I recently returned from my annual summer trip to North America where I visited one of my favourite Canadian wineries, Vineland Estates in Ontario.
I flew into New York for a wedding, and on the day after the big event, after a boozy mimosa-filled brunch, myself, my parents, and five of my wine-loving European compadres hit the road in an RV, which we quickly (and appropriately) dubbed, ‘The Wine Wagon’.
Our morale was not to be hindered by minor details like the disagreeable physical aftereffects of drunkenness or lack of sleep… It was, however, mildly thwarted by the stop-and-go traffic and man-sized pot-holes coming out of Manhattan. But, for the love of wine, and in the spirit of adventure, we…
…well most of us slept to be honest.
We headed up through Pennsylvania and up-state New York and made our first rest stop on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls – pulling over shortly before the border to dispose of our empty wine bottles, of course. My father, being the designated captain of our fine chariot, must be a saint for offering to drive while the rest of us breezily sipped and snacked the miles away in the back. I still have to laugh when I think about the border agent’s expression when we all crawled out of the giant rolling bar. The lot of us, almost none of whom share passports from the same country, strolled through the door of the customs office looking suspiciously jolly. “We’re headed for Nova Scotia!” we chimed with enthusiasm as we handed over our colourful stack of I.D.’s.
Canada has been producing wine for over 200 years and Ontario, having over 17,000 acres of vines, is the largest wine grape producing province in the country. What many people tend to over-look in terms of the geography is that Ontario actually shares the same latitude as Burgundy and other cool climate wine regions in Europe. No igloos or polar bears to be found in that neck of the woods!
There are four primary wine regions in Canada. From West to East they are British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec, and my beautiful little home province of Nova Scotia. The main two, B.C and Ontario, recognise the VQA (Vintners Quality Alliance) as their regulated appellation of origin system. This system is similar to France’s AOC, Italy’s DOC, Germany’s QmP or Spain’s DO and allows for sub-appellations to protect and encourage the concept of terroir. Wines from Nova Scotia or Quebec may be classified under “Wines of Nova Scotia” and “Vins du Québec”. British Columbia also has a category called “Wines of Distinction”.
After a good night’s sleep, a visit to the Falls, and a big Canadian breakfast, we revved up the ol’ Wine Wagon and hit the road for Niagara wine country. We were full-up on pancakes and maple syrup and grinning from ear-to-ear when we pulled onto the estate. It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon and we were surrounded by rolling vineyards, historic stone buildings and a breathtaking view of Toronto’s skyline across the great Lake Ontario. “This is as good as it gets” I thought to myself…
… and then we met Andre.
In the words of his father, Andre has “a PhD in everything awesome”.
In his own words, he just knows “enough to be dangerous”.
Could he truly be the master of all that is good?
…he had us pretty convinced!
Andre Derrick, part of the winery’s management – customer care team, is incredibly knowledgeable. He is articulate, charismatic and refreshingly grounded. Honestly, I could have listened to him talk for days about wine, food, cheese, whiskey, beer, pairings, hospitality, bougie popcorn – the list goes on.
He is literally an industry super-hero…
We started our tasting in the 42 acre St-Urban vineyard with a glass of 2013 Reserve Brut made from Pinot Meunier, Chardonnay and Riesling. It was bright and refreshing and just slightly creamy. Tasting it’s crisp apple & pear notes as I stood between the vines in the summer sun, reminded me of childhood trips to the valley orchards back home.
The rows in front of the estate are widely set, since they were planted before any French-style tractors were brought in. The first vines were planted in 1979 by the winery’s German (Mosel) founder, Hermann Weis – Canada’s Riesling pioneer. Weis had a pretty good idea about what would grow well in the country’s southern regions and is known for having brought a very successful Riesling clone called ‘Weis21’ to Ontario and B.C. The St. Urban vineyard features that clone.
Stepping out of the vineyard and up onto a wooden terrace between the shop and the estate’s AAA 4-Diamond restaurant, Andre filled us in on some of the technical aspects of winemaking at Vineland. The wine we tasted next, the ‘2013 Game Changer White’ has everything to do with how winemaker Brian Schmidt is changing the game with Canada’s first and only optical sorting machine, the Pellenc Selective Process System. (Find out more here).
