Wise winemakers withhold judgment about a harvest's quality until the last grape has been picked, crushed and fermented. In a cool climate such as Ontario's, where fruit needs ample sun exposure to ripen fully, they can be biting their nails until December. That seems the likely scenario this year, with the province's slow, cool, rainy start demanding serious catch-up.
But often the picture doesn't come fully into focus until months or even a couple of years later as wines emerge from tank or barrel to make their way to market. For consumers, it can get confusing. If you like to play the numbers, permit me to summarize: The 2010 and 2012 vintages are proving to be two of the finest in recent memory, both well-represented on shelves today. I am including some examples in this roundup of recent Ontario releases.
Flat Rock Nadja's Vineyard Riesling 2012 (Niagara)
Score: 91 Price: $19.95
Keep your eye on Ontario riesling from 2012, a superb vintage for the variety. Here is a case in point. Light-bodied and essentially dry, this white shows a rounded, vaguely sweet mid-palate before the acidity kicks in to freshen things up. The flavours hint at tinned peach and apricot with lemon juice and tart apple. It's silky, long and delectable.
Jackson-Triggs Entourage Grand Reserve Brut 2009 (Niagara)
Score: 90 Price: $22.95
This is complex bubbly at a fetching price. Very dry and subtly toasty, with ample weight and a moderately chalky texture, it leads with flavours of tart apple followed by a hint of rounded sweetness suggesting lemon-custard pastry with a drizzle of honey.
Henry of Pelham Cuvée Catharine Estate Blanc de Blanc Carte Blanche 2007 (Niagara)
Score: 90 Price: $44.95
An Ontario leader in Champagne-method sparkling wine, Henry of Pelham recently introduced this super-premium edition of its Cuvée Catharine lineup. It's a vintage-dated white based entirely on chardonnay and spent 54 months maturing in bottle in contact with spent yeast cells before being disgorged – far longer than most Champagnes. That extended "lees" contact produced the sort of creamy, toasty, bread-like character associated with the best Champagnes. It is bone-dry and chalky, with good tension and length.
Sue-Ann Staff Merlot 2010 (Niagara)
Score: 89 Price: $17.95
Staff boasts deeper roots than most winemakers in the Canadian industry. She comes from a family that has been growing grapes for five generations. And she worked at a couple of wineries, notably Pillitteri, before launching this eponymous brand from her family's estate in Jordan. (She's also the talented wine master behind Megalomaniac, another excellent Niagara estate.) This is smooth yet lively merlot, medium-full-bodied and plummy, with good ripeness, juicy acidity and a dusting of unintimidating, fine-grained tannins for grip and structure.
Cooper's Hawk Cabernet Franc Reserve 2010 (Lake Erie North Shore)
Score: 89 Price: $39.95
The warm 2010 growing season is conspicuous in this cabernet franc, a variety that can exhibit strong herbaceous flavours in a cool climate. No bell pepper here. It's full-bodied, with a luscious core of blackberry, currant and cherry candy. There is impressive weight in the mid-palate and a satisfying tannic tug on the finish. Pricey? Yes, it's that, too, unfortunately.
The Foreign Affair The Conspiracy 2011 (Niagara)
Score: 89 Price: $19.95
There is greater flavour depth in this blend of late-ripening cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc than might be expected from the 2011 vintage, which saw a rainy harvest season. That is due, in part, to a special winemaking technique known as ripasso. Dried grape skins left over from previously fermented wine batches were added to the fermenting vat to feed yeast and generate higher alcohol, tannins and glycerin. The result is a full-bodied red with rich berry, chocolate and coffee flavours. It is all kept lively by juicy acidity.
The Organized Crime Pipe Down 2011 (Niagara)
Score: 88 Price: $22.20
Mainly a mix of cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc, this red tastes like a checklist of classic varietal characters: cassis, mint, black olive and spices. It's pleasantly lively, with light, dusty tannins.
Vintage Ink Mark of Passion Merlot Cabernet 2010 (Niagara)
Score: 87 Price: $17.95
Smooth merlot leads the way in this medium-full-bodied red, which hints at plum and raspberry. It is refreshingly counterbalanced by juicy acidity and light spice.