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Report on Cuvée and Expert’s Tasting 2015

Ontario Wine ReportMarch 16, 2015

by Sara d’Amato

Sara d'Amato

Sara d’Amato

February 27, 2015 was a frigid day to set off to Niagara’s Fallsview Casino for Cuvée’s annual grand tasting and the first time I experienced the Falls frozen over, almost entirely so. Not only did the grand affair take place on the 27th but it was also the 27th anniversary of the event.

The format has changed greatly over the years but this year, like several years before it, participant wineries were asked to have their winemakers present one wine of their choosing to the large gathering of consumers and media. At $200 a ticket, attendees were afforded the chance to hobnob with the winemakers (all in their finest black-tie garb) and enjoy some exquisite cuisine presented by the finest local Chefs.

The evening kicked off with Tony Aspler’s presentation of his annual Cuvée Award of excellence to Laurie Macdonald, the director of VQA. The soiree finished memorably as guests were treated to a selection of craft beers, sparkling wine and Icewine as the dance floor filled up, brought to life by live music at Après Cuvée.

Brock-U-2015-Cuvee-Fab-08 Brock-U-2015-Cuvee-Fab-188


White wine highlights:

Riesling and chardonnay made their usual splashes at the Grand Tasting but there were some surprisingly lovely entries made of semillon, chenin blanc and pinot gris.

Southbrook Triomphe Chardonnay 2013 Big Head Wines Chenin Blanc 2013 Cave Spring CSV Riesling 2012

Southbrook Triomphe Chardonnay 2013 ($22.95) – Organic and biodynamic production are the hallmarks of Southbrook but it is the attention to detail and an uncompromising approach that produces some of the region’s most memorable wines as well as its most unconventional and polarizing bottlings. This example is elegant, sublimely integrated, undeniably sophisticated and thankfully, well-priced.

Big Head Chenin Blanc 2013 ($22) – Prolific winemaker Andrezj Lipinski knocks it out of the park, once again, with this substantial, unctuous and widely-appealing chenin blanc from old vine Niagara Lakeshore fruit.

Cave Spring Cellars 2012 Riesling CSV, Beamsville Bench ($29.95) – I seem to be drawn in by the warmer vintages of Cave Spring’s CSV riesling and this example exhibits those notable flavours of petrol and passion fruit as well as a rich, tongue-coating texture and memorable length.

Red wine highlights:

Not surprisingly, gamay and cabernet franc were standouts in this year’s tasting and prove that Niagara has both the climate to produce consistently outstanding examples of these varietals and the gumption to craft fine, high-end examples.

Peller Estates Private Reserve Gamay Noir 2012 Two Sisters Cabernet Franc 2010 Vineland Estates Cabernet Franc Reserve 2012

Peller Estates Private Reserve Gamay Noir 2013 ($18.75) – Talented Winemaker Katie Dickenson, has been making a splash since her debut as Winemaker with Peller only three years ago. She continues to produce serious and noteworthy wines such as this Gamay, one of her favourite varietals – and it shows!

Two Sisters Vineyards Cabernet Franc 2010 ($48) – The buzz continues to grow about Two Sisters who have been officially open for less than a year but have captured the attention of top critics across the globe. Proprietors Angela and Melissa of the Marotta construction family have brought Adam Pearce, a Niagara College Wine and Viticulture graduate, to lead the winemaking team with his low interventionist methods.

Vineland Estates 2012 Cabernet Franc Reserve, Niagara Peninsula ($40) – Soon to be released, this show-stopping Cabernet Franc is vibrant but meaty and substantial. It is a solid expression of the unique, high-quality and age-worthy style of cabernet franc of which Niagara is most capable of producing.

Expert’s Tasting

John Szabo

John being congratulated by Magdalena Kaiser and Zoltan Szabo

Once a year, a gathering of Ontario’s top winemakers, educators, sommeliers and wine critics are brought together by Brock University’s CCOVI for a day of academic discussion on the state of affairs of local, cool climate wine production and the unique potential of the industry. This is usually mixed with a little competitive joviality as attendees are asked to identify wines blind among international ringers. All in all, a chance to get serious after the Gala’s revelry.

The Expert’s tasting was hosted by the gregarious Jamie Drummond, Sommelier and wine and food journalist with Good Food Revolution who has been a long-term promoter of Ontario wines. Along with the wine flights, the coveted VQA Promoters Awards were presented by WineAlign principal critic Janet Dorozynski. Some notable mentions were the Media Award bestowed upon WineAlign’s very own John Szabo MS as well as the educator award to Evan Saviolidis, a past WineAlign World Wine Awards Judge. The Lifetime Achievement Award was rightfully granted to Len Pennachetti, proprietor of Cave Spring Cellars and a pioneer in the development of Ontario’s quality wine production. For a list of all the deserving recipients: http://Cuvé

A snapshot of four flights of note:

Legends Estates Pinot Gris Terroir 2013 Pelee Island Pinot Grigio 2013Flight #1: The beauty of the middle path – a discussion focused on pinot gris and pinot grigio lead by LCBO product manager, Ontario Wines, Astrid Brummer. Although Niagara produces both these distinctive styles, it is no surprise that pinot grigio is a much better marketing title.

No longer do the names on the label necessarily implicate the style of wine produced. That being said, many of Ontario’s dazzling pinot grigios seemed to prove a much greater value than one of LCBO’s top sellers, Santa Margherita our ringer of the flight.

Pelee Island 2013 Pinot Grigio, Ontario ($13.95) – Hailing from the most southern wine production area in Canada, Pelee Island winery is one of Ontario’s most visible wineries on the shelves of the LCBO. It has been some time since I have revisited this top selling, well-priced pinot grigio and I was pleasantly surprised by the wine’s clean, pure and elegant output.

Legends Estate 2013 Terroir Pinot Gris, Lizak Vineyards, Niagara-on the-Lake ($17.55) – Here is one fresh, crisp pinot gris that exhibits the lovely lightness and refreshing dryness more common in pinot grigio. Regardless of the name, it is certainly a focused and finely crafted pinot.

Flight #2: For whom the bell pepper tolls lead by Shiraz Mottiar, Malivoire winemaker

Peller Estates Private Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2013 Trius Showcase Clean Slate Sauvignon Blanc Wild Ferment 2013Our flight illustrated the wide diversity of sauvignon blanc present across Ontario. The region has yet to focus on a particular style but given the level of quality and the bold fruit tasted perhaps it shouldn’t. There was some consensus that perhaps the industry’s styles should be as diverse as our vintages.

