This past weekend I made my annual springtime pilgrimage to Niagara for Cuvée en Route, a passport style event with about 30 participating wineries each offering a tasting menu. This year I made the trip with my friend Andrew – a fellow wino, so it wasn’t very difficult to twist his arm and get him to join me.
I’m always interested in the chance to take a drive and experience wines in the place they’re made. There’s something special about tasting a wine while looking at the vines that gave it life.
Except for one stop this year’s Cuvée adventure consisted of wineries I’d never been to before. I apologize in advance if I’m a broken record about all the newness! My game plan going in was to use this year’s Cuvée as an excuse to finally get to some places I’ve been meaning to go for years.
It’s that time of year again – Cuvée en Route is back! It’s one of the many times each year that I get in the car and make a little pilgrimage to the region in my own backyard. It’s also a welcome way to further my wine knowledge and keep my palate up to snuff.
What is Cuvée en Route?
Let’s review. Created by the good folks at Brock University’s Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute (CCOVI), Cuvée en Route is an annual showcase of the fantastic wines this region has to offer. On March 23, 24 and 25 wineries throughout the region will create tasting menus (usually 3-4 wines) for passport holders, often share wines you can’t get at a normal tasting. Case in point – my first Cuvée year I had wines from as long ago as 1998! Cuvée is a great opportunity to taste things you wouldn’t be able to find anywhere (or any time) else.
Welcome to the first edition on Wine WTFs! In this new series we’ll explore wine terms and ideas and try to figure out what the fuss is all about.
This installment is all about a wine term with some controversial baggage. For professional winos it’s a revered term that is, ultimately, what all winemakers aim to pay homage to. For more casual drinkers it’s almost completely avoided and when it is used it’s usually to make fun of the more pretentious wine types.
It’s time for the next instalment of the Noble Grape Challenge. Last time we dove into the world of Viognier and now it’s time for the final entry, in which we get to know possibly the more versatile grape there is: Chardonnay.
About the Noble Grape Challenge
Let’s refresh ourselves on what’s going on here – Wine Folly created the Noble Grape Challenge as a way to learn the spectrum of flavours and characteristics found in red and white wines. Taking nine reds and nine whites and going through them from lightest to darkest, we’ll learn about the key characteristics and flavours of each.
Let’s start with where Chardonnay is originally from. Are you ready? I’ll give you two guesses, but you’ll only need one.
Lately I’ve been noticing something interesting coming out of wineries in Niagara. It’s something I honestly never thought about, though now that I think about it makes perfect sense. Maybe you’ve noticed it too, in adventures to wineries or wanderings through the LCBO.
They’re making Syrah.
I know. You’re probably thinking, ‘Why is this so surprising? Wine is wine, isn’t it?’ I mean, yes. It is wine. But also, it’s Syrah! One of the most prized French grapes! And a grape that Australia has already taken and completely turned on it’s head! What does Niagara think it’s doing here?
This past weekend was Cuvée en Route, one of my favourite Niagara wine events.
This past week I was actually quite sick with the worst cold I’ve had in years (I’ve since been diagnosed with bronchitis, ouch!). On reflection it was probably too ambitious to leave my couch and venture to Niagara, but after being cooped up for three days my impatience got the better of me and the foolhardy in me took over. This means that I didn’t make it to as many wineries as last year – only four as opposed to last year’s nine-winery marathon day.
In any event, my friend (and WSET 3 classmate) Wendy and I made the short drive to Niagara ready to taste some wine. We managed to make it to four wineries, all very different from each other, yet all very delicious.
A few weekends ago I headed to Niagara to see some friends and, of course, taste some wine. I had the immense pleasure of partnering with the Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute to attend their event called Cuvée en Route. For $30* you get free tastings at over 30 wineries in the area. Many wineries also take the opportunity to bring out special releases or showcase new or unique wines. We worked hard in our one day ‘en route’, making it to nine (yes, you read that right, NINE!) wineries.
The nine wineries we went to could not have been more different. Other than being located in Niagara and housing a lot of fermented grape juice, I mean. Here’s a run-down of the places we had the pleasure of visiting.
(Sadly, Ravine was the only winery where I didn’t get any pictures! Sorry, friends)
Their tasting room and shop are in an old converted farmhouse, making it feel very soft and welcoming. We sat at a lovely high-top table and sampled the three wines they chose to share. While tasting the man helping us helpfully explained the wines, including what the weather was like the year the grapes were grown and what he personally likes to pair each wine with. It’s always a pleasure to have someone take the time to share their knowledge and passion with you.
Highlight: Their 2014 Chardonnay. Toast, oak and stone fruit – it’s a great example of a California style Chard.
