Riesling is Clear Winner in the Niagara Peninsula
Published: NOVEMBER 16, 2012
BY BILL ZACHARKIW, GAZETTE WINE CRITIC
I was getting a quick rundown on the history of the Niagara Peninsula from Paul Speck, owner of one of the region’s oldest wineries, Henry of Pelham. With any rich history, there are always interesting anecdotes. It seems that the Speck family owe their vineyards to a great-great-great-grandfather, a fellow named Smith. Upon returning to the area after fighting the Yanks at the end of the 18th century, Smith, because he was a Loyalist, was rewarded with 100 acres of land for him, his wife and for each of his children. Luckily for future generations, Smith was a lover as well as a fighter and had 14 kids.
I love stories like that. But I was here to get Niagara’s modern history of grape growing and winemaking. As the discussion turned to his role in helping create Ontario’s appellation system, VQA, in the late 1980s and early ’90s, Speck said: “The New World can go a long way of catching up (with the old world) with technology, but we can’t really talk about terroir. That takes time. I’ll probably be dead when people actually know what they are talking about.”
I admire that sort of humility. What Paul was referring to was that a deeper understanding of the intricacies that are involved in making great wine, year in and year out, take time. Sure, technology can help you better understand your soils and subsoils, but to truly understand your vines, what’s best to plant and where, takes time. And a certain amount of luck.
“Time” because a vine really only shows you what it will give after maybe 10 years, if that. So if you goof, either by planting the wrong variety or the wrong clone, you can end up with wines that aren’t up to scratch. Most European regions have had hundreds or even thousands of years of trial and error.
“Luck” because sometimes the people who did the first plantings got it right. And by judging some of the wines made today in the Niagara, they definitely had that luck and might be even farther along in understanding their terroir than Paul might admit.
The Niagara Peninsula is Canada’s largest and oldest winemaking region. Grape growing is done in an area between Lake Ontario and the Niagara Escarpment, which is a ridge that has been cut by glacial activity and what was Lake Iroquois, a massive body of water that covered the area after that last age. The area is split into two regional appellations — Niagara-on-the-Lake and the Niagara Escarpment.
The appellations of Niagara-on-the-Lake are those vineyards closest to the water. The land is flatter and because of the proximity to Lake Ontario the temperatures are more moderate. This means that during the summer it doesn’t get too hot. But more important, the lake keeps it from getting too cold. The result is a longer growing season that makes it more ideal for many of the classic red varieties like cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc.
As you get closer to the escarpment, another important topographical feature becomes apparent — the benches, gently sloping “steps” that jut out of the slope of the escarpment. These benches give their names and define many of the sub-appellations of the region: Beamsville Bench, Short Hills Bench, Twenty Mile Bench and St. David’s Bench.
The benches are the prime growing spots, along with a ridge above the escarpment called Vinemount, which does not belong to any appellation. Benchland soils are well-drained, they receive less of the lake effect so they have bigger shifts between day and night temperatures. This allows for the grapes to keep their acidities up even during hot vintages.
Grape growing has been going on since the 19th century, but it was with the indigenous Lambrusca variety that makes thickly textured, rather rustic wines. It was only in 1974, when Donald Ziraldo planted 120 acres of chardonnay, riesling and gamay vines of the European vinifera family, that the modern industry was born.
These plantings were followed by others whose names and their wineries were to become the foundation of the Canadian wine industry. Paul Bosc of Château des Charmes, Paul Kaiser of Inniskillen, the Pennachettis of Cave Spring and Hermann Weis of Vineland.
Not only did these grape varieties make sense because of the climate, but so were many of the clones as well as the sites chosen to plant them. And one grape in particular stands out. While the region produces some very good to great wines with different grapes, riesling might be Niagara’s entry into the club of the top wine-producing regions in the world.
Vineland’s St-Urban vineyard and the Pennachettis’ Beamsville Bench riesling were both planted in 1978, and are some of the oldest producing vineyards in Canada. That clone, referred to here as the Weis clone, has become the standard for the region. Luck and time. These vines, now over 30 years old, are producing some seriously good fruit, and that’s the basis of any great wine.
The other testament to the greatness of riesling is that it always seems to perform well. I tasted through a number of “verticals” while I was there — a series of the same wine tasted over a number of different vintages — and where as certain grape varieties were better in certain years than others, riesling always seemed to be very good to great.
The riesling for the most part is made in a German “kabinett” style — lower alcohols where the acidity is balanced out by residual sugar. The majority of the producers whose wines I tasted, Cave Spring, Henry of Pelham and Charles Baker, walked this tight rope perfectly. In the past, I have tasted Vineland riesling, which is equally good and faithful to the style.
But there are some interesting variations that I tasted as well. Ravine Vineyard, because it manages to get “noble rot” on its riesling — a botrytis infection that concentrates sugars and builds aromatic complexity — make a richer, spatlese style. Less delicate perhaps, but much more luscious and mouthfilling. And, finally, for those of you who prefer dry styled wines, relative newcomer to the area François Morissette of Pearl Morissette has been making his rieslings with an Alsatian twist. It is equally convincing.
So riesling is a winner. It is a grape by which wineries all over the peninsula can speak and tell the story of their terroir. But it is not the only grape that does well. Next week, I will get into chardonnay, pinot noir and gamay, and the surprise of my visit, which will make all of you who like “big red wines” happy.