Less Well-Known Canadian Wineries Worth Your Attention (Part Two)
By David Lawrason
Last month WineAlign published Part One of what I hope is an illuminating snapshot of a few of the leading less-well known wineries across Canada, based on their excellent results in the comprehensive Guide to Canada’s Best Wines published here last fall. Eight wineries were featured last month and if you missed that piece or want to refresh you can read Part One here. The introduction below is repeated for new readers, or you can SKIP to the first winery. Another eight wineries are added this month.
Last October and November the WineAlign ‘crü’ tasted almost 900 wines submitted for The Guide to Canada’s Best Wines. The top wines by style and varietal category were published in the Guide to Canada’s Best Wines and all the wines were reviewed by at least three critics. Almost 4,000 Canadian wine reviews were added to the database during this exercise!
The top wines in most of the major categories were dominated by Canada’s larger, longer established wine companies, or wineries already known to be playing to the highest standard with certain styles. And thank goodness for that, because if our biggest, best funded and most experienced wineries were not flying the flag of quality, we would not have much of an industry to talk about.
As we tasted through flight after flight, three days a week for about six weeks – not tasting blind – something unexpected began to happen. Certain less well-known wineries emerged with impressive scores, not just with one grape or style, but often over a handful of categories. They were not necessarily “new” wineries, but they were wineries that tend not to figure prominently in buzz-worthy conversations in industry and sommelier circles. Often due to small production and lack of marketing reach and export to other provinces.
So, I decided then and there that at some point I would highlight them. I don’t want this exercise to be interpreted that somehow “smaller is better”, or that less-well known is “cooler”. Or even that these wineries are even somehow “underdogs”. They are simply less well known on the increasingly crowded national landscape, doing good work and worthy of our attention.
Two other caveats here for consumers. This tasting called for Canada’s Best Wines, thus the country’s most expensive wines, so prices tend to be high and it is not necessarily a place to find bargains. Second, some wineries did not submit wines, which may be a reason a winery you might expect to appear does not appear.
So here are sketches of another eight wineries, listed alphabetically, with their region of origin, province and top performing wines presented. Full reviews from each can be searched found on WineAlign by following the links.
Baillie-Grohman Estate Winery, The Kootenays, B.C.
I made my first and so far only trip to the new VQA region of Kootenays about five years ago to check out the nascent region centred on the southeastern B.C. town of Creston (now five wineries). At Baillie-Grohman I immediately saw and tasted the potential. The Kootenay River flowing out of Kootenay Lake has carved a verdant valley between the Selkirk and Purcell ranges, crossing the border into Idaho just south of town. It is the same 49-degree latitude as Osoyoos in the Okanagan Valley and capturing the same sunlight, but at twice the altitude (just under 600 metres) it is cooler and perfect for pinot, chardonnay, riesling etc. The benchlands above the river flats are sloping glacial, rock strewn till, ideal for vines and some of the best cherries I have ever tasted. This Erickson Bench site pinged the radar and hearts of Bob Johnson and Petra Flaa back in 2006, when they purchased the property. The first wines (made at The Okanagan Crush Pad) began to appear in 2010, and they have shown up and well in competitions ever since. Good fruit rendered by viticulturist Petra Flaa, and good winemaking by Wes Johnson, who commutes to New Zealand in the off season, is conveying a sense of brightness, purity and balance I really like. They did not submit many wines to the Guide tasting, but four them earned 90pt scores somewhere on the judging panel. The best was the Gewurztraminer 2019 hitting 90-92 pts. Pinot Noir is a signature here with the Terraces 2017 scoring 88 -90, and the Reserve 2017 scoring 89–90 points, as did the Chardonnay 2018. I expect these scores to rise in the decade ahead as maturing vines build in more depth and complexity.
Church & State Wines, Vancouver Island and Okanagan Valley, B.C.
