It’s been over four years since the last Brock CCOVI Experts Tasting, with the annual event being cancelled due to the pandemic and its related fallout. Personally, I haven’t been to many of the larger tastings recently, so this was going to be a grand adventure for me.

I’ve attended so many of these over the past few decades, with the early start invariably meaning the more tactically-minded of us would make the trip down from Toronto a day early and then arrive bleary-eyed on the morning of after enjoying the myriad pleasures of Niagara wine country. 

Having somewhat learned my lesson, this time around I was reasonably fresh-faced and bushy-tailed, having been given a late-night tour of the Chinese restaurants of St. Catharines by a local winemaker. 

There have been so many highlights at these tastings over the years, as well as one particular lowlight when I was asked to facilitate, but the less said about that, the better.

Although the room at Brock’s Pond Inlet was full, there were many faces notable for their absence. Pre-pandemic, it used to be that a school bus full of Toronto sommeliers would make the trip down for the event. Seeing as this year’s tasting took place on the first of the month, I can imagine that the bondage of monthly inventory would take a terrible toll on those numbers.

Saying that, inventory wouldn’t be an excuse for wine writers, and so I was somewhat surprised to only see the smiling faces of Wine Align’s Sara d’Amato and Michael Godel (a presenter for the last flight of the day), as opposed to all the usual suspects, especially the locally-based folks. 

There was a healthy LCBO contingent present, as well as so many industry faces, but I did find it to be a much older crowd than has been the case in the past, which is a pity, as young sommeliers could learn so much from a tasting as well organised as this. Even for a jaded old wine hack like myself, there was a lot to take away and much tasting fun to be had, particularly at the table I was seated at.  I haven’t laughed so much in a while.

Ron Giesbrecht hosted the event, speaking much of his love for the colour red as a way to introduce the topic for the day’s flights: “Defining Red Wines in OntarioThrough the years of artistry mother nature has shown that specific varietals shine in our climate. This tasting is about exploring red varietals that have proven to stand the test of time and grown to define red wines in Ontario.”

FLIGHT #1: VQA’s Gamayzing Future
SPEAKER: James Peden, President, CAPS Ontario and Director of Operations, Liberty Entertainment Group

James Peden, one of the few Toronto sommeliers present, began the tasting portion by professing his adoration for the Gamay grape and where he felt Gamay wines fit in on a restaurant wine list. I’m a huge Gamay fan, but I still feel there’s a real challenge in getting those wine drinkers who still feel that bigger is better to enjoy the perfumed delicacies of a pretty Ontario Gamay.

To be honest, I didn’t feel that the Gamay wines were showing at their best that morning, as I’d usually score them a little higher. It really felt as if their florality was completely masked that day. They still performed well on the palate, but they all nosed a little dumber than usual. Standouts were the Bachelder and, surprisingly for me, the Inniskillin, as I’ve never thought of Gamay as being on of their strengths previous to this tasting.

2021 Fielding Estate Winery Gamay  Estate Bottled $25.95 Winery 3.5 apples out of 5
2021 Malivoire Wine Company Gamay “Genova”$27.95 Winery 3.5 apples out of 5
2020 Bachelder Gamay Noir “les Villages” $25.95 Winery, LCBO Vintages
2020 Stéphane Aviron Vieilles Vignes Moulin-à-Vent $23.95 LCBO Vintages 3.5 apples out of 5
2020 Inniskillin Gamay Noir Discovery Series $19.95 Winery, Online
2020 Featherstone Estate Winery Gamay Noir $19.15 Winery 3.5 apples out of 5

FLIGHT #2: Local Love for the Heartbreak Grape
SPEAKER: Joe Abruscato, Writer/Researcher, Customer Engagement Group, LCBO

As we are all well aware, Pinot Noir has an annoying propensity for making some of the most disappointing wines out there. Thankfully, the selection panel did a smashing job, as all of these were showing really well.

Bachelder’s $65 “Wild West” really stood out, although Thomas admitted that this wasn’t from his favourite spot for Pinot as sometimes the tannins came out a little rough. Personally, I thought it was an absolute cracker. Another standout was the Jackson Triggs, as I’ve never really enjoyed a Pinot Noir from them in previous years. There’s obviously something good happening at those Arterra properties these days. For further investigation…

2021 La Crema Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast $36.75 LCBO Vintages 3.5 apples out of 5
2020 Jackson Triggs Niagara Estate Pinot Noir Grand Reserve $29.95 Winery, LCBO Vintages
2020 Megalomaniac Winery Pinot Noir “Sonofabitch”$29.95 Winery 3.5 apples out of 5
2020 Bachelder Pinot Noir “Wild West End” $65.00 Winery
2019 Peninsula Ridge Est. Winery Pinot Noir, McNally Vineyard Proprietor’s Reserve $30.15 Winery
2019 Westcott Vineyards Reserve Pinot Noir $44.95 Winery
2018 Domaine Quelyus La Grand Reserve Pinot Noir $64.75 Winery, LCBO Vintages

FLIGHT #3: Time Warp
SPEAKER: Lawrence Buhler, Head Winemaker, Henry of Pelham Family Estate

Having taken over the reins at Henry Of Pelham in 2018, Lawrence Buhler was the perfect guide to take the room through this vertical of Pinots from HOP’s Family Estate Pinot Noir line.

What I found fascinating was the vintage variation here. There was a common Shorthills Bench  thread running throughout all four wines, but each bottle spoke profoundly to the vintage in question.

