Saturday, December 01, 2007

Whineries or Wineries?

Mackinac bridge '65
In his column November 17, 2007, Beppi Crosariol broached the subject of signature wine(s) for the Niagara wine area. A signature wine is made from grapes for which the regions growing conditions are not just accommodating but complementary in everyway, perhaps not every but certainly most years. Mentioned on the fringe in my previous articles but not specifically I have questioned phrases such as 'cool climate varietals' asking if you have to 'jump through flaming hoops' why grow them?. 'Cool' in this phrase doesn't mean a Canadian 'cool' that's downright freezing flipping cold - a yearly weather cycle that makes for intolerably short growing seasons most years for some notable varietals. More to the point, as Beppi has intimated, signature grape(s) suit the soil makeup and the climate leading to the best wine(s) the region can produce. Some Ontario wineries grow or contract every varietal under the sun. Either they can't decide what will sell or they desparately try to recreate the varietals that do sell: a USA Cab Sauv or Zin, an Australian Shiraz, a NZ Pinot Noir and Sauv Blanc, an Argentinian Malbec, or Chilean Syrah, etc. However, the Niagara climate in many cases doesn't allow competing with offshore varieties. The question that's inferred is 'Why not replant with signature grapes?' - obviously not to the exclusion of others that do well in Ontario and produce more than hobby wines.

What came first - the chicken or the egg? Or, put in context... Do Ontarians choose wines because they are from foreign shores? or Do they choose wines based on flavours and/or value? Rhetorical questions since the obvious answer is 'the latter'. And for 'Ontarians' I don't mean the sometimes wine drinker that picks up a bottle of vino at the supermarket boutique. Have you noticed how many wine drinkers browse, in your local LCBO, the shelves for imported wines bypassing the multiple aisles of local product? Have you noticed how few shelves are allocated in the Vintages corner for Canadian products? Have you noticed the prominence given to Auz, Chilean and Argentinian vintages in weekly wine reviews and mags? The LCBO has bent over backward giving shelf space as well as pricing imports (Ref1, Ref2) (see Ref3 for LCBO's response) to allow Niagara products a significant advantage but they still don't sell on par with foreign wines. It's a conundrum.... I've tasted lots of excellent Niagara wines.

I think I know what the problem is and how to fix it.

As I say, there are many excellent Niagara wines - you just have to find them. Vineland produces successful rieslings, and other whites, vintage after vintage. As do Henry of Pelham, Flat Rock, Niagara College, Mountain Road, Konzelmann, Pillitteri, etc., etc. Jim Warren's classic chardonnays have won awards year after year. But somehow the message has been missed by Ontario consumers. I believe the main problem is the overwhelming amount of plain plonk on shelves for Niagara wines. Rather than be stung, the consumer goes for the recipe wines: the Yellowtails, the Santa Carolinas, the Eaglehawks, etc. These wines will always have the advantage of being based on grapes, perhaps the bottom of the barrel ones, grown in an optimal climate.

IF local critics published honest ratings for entry level domestic and imported wines - instead of ignoring them... and/or IF the LCBO eliminated the ones that didn't sell from their shelves... the plonk would eventually not be there. But that's not gonna happen. Alternatively, if Ontario wineries could avoid washed-out mediocre lookalikes and concentrate instead on wines from grapes that mother nature naturally provides the growing conditions for, much of the domestic plonk would take care of itself - it just wouldn't be there.

I've harped about additives before so won't spend much time here except to say... 'Additives' advocates have convinced some wineries that adding a flavouring here, a nutrient there, etc. to undernourished and undeveloped grapes can compete with those grown in ideal weather and soil conditions. Talk about hiding your head in a wine barrel. Adding stuff to a fermentation is a home winemaker's mindset and should be - no, must be avoided. Adding vanilla and black currant extracts to the dry cranberry and crushed stemminess of a Niagara Cabernet Sauvignon gives a wine that smells of artificial blackcurrant with metallic flavours and finish of dry cranberry and crushed stems - and one that doesn't cellar well. 1. Keep home brewing at home. These techniques are just not good enough for a 'wine industry'!

Correct me if I'm wrong but... isn't the whole Cellared in Canada category due to planting grapes that failed to grow in Niagara climate extremes? To 'save the industry' the solution was to import juices from offshore to support an otherwise failing vintage year. How much longer is this category going to be around? Isn't 2007 suppose to be a bumper vintage? 2. Get rid of the 'Cellared in Canada' shelves. Instead, highlight the main Niagara viticulture areas on LCBO shelves in a similar way (not quite) to how French and Italian regions are identified.

There's never a vacuum for long. Seldom it's filled with the right solution. One solution receiving more attention is for a winery to offshoot egocentric wines. First, batches of quality grapes are set aside. Then a brand is personalized with an obscure name and, lastly, the wine is priced at a premium. These entrepreneurs market to the dollared consumer who naively imagine they can purchase wines exemplary of the finest European whites and reds. Perhaps premium labels need to be one facet of Ontario wines... I don't think they should be or need be the direction for Niagara wineries. But if regular Niagara products are deprived of quality grapes then eventually there will be more not less plonk.

Another practice that exacerbates a Winery's efforts is referring to their whites as 'Chablis-like' or 'Meursault-style'. On first blush this appears to be a complement... a real achievement... similar to saying my son takes after me. I'm telling you he wouldn't be impressed. He's his own personality and his successes are his own. 'Name dropping' such as this is a form of self-grandisement ... demonstrating that the reviewer is intimately aware of these stuck-in-an-era 'ideals'. Such comparisons could actually encourage Niagara winemakers to alter the indigenous characteristics of their wine to the 'preferred' model. The peach and crisp apple of a Beamsville Bench riesling could be changed to a honey, pear and wildflower of an Alsatian, but in a noticeably artificial way. I'm not criticizing reviewers who use european benchmarks among colleagues. 3. just don't pigeon-hole Niagara wines using these same benchmarks. Personally I find references based on wines from cities in France irrelevent to my flavour pursuits in wines from Jordan or Grimsby.

On the other hand, referencing a wine's style to Niagara microclimates such as the 'Beamsville Bench', 'Twenty Mile Bench', 'St David', or 'Lincoln Lakeshore' could be the basis for developing a name and reputation, first locally then on the world market. VQA regulations require Niagara icewines to have a 'viticultural area' on their label. These wines have already established the merit of local identities and subsequently gained recognition in a world market. Other Niagara varieties can earn their recognition but it won't occur without regulation. Label nomenclature identifying vineyard locations within the viticulture areas would give wines an identity and allow brand tiering. The shirazes of Australia are not called syrahs and their Cabs are not Burgundian... they are Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale, Hunter Valley, etc., etc. 4. A challenge to reviewers - discover the terroirs of the Niagara region and include these in your reviews.

The Wines of Ontario website lists four Ontario wine growing regions: Pelee Island, Lake Erie North Shore, Niagara Peninsula, Prince Edward County. The VQA website lists the same and the Canadian Vintners website calls these regions 'viticulture areas'. There are no areas demarcated equivalent to Appellations. (There! I've done it!... depending on european nomenclature) 5. Will someone (VQA?) please formalize the Niagara microclimates so the wineries can get on with giving their wines identities. Let's face it! 'Niagara Peninsula' nomenclature is meaningless if not a negative when I search for a 'good' wine.

Everyone needs to do their part to change Niagara Wineries into world competitors, to change the thinking that is trapping this region in a perpetual amateur hour. Put quality, integrity and skill into everything, literally from the ground up, and Ontarians will put their money where the effort shows up - in the bottle. Ontario may be a small market but the world market is the goal.

Just my opinion, Ww

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