Trius 2013 Clean Slate Wild Ferment Sauvignon Blanc, Niagara-on-the Lake Vineyard ($32) – As premium of a price as you can pay for sauvignon blanc in Niagara, this stylized sauvignon benefitted from a touch of oak and a good deal of creamy lees ageing. Its wild ferment only enhanced its local character.

Peller Estates 2013 Sauvignon Blanc, Four Mile Creek ($30.20) – A riper style of sauvignon blanc almost devoid of the grassy, green vegetal notes characteristic of the varietal’s cool climate expression. A solid, well-made and appealing wine.

Flight #3 Weirdos, misfits and uprooted things with thoughts from Joshua Corea, Sommelier Archive Wine Bar

Sad to say goodbye to some of these uprooted varietals after our, literally, killer winter. With semillon and chenin blanc likely on the chopping block, some other varietals like viognier and gamay surprisingly took center stage.

Creekside 2013 Viognier Reserve, St. David’s Bench, Queenston Road Vineyard ($29.95) – Creekside has long been one of Niagara’s most important producer of this varietal. Call it a guilty pleasure, this lips-smacking viognier is a bombshell with epic flavour and impact.

Creekside Estate Winery Reserve Viognier 2013 Keint He Voyageur Gamay Noir 2013 Malivoire Courtney Gamay 2013

Flight #4 Hip Hip Gamay! Amelie Boury, Winemaker at Chateau des Charmes lead this rousing discussion on a topic that everyone in attendance seemed to champion. The excitement for gamay has certainly gained strength if the empty glasses and rapid-fire discussion were any indication.

Keint-He 2013 Voyageur Gamay Noir, Beamsville Bench, Niagara ($25.00) – This peppery beauty is indicative of a unique Niagara expression of gamay that is brimming with big aromatics and a great deal of charm.

Malivoire 2012 Courtney Gamay Noir, Beamsville Bench, Niagara ($25.95) – This top block from the winery’s estate puts the succulent fruit center stage. Malivoire’s gamays are consistently exciting and are among the top examples in Niagara.

That’s all for this year! I look forward to watching out for these many exciting Ontario trends in the year to come.



From John Szabo: Cuvée 2015: Judging vs. Choosing and The Winemakers’ Stories

Cuvée Event Photo credit goes to: Fab Formisano


Editors Note: You can find complete critic reviews by clicking on any of the highlighted wine names, bottle images or links. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid members wait 60 days to see new reviews. Premium membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!

County in the City

Filed under: News, Wine, , , , , ,

Cuvée 2015: Judging vs. Choosing and The Winemakers’ Stories

Ontario Wine ReportMarch 16, 2015

Text and photographs by John Szabo MS

John Szabo MS

John Szabo MS

It was a brittle and glacial February evening for the 27th annual Cuvée celebration of the Ontario wine industry at the Fallsview Casino in Niagara Falls. Outside, the lampposts shivered and the iron railings surrounding the gorge groaned under a thick coating of ice. Even the mighty cataracts were given pause by the cold, struggling by the sheer force of gravity to stay fluid, while the normally raging Niagara River below had hardened into a solid sheet of snow-covered ice as if to blanket itself from the icy caress of another Canadian winter’s night.

Yet inside, it was all fireside warmth and smiles. Some seven hundred or more wine drinkers had overcome the darkness of cold and had gathered to warm their palates with fifty-two Ontario wines, the maximum expression of each vintner’s art and soul.

If you haven’t been to Cuvée in the last couple of years, things have changed. For the first twenty-four years of the event, the process of selecting the wines to be presented to the public was altogether different. The wines were chosen through a competition, judged by the winemakers themselves – winemakers judging the wines of their peers – a sort of Oscars of the Ontario wine world. Wineries would submit wines to the Cuvée Awards competition, and then winemakers would gather and taste them blind, in various categories, just as we do at WineAlign for the National and World Wine Awards of Canada. The top scoring wines were awarded the opportunity to be poured at the Cuvée Grand Gala, and the winemakers who came out on top of course earned bragging rights for the next twelve months.

But the awards-style process of selecting Cuvée winners was discarded like pressed grape skins in 2013, coinciding with the 25th anniversary of the celebration. It was, as I’m told, a way of freshening up an event that had perhaps run its course. “We started to review ways to make enhancements to Cuvée and create a new format that would again be the first of its kind”, says Magdalena Kaiser of Wine Country Ontario, who was on the Cuvée board when the changes were made. “And so a Grand Tasting was created where one single wine each year would be highlighted – the winemaker’s favourite.”

So now, the selection is left up to each winemaker. Each chooses what he/she believes is a unique wine, something representative. Or at least that’s supposed to be the plan.

But admittedly, I miss the old selection process. It was unique in the world, and I always found it fascinating to learn what the winemakers of Ontario liked about Ontario wines. Which deserved awarding and which deserved the kitchen sink? What grapes were favoured, outside of commercial considerations, in the rigid context of a blind tasting? And which winemaking approaches were becoming more universally accepted or rejected? After all, winemakers are often much harsher critics than wine critics, lightning quick to point out even the most minor technical deviations, like a Spanish inquisitor sniffing out an infidel, or a nosy neighbour ratting out dissenters to Party Officials.

Seeing which wines the winemakers would choose to represent the entire industry, through the unsullied, anti-commercial process of evaluating anonymous bottles, certainly added another valuable perspective in the vast constellation of opinions that populate the wine universe. I’m sure it was also a useful opportunity for winemakers to take a hard objective look at the industry as a whole from 30,000 feet, to taste each other’s wines without the mental shackles of friendship, admiration, envy or dislike that impede objectivity when tasting in each other’s cellars or at industry events. It’s a fair way to get a sense of where Ontario wines stand on a broader stage, to identify strengths and weaknesses, and perhaps even gain inspiration to try new techniques, and plant (or rip out) certain varieties.

