Pinots, Chardonnays among Canadian wines that stand up to the world’s best
By Ted McIntyre
The Judgment of Paris in 1976—when California wines shockingly finished first in both categories of head-to-head blind tastings that pitted French Bordeaux vs. American Cabernet Sauvignon as well as Chardonnays from both nations—marked a pivotal moment in the world of wine by calling into question France’s place atop the podium of viticulture.
Ever since that revelation opened eyes to the quality of New World wines, underdog producers around the globe have been seeking to garner greater respect by testing themselves against traditional powerhouses.
Two years ago, the British Columbia Wine Institute inaugurated the Judgment of B.C., which matched six of its Chardonnays and six Syrahs against an equal number of similar varietals from highly regarded producers from various countries. A sixth-place finish—a Blue Mountain Chardonnay Reserve 2012 from the Okanagan—was the best B.C. fared among the 12 white wine contestants. But a $30 2013 C.C. Jentsch Syrah, another Okanagan Valley entry—finished atop the list on the red side of the ledger.
The second edition of the event, staged last June in Summerland, B.C., saw the West Coasters demonstrate their diversity in quality. With 31 international wine judges ranking 12 Pinot Noirs and 12 Rieslings (with six B.C. wines and another half-dozen international benchmarks in each category), British Columbia wines respectably filled the fourth through seventh positions among Pinot Noirs, while taking second and third overall among the Rieslings, including the well-priced 2014 Cedar Creek Platinum Block 3 ($22.99) in the runner-up position and the 2013 Wild Goose Stoney Slope ($20) in third.
While earning respect internationally is important, it’s also nice to raise awareness in your own backyard. The under-appreciated wine appellation of Prince Edward County, south of Belleville, took steps on both paths this past November with its inaugural Judgment of Kingston. Organized by eight members of the Royal Winers, a group of Queen’s University and Royal Military College professors, the event pitted four local Chardonnays against three top-shelf entries from California. Prince Edward County’s 2013 Rosehall Run JCR Vineyard Chardonnay was voted number one, with fellow county member Closson Chase finishing a close second with its South Clos 2014 vintage. California’s Clos du Val 2013 (Carneros) took bronze. The resulting notoriety included a column in the Washington Post that proclaimed, “the 21st century’s best New World Chardonnays are from Ontario.”
Admittedly, a judge’s subjectivity plays a greater role than normal when you’re trying to compare the traditional oak, butter and caramel of most California Chardonnays against the subtle fruits, flinty minerality, citrus and acidity of the Ontario version. But that “apples vs oranges” distinction shouldn’t be a factor this coming November, when Prince Edward County picks an even more imposing opponent for its second Judgment—the famed Pinot Noirs of Burgundy, France.
“With great Burgundy, the nuance is a lot smaller,” says acclaimed Prince Edward County winemaker Norman Hardie, whose own Pinot Noirs are legendary. “Our area has a lot of things in common (with Burgundy) that the other New World wines don’t: amazing clay and limestone, which creates a linear tension in the wines. We’re actually cooler than Burgundy, which also helps keep the wines very feminine, very focused.”
It’s a noble pursuit. Pinot Noir has been called the Holy Grail of Grapes, and evokes poetic description like no other wine. Attempting to define it, Ana Keller, director at California’s Keller Estate, once observed, “It’s Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca—elegant but sexy at the same time.”
“It wraps you in its velvet cloak,” waxes Villa Maria Canada Market Manager Rod Hallam.
But in striking the fine, sophisticated balance of finesse and flavour for which Pinot Noir is famed, winemakers must walk a skinnier tightrope than with any other varietal. After all, it’s known as the “heartbreak grape” for a reason.
“In the wine world we always talk about how important it is to know your vineyard. Well, with Pinot Noir it’s even more important to know the place,” says Closson Chase winemaker Keith Tyers. “Pick it too early and it’ll be green and stemmy. Pick it too late and it’s flabby and overripe. It’s definitely finicky when it comes from the vineyard. And when it goes into the winery, it never wants to ferment clean—it always wants to have a little VA (volatile acidity) and maybe a little H2S (hydrogen sulphide), so you have to manage the ferment more than you would with, say, Chardonnay or Pinot Gris.
“It’s the teenager that doesn’t know what it wants to be, and acts out according to whatever has gone on that season,” Tyers continues. “You have to kind of nudge it gently and manipulate it to make it think it’s doing what it wants to do. But when it does that, you’re very proud of it.”
