To some of us, wine is more than a drink to round out a meal or relax the nerves - it's geography. Napa, Navarra, Naramata, Niagara, Nova Scotia - those regional designations often matter as much as the company or grape behind the juice. We geeks want to taste the land. Contrast that with soft drinks. You don't pick up a can of Diet Coke and say to yourself, "Mmm, Atlanta!"
French winemakers have a word for wine's ability to convey a sense of place: terroir. A few years ago, the esteemed American wine writer Matt Kramer, in classic south-of-the-border fashion, attempted to Americanize the term so that people in Iowa wouldn't have to keep scrambling for French-English dictionaries. He coined the term "somewhereness." It hardly rolls off the tongue, but it sort of works. The idea is that a good wine should taste like it came from somewhere in particular, reflecting the local soil composition and climate, as in the firm merlots of Howell Mountain (Napa) or the crisp pinot noirs of Beamsville Bench (Niagara). It's not unlike music, where the big-city Chicago style of electric blues sounds distinct from the mostly acoustic, slide-guitar essence of the Mississippi Delta.
More recently, "somewhereness" was appropriated - with Kramer's blessing - as a marketing manifesto by a group of Ontario winemakers. Their message: We're proud, we're passionate and we're trying to put Ontario soil and soul, not just anonymous alcohol and fruit juice, into our bottles. It started with six members and has since grown to 10, including Charles Baker, Stratus, Flat Rock, Tawse, Malivoire, Southbrook, 13th Street, Hidden Bench, Cave Spring and Norman Hardie, the latter the sole member from Prince Edward County. In future, the group may look farther afield, including British Columbia, for new members.
Though some, notably Cave Spring, can't be called tiny, they all tend to specialize in small-lot wines from designated vineyards. That's the model in terroir's spiritual homeland of Burgundy, where vineyards often are bottled separately rather than mixed together into large regional blends. The theory is that wines based on a smaller vineyard area are more likely to exemplify idiosyncratic flavours.
Compared with Burgundy, Niagara is still in the baby stage of delineating the discrete soil-and-weather boundaries that tend to yield noticeably distinct flavours. But in embracing the Burgundian model, it's embracing a global trend.
Small doesn't always mean great, of course. Burgundy offers ample evidence of that. If poor weather delivers sour fruit in one vineyard and the winery resists the temptation of combining the season's harvest with better fruit from elsewhere, that's, well, the drawback of somewhereness. And as with most premium producers that play up the small-is-beautiful angle, the Ontario group isn't timid where prices are concerned. Expect to pay $25 to $50 for most of their top wines.
Today, Vintages stores in Ontario are releasing seven offerings from the Somewhereness group as part of a spotlight on Ontario wines. My top picks are included below. But if you're in Toronto on May 10, you can get a crash course in Niagara's Burgundian progress. That's when all 10 producers will pour a total of 50 wines at a public tasting and food-grazing event at Toronto's Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre in Don Mills. Visit www.somewhereness.com for information and tickets. Offering his outsider's viewpoint, Rome-based Ian D'Agata, an Italian physician, wine expert, lively speaker and contributor to Stephen Tanzer's International Wine Cellar newsletter as well as Decanter magazine, will deliver a keynote address. If Italian wine is more your thing, you may be interested in D'Agata's thoughts the following night, when he'll be appearing with yours truly at Grano restaurant in Toronto to talk terroir Italian-style (tickets and information at www.globerecognition.com or 1-866-545-0016). Italophiles may also be interested in the non-Niagara offerings below, all also available through Vintages starting today.
Norman Hardie County Pinot Noir 2009 (Ontario)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $35.20
Well done, Mr. Hardie. Light-bodied and Burgundian in its subtle elegance, this red dishes up berry-like fruit, crisp acidity and a remarkably long, harmonious finish - all at an admirably low alcohol content of 11.5 per cent. It would be splendid with grilled salmon or roast chicken.
Charles Baker Picone Vineyard Riesling 2008 (Ontario)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $35.20
From a cool year, this slightly off-dry white is light medium-bodied and silky, with flavours of orchard fruit, red apple, citrus and mineral complemented by a whiff of autumn forest. I initially scored this 89, but it's improved with extra months in bottle. It would pair well with freshwater fish and makes an elegant aperitif.
Malivoire Mottiar Chardonnay 2009 (Ontario)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $29.95
Full-bodied and ripe, this white offers up rich pineapple, stone-fruit and coconut flavours framed by well-integrated oak. Niagara orchard meets a tropical plantation. Try it with lobster or squash soup.
Tawse Growers Blend Pinot Noir 2009 (Ontario)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $31.95
Soft berries lead the way, developing firm structure as the slightly astringent tannins take hold. Where many New World pinots are content to recline on the sofa with legs resting on an ottoman, this one stands erect. Pair it with grilled salmon or Berkshire pork chops.
Firriato Etna Rosso 2008 (Italy)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $16.95
Grown on the slopes of Sicily's grand volcano, this medium full-bodied red, based on the local nerello cappuccio grape, has a juicy vitality characteristic of Etna's cool climate, with notes of cherry and mint. It would pair well with seared duck breast or tomato-sauce pastas.
Valle Reale Montepulciano d'Abruzzo 2007 (Italy)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $17.95
There's an intricate patchwork of flavours in this succulent, medium full-bodied red from central Italy. Taste cherry, then tobacco, then violet and plum with a thread of fine-grained tannins holding it all together. Then marvel at the attractive price-quality ratio. Serve it with medium-rare steak or lamb chops.
Pio Cesare Barbera d'Alba 2008 (Italy)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $22.95
The hard-acid barbera grape is hit-and-miss, but when it's good it's deliciously versatile for all sorts of Italian food, from grilled sausages to tomato-sauce pastas to pizza. This red is concentrated and succulent, with fine, dry tannins and relatively tame acidity. Bring on the sausages.
Macarico Rosso del Vulcano 2007 (Italy)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $14.95
Here's another "lava" red, made from grapes grown on the slopes of an extinct volcano on the southern mainland. The earthy, firm-structured aglianico grape delivers full-bodied plum-like fruit with supporting flavours of raisin, chocolate and spice. It would be splendid with braised red meats.
Firriato Chiaramonte Ansonica 2009 (Italy)
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $18.95
Lean and crisp, this white whispers peach and flowers and would be best enjoyed with lean cuisine, such as poached fish and steamed fiddleheads.
Giordano Collection Primitivo di Manduria 2008 (Italy)
SCORE: 85 PRICE: $16.95
File this one under "not my thing but maybe yours." If you enjoy the full-tilt, raisin-like quality of a red that captures the grape-ripening heat of the southern region of Puglia, this wine is for you. Full-bodied and jammy, it could use more acid lift. On the other hand, it's just the thing for sweet barbecued ribs.