Frozen Niagara River and Sluggish Falls

Frozen Niagara River and Sluggish Falls

The new approach though, allowing winemakers to take control of their own message-in-a-bottle, paints a vastly different but also interesting scene. Feedback from the industry and attendees is apparently positive. “The fifty-two winery spots were filled far before the deadline, and we actually had a waiting list of wineries wanting to participate”, writes Barb Tatarnic of COVVII at Brock University, which took over management of the event in 2015. So it seems most wineries have embraced the new format: no judging, no awards, just a chance to let consumers read that message and decide for themselves if it moves them. It’s surely also fascinating, and in some cases telling, to see how winemakers view themselves through the lens of the wine they select as their representative.

In an ideal world, I’d love to see the two formats combined in some fashion, so we’d benefit from the insight offered by both selection processes.

I also couldn’t help but notice that the new format also opens the door to distortion of the spirit of the event. While the majority of wineries in attendance rose above the base needs of business – the current that runs through virtually every other consumer wine event on the planet – some couldn’t resist the siren call of commerce.

Perhaps under pressure from the sales and marketing department (and in the wine business, there is always pressure), some felt compelled to show the wine that is readily available, just released, or most popular, rather than the one they’re most excited about or personally fascinated by, or what they’re ultimately most proud of – the wine that distills their philosophy and personality into a bottle. But those are precisely the wines we want to taste. Those are the wines that, even if not available, cast a warm and positive glow over an entire winery’s range, and by extension the whole industry – it’s what those same marketers call the halo effect. And those are the wines that make Cuvée unique, rather than just another fancy wine gala.

It’s also unfortunate that Cuvée is not fully representative of the entire Ontario industry – there wasn’t a single winery from Prince Edward County in the room, for example. And other noteworthy wineries were conspicuous by their absence, and not because they didn’t make the deadline. When I inquired why, say, Tawse or Hidden Bench or Norm Hardie didn’t participate, I was told essentially that they were too busy, a polite way of saying that other events are more worthwhile, and that Cuvée is overly Niagara-centric. “Perhaps if this event were held in Toronto in alternate years and celebrated the industry as a whole, not just Niagara, it would attract more interest from us” wrote Harald Thiel of Hidden Bench, for example.

Yet in the end it certainly is a worthwhile event from my perspective, with enough winemakers rising to the occasion and pouring something representative, something that unfolds another leaf in the story of Ontario wine.

And for those who missed Cuvée 2015, I’ve rounded up a baker’s dozen of my top picks based on a combination of wine quality and intriguing narrative. But rather than writing my usual critique (you can assume they’re all worth buying) I’ve asked the winemakers instead to share the reason why they selected their wine, to tell a (mostly unedited) story that captured some aspect of their art or history or personal journey.

Meet the Winemakers


2027 Cellars Fox Croft Block Chardonnay 2012-9352

2027 Cellars Fox Croft Block Chardonnay

2027 Cellars 2012 Wismer-Foxcroft Block Chardonnay ($30)

Kevin Panagapka: ” 2012 was my second year working with the Wismer Vineyard ‘Fox Croft Block’ Chardonnay. I intentionally picked this block slightly early in 2012 to retain the acidity and ease back on the alcohol. I like the tension in the wine; there is a fine acidic backbone and minerality I haven’t seen in other blocks.  I feel like the wild barrel fermentation added complexity and mouthfeel while the Burgundian Oak is working in nicely after a year in bottle.  Frankly, out of my current portfolio I felt this wine was showing the best at the time, which is why I chose it for Cuvée. For me, it’s about understanding the individuality of each vineyard block. I fell like this Chardonnay has a wonderful sense of place.”

Big Head 2013 Chenin Blanc ($22)

Andrezj Lipinski: “I would have gladly chosen any one of our wines for their quality but the Chenin is special to me. I think it has tremendous potential, it just needs to be planted in the ideal areas of Niagara, and the vineyard we source from in Niagara-on-the-Lake, close to the water and protected by it, is giving us beautiful and healthy fruit consistently. We let it go naturally in older oak, and it sings. The 2013 had much more hang-time than the 2012 resulting in some wonderful complexity that is just starting to push through.”

Andrezj Lipinski and his Big Head Chenin Blanc 2013-9353

Andrezj Lipinski and his Big Head Chenin Blanc

Jay Johstone and his Flatrock Cellars The Rusty Shed Chardonnay 2012-9374

Jay Johstone and his Flatrock Cellars The Rusty Shed Chardonnay

Flatrock Cellars 2012 The Rusty Shed Chardonnay ($24.95)

Jay Johnston: “We chose the 2012 Rusty Shed Chardonnay because we’ve loved that wine since it was first blended together. We had a lot of different styles of barrel fermented Chardonnay in the cellar in 2012, and this was my first chance to blend the Rusty, having started at Flat Rock in September that year. Tasting the results when we racked and blended the 25 barrels selected for Rusty was a very special moment. All of the barrels were so individually unique beforehand, and then once blended they created an extremely focused and pure wine that totally blew us away. It was one of those ‘wine moments’ where you really appreciate the creative and artistic side of winemaking.”

Marty Werner and his 2013 Ravine Chardonnay-9404

Marty Werner and his 2013 Ravine Chardonnay

Ravine Vineyard 2013 Chardonnay ($25)

Marty Werner: “I selected our 2013 Ravine Chardonnay because I feel that it shows the potential of picking Chardonnay in Niagara-on-the-Lake while the grapes are still green, as opposed to golden. I feel that picking the grapes earlier can show off not only fruit, but other complexities such as vintage and sense of place.”

Stratus Vineyards 2012 White ($44)

JL Groux: “The 2012 Stratus White is the tenth edition of that wine and we are celebrating our tenth anniversary this year so it did fit well for Cuvée. With no aromatic varieties and 43% Chardonnay, the 2012 has a lot of depth and length. The balance is made of Sauvignon Blanc at 42% and Semillon at 15%.”

Westcott Vineyards 2013 Estate Chardonnay ($26)

Carolyn Hurst (owner; Arthur Harder is the head winemaker): “This wine represents the culmination of a vision that started in 2006 with the purchase of the vineyard and the selection of the chardonnay clones and root stock. We dreamed of creating a chardonnay of this elegance and we were rewarded in 2013 for our hard work and care. We are inspired by this wine to continue on our rocky road journey to perfection.”

