Ontario Focus and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano
By John Szabo MS with notes from David Lawrason and Sara d’Amato
Take a short tour by helicopter across the Niagara Peninsula for a bird’s eye view of Canada’s largest growing region (or check out the photos below). You’ll see the three main topographic features of the region that make grape growing possible, and which shape the character of the wines: the Niagara Escarpment, Lake Ontario and the Niagara River. Both the lake and the river moderate climate extremes like the soft focus feature on your camera, and generate crucial air movement to keep vines healthy. The Escarpment for its part contains that moderating effect in the area between the water and the cliff face, like the focus lock feature. And then of course there are the soils…
Ontario is the theme of the September 13th LCBO-VINTAGES release and the focus of this report. And although Ontario’s cool climate is evidently well suited to crisp whites, bubbles and Icewine, this time there are several red wines that really shine. Warmer vintages like 2010 and 2012 provide opportunities for winegrowers to showcase more substantial reds from grapes like merlot, cabernet franc and syrah, while cooler years like 2011 favour more elegantly styled reds. Forty years of learning just how to deal with Ontario’s often challenging climate has softened the vintage variation curve significantly and Ontario can now be counted upon for consistent quality red wines. There’s a great selection below to choose from, with at least two WineAlign critics aligning on almost every wine.
Vino Nobile di Montepulciano
The other theme of the release is Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, one of Tuscany’s ‘big three’ DOCG appellations. But Vino Nobile is like the middle child, getting less attention than either Chianti or Brunello di Montalcino. Stylistically (as well as geographically), it also falls generally between its two better-known neighbors. Vino Nobile is similarly based on sangiovese, locally called prugnolo gentile, but the rules allow up to 30% of other varieties, which makes pinning down a typical style more challenging. But the best combine real savory Tuscan character with a finesse rarely found in Brunello, and less forced ambition than one encounters in Chianti Classico aiming to live up to an unrealistic flavor profile.
A trip to the Fortress of Montepulciano last year to taste the latest releases revealed a region in dynamic development – things are changing in this small hilltop village, and very much for the better.
I credit in part the storied house of Avignonese for the regional shakeup, which was purchased in 2009 by Belgian-born Virginie Saverys. The highly purposeful and self-motivated outsider promptly converted the entire estate to organic/biodynamic farming, and at 200 ha, it’s the largest in the region.
This move has undoubtedly caused some chatter amongst the neighbors: it’s time for everyone to pick it up or get left behind. In any case, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is a region worth keeping a close watch on to capture the best before Montalcino-like pricing inevitably sets in. We pick our favorites of the examples on offer.
Buyer’s Guide: Ontario
Rosehall Run 2011 Cuvée County Chardonnay, VQA Prince Edward County ($21.95)
John Szabo - Dan Sullivan’s ’11 County chardonnay is a lean, taught, tightly wound wine with a fine lactic quality in the style of Chablis. A highly representative example all in all, which highlights the County’s mineral character nicely. Best 2014-2019.
Charles Baker 2011 Picone Vineyard Riesling, VQA Vinemount Ridge ($35.20)
David Lawrason – The cooler vintage and excellent ten-acre site farther from the lake at higher altitude have created a riesling with real verve and intensity, including classic Niagara minerality from the older vines on the site planted on clay limestone soils.
Flat Rock 2013 Riesling, VQA Twenty Mile Bench ($16.95)
David Lawrason – Flat Rock’s riesling from a high slope on the escarpment has long been a benchmark. The style is juicy, intense and fruit driven, with added acid lift in this great riesling vintage. And Flat Rock has always kept its prices grounded as well.
Sara d’Amato – A love at first sip riesling. The 2013 delivers considerable verve and excitement for the dollar. Bright, racy and dry – lovely on its own but also with also has a great deal of food pairing potential.
Thirty Bench 2012 Red, VQA Beamsville Bench ($24.00)
John Szabo – The 1998 Thirty Bench Red has been referenced by several experts as the wine that made them believers in Niagara reds – that wine was a monster at nearly 15% alcohol if I recall correctly. Now 14 years later, the 2012 is in my view even better: better balanced, more poised, more enjoyable to drink while still retaining its full-body, dense, rich and savoury flavours and spicy-fruity complexity. This could easily sit alongside right bank Bordeaux reds at twice the price. Best 2014-2024.
Sara d’Amato – A gold award winner at the National Wine Awards, this impressive Bordeaux style blend delivers intensity, brightness and loads of appeal. The blend exhibits a well-developed balance, focus and definition but is also generous, fleshy and inviting.
Lailey Vineyard 2012 Syrah, VQA Niagara River ($27.20)
John Szabo – I consider Derek Barnett of Lailey a reference point for Niagara syrah, crafting his version in a no-makeup, straight-out-of-bed style, complete with messy hair and a bit of sleepy dust in the eye. Niagara River, along with St. David’s Bench, are arguably the two most suited sub-appellations for the grape. This will give top Northern Rhône syrah a run for the money, at about half the money. Best after 2015.