2020 Henry of Pelham Family Estate Pinot Noir, Speck Family Reserve $47.95
2019 Henry of Pelham Family Estate Pinot Noir, Speck Family Reserve $47.95
2009 Henry of Pelham Family Estate Pinot Noir, Speck Family Reserve $116.00 Not available 3.5 apples out of 5
2007 Henry of Pelham Family Estate Pinot Noir, Speck Family Reserve $125.00 Not available 3.5 apples out of 5

FLIGHT #4 – WINE OPTIONS: Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?
SPEAKER: Chris Waters, Globe & Mail Wine & Spirits Columnist and Wine Educator

Normally the Wine Options flight is left until the end of the day—a little brevity to end a day of serious tasting. However, that was not to be this day, as poor Chris Waters, admittedly ripped to the gills on allergy medications, had to pick up his kids later that afternoon, so his flight was pushed up to accommodate.

Chris has always made me laugh, sometimes uncontrollably, as he has quite the sense of humour, making him the very best candidate to present Wine Options. Saying that, I’m sure that a fair bit of his irreverent wit went swooping over the heads of much of the day’s audience. Personally, I found it brilliantly hilarious. 

Occasionally, wine options can get rather competitive, with each table vying for the prize and some people taking it a little too seriously.

After doing incredibly well in the first three rounds, pride came before a fall for my table, but we had a hell of a laugh getting there, due in no small part to Katie Dickieson (Peller) and Sara d’Amato (Wine Align) being part of my team.

2011 Fielding Estate Winery Cabernet Sauvignon $29.95 Not available
2012 Fielding Estate Winery Syrah $39.95 Not available 3.5 apples out of 5
2018 Esk Valley Syrah, Hawkes Bay, New Zealand $29.95 LCBO Vintages 3.5 apples out of 5
2016 Cave Spring Vineyard Cabernet Franc Estate $39.95 Winery
2020 Fogolar Cabernet Franc, Picone Vineyard $54.95 Winery 3.5 apples out of 5

FLIGHT #5: We need the Franc, we gotta have that Franc
SPEAKER: Emma Garner, Director of Winemaking, Ontario, Andrew Peller Limited

This was an absolutely killer flight, and winemaker Emma Garner (Thirty Bench) did a terrific job introducing the wines. She’s always been an enthusiastic proponent of this grape, so it made sense that she would have an opportunity to show off three of her own wines here. Cabernet Franc is consistently a star in Niagara; from vintage to vintage, it has proven itself to be particularly suited to the peculiar climatic vagaries of the region.

All seven of the wines sang in their own particular manner, but again, it was the 2020 Thirty Bench “Small Lot” that took the grand prize from me.

2020 Featherstone Estate Winery Cabernet Franc $22.15 Winery, LCBO Vintages 3.5 apples out of 5
2020 Fielding Estate Winery Cabernet Franc $25.95 Winery 3.5 apples out of 5
2020 Ravine Vineyard Cabernet Franc Lonna’s Block $61.80 Winery 3.5 apples out of 5
2020 Ravine Vineyard Cabernet Franc Nancy’s Block $61.80 Winery
2020 Thirty Bench Wine Makers Wild Cask Cabernet Franc $55.00 Winery
2020 Thirty Bench Wine Makers Cabernet Franc Winemaker’s Blend $26.95 Winery, LCBO Vintages
2020 Thirty Bench Wine Makers Small Lot Cabernet Franc $76.00 Winery 5 apples out of 5

FLIGHT #6: They’re Red Hot
SPEAKER: Michael Godel, Partner/Principal Critic, WineAlign

I heard through the grapevine that there were a number of voices complaining about this particular flight, questioning why we would be showcasing red grapes “that only ripen properly one year every decade”.

The thing is, when Syrah/Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon do ripen properly in Niagara, they are capable of being absolutely wonderful. Unfortunately, this can mean that in the lesser years, many wineries push green, nasty, underripe wines at inflated prices rather than try to tempt visitors with utterly delightful Gamays and Pinot Noirs. Those poor tourists.

I always appreciate Michael Godel’s banter, even if I did roll my eyes a couple of times at his inclusion of the truly dreadful Red Hot Chili Peppers in his diatribe defending these two grapes, and the fact remains that 2020 and 2017 are responsible for many of the best wines ever made from these grapes in this region. All of these wines were showing amazingly well, although a surprise here once again was the Jackson Triggs, as it really blew me away.

2020 Jackson Triggs Niagara Estate Shiraz Grand Reserve $29.95 Winery, LCBO Vintages
2017 Creekside Estate Winery Broken Press Syrah Reserve $55.00 Winery
2020 Icellars Estate Winery Syrah, Wismer Parke Vineyard $75.00 Winery 3.5 apples out of 5
2020 Peninsula Ridge Estates Winery Cabernet Sauvignon, Beal Vineyard Reserve $34.95 Winery 3.5 apples out of 5
2020 Jackson Triggs Niagara Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Grand Reserve $40.95 Winery, LCBO Vintages
2020 Thirty Bench Wine Makers Small Lot Cabernet Sauvignon $60.00 Winery
2017 Two Sisters Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon $65.00 Winery

All in all, this was a super tasting, and it was such a pleasure to take part in an academic exercise like this. My thanks to Barbara Tatarnic and all at Brock CCOVI for making this marvelous tasting happen once again.

I’m looking forward to next year!