Suzanne Janke standing in for JL Groux and his 2012 Stratus White-9428

Suzanne Janke standing in for JL Groux and his 2012 Stratus White

Victoria and Garett Westcott and their Westcott Estate Chardonnay 2013-9439

Victoria and Garett Westcott and their Westcott Estate Chardonnay 2013


Coyote’s Run Estate Winery David Sheppard ‘Vintage 30’ Cabernet 2012 ($36.95)

Dave Sheppard and his _Vintage 30_ Cabernet, Coyote's Run-9393

Dave Sheppard’s Vintage 30 Cabernet

Dave Sheppard: ‘Jeff Aubry had asked me to pick something special from the vintage to do an anniversary issue wine, so the field was wide open. The Cabernet Sauvignon was a “one-off” opportunity from a grower (Ralph Serluca) whose vineyard is only a couple of kilometers from Coyote’s Run and within the same sub-appellation. Ralph had offered us the block of Cab pending our approval upon inspection. The moment I set foot in the vineyard I told Jeff “we must have these grapes”, not thinking specifically of the 30th anniversary wine at the time, but rather just that the vineyard was absolutely beautifully and paternally tended and the grapes were spectacular.  It was an opportunity not to be missed. Later in the process when it came time to select a wine for the 30th, I admittedly quite selfishly gravitated towards what I thought to be the best of the vintage, and that was the Cabernet Sauvignon from that vineyard.”

Lailey Vineyards ‘Impromptu’ (84% Syrah with malbec and petit verdot) 2012 ($45)

Derek Barnett: “I chose the wine for its elegance and balance, something I think that the Niagara River appellation brings out in syrah each and every year. I also chose it because it is awesome, too‎”.

Creekside Estate Winery Broken Press Syrah 2011 ($39.95)

Rob Power: Pouring our top Syrah at high-end Ontario wine events usually raises a few eyebrows. But one taste reminds that Syrah actually does very well in cooler climates. And it also serves notice that Niagara is much more than a one or two-trick varietal pony: many different great wines are possible across the Peninsula’s varied terrain. Broken Press, à la Côte-Rôtie, includes Viognier skins in co-ferment with Syrah, imparting added aromatic complexity and rounded texture.”

Derek Barnett and his Lailey Impromptu 2012-9386

Derek Barnett and his Lailey Impromptu 2012

Rob Powers and his Creekside Broken Press Syrah 2011-9470

Rob Powers and his Creekside Broken Press Syrah 2011

Thirty Bench Winemakers Small Lot Pinot Noir 2012 ($35)

Emma Garner: “Our 15 year-old Pinot Noir block at Thirty Bench has been quite a well kept secret until just recently.  Our reputation at the winery has always been centered on Riesling and its unique ability to demonstrate the subtleties of terroir. Pinot is another such variety and I have finally started to understand our vines and just what they are capable of. 2012 was a picture perfect year to develop optimal ripeness. It was also a year in which grapes could get too ripe and jammy if left to hang too long. We found the sweet spot with our 115 clone Pinot Noir in 2012. Extended skin maceration (3 weeks) and judicious oak usage (100% French and 15% new) helped to develop a wine worthy of aging. I truly feel that I have turned a page in my Pinot vinification journey. It has always been somewhat daunting, however. Now I realize that it is an endless journey in search of the perfect glass.”

Emma Garner and her Thirty Bench Small Lot Pinot Noir 2012-9414

Emma Garner and her Thirty Bench Small Lot Pinot Noir 2012

Craig MacDonald and his Trius Grand Red 2012-9395

Craig MacDonald and his Trius Grand Red 2012

Trius Winery Grand Red 2012 ($55)

Craig McDonald: “The G Red was my choice because I wanted to showcase an unusual technique I learnt from an old Penfolds Winemaker back in 2000, ‘Slingers’, whilst at De Bortoli in the Yarra. Once fermentation is complete and the free-run wine is transferred out of the wooden vats I use gravity to press the remaining cap and gently ‘drip’ the wine from the skins directly into barrel. It takes a bit of practice to make the right cut and it’s a pain in the butt to dig out later on but the wine is stunning – rich, intense and inky black but with fine silky tannins because it’s naturally pressed and not dug out and pressed mechanically. Most of the G Red was made this way so it’s actually pressings from our best blocks of company fruit from the great 2012 vintage. I think pressings are often overlooked by Winemakers so this is my ode to B-Side Winemaking and classic Aussie innovation ”

The Foreign Affair Winery Petit Verdot “On Assignment” ($49.95)

Len Crispino: “In exceptional years like 2012 we produced a single varietal Petit Verdot. We take a judicious approach on the proportion of grapes dried, in this case almost 15%. We believe our slow drying method yields subtle nuances and rich complexities. We do not depend on a standard formula. Decision are based on listening to the vintage, being respectful of the varietal and being true to our desired artistic interpretation through innovation.”

Len Crispino and his Foreign Affairs and his Petit Verdot 2012-9418

Len Crispino and his Foreign Affairs and his Petit Verdot 2012

Brian Schmidt and his Vineland Estates Cabernet Franc Reserve 2012-9448

Brian Schmidt and his Vineland Estates Cabernet Franc Reserve 2012

Vineland Estates 2012 Reserve Cabernet Franc ($40.00)

Brian Schmidt: “I just had to bring out the 2012 Reserve Cabernet Franc for an early showing at Cuvée.  I am thoroughly convinced that Cabernet Franc is Ontario’s “red hammer” and I believe the variety is most suited to showcase our terroir with consistency. I think the 2012 Reserve is the “sledge” and it drives the Cabernet Franc point home with authority. After its quick outing I had to pull it back into the cellars where it is going to quietly develop more depth and finesse until it is ready to come out for good.”

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo MS

Sara d’Amato: Report on Cuvée and Expert’s Tasting 2015

Editors Note: You can find complete critic reviews by clicking on any of the highlighted wine names, bottle images or links. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid members wait 60 days to see new reviews. Premium membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!

County in the City

Filed under: News, Wine, , , , , ,

Ontario’s Cuvee 2013: Winemakers Pour Their Best; by Sara d’Amato and Janet Dorozynski

Ontario’s Cuvee 2013: Winemakers Pour Their Best and Experts Deliberate on Niagara’s Cabs & Merlot

Sara d'Amato

Sara d’Amato

At the time winter should be yielding to spring, Ontario marks its most star-studded annual wine event, Cuvée. This is the time Ontario winemakers showcase the wines in which they take most pride at a black tie gala event held at the Fallsview Casino in Niagara Falls and subsequently at the tasting bars of the participating wineries themselves over the weekend. It is a night when all facets of the industry mingle and eager wine enthusiasts benefit from all of the fanfare and excitement. Janet Dorozynski and I were both present this year, and we are pleased to collaborate and share our experiences with you here.