David Lawrason – From the time I first tasted syrah from the neighboring Delaine Vineyard about ten vintages ago, I knew this little patch of Niagara within a km of the river was a special place for this variety. The warmer vintage and Derek Barnett’s deftness with barrels have fashioned a very sensual northern Rhonish edition example, which walked off with a gold medal at the 2014 National Wine Awards of Canada.
Tawse 2011 Laundry Vineyard Cabernet Franc, VQA Lincoln Lakeshore ($31.95)
John Szabo – I’ve always appreciated the more forward, lively and elegant expression of the Laundry Vineyard in the Lincoln Lakeshore sub-appellation, usually the first of the Tawse cabernet’s to be released, and one which Paul Pender has learned to read and allow to express its delicacy rather than impose a pre-conceived style. It takes some time in the glass to reveal its full fruity-floral side, so decant before serving for best enjoyment. Best 2014-2018.
Domaine Queylus 2011 Tradition Pinot Noir, VQA Niagara Peninsula ($29.95).
John Szabo -The wines of newcomer Queylus are made by the venerable Thomas Bachelder, from all-Niagara Escarpment fruit including one of Le Clos Jordanne’s former vineyards even if this is labeled generically as Niagara Peninsula. The style in this cool vintage is decidedly earthy and tart red fruit dominated, with supple but nicely delineated texture. It’s firmly acidic in the best sense, for fans with Euro-leaning sensibilities. Best 2014-2017.
Sara d’Amato – A serious undertaking and a considerable value. This project headed by former Clos Jordanne winemaker Thomas Bachelder betrays the long, laborious but passionate undertaking of friends and colleagues that brought this project to fruition. A lovely balance of new world intensity and old world precision and balance.
Château Des Charmes 2012 Merlot St. David’s Bench Vineyard, VQA St. David’s Bench ($29.95)
John Szabo – A big and powerful merlot here, richly fruity, full-bodied, and dense, accurately reflective of both the warm vintage and the house style of red wines built to age. This will likely be best after 2016 or so – there’s plenty of stuffing here to envisage a positive outcome.
David Lawrason – This house has always made reds to age, and so with considerable tannin still at play I would not approach this for another three to five years. That said, the warm year and maturing vines in Niagara’s warmest sub-appellation have created a merlot of substance and yes, even some mid-palate elegance.
Sara d’Amato – Understated but a charmer nonetheless with flavours that blossom with time in the glass to reveal a rather complex array of flavours from licorice and earth to plum and raspberry. Lovely grip and appealing rusticity.
Tawse Growers Blend 2010 Pinot Noir, VQA Niagara Peninsula ($24.95)
David Lawrason – Despite 2010 being a hotter, riper year many Niagara pinots suffered lack of colour and structure, and some are already fading. This is one of the strongest pinots of the vintage and it is just now softening into prime. A silver medal winner at this year’s Nationals.
Norman Hardie 2012 County Unfiltered Pinot Noir, VQA Prince Edward County ($39.00)
David Lawrason – This vibrant, perfumed and elegant County pinot has waltzed off with a platinum medal at the National Wine Awards of Canada, a testament perhaps to maturing vines and a warmer season. It will certainly sell out quickly at the winery so this release may be a last chance to grab some.
Sara d’Amato – The leader of the pack of remarkable County pinot noirs, this warm vintage has bolstered the flavours yet the wine remains both complex and ethereal – the hallmark of Hardie’s wines. Well deserving of its platinum award from this year’s National Wine Awards of Canada.
Buyer’s Guide: Vino Nobile Di Montepulciano
Poliziano 2011 Vino Nobile Di Montepulciano, Tuscany, Italy ($29.95)
John Szabo – Occasionally it takes only a split-second whiff to confirm that what’s in the glass is of superior quality; such was the case with Poliziano’s Vino Nobile. Beyond aromatics, there’s genuine depth and concentration on the palate, and you have to admire the balance and vibrancy coupled with complexity, for the money. Best now-2020.
David Lawrason – From a leading modernist, this is a very refined, tidy wine – so well balanced and appealing now that it is hard to believe it has only been in bottle over a year. A lighter vintage may be one reason, as well as ageing up to 16 months, mostly in new French oak. But it too should age well through the rest of this decade. Lovely fragrance here.
Carpineto 2008 Vino Nobile Di Montepulciano Riserva, Tuscany, Italy ($29.95)
David Lawrason – I was pleasantly surprised by the youth this 2008 Riserva is showing. It was not a great vintage, and indeed there is a certain unexpected lightness to this wine. The fruit aromatics are bright and almost floral with oak in the background despite ageing four years before release (two years in large Slavonian oak with a small percent in French barriques). It should handle another five years in the cellar although it is balanced now.
Castellani Filicheto 2010 Vino Nobile Di Montepulciano, Tuscany, Italy ($19.95)
John Szabo – A tidy little value from the Vino Nobile mini-thematic – it’s solidly flavoured, savoury and succulent, and ready to enjoy tonight.
That’s all for this week. See you over the next bottle.
John Szabo MS
From VINTAGES Sept 13th:
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