Having two wineries and vineyards in distinctly opposite parts of the province, making very different style of wines, has always been confusing in terms of identity. The first winery established by Kim Pullen in 2004 just north of Victoria is still the largest on Vancouver Island, focused on pinot noir and white varieties. He soon acquired vineyards on the Black Sage Bench in the south Okanagan. He trucked the grapes to the Island for processing before building a small winery in the Okanagan and purchasing the nearby Coyote Bowl site in 2011. Late last decade he sold the Church & State to Vancouver businessman Yue Cai Liao, and in 2018 French winemaker Arnaud Thierry, who has had a great deal of experience in the south of France, took over management of the vineyards and winemaking. Given the impressive performance during our Guide tasting, where nine different wines registered at least one 90-point score, the hiring of Thierry was a good move. I won’t list all here, but they ranged across nine different grape varieties. Coyote Bowl Syrah 2017 top the scoring with 91-93pts, followed closely by Coyote Bowl Malbec 2017 at 91-92pts, Petit Verdot 2017 with four 91pt scores and Coyote Bowl Chardonnay 90-91. Three white 2018 Rhone wines – Marsanne, Roussanne and Viognier – each scored 89-91 points.
Icellars Estate Winery, Four Mile Creek, Niagara Peninsula, ON
This is one of the most earnest and detailed new enterprises in Canada in the last decade. It aims high. Adnan and Elif Icel and their two sons emigrated from the Anatolia region of Turkey in 2006, where their family had winemaking roots, which their marketing reflects. In 2010 they purchased 60 acres on the flats of Four Mile Creek just metres below the rise of St. David’s Bench, well inland from Lake Ontario in Niagara’s warmest sub-appellation. They planted 47 acres with Bordeaux reds (95%) with a bit of pinot and chardonnay. Adnan, a mechanical engineer, designed and built the very efficient winery, with the tasting area in the midst of it all. He also smartly hired Niagara veteran Peter Gamble to consult on all aspects of the development. The wines are elegant, smooth, balanced and keen. Like many Canadian wineries there are probably too many labels – 14 on their website – but they are intentionally small batch, and six of them garnered a 90pt ratings during our Guide tasting. The highest scoring in our tasting was Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2017 at 91-92 pts. The Merlot 2017 registered 90-92 pts. The Cabernet Sauvignon 2017, Pinot Noir 2017 and a blend called Arinna 2017 all scored 90-91 pts. I also really like the “Bench” Sauvignon Blanc 2019 at 90-91 pts, the only wine not sourced from estate vineyards.
Kitsch Wines, East Kelowna, Okanagan Valley, B.C.
To click on to the Kitsch website and social media platforms is to instantly join a party that never seems to end. The latest is that the three-car garage at the almost palatial home in East Kelowna has been transformed into a tasting room “that pumps catchy beats and a rad art collection”. I may be easily twice the age of those depicted, but I too am energized by the wines. Trent and Ria Kitsch are 4th generation recipients of a prime East Kelowna agricultural estate, that with the proceeds from the sale of their SAXX men’s underwear company, has allowed them to develop almost 25 acres planted to riesling, pinot noir and chardonnay, the mainstays of this important region. The latest coup was the hiring of veteran winemaker Graham Pierce, formerly of Black Hills. The portfolio is not broad but perfectly fitted to the region with four wines in our Guide scoring 90pts among the panelists. The top performer is the Esther’s Block Riesling 2018 scoring 91-92 points, followed closely by Maria’s Block Riesling 2018 at 90-91. The Pinot Noir 2019 registered 89-91 pts, while the Chardonnay 11 Barrels 2018 scored 90pts across four judges.
Leaning Post Wines, Niagara Peninsula, Ontario
Ilya and Nadia Senchuk’s winery and Senchuk Vineyard are located at the narrowing, westernmost point of the Lincoln Lakeshore appellation in Winona, making Leaning Post the closest fine wine producer to the Greater Toronto Hamilton Area. The young vines planted in 2011 on the 11-acre home property are beginning to produce notable wines, but the story to date is about “terroir-hunting” and making unique wines from select parcels of older wines throughout Niagara. This passion to delve into Niagara’s nuances stems from Ilya having made wines at the historic Daniel Lenko vineyard planted in the 50s on Beamsville Bench. Explorations into other old vine sites include the different blocks from the Wismer Vineyard in Twenty Mile Bench and the Lowrey Vineyard on the St. David’s Bench. The large portfolio includes many small lot labels, with some veering into natural winemaking. Throughout there is energy, edge and veracity, reflecting in nine wines garnering at least one 90pt score in the Guide. The two top scoring wines are from the home Senchuk Vineyard with the Chardonnay 2018 hitting 90-94pts, and Pinot Noir 2017 91-93pts. Others in the all-90s range include the nifty Niagara Lakeshore Sauvignon Blanc 2019 scoring 91-93pts, plus Riesling 2018 and Pinot Noir 2017 each at 91-92pts.
