TasteCamp North, held on both sides of the Niagara river on May 13-15, was a lot of fun and very instructive for the thirty-some wine bloggers and writers present. Pursuing a tradition started by Lenn Thompson for the first two TasteCamps, held in his home turf of New York State, I’ve decided to ask bloggers from outside the region to answer a short series of questions detailing their impressions of the region.
Was this your first visit to Niagara – in Canada and/or the US?
I have not been to the region since 1985…apparently the back edge of the dark ages for Niagara wines. I actually met my wife in Buffalo in the mid eighties and spent the better part of a year in the region with a few fun visits to Niagara on the Lake. We participated in the requisite tasting of ice wines. While I was not paying as much attention nor was I as serious about wine back then, it’s apparent that the region has completely transformed itself
Had you ever had any Niagara wines before? If so, what was your impression of them?
Only ice wine…never tasted dry wines from Niagara, and had low expectations for serious quality going into TasteCamp. In my mind, there were a handful of serious ice wine producers and then a bunch of pioneers trying to tame the weather to produce mediocre dry wines.
After your visit to Niagara, how much has your impression changed?
TasteCamp dragged me up one side of Niagara and down the other to actually form my first grounded opinion as opposed to changing any previously supportable one. It dismissed any preconceived notions of an ice wine region simply experimenting with dry wine production. Serious winemakers with focus and financial support are learning, at warp speed, how to adapt to the geological foundations and regional weather patterns both in the vineyard and inside the cellar. Adaptive and advanced vineyard practices such as low to ground trellising, state of the art gravity flow wineries, sub-appellation definition, wild yeast fermentations, and very, very good wines at the head of the pack was simply not what I expected.
What did you appreciate the most?
The dedication of the winemakers and their willingness to take the challenges of the region head on, and to make them part of their wines’ expression, as opposed to struggling with them as winemaking hurdles. The inconsistency of weather patterns vintage to vintage, and the always looming dangers of late bud break, frost, cool growing seasons, and forced early harvests appear to be embraced characteristics of terroir as much as they are bemoaned nuisances. As interesting to me, the commitment of the winemaking community blends with patriotic and pioneering enthusiasm in an endearing fashion.
What impressed you the least – or what needs improvement the most?
There is a lack of consensus on signature varietals even though the outcomes are pointing to some. Early ripening varieties like Pinot or Chardonnay? Riesling? Or, Bordeaux-like Cabernet, Merlot, Cab Franc, and Malbec blends? Cab Franc single varietal bottlings? Vidal, Gewurztraminer, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, and the list goes on. While the collective advances derived from working with Riesling, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay over the last ten years is more than impressive, the ongoing experimentation ought to consolidate around highest potential varietals which would provide the region with it’s “story” and “identity”. I saw enough evidence after tasting a couple hundred wines that Riesling, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir should figure into the front and center of the region’s varietal focus.
What was the most unexpected thing for you, during TasteCamp?
The connectedness of the community and scope of the wine producing cadre. With over 100 producers that are serious about their terroir and product, Niagara can not be counted out on the world wine scene. And, the connectedness and openness between the wine producers, trade, and enthusiasts is astounding. Winemakers connect through social networks with consumers, journalists, and trade at a remarkable level. Open answers, engagement, and helpful thoughts are abundant on Twitter. Maybe it’s the rigidness of Ontario’s LCBO. maybe its the pioneering nature of the winemaking community, maybe it’s the nationalism expressed by enthusiasts, possibly it’s the restrictions on free transportation and shipping of wines to and from provinces, or maybe it’s just a wine community that has blossomed in step with the social networking phenomenon, but the accessibility is real and refreshing. And as a consumer visiting in person, you can experience conversation and authenticity with muddy-booted winemakers that you can’t find in more developed wine regions where tasting rooms are products of conglomerates and hourly wage help.
What would your wine of the weekend be?
That’s a tough one. I think of the Thirty Bench Rieslings, Hidden Bench Pinots, Vineland Rieslings, Tawse Chardonnays and Pinots. I think I have to give the nod to the 2008 Hidden Bench Felseck Pinot Noir. It wowed me by staying varietally true with a nose of cola, gaminess, and stewed berries followed by both purity of fruit and good underlying acidity. And it was a product of a tough vintage and serious sorting. I never thought I would taste a Pinot like that in Niagara.