_MG_0509This year marked the 25th anniversary of Cuvée, and with it came significant changes to the event. In the past, award-winning Cuvée wines were chosen by the winemakers themselves in a blind tasting competition held prior to the gala. This year, the awards were done away with in favor of a ‘Grand Tasting’ format: the participating winemakers were asked to choose their favorite one wine to showcase at the event. The new format was overwhelmingly well received and, I think, made for a more interesting event. The presentation of one wine from each of the wineries allowed for a much more intimate and memorable experience for guests.

Since 1989, Cuvée has brought media, aficionados and winemakers together to experience the best the province has to offer, or at least the pride of the winemakers. It also allows us to meet the stars behind the bottles, dressed to their nines, and gives us perspective into the personalities that make up our Ontario wine culture. This year, 42 Ontario wineries participated in the event and, in addition to the Dairy Farmers of Ontario, 9 chefs each cooked up three creative and wine-friendly dishes to inspire tasters.

_MG_0497Interestingly, the wines chosen by the winemakers seemed extremely varied both stylistically and varietal-wise. The only small theme seemed to be in the realm of chardonnay – the chosen varietal showcased by six producers. Although there is nothing particularly surprising about having this many chardonnays presented, the styles had a distinct commonality in their restraint and purity of fruit. As chardonnay drinkers become more sophisticated, this nervy, stripped down style or, at least, the use of winemaking techniques to support natural flavours as opposed to enhance or manipulate them is both progressive and pervasive among regions world-wide in even the most commercial of offerings. Ontario is no exception, and the majority of chardonnays were both surprising and refreshing.

Sara’s Top Cuvée 2013 Picks:

Megalomaniac Proprietor’s Reserve Cabernet Franc 2008
John Howard Cellars of Distinction
$44.95 from the winery, Winemaker: Sue-Ann Staff

This was the first wine I tasted of the evening and I remained most impressed by its ability to endure on my palate throughout the course of the night. When carefully grown and then sensitively treated, cabernet franc has the ability to stun the senses. Cool and wet best describes 2008 and was best suited for the Burgundian varietals of chardonnay and pinot noir. However, with carefully managed hang time, and a dry end to the season made for some exceptionally aromatic and expressive cabernet franc such as this wow-me of an example.

Ravine Vineyard Reserve Chardonnay Barrel Select, Unfiltered 2009
$40 from the winery, Winemaker: Shauna White

Young but certainly not inexperienced and with a talent for winemaking in her genes, Shauna White is keeping Ravine Vineyards’ offerings dynamic and exciting at a generally affordable price point. This chardonnay boasts real elegance and restraint and because it did not go through malo-lactic fermentation it retains its freshness and purity of fruit quite distinctively.

Jackson-Triggs Niagara Estate, Delaine Vineyard Syrah 2010,
$32.95 from the winery, Winemaker: Marco Piccoli

The Delaine vineyard site has been producing high-quality fruit under its name since 2001. It is planted with several varieties but what I have found is consistently most exciting is their peppery syrah. There is definitive elegance in this cool climate style that expresses itself so uniquely in Niagara. Not to be missed.

Janet’s 90+ Picks from Cuvée 2013:

Château des Charmes Equuleus, Paul Bosc Estate Vineyard, 2010
$40.00 from the winery, Winemaker: Paul Bosc

The founder of Chateau des Charmes, Paul Bosc Sr, is a devotee of Arabian horses, with Equuleus being the Latin term for little horse. This tribute wine is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (50%) and equal parts Cabernet Franc and Merlot. It’s fleshy and a tad flashy, and definitely shows the depth and concentration of the warm 2010 vintage in Ontario. Rich dark fruit and notes of cocoa mingle nicely in this well-balanced, well-made wine. Ready to race now or cellar for 8+ years.

_MG_0151Stratus Vineyards Stratus White 2009
$44.00 Vintages, Winemaker: J-L Groux

Niagara’s take on white Bordeaux with a twist. The Stratus White 2009 is a blend of Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Viognier and Gewurztraminer. Each of the components are aged in oak, which brings richness and texture and imparts a subtle vanilla cream spiciness to a palate of peach, apricots and tangerine flavours. Medium bodied, with vibrant acidity and a lingering toast and spicy finish. Exotic and charming.

Lailey Vineyard Winery Impromptu 2010
$45.00 from the winery, Winemaker: Derek Barnett

This is Lailey Vineyards flagship red that is only made in exceptional vintages, which 2010 was for reds in Niagara. Predominantly Syrah (75%), with equal parts Malbec and fragrant Petit Verdot, come together in this enticing package. Ripe, with fine supple tannins and balanced acidity, this is a fine and elegant medium-bodied wine. Can be drunk now or kept for 5 to 7 years.

Thomas Bachelder Wismer Chardonnay 2010
$44.95 Vintages, Winemaker: Thomas Bachelder

A brilliant wine from one of Niagara’s star winemakers, with fruit sourced from one of Niagara’s viticultural sweet spots, the Wismer vineyard. Complex and creamy, with stone fruit flavours, the acidity is crisp but balanced, with a generous, textured mouthfeel and a long, lingering finish. A true masterpiece.

The Experts Tasting: Getting a handle on Bordeaux Reds

Janet Dorozynski

Janet Dorozynski

The Expert’s Tasting at Brock is by invitation only and a highly anticipated event for the Ontario trade, media and wineries. The event is organized and hosted by the Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute at Brock University and focuses on a different theme or grape variety each year, in order to dig more deeply into the state of vinous affairs of the region.

This year’s focus was “Bordeaux reds”, and while never a huge proponent of Ontario Bordeaux reds, save for Cabernet Franc, I have to say that I was presently surprised by what we tasted. While Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are more difficult to get consistently ripe and right in Ontario, Cabernet Franc is more suited to cooler climates and has been doing better throughout the years.