Lightfoot & Wolfville Vineyards, Annapolis Valley, Nova Scotia
Most Canadian wine enthusiasts have by now heard of Lightfoot & Wolfville, but thanks to small production from low yielding, biodynamically Demeter certified vineyards on slopes about the tidal Minas Basin, most Canadians will not have experienced the wines. Notice has come relatively quickly. Michael & Jocelyn Lightfoot began converting their Wolfville family farm to vineyard in 2009, and under the tutelage of Niagara-based consultant Peter Gamble made their first vintage in 2015 and opened the winery in 2017. Sparkling wine is a backbone as it is throughout Nova Scotia but L&W caught my attention, and others, by planting chardonnay, pinot noir, riesling and other varieties like chenin blanc and Hungary’s Kekfrankos. There are no winter hardy hybrids in the 40-acre vineyard, largely because air drainage created by the tides of the Bay of Fundy reduces winter risk. From the packaging (which I think is the best in the country) to the vineyards to the highly efficient and esthetic winery and restaurant, to what’s in the bottle there is a fine sense of minute detail and quality. Although there are 17 skus only three wines were submitted for the Guide tasting, with all three getting a 93pt rating from at least one judge. The Ancienne Chardonnay 2017 topped out with 91-94pts, while the Blanc de Blancs 2014 registered 92-93pts and the Brut Rose 2018 hit 91-93pts.
Rosehall Run Vineyards, Prince Edward County, Ontario
With twenty years of toil on Hungry Point less than 2km from Lake Ontario in the southwest corner of Prince Edward County, Rosehall Run virtually defines the County wine experience. Dan and Lynn Sullivan were among the pioneers, planting in 2000, and being instrumental in PECs rise to national notice through success in wine competitions. The 25-acre vineyard is on clay soil with rock and shale fragments atop the County’s famous limestone bedrock base. Chardonnay and pinot noir are the mainstays, but pinot gris, sauvignon blanc, gewurztraminer, muscat and tempranillo area also planted, and notably no hybrid varieties. These varieties allow the restless and creative Dan Sullivan to play with different blends and styles (there over two dozen labels). No matter the style or variety there is an amiable ethos to the wines, with lightness and linearity. And there is also a sense of value. Only a handful of wines were submitted for the Guide but five landed at least one 90pt rating. The flagship JCR wines topped the charts with JCR Pinot Noir 2018 ranging from 90-94pts and JCR Chardonnay 2018 at 90-93 points. The PetNat 2019, a crazy pale red field blend of several varieties scored 90-91 (the first time I have rated a PetNat 90). The new Pinot Noir Rose 2019 garnered 89-92pts, the Hungry Point Pinot Gris 2019 hit 88-90pts. And although it did not achieve 90pts the Unoaked Chardonnay 2019 scored 89s across the board from five judges, at a price of $14.95!
Westcott Vineyards, Vinemount Ridge and Twenty Mile Bench, Ontario
Vinemount Ridge misses the crucial Lake Ontario warming air circulation enjoyed by Niagara Escarpment and lakeshore vineyards. Without it the season is shortened and winter damage becomes a greater risk. That didn’t stop Grant Westcott and Carolyn Hurst, with input from top viticultural consultants, from putting their all into planting the 27 acres of their south tilting site to pinot noir and chardonnay in 2007, and bottling their first vintage in 2012. The harsh winters of 2014 and 2015 caused severe anxiety, and prompted the purchase of the, mature 43-acre Butler’s Grant vineyard in the Twenty Mile Bench. The wines continued to improve through the decade and the project is assuming real gravitas. In the Guide tasting quality seemed to jump to a new level, perhaps the influence of Niagara College grad winemaker Casey Kulczyk. They seem to be sporting new quiet elegance and deeper flavours. Five wines recorded received a 90pt score from one of the panelists. The Block 76 Chardonnay 2018 rated 90-93pts, as did the Pinot Noir Reserve 2017. The Pinot Noir Reserve 2016 hit 90-91pts; the Chardonnay Reserve 2018 registered 89-91pts, and the new vintage of a sparkling wine Brilliant Sparkling Rosé scored 89-90.
And that’s a wrap for this exercise. I hope you find some great new wines as a result, and that you get the sense of the major quality improvement underway at the grass roots level across Canada as we move into the 2020s.
Go to the complete Guide to Canada’s Best Wines.
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