The Game Changer White, made from Chardonnay Musqué and dry Riesling, is super fresh and lively – a great wine for summer. It’s full of tart apple, citrus and stone fruit notes and has a really pretty florality to it… if florality is even a word.
It was around this point in the tasting that I saw my dad sneak away for the first time (to reserve a few cases of what he had in his glass). He had the right idea too, because The Game Changer later became our non-drivers’ ‘go-to’ wine on the 18 hour drive from Ontario to Nova Scotia.
The next wine we tasted was a 2013 Chardonnay Reserve. Refreshing lemon zest, freshly-picked pears, and a hint of honeysuckle with a minerality that reminded me of some wines from the limestone-rich soils in Franconia…then again, I tend to struggle still with mineral comparisons… I better keep licking rocks!
From there Andre led us through the cellar, past the huge steel tanks and hundreds of French oak barrels, to the ‘Wine Library’ where he proceeded to pick out and dust off a 1998 Chardonnay! – one of just a few that remain.
We could hardly believe he liked us that much.
Once it was open, we knew that we only had a matter of minutes before it would oxidize. I had never tasted such an old Niagara wine and I’ll be honest, I couldn’t think of a single other wine that compared. It was really different. It still had a nice amount of acidity and also a bit of sweetness; sort of like baked apples and cream.
One of the things that Andre compared it to that I will definitely keep with me, was when he compared the wine’s flavour profile to a component of Champagne. Since the dosage of Champagne is generally 10-15 year old Chardonnay, he told us to try and file away the memory of this old, cool-climate Chard’s taste, and think about it again the next time we drink a champagne. Now, as I write this, I’m thinking … “that’s a pretty damn good excuse to pop open some Champagne”, is it not??
After the thrill of the ’98 Chardonnay, we moved on to Riesling; one of the two varietals that I’ll admit I was most curious about in Niagara.
The first one we tasted was a 2015 Elevation Riesling from the Weis21 of St. Urban.
Exemplary acidity, lime, green apple, and a crystal clear, wet-rock minerality that shimmers through. Damnnnn!
Next-up came its older sister from 2008. With an alcohol content of only 8,5% this Riesling has a fair amount of residual sugar remaining, but enough acidity to balance it out nicely. Aromas of honey and apricot hi-lighted by notes of zesty lime.
I brought a couple bottles of this one back to Germany with me and I can’t wait to pair it with some spicy homemade Thai!
Moving on from such a fantastic selection of whites would be difficult to top, I thought. But, I did still have one wine in particular that I was realllly keen to taste (again), and that was the 2012 Cabernet Franc Reserve – my favourite Vineland wine.
I’m a sucker for Cab Franc as it is, but for me this one steals the show for cool-climate new world CFs. It boasts deep and complex notes of dark chocolate, black fruit, wet leather and coffee with earthy and spicy pepper impressions throughout.
Thank you team Vineland & winemaker Brian Schmidt, the Niagara Escarpment, and vintage 2012 for this little masterpiece!!
My second favourite red of the day, and one that I highly recommend for it’s value and quality is the 2015 Baco Noir. It was light and fruity and really easy-going. The nose reminded me red berries and cherry nibs. This is a varietal I hadn’t tasted before and according to Andre, this one in particular is fruitier than most, which generally tend to be on the earthier/funkier/more tannic side.
We finished off our tasting with a 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon Icewine. Memories of working my first ice wine harvest in the freezing cold of a dark winter morning were washed away immediately when I took my first sip. It was like opening a jar of my husband’s Oma’s strawberry preserves. Like drinking sunlight. It was balanced and bright and full of elegant berry aromas. My mouth is watering just thinking about it!
Our experience was unforgettable and for that we have Andre Derrick, Brian Schmidt and the whole team from Vineland to thank.
I highly recommend that you stop-by yourself, but if you can’t make it to Niagara, at least see about getting yourself some of that wine!!
By the time we were through, we walked out of there with enough wine to stock the Wagon fifteen times; we had every storage cabin loaded to the gunnels!
We carried on from Niagara into downtown Toronto, and a few days later on to Fredericton, NB before starting the final stretch to Halifax, NS.
Yep, Papa Hoyt and his assembly tacked a mile or two onto that brand new rental, but other than a few fridge door mishaps and a spontaneous gas station birthday party, I’d say it was a pretty smooth ride!
Suggestions for next summer, anyone??