The tasting was divided into five flights, with the first four focused on a varietal or stylistic theme related to Bordeaux red varieties.  The flights were presented by winemakers and principals, many of which were CCOVI graduates, with themes centered on popular songs. Most of the wines were current vintages or releases from Ontario, with a few older vintages along with ringers from Napa and Bordeaux thrown in to keep us on our toes.

The Merlot flight was entitled R.E.S.P.E.C.T, since it usually doesn’t get much, in which we tasted some good examples from Malivoire Wine Co. (Stouck Vineyard 2010 Merlot) along with the Trius Clark Farm Merlot 2010. 

_MG_0403During the Mothers of Innovation flight for Cabernet Franc, we learned about the grapes regal lineage and how it, along with Sauvignon Blanc, was parent of the noble Cabernet Sauvignon. This was my preferred flight of the tasting with the highlights being the Stratus 2008 Cabernet Franc, which was harvested on December 8, 2008, alongside the Peller Estates 2010 Cabernet Franc from the Four Mile Creek sub-appellation, which was rich and intense with extraordinarily great structure. 

In the We Are Family flight for Bordeaux blends, we once again tasted a Stouck Vineyard wine from Malivoire, this time the 2010 Cabernet Merlot, which seems to illustrate that there is something special about both this grower and site in the Beamsville Bench.  We also tasted the Hidden Bench Terroir Cache from 2010 and 2007, along with the Henry of Pelham Speck Family Reserve Cabernet Merlot from 2002 and 2007, all of which showed that Ontario Bordeaux blends from good vintages can and do age well.   

In Flight Four, with a nod to the Who’s Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy, we tasted a range of big and plush textured reds from the Cabernets (Sauvignon and Franc), along with a few blends and the Foreign Affair 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, with fruit from low yields (2 tonnes per acre) and containing 25% appassimento grapes, grapes that are dried prior to fermentation and a style of wine which we are seeing more often in Ontario. 

_MG_0625The last flight – “If You Don’t Know me by Now” – was a  “Wine Options” flight, where each table has to guess the variety, vintage, region, producer for each of the five wines poured. Wine Options is an antipodean specialty, first started by Australian Len Evans after a Chateau Thabilk tasting in Sydney, and is always an exciting and humbling finale to the Expert’s Tasting.

To some extent, many of the wines tasted reconfirmed what I’d already thought about Bordeaux reds – they can be very good but are vintage and site specific in Ontario. I must admit that I was pleasantly surprised by a number of the blends and Cabernet Sauvignon, though overall, the highlight for me was the Cabernet Franc flight, which seems to reinforce the place for this earlier ripening grape in the region and the reason why many view it as a core variety for both Ontario and Canada. 

Janet’s 90+ Picks from the Expert’s Tasting

Peller Estates “Signature Series” 2010 Cabernet Franc
$40.20 from the winery

A Cabernet Franc with good depth and structure. Aromatic, with red berry and cedar notes, with a touch of grilled red peppers on the nose. Medium to full bodied, with balanced acidity and present and slightly grippy tannins. Long finish. Would be a good match for grilled lamb.

Malivoire Wine Co. 2010 Cabernet Merlot ‘Stouck’
$29.95, Vintages

A limited edition Cabernet Merlot release from Malivoire, with fruit from Beamsville Bench wine grower Dan Stouck. Very deeply coloured, with an intense nose of dark fruit and berries, spice and coffee, which is complemented by richness and depth on the palate. Medium to full-bodied, with good grip and a long intoxicating finish.

Sara’s 90+ Picks from the Expert’s Tasting

“The Temptress” Foreign Affair Winery 2010
$44.95 from the winery

The impressive power delivered by the appassimento style (or drying of the grapes in order to increase concentration) which has become ever popular in Ontario, can yield impressively rich results that make it difficult to determine the origin of the wine, especially during warmer vintages. The results can easily vary from hot and sweet to dry and concentrated. Although not always a fan of this bombshell of a style, this particular version made from a large proportion of merlot was undeniably impressive. When results such as these can be achieved, it is extremely pleasurable to concentrate them.

Hidden Bench Meritage “Terroir Cache” 2007
$45.00 from the winery

Substantial but showing restraint, this plump, lush and sensuous wine is just beginning to show signs of maturity. A smoky, dried leaf flavour helps quell the power of the fruit and adds character and refinement to the blend. Well-crafted and quite indicative of the aromatic potential and length that can be produced by a Bordelaise blend in Niagara.

Henry of Pelham Speck Family Reserve Cabernet Merlot 2002
$50.00 from the winery

This was a bit of a contentious wine in the tasting; some believing it lacked substance and others took issue with its notable maturity. However, I couldn’t’ help but appreciate its charm and distinctive flavours that still remained. Notes of pepper, fruit spice, dill and graphite along with delicate floral notes that still shone through despite its evolved state are surely a testament to the graceful longevity of which is there good potential in Niagara.

_MG_0446A panel of experts from winemakers, to educators, to sommeliers were involved in selecting the wines for these flights, which were designed to help us understand the roles that individual Bordelaise varietals play in our unique climate. Indeed, they were very helpful in illustrating several key points, including the fact that earlier ripening varietals such as cabernet franc and merlot have particularly important roles in our climate, as they provide a certain insurance that they will ripen in most years. In a cooler year, cabernet sauvignon risks being rained out, or can remain hanging on the vine into the winter before fully ripening. Cabernet franc’s aromatic contribution to the blend is distinctly apparently in our Ontario style, which is complemented by merlot’s lushness and even structure as was demonstrated in the first flight.

These flights also provided good illustrations of the ageabillity of our Bordeaux blends, as several examples that Janet mentioned previously, showed remarkably well, especially those dating back to the warmer vintage of 2002. Harmonious, balanced, and refined, there were great similarities here to French Bordeaux of a similar age, which I have tasted as of late.

There were at least as many conclusions as wines served that could be drawn from this enlightening and academic tasting regarding the potential for these challenging wines in Ontario. One thing was made resoundingly clear, however, and that was that these wines are worth are effort and our closer examination.

For more reviews of wines presented at Cuvee 2013, follow this link: Cuvee 2013 Wines.

