Niagara is much more than just Ice Wine

This is my second consecutive Christmas in St Catharines, Canada and although there isn’t as much snow as last year (none, in fact), it is still a fabulous place to be during the holidays.  One of the most exciting attractions of the area for me, is that it’s only a short drive from one of Canada’s foremost wine regions: Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula.

Niagara is best known for Ice Wine (not to mention of course, the awe-inspiring Falls), however, we rarely hear about the dry wines (those that aren’t sweet) from this area, which is such a shame because they are certainly worthy of high praise and recommendation.

So it was with great excitement that we set out to visit three unknown (to us) wineries:  Reif Estate Winery, Lailey Vineyard and Stratus.  Each one makes at least one ice wine, but I was curious to see the quality of the dry wines and was not disappointed.

The day started at Reif (rhymes with Life) and a tasting of Chenin Blanc 09, Pinot Noir 2008, Meritage 2007 and Vidal Ice Wine from 2009 and 2005.  The Chenin had a lovely mouthfeel and was loaded with orchard fruit and melon notes and a few tartrate crystals (or wine diamonds as they are sometimes referred to)!  The Pinot had an inviting nose, but the palate was a bit off balance and short. The Meritage was much better with good ruby colour and levels of complexity.  We really enjoyed seeing the differences between the young ice wine and the 05 vintage. The 09 was a very light gold with fresher notes of citrus rind and honey while the 05 was a deep amber and packed with marmalade and caramel – both excellent wines.

Tartrate crystals on the Chenin Blanc cork

Next we went to Lailey. The building was very unassuming and we weren’t sure what to expect, not having heard anything about the wines before. Soon we were in the company of the convivial winemaker, Derek Barnett. Standing in the vineyards, he gave us some background on the estate – it was founded by David and Donna Lailey as a second career and they have taken care to keep it at the top end of quality from beginning to end.

Derek took us straight down to his underground barrel cellar where he used his wine thief to offer us barrel samples of several of his wines. We tried his barrel aged 2011 Sauvignon Blanc which wasn’t at all a ‘fume’ style, but instead the oak just added a subtle texture and even at this very early stage, the wine tasted wonderful – I look forward to trying it again in bottle.

The barrel cellar at Lailey

We went on to try several Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, also from the barrel, and each one was spectacular. I was really impressed with the layers of archetypal fruit, the balance and length – they were very Burgundian in style – wonderfully elegant. A surprise came in the form of a Malbec, a unexpected grape for the region, but one with loads of potential as all the elements were there for it to become a powerful, interesting wine.

Derek balancing on barrels with his wine thief and a sample of Pinot Noir

In the tasting room we tried some other vintages of the wines we’d had the cellar, the Brickyard Chardonnay & Pinot Noir and my favourite, the Old Vines Pinot Noir from 2009.  Their 09 Syrah was a close second, full of lush, dark fruit. A wonderful visit, excellent wines and a truly passionate winemaker.

Finally our last stop of the day was the ultra modern, state-of-the-art facility of Stratus Wines. They are a ‘green’ winery and practice sustainable viticulture and in fact were the first building in Canada to receive the LEED® certification (Leadership in Energy and Enviornmental Design).  As their web site says, “to qualify for LEED® certification, the winery met numerous criteria for reducing its impact on the environment both during construction and on a permanent, operating basis.”

The vineyards at Stratus

After a tour of the premises, we went to their impressive tasting room with floor to ceiling windows overlooking the vineyards where we tried four of their wines.  The winemaker at Status, J.L. Groux is from France originally but has been in the Niagara region for over 25 years. He has been the recipient of the ‘Ontario Winemaker of the Year’ award.

Tasting the 2007 Stratus Red

Their flagship wines are a white and red blend.  The components of the blend are different every year as the wine is less about a consistent style from vintage to vintage, but more about ‘the big picture’ – a snapshot of the year – the wines showcase the varieties that performed best.  Stratus don’t usually disclose the percentages of each grape in the blend, but for 3 of the 5 grapes in the 07 Stratus White are Sauvignon Blanc, Gewurztraminer and Semillon whereas the 07 Stratus Red is Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Gamay. We also tried the 07 Cabernet Franc (100%) and the 2010 Icewine Red, a decadent blend of Mourvedre, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Syrah.

As wine tours always are, it was a fascinating, educational, tasty day spent in Niagara and I would certainly recommend picking up a bottle of any of these wines (if you can find them) or even better, a visit to the area so you can experience these wines and this area first hand.

Thanks to all Keith, Derek and Judi for your time and gracious hospitality.

Editor’s note:  As this is my last post of 2011 and we are just about to open a bottle of the 2008 Stratus White to kick off the New Year’s Eve celebrations, I would like to say a heartfelt thank you to all the readers of Wine Passionista around the world.  I am so grateful for your interest, support and interaction.  I wish each of you a spectacular, successful, healthy and happy 2012.

Here’s to another year of wine adventures!  Cheers!

Tara – Wine Passionista


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Leave A Reply (1 comment so far)

  1. Andrew
    6 years ago

    A region I would love to explore. Attended a very interesting tasting of these wines last year, shame so few are available in the UK.

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