Ready for TasteCamp North: What’s So Great About Niagara, Anyway?

Pinot noir grapes at Hidden Bench, just after véraison, in August 2010

Friday, May 13, will mark the beginning of TasteCamp North, a three-day exploration of Niagara wine country, on both sides of the Canada-USA border. 40 wine lovers from as far as Colorado, Indiana and Nova Scotia will start tasting, spitting, evaluating, tweeting and blogging about the wines, the region and the people who turn local grapes into wine.

This third edition of TasteCamp, created by Lenn Thompson, head honcho of the New York Cork Report, is the culmination of nearly a year’s work, all done in their free time by a small group of wine lovers (Rick Van Sickle, Suresh Doss, Bryan Calandrelli and myself, under the supervision of the founder himself), with the support of a great bunch of sponsors.

I’m obviously pretty excited to meet with everyone, and very eager to see what those writers and bloggers, many of whom will be visiting the area for the first time, will think about what the region has to offer. For my part, it will be the first time I get to taste the wines from the US side of Niagara, something I’m really looking forward to. The full program of events should allow everyone to get a good sense of what the region – or regions – are all about.

Why should you bother coming to Niagara?

As the event nears, I’ve been thinking of what makes the place interesting and worth discovering, outside of a more patriotic enthusiasm for local wine. So here are a few reasons I came up with, from my experience tasting Niagara wines (in Ontario) professionally since the late 1990s, on a more or less regular basis.

Reds that age well

I still have a couple of bottles of 1995 Trius Red, a Bordeaux blend still made today by Hillebrand. Last time I tasted it, about two years ago, it was still fresh and delicious and good to go for a good while yet. And that’s a 20$ bottle! The 1998s are still going strong, and recent vintages like 2007 and 2009 should provide great aging potential as well. There is a balance and freshness in the best Niagara reds that is truly seductive, and even more so after a few years in the cellar. Merlot from Ravine, pinot from Le Clos Jordanne and Tawse, red blends from Stratus and Hidden Bench, old-vines gamay from Malivoire, to name but a few, are wines that I would definitely cellar for a few years, with the assurance that they would have more to offer than at release. Another feather in the hat of cool-climate winemaking.

Riesling!

Though local winemakers have created an event around chardonnay and others claim cabernet franc should claim the title, there are many, many enthusiastic fans of Niagara riesling who claim that the grape should be the region’s signature variety. Hard to fault them when you taste the remarkable offerings from Cave Spring, Thirty Bench, Tawse, Vineland and Ravine, to name but a few. The interesting TasteCamp question? What will returning attendees think about them, after last year’s event was held in the Finger Lakes, another region famous for its take on the most famous german grape.

Climate-defying winemaking

Southbrook winery

I don’t want to reinforce the “it’s so cold in Canada” cliché, here. In fact, in years like 2007 and 2010, it got so warm that keeping acid in the whites became a challenge, as was finishing pinot noir properly. But one of the things that keeps amazing me is how local winemakers find ways to make some wines truly fantastic when the climate has dealt them a seasonful of blows that would have others throw in the towel and head to California. Ann Sperling, at Southbrook, has been doing wonders with her 2008 Bordeaux varieties, in a wet and cold year that was usually pretty cruel to them. Derek Barnett, at Lailey, produced some stunning 2008 syrah, again proving that with careful, attentive winemaking, you can find a way to make just about any variety shine in years where they just shouldn’t be able to.

A willingness to try new things

Niagara is still a young wine region, having seriously turned to quality winemaking and vinifera varieties in the late 80s and early 1990s. If it was settled in its ways, that would be more than sad – it would be worrisome. Winemakers are highly willing to try new things, as demonstrated by the Undercurrents experiments at Creekside Wines, the appassimento wines made at places like Colaneri and A Foreign Affair, as well as more subdued work like testing out various barrel regimens (demi-muids for chardonnay at Tawse, Canadian oak at Lailey, etc.) and more attention being paid to different soils, different sites (in particular the careful work of defining the “crus” in Le Clos Jordanne’s pinot noir and chardonnay vineyards) and the effects of organic and biodynamic winegrowing and winemaking. Differentiation and careful experimentation are what’s making the Niagara region more interesting with every passing year.

A variety of varieties

There’s a fair bit of cab, chard and riesling in Niagara, but there are also a number of remarkable surprises to be found, if you go digging a little further. Savagnin at Château des Charmes and 13th Street can give some interesting results. There’s nebbiolo in a couple of spots, and Maréchal Foch creates a really interesting wine at Malivoire. Chardonnay musqué is a thing of its own, not just another chard. Stratus bottled petit verdot on its own in 2007, and it uses a little malbec in its red blend. For the geekier wine lovers, like me, those are attractive findings that make the region that much more interesting to watch.

Icewine

As I wrote in a PalatePress article, earlier this year, icewine has a mixed legacy for the Niagara region and Canadian wine in general. It was the first means of international recognition for Canadian wineries, and it remains a luxury signature for Niagara and other wine regions in the “Great White North”, but it can also mask all the great work done in table wines – and the fact that there is plenty of sun and heat to ripen grapes in Canada. In the end, though, it’s a really delicious wine that you can drink with cheese, desserts or just as a late evening sipper, it ages surprisingly well and it can be truly stupendous. I’ve got a bottle of Château des Charmes’ savagnin (!) icewine in the cellar, and it’s so delicious, it’s one of those can’t-resist-but-should-really-wait bottles. Might just have to get another one when I head back there on Friday…

Those are only a few of the reasons that keep bringing me back to Niagara, with increasing enthusiasm. I can’t wait to see what reasons the TasteCampers will find to justify coming back after this weekend.

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2 Comments

  1. Adam Japko
    Posted May 11, 2011 at 8:53 am | Permalink

    You’ve spiked my attention…great overview. .looking forward to this weekend’s events!

    • Posted May 11, 2011 at 8:58 am | Permalink

      And that’s barely scratching the surface. Looking forward to meeting you this weekend as well.

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