This winery is something else. If you’ve never been to Niagara let me assure you that it’s much like other small communities in Southern Ontario or Upstate New York; lots of old brick and stone buildings with more modern ones featuring newer materials like vinyl siding. And then there’s the Colaneri estate, in all it’s Italian villa glory. The winemakers, being of Italian descent, decided to go all in on their cultural heritage
Highlight: Their 2013 Chardonnay Recioto. With green fruit and apple blossoms, it is entirely different from any other Chardonnay I’ve tasted.
This is a winery I was not at all familiar with before this tasting. What I didn’t know is that this winery was started by a former ambassador who was posted to Italy with his family. He fell in love with wine there and when he retired from that life he knew that what he wanted to do most was start a winery in Niagara using Italian wine styles, and I’m so glad he did. Using appassimento styles (where you let the grape dry before fermenting into wine), Foreign Affair brings some great wines to the Niagara scene.
Highlight: Their 2010 Chardonnay (that’s three in a row for those of you keeping track at home!), which has lovely creaminess on the nose and delicious tropical fruit on the palate (pineapple and mango stood out for me). The age has helped it mellow a bit too, which I loved.
Oh, Megalomaniac. I know it’s their brand to be all brash and bombastic, but I really just wanted to tell them to calm down! The winery sits on the stop of a big hill, overlooking a great swath of Niagara, and definitely drives home to the bigness (is that even a word?) and confidence that their brand is all about. I thought the service could have been better – it felt like their staff weren’t even briefed on the event, and the wine could have been more mellow.
Highlight: Of the three wines we tasted I liked their ‘Big Mouth’ Merlot best. It had the red and black fruit and velvety smoothness I expect from a Merlot but also had a nice full body that I always want but don’t often get from that grape.
This visit was a pleasant surprise! For the event they offered a vertical of their Foch wine. If you’re not familiar with this grape don’t worry, I wasn’t either. It turns out that when the winery first started in the mid 1990’s they decided to create a hybrid grape that would better suit the Niagara climate, especially since they were having a tough time getting other more well-known grapes to produce quality yields. Basically Malivoire pioneered a varietal made specifically for the Niagara region – cool!
Highlight: Definitely the 2005 Old Vines Foch. Mellow and slinky, but still retaining the red fruit and oaky characters. Plus, how often do you get to drink ten year old wine? Thanks Cuvée en Route!
I’d had Kacaba’s wines before this event but, for some reason, they’re never a stand out favourite for me when it comes to Niagara wines. This visit reminded me that I should pay this winery more attention. Located in a small building that looks more like a cottage than a winery, I had a great time hearing about the (surprisingly large) variety of wines they make there. It also doesn’t hurt that the Kacaba staff person who was helping us was so enthusiastic about the wine and let me talk his ear off with my questions about their techniques and barrelling choices.
Highlight: Oh my, their 2015 Sparkling Brut! Floral and fruity with lots of tiny bubbles and a gorgeous blush colour. Delicious!
Yet another example of the uniqueness of each winery in this region. I’m pretty sure the tasting room for this winery is run out of Sue-Ann Staff’s own house (!!) which gives everything a lovely, comfortable, homey vibe – the adorable dog hanging around out front didn’t hurt either. We had a great time chatting and tasting with both Sue-Ann herself.
Highlight: Their 2013 Sparkling Riesling was so interesting, with a brightness on the palate but also caramel, burnt sugar and toffee notes and I would guess come from the wine’s age.
A multi-building outfit, it’s sprawling but compact property made me think of the few California wineries I managed to get to last summer, with its wood and stone work. The tasting room was in a very cozy low-ceilinged room with wooden beams and soft lighting – exactly my kind of room. I kind of wish they had a big puffy chair and a fireplace for ultimate wine warmth.
Highlight: We tasted three Merlots – 1998, 1999 and 2000. The 2000 still tasted a bit bright and fruity and the 1998 tasted a little thin, like it was the beginning of the end for the wine’s life. THe 1999, however, was a perfect middle ground with both lively fruitiness and the mellowness I was hoping for.
Last but not least, we finished our day with a Cabernet Franc vertical at Peller. To be honest, at this point in the day both my brain and my tongue were getting a little tired so I don’t have as much to say about these wines. Our tasting took place in a stately wood-paneled room on the second story of their building. While their wines are always solid I do usually find myself wishing there was more personality in the Peller experience.
Highlight: Of the three years we tasted (2011, 2012, 2013) I liked the 2012 best. It had the expected red fruit and smoke on the nose but also had some cigar box character that I found really interesting. The flavour was similar with some spiciness giving it a solid backbone. Yum! I do love Nagara Cab Francs.
Notable omissions include Cave Spring, Fielding, and Organized Crime (which didn’t even take part in the event this year). Oh well. They’re some of my favourites – I’m sure I’ll be back. I also would have liked to have visited Strewn, Stratus and Peninsula Ridge, none of which I’ve been to before.