Rare is the winemaker willing to predict the quality of a vintage before harvest is over and the juice is safely bubbling in tanks. Restraint in such a matter is wise. In wine there is truth, in grapes only hope and speculation.
But there's one thing you can say for certain about the 2017 growing season in Ontario. It's been exasperating. Rain across the southern perimeter was so bad at times that many vineyards morphed into lakes. That standing water not only drenched roots but also made it impossible to get tractors in to help with pruning and spraying.
"We got lambasted in June," said Keith Tyers, winemaker at Closson Chase in Prince Edward County in Eastern Ontario, adding that it was probably the wettest season he's experience in 14 years of growing.
The most obvious impact of those grey skies has been to delay vine development to the point where some late-picked varieties, such as cabernet sauvignon, might fall well short of the ripeness needed for lush, mouthfilling reds. Harvest, which normally would be chugging along around this time in Niagara for such early-picked still wines as chardonnay and pinot noir could be roughly three weeks late in many vineyards.
For winemakers, though, the rains mainly have meant more gruelling work than usual. Disease pressure that attends high humidity, notably in the form of downy mildew, forced workers to pass through the vines to pluck overgrown leaves with a vengeance in order to ventilate grape bunches and expose them to the sun.
Tyers said this is the first year he's had to strip leaves from the western sides of vine rows. That's the side exposed to the more intense heat of afternoon sun and which generally benefits from shade to protect berries from sunburn. "There's been a lot of foliage," he said. "It's like having to cut the grass every three or four days."
And while the weather did improve in much of southern Ontario during August, the clouds that persisted for much of spring and summer could have their own silver lining, at least for some producers. Paul Pender, director of viticulture and winemaking at Tawse Winery in Vineland, told me the other week that although conditions were challenging – because "it was raining every second day" – the season reminded him of another moist, "off" year. He said 2013 yielded many stellar wines, in particular pinot noirs and chardonnays. I'd have to agree, a perspective is underscored by the superb Tawse chardonnay below as well as another 2013 offering, the Quarry Road chardonnay, which won a platinum medal at the 2017 National Wine Awards of Canada and also is available at Tawsewinery.ca (for $36.95).
It might seem counterintuitive, but wet, overcast conditions can benefit early ripening varieties. Slower vine development and longer "hang time" for grapes can result in more complete phenolic, or biological, ripeness and greater flavour complexity. By contrast, a hot summer gooses sugar up too quickly and grapes often must be harvested undesirably early simply to keep them from turning to into raisins.
"It's the kind of vintage I love for chard and pinot," Pender said, stressing the word "love." As he likes to observe about the French region synonymous with those two grapes: "The Burgundies you love are the ones are those that come from those off vintages."
Pinot and chardonnay aside, whether 2017 manages to squeeze out many great cabernet sauvignons and merlots is simply too early to tell. Even a wine critic wouldn't be so foolish as to make that prediction.
In the meantime, this seems like a good moment to savour one or more of the older vintages below.
Tawse Robyn's Block Chardonnay 2013 (Niagara)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $45.95
Pricy, yes, but this easily ranks in the league of many similarly priced white Burgundies. Medium-bodied, with a buttery centre set against a firm acid spine. Excellent depth of flavour showing pineapple, honeyed tropical fruit, candied lemon, leesy tang and toasted bread. Perfect cool-climate tension in a fully ripe chardonnay. Available direct, Tawsewinery.ca.
Closson Chase K.J. Watson Vineyard Pinot Gris 2016 (Prince Edward County)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $22.95
Medium-bodied, concentrated and slightly oily yet admirably far from heavy or sweet, weighing in at a moderate 3 grams per litre of residual sugar. This is unoaked but serious gris versus straightforward grigio, with peach and candied-lemon notes as well as a hint of the minerality you might sooner expect from a fine Alsatian rendition of the grape. Pan-seared freshwater fish, such as trout, would be lovely. Available in Ontario Vintages stores.
Malivoire Courtney Gamay 2015 (Niagara)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $27.95
Substantial for a gamay, more in line with higher-end "cru" wines of France's Beaujolais region rather than more familiar and pedestrian Beaujolais reds. Malivoire excels with this crisp, light-bodied grape (and others, to be sure), dishing up in this bottling an earthy and slightly charred-roasted essence to complement the variety's classically bright cherry fruit. Perfect for salmon, other weighty fish, roast ham or cassoulet. And nice in general for autumn. Available in Ontario Vintages stores.
Viewpointe Cabernet Franc 2010 (Lake Erie North Shore)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $17.10
Harrow, Ont. – it's due south of Detroit, near the southernmost tip of Canada. Napa it's not, but there's surprisingly good wine to be found in the better years. Here's an example. There seems to be a whisper of volatile acidity at the start, like very mild vinegar – but in a good way that enlivens the fruit. The wine is very dry, with slightly chalky tannins even at seven years of age, showing red fruits and a hint of licorice joined by handsomely evolved characters of leather and earthy underbrush. Impressive. Available in Ontario Vintages stores and $18.95 at the winery, Viewpointewinery.com.
Henry of Pelham Speck Family Reserve Chardonnay 2015 (Niagara)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $29.95
Intriguing nose: lemon, apple, herbal and flinty-smoky. On the palate it's full and silky, with an echo of the flinty aroma coming back to join pineapple, apple and floral characters delivered with vanilla smoothness. Well-integrated oak and soft but balancing acidity. Great for richer fish dishes or chicken in cream sauce (chicken pie, anyone?). Available in Ontario Vintages stores.
Flat Rock The Rusty Shed Chardonnay 2014 (Niagara)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $26.95
Full-bodied and creamy-chewy, this is one smooth and compellingly rich Niagara chardonnay, with flavours suggesting grilled pineapple, butter and vanilla. Good acid balance. Boiled lobster and other fleshy fish as well as creamy soups would match well. Available in Ontario Vintages stores.
Creekside Iconoclast Syrah 2014 (Niagara)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $24.95
Medium-full, Creekside's Iconoclast 2014 syrah walks a little bit like a Crozes-Hermitage, with a tight, firm spine, juicy verve and layers of plum, white pepper and smoked meat. Good choice for braised red meats. Available in Ontario Vintages stores.
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