“You have to baby it a lot more,” echoes Thomas Bachelder, who knows a thing or two about the challenge, having produced Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in such signature locales as Burgundy, Oregon and Niagara. “Pinot has a thin skin and it rots, so you have to sort it more, which makes it more expensive. But that thin skin also lets the earth pass through, which makes it more about the vineyard where it’s grown.”
And that’s a good thing for Ontario growers, explains Bachelder. “I think what makes Ontario distinctive is that it has a mid-Atlantic feel—not quite New World but not Old World either. We have limestone, which most New World places don’t. That bench that we grow on here, and that Niagara Falls tumbles from, is a limestone ridge. If you love Burgundy, this tastes a lot more like Burgundy than anything else in the world, as far as I’m concerned.”
Tyers wants Prince Edward County wines to fare well in the November competition, but he really wants their wines to stand out for that sense of place. “If we don’t have that minerality, if our fruit goes above and beyond that cherry/raspberry kind of quality, then we’re not making Pinot that is true to the County,” Tyers says. “Whether it’s Norm, or myself, or Dan Sullivan (Rosehall Run) or Cliff Stanners (Stanners Vineyard), if we show and nobody is able to say, ‘That’s County Pinot,’ that would be disappointing.”
Regardless, with smaller crops and skyrocketing prices becoming the norm for Burgundy, “people are going to want a new source or Pinot, and Ontario is the next logical step,” says Tyers.
Although Hardie is uncommitted as to whether he’ll compete in the 2017 Judgment of Kingston, he likes the County’s chances. “While we don’t have Burgundy on the label, from a quality standpoint we’re very much up there,” Hardie says. “And in some circumstances, I think we can do even better.”
Here’s a selection of Pinot Noirs from around the globe:
|Rosehall Run 2014 JCR Vineyard Pinot Noir – Wellington, Ontario ($39.95). A wonderful nose of dark berries and forest floor, pomegranate and a wee bit of eucalyptus, with great minerality and acidity to balance out a palate rich in plums and black tea. Nice length. Pair it with game meats, mushroom dishes, turkey with cranberry sauce. 91|
|Cono Sur Bicicleta 2015 Pinor Noir – Chile ($11.95). Deeply ruby, it has a lovely tart cherry nose although that tartness does persist a bit, affecting the spicy mid-palate and finish. But decanting really takes the edge off and smooths out the fruity finish. Wonderful value earns it an extra point. 87|
|Villa Maria Cellar Selection 2014 Pinot Noir – Marlborough, New Zealand ($32.95). Sourced from vineyards in the Awatere and Wairau regions and aged in stainless steel to bring out the fruit, then 10 months in French oak barricades to add complexity and texture, there’s a perfumed greeting of dense cherry, herbs and smoky leather, leading to baking spices and more rich cherry and red fruits on the palate–a nod to a warm 2014 vintage. Pair it with anything from red meats, smoked salmon and old cheddar to Christmas turkey. 91|
|Chateau des Charmes 2014 Pinot Noir (Paul Bosc Estate Vineyard) – Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario ($35). This is a lovely walk through a forest after a summer rain, with droplets hanging off ferns and earthy, mushroomy notes along with strawberries and dark berries. There’s a nice progression through the palate, with subtle oak integrating well with dark berries. It should sing a little clearer with a couple years of clearing. Pair it with lamb or even BBQ chicken and salad. 89|
|J. Lohr 2014 Falcon’s Perch Pinot Noir – Monterey County, California ($29.95). A nose of alcohol-soaked strawberries, oak chips and sage, and a smooth, flavourful palate of plush fruit with a tarty strawberry-rhubarb hint at the end, with bright acidity to level it all out. Herbal nuances build as you go deeper into the ruby glass. This one really grew on me. Pair it with smoked salmon, shrimp gumbo and spicy sausage. 89|
|Argyle 2014 Pinot Noir (Grower Series) – Willamette Valley, Oregon ($33.95). Featuring more of a classic pale shade, there’s great balance and texture to this elegant, light-bodied Pinot. The alcohol content (14%) is fairly evident on the nose, but there’s a nice cherry, strawberry and herbaceous minerality as well. A bit of a tangy, tannic strawberry finish, but silky smooth. Pair it beautifully with mushroom risotto. 88|
|André Goichot Mercurey 2014 Pinot Noir – Burgundy, France ($28.95). A solid entry-level edition from the home of Pinot Noir, with notes of black cherry, barnwood and herbs. The palate features lively cherry and raspberry and no shortage of tartness that carries through to the finish. Pair it with roast pork, poultry-based stews or pretty much anything on a cheese plate. 87|