wine Spectator Magazine's White Wine of the Year distinction for a grand cru chardonnay, Domaine Laroche Clablis Les Clos 1996, which scored 99 points out of 100 in a blind tasting. Another Chablis, Blanchots Reserve de l'obedience 1996, took top honours in a tasting conducted by another U.S. publication, Wine Enthusiast, similarly scoring a near-perfect 99.

That experience in northern Burgundy's cool climate served him well at Peninsula Ridge, then a new estate, which soon began producing some of the best sauvignon blancs and lean, Chablis-style chardonnays in Canada.

"I think he's a first-rate white winemaker," says Tony Aspler, author of The Wine Atlas of Canada and Tony Aspler's Cellar Book. "I think that his white wines [at Peninsula Ridge]generally were better than his reds. He had a great feeling for white wines."

Unlike most of his colleagues in Canada, Mr. Colas didn't get his start at oenology school. He arrived at Domaine Laroche as a vineyard labourer, eventually apprenticing under the previous winemaker of 15 years. "I'm from the old school," he says with a smile. He also did brief stints in South America and New Zealand.

That hands-on approach, he says, helped guide him in Niagara, where he crushed several varieties for the first time, including sauvignon blanc, which would quickly become his Canadian signature.

His latest fascination, though, is with merlot, a red Bordeaux variety he vinified in Chile as well as at Peninsula Ridge. Merlot has the advantage of ripening a few weeks earlier than cabernet sauvignon. Earlier ripening ensures greater harvest success as Ontario's climate begins to turn cruel in the fall.

"For one year of ripe cabernet sauvignon [in a decade] we are going to get five or 8 or 10 years of ripe merlot because it's coming in two to three weeks earlier," he says.

He expects merlot could become the star at Vignoble Rancourt in Niagara-on-the-Lake, which enjoys more hospitable conditions for the variety than does 13th Street and other wineries in the Beamsville Bench district to the west.

But Mr. Colas has his work cut out for him there. The cottage winery had been the labour of love of Lionel Rancourt, a Quebecker who settled in Ontario with his wife Lorraine. Mr. Rancourt died suddenly three years ago, as the quaint farmhouse on the 8 1/2-acre estate was reaching completion.

Ms. Rancourt, now pondering a sale, has endured a revolving door of consulting winemakers, but hopes Mr. Colas can perform alchemy on the so-so reds from the 2007 and 2008 harvests that are mostly sitting in tanks and barrels.

Working with "no budget," Mr. Colas tapped industry contacts to secure used, top-quality French-oak barrels from California and from Le Clos Jordanne in Niagara, welcome replacements for the "bad American oak" sitting in the winery.

He's been tinkering in the tank room and barrel cellar, too, hoping to craft decent red blends from the 2007 vintage for sale through the winery's tiny boutique store. "I try to play a little bit with rope and candles," he said, metaphorically, "just to beat and to reshape."

I liked a tank sample of the 2007 merlot, which was lively with spice and just enough acidity, as well as a 50-50 blend of merlot and cabernet franc, which showed good tannic structure and ripeness. Beginning with the 2009 vintage, examples of which won't be available for some time, the wines will be all-Colas.

At 13th Street, Mr. Colas has crafted a superb 2009 sauvignon blanc under a new super-premium line called Essence, which will sell for $34.95, as well as three other very good whites from the same harvest - a chardonnay from the Sandstone vineyard ($29.95), a gewurztraminer ($19.95) and a pinot gris ($19.95).

And a barrel sample of 2009 syrah (to be priced at $24.95) is shaping up to be an admirable follow-up to a superb small-batch syrah he made at Peninsula Ridge, crafted in the peppery, gamey Crozes-Hermitage style of his native France.

Ironically, at 13th Street, Mr. Colas inherited responsibility for working with a small batch of pinot noir, one of the varieties he complains has largely underperformed in Niagara. A tank sample of that wine, 13th Street Pinot Noir Essence (to be priced at $44.95), was my favourite of a dozen 13th Street wines I tried recently, brimming with berry-compote flavours, herbs and spice, a sort of cross between the jammy California style and lively, savoury red Burgundy.

"I am trying to do what has not been done before [in Niagara]with pinot," he says.

Adding to the pinot irony, last month the same wine was rejected by the VQA approval panel for failing flavour-profile requirements. Though he can still sell it, the wine cannot bear the VQA neck emblem that thousands of consumers seek out as a purported seal of quality.

"Each time I have the great wine that I believe in," Mr. Colas says. "I'm in trouble."

New wines and new vineyards, perhaps, but Mr. Colas is still kicking up the dirt.

 

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