Photos courtesy of: Robert Nowell,

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25th Anniversary Cuvée Weekend Wine Experience • Exclusive WineAlign VIP access

Exclusive WineAlign VIP Access to Cuvée’s 25th Anniversary Party

Celebrate Ontario’s finest at the Cuvée Grand Tasting Gala and Après Cuvée

Cuvée Weekend Wine ExperienceOntario’s hottest wine event kicks off on Friday evening, March 1st, with the Grand Tasting Gala at the Niagara’s Fallsview Casino Resort. New features have been added in 2013, making the gala event more buzz-worthy than ever before. Over 40 winemakers will play favourites and each will pour a wine for which they feel most proud of.

As always, guests have the opportunity to mingle with the winemakers as they sample locally inspired cuisine prepared at live cooking stations by 10 of Niagara’s top chefs. Après Cuvée is returning in 2013, so as the Grand Tasting winds down, the party keeps going with live music, dancing, an Icewine and Bubbles Bar and Craft Beer.

Cuvée en Route

Each Cuvée ticket is also your passport to Cuvée en Route, which allows guests to tour and taste along Niagara’s Wine Route from Friday through Sunday. En Route participants will enjoy exclusive tastings, special meals and menu items at participating wineries and restaurants. Cuvée en Route guests have the exclusive opportunity to shop for featured Cuvée wines direct from the wineries.

Pre-Gala VIP Tasting for WineAlign members

Cuvée Weekend Wine ExperienceAs part of an exclusive offer, WineAlign members are invited to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Cuvée in style with VIP Access.

In addition to the Grand Tasting Gala, Après Cuvée and Cuvée en Route, WineAlign Members are invited to come early (5:30pm) to attend the pre-event VIP Gala tasting – which until now has only been open to wine writers and Ontario wine industry leaders.

To take advantage of this exclusive WineAlign VIP offer, you can order your tickets on-line, by phone at (905) 684-8688, or download and fax this this order form.  If ordering by phone, don’t forget to mention that you are a WineAlign VIP!

Ticket Info:

WineAlign VIP Access Ticket • March 1 to 3 • $200 per person
Includes access to the VIP Pre-Gala Tasting, the Grand Tasting Gala, Aprés Cuvée and Cuvée en Route

Schedule for Friday March 1, 2013:

WineAlign VIP Access Tasting – 5:30pm to 7:30pm
Grand Tasting – 7:30 pm to 10 pm (black-tie optional)
Après Cuvée – 9:30 pm to Midnight

Schedule for the week-end, March 1 – 3, 2013:

Cuvée en Route: Visit the wineries at your leisure, Friday through Sunday

For more information on Cuvée 2013, including a list of participating wineries and chefs, our sponsors and special rates on accommodations, visit Cuvée 2013.

Making Our Community Stronger

A tax receipt will be issued for a portion of the ticket price. Proceeds will go to the Niagara Community Foundation, which builds and manages income earning endowment funds to support charitable activities. 

Cuvée 2013 - WineAlign VIP Access

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Ontario’s Cuvée 2012 Winning Wines and Pinot Noir Expert’s Tasting – By Janet Dorozynski and Sara d’Amato

Team WineAlign was in Niagara last weekend for the 24th edition of Cuvée, where we attended the Cuvee Gala and the Annual Expert’s Tasting held at Brock University’s Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute (CCOVI). This year’s Experts Tasting theme focused on Ontario Pinot Noir.

Cuvée 2012 Winning Wines

Cuvée 2012

Cuvée 2012

The Cuvée Weekend is a fund raiser for the Niagara Community Foundation with proceeds benefitting community groups across the Niagara region.  The Gala event on Friday evening and En Route tastings at wineries throughout the weekend, were open to the public, allowing consumers to try and buy winning wines from the Cuvée Wine Awards.

One of the highlights of the Gala evening is the announcing the winners of the Cuvée Wine Awards, with this year’s competition seeing 264 wines from 64 wineries entered. The wines were judged by a panel of 51 Ontario winemakers. The complete list of winners and information on Cuvée 2012 found on

WineAlign critics David Lawrason, John Szabo, Sara d’Amato and Steve Thurlow attended a pre-Cuvée media tasting to taste all the winning wines and you can check out their reviews on WineAlign to see how our tasters palates compared with those of the winemakers.

Meanwhile, here are some of Sara d’Amato’s top Cuvee picks. Most are only available directly through the winery. Traditionally many Cuvée wines sell out quickly – perhaps even over the Cuvée weekend itself –  so one must be quick on the draw.

Tawse Spark Rosé 2009, Niagara Peninsula VQA, Ontario, Canada, $39.95
1st Place Winner Sparkling Wine Category
Vibrant and elegant, this is the first incarnation of the Spark Rosé by Tawse Winery.

Featherstone Sauvignon Blanc 2011, VQA Twenty Mile Bench, Niagara Peninsula Ontario, Canada, 89011, $19.95
2nd Place Winner Sauvignon Blanc Category
Upbeat, flavourful and oozing with charm, Featherstone’s recently bottled Sauvignon Blanc is a head-turner.

Cave Spring Cellars Riesling CSV 2009, VQA Beamsville Bench, Niagara Peninsula, Ontario, Canada, 566026, $29.95
3rd Place Winner Riesling Category
A serious, focused and polished effort from Riesling veteran Cave Spring, built to withstand the test of time.

Creekside Estate Winery Viognier Reserve 2010, Niagara Peninsula VQA
Ontario, Canada, $29.95
2nd Place Winner Viognier Category
Lush, aromatic, exotic and flavour-packed sums up this memorable, mouth-filling Viognier from Niagara’s Rhone varietal experts.

Palatine Hills Proprietor’s Reserve Merlot 2007, Niagara Lakeshore
Ontario, Canada, $24.95
1st Place Winner Merlot Category and Best Red Wine
A ripe, substantial, fruitcake Merlot with bold, integrated oak and the structure to age gracefully.

Colaneri Estate Winery Insieme 2009, Niagara Peninsula VQA Ontario, Canada, $34.95
1st Place Red Blend Category
Produced from lightly dried grapes, this concentrated blend is a brazen showstopper.

Sue Ann Staff Estate Winery Riesling Icewine 2007, Niagara Peninsula (375ml) Ontario, Canada, $50.00
1st Place Limited Edition Dessert Wine
An exceptionally complex array of flavours and unctuous nature perfectly balanced by searing acidity and produced a leading Niagara icewinemaker.

Ontario Experts Tackle Pinot Noir

The 23rd annual Expert’s Tasting at Brock University Cool Climate Oenology & Viticulture Institute (CCOVI) is a tasting for trade only, designed to examine a specific grape variety or wine style.  Winemakers, sommeliers, buyers, educators and media taste blind (without knowing the wine) to see how these grapes or wines are doing in Ontario. The wines were submitted by wineries and selected by a panel of winemakers, writers, sommeliers and educators. Past topics have included Sparkling wine, Chardonnay, red blends and Riesling with this year’s theme being “Pinot Noir and its siblings in Ontario”.

Thomas Bachelder, an accomplished Canadian-born winemaker whose had made pinot noir in Niagara, Oregon and Burgundy, France, made the very important point that “tastings of this kind are very necessary in young regions like Ontario, so that we are asking questions and seeking the answers about what our regions, appellations and sub-appellations have in common and what makes our wines different and unique”.

While vine age varied and winemaking styles were not identical in the wines we tasted, the Expert’s Tasting demonstrated that Pinot Noir in Ontario is beginning to show some common and identifiable traits within the sub-appellations. A few years ago VQA divided the Niagara Peninsula into sub-regions or appellations based on varying climate and soil conditions.

The first flight of wines set before the crowd of over 150 trade and industry professionals included other members of the Pinot family – Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc along with the always delicious Henry of Pelham Cuvee Catherine Sparkling Rose made from Pinot Noir.

Another flight had us looking at Pinot Noir from the warm 2010 vintage. Interesting examples by G. Marquis (Niagara-on-the Lake)  and Hinterbrook (Lincoln Lakeshore) . both showed a more juicy and fruit forward style, thanks to the warmth of the year.

We also tasted a group from older vintages – 2002, 2007 and 2008.  The Henry of Pelham Speck Family Reserve 2002 (Niagara Peninsula) still had plenty of life and was evolving nicely. The Hidden Bench Felseck Vineyard 2008 (Beamsville Bench) showed rich cherry fruit and tea characteristics, which the group thought might be characteristic of Pinots from the Beamsville Bench sub-appellation.

Another flight featured the 2009 vintage, considered the year of the Perfect Storm, and the most highly rated vintage for Ontario Pinot Noir to date. This flight included standout examples from Malivoire (Niagara Peninsula), the Lailey Lot 48  (Niagara Peninsula) and the Foreign Affair Pinot Noir (Niagara Peninsula), which contains 40% dried (appassimento-style) grapes in the wine.

The final “Wine Options” flight tried to work out and identify specific characteristics of Pinot Noir from Ontario’s sub-appellations. The Niagara College Teaching Winery Dean’s List (VQA St. David’s Bench) showed spicy and floral notes, while the trio of wines from the Twenty Mile Bench sub-appellation (Tawse Winery Cherry Avenue Vineyard 2009; Flatrock Cellars Reserve; Rosewood Estates Natural Ferment) were showing a thread of commonality in terms of dark berry flavours, higher but balanced acidity, dried herbs and minerality, which appear to be linked more to texture than an actual flavour attribute.

The Experts Tasting also announces winners of the “Promote the Promoters Awards” that recognize exemplary promoters of Ontario VQA wines. This year’s recipients included John Maxwell of Allen’s on the Danforth for Hospitality, Astrid Brummer in the LCBO Category, Angelo Pavan of Cave Spring Cellars for Promoter-at-Large and Ken Douglas, VQA Chair and founder of 13th Street Winery for Lifetime achievement.

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The Ontario Wine Oscars – Cuvée 2011 – by John Szabo

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Each year, Ontario winemakers gather together to taste each other’s wines blind in the event/awards called Cuvée. Given the peer-judging format, it has become known as the Oscars of the Ontario wine industry. It’s always fascinating to see which wines the winemakers themselves rank highest, since for the most part they have a different, more technical approach to tasting then do consumers, or even wine critics. Rest assured, all of the award winners will be vinously spot on – there’s no tolerance for defects of any kind, as one might expect.

I tasted the top rated wines from most of the participating wineries, about 60 wines in total, out of these I wrote full reviews on about 30 (and added them to the WineAlign archives), and selected my top scoring (90+ rated) wines, here below. Of course my top picks might not necessarily match the actual Cuvée winners selected by the winemakers. The “real” winners will be announced during Cuvée Weekend, Niagara’s foremost wine and food celebration. I’m looking forward to comparing notes.

Cuvée takes place from Friday, March 4 through Sunday, March 6. Over the weekend 39 Niagara wineries will open their doors, and “Cuvée en Route” passport holders can travel the Wine Route for complimentary tasting flights and enjoy multiple restaurant promotions.  As I learned from the press release: “Each winery will offer a flight of complimentary wines within their chosen theme, such as winemaker’s selection, limited editions, unique varieties, older vintages, previous Cuvée Award winners, and horizontal or vertical flights of distinctive varietals and Icewine.  These themed tastings are designed specifically with the serious wine lover in mind, giving them access to wines that are not ordinarily available on a winery visit.”

Passport holders also enjoy many other benefits such as special prix fix menus at participating winery restaurants and get first dibs first on purchasing Cuvée award winning wines. But, if you “align” with me, you’ve got the insider’s scoop right here.

Details and tickets at or call 905-684-8688.

John Szabo’s Cuvée Winners (90+):

  • 2008 Tawse Pinot Noir Cherry Ave Vineyard Twenty Mile Bench VQA 92pts $57.95
  • 2008 Cave Spring Vineyard CSV Riesling Beamsville Bench VQA 92pts $29.95
  • 2009 Twenty Seven Cellars Fox Croft Vineyard Riesling Twenty Mile Bench VQA 91pts $24.95
  • 2009 Creekside Estate Winery Viognier Reserve Queenston Road Vineyard St. David’s Bench VQA 91pts $28.95
  • 2009 Five Rows Craft Wine of Lowrey Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc St. David’s Bench VQA 90pts $25
  • 2007 Alvento “Emilie” Cabernet Franc, Merlot Niagara Peninsula 90pts $29.95
  • 2007 Vineland Estates Winery Reserve Cabernet Franc Niagara Escarpment 90pts $40
  • 2007 Thirty Bench Small Lot Cabernet Franc Beamsville Bench VQA 90pts $40
  • 2007 Henry of Pelham Cabernet-Merlot Niagara Peninsula 90pts $24.95

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WineAlign Reviews

Coldstream Hills Pinot Noir 2008