Aged Ontario (Yes, Ontario!) Red Wine

Yeah yeah, I have heard it. Ontario can’t make red wines that compete on the world stage. I might even have said it myself at some point way in the past (Baby Duck is a red wine, right?). But Ontario is producing some kick-ass red wine and you just need to get out and find it. Here’s one event that came to Ottawa to show just how far the Ontario wine industry has come.

I had the chance to attend Chateau des Charmes Winemaker’s Dinner and “Equuleus” Vertical Tasting at Hy’s Steakhouse here in Ottawa June 1. “Equuleus” is the name given to Chateau Des Charmes high-end Bordeaux blend and Paul Bosc Junior from the Bosc family was coming to Ottawa to not only open the “family wine library” but to give some of the background on this legendary Ontario red, with 10 samples going back to 1991. Before we go any further, let me tell you that yes, Ontario reds CAN withstand 20 years of aging and still be a pleasurable drinking experience!

The day started off with a 2008 Rosé Sparkling that certainly refreshed on this warm Ottawa day. Things were delayed a little so we “had to” endure more of this summer beauty.

Paul Bosc vineyards (named after Paul Junior’s dad obviously) are now 25+ years old and are considered “old vines” by Ontario standards. No chemical fertilizers are used in these vineyards – just horse manure. Paul Senior keeps enough horses to cover these vineyards although the winery purchases cow manure for the other vineyards.

Now the vertical.

The Lineup!

1991 Cabernet

1991 Cabernet: Although not yet called Equuleus, they used the phrase “Cabernet” which still allowed some degree of blending at the time, and this wine had a small proportion of Merlot. In 1991 the vineyard was still quite young, so 20 years of aging for a wine from a young vineyards tells you that this was indeed a good year for Ontario reds, and the winemaker (Paul Senior) knew what he was doing! The Nose is rich, dried fruit. leather, white pepper. With the tannins almost totally consumed, this wine has peaked and has just started to decline but the fruit is still there. It is still a very pleasurable drinking wine.

1994 Cabernet

1994 Cabernet: There was no release in 1992 or 1993 of this line. So 1994 was next in line and there was a bit of a funky nose on this one, with some vegetal notes still showing through the fruit and oak. 1994 was an average year and under the standards they have now Chateau Des Charmes would not have released an Equuleus based on the crop from that year. Although this was an average year, the fruit is still quite lively and there are still minor tannins at play.

1995 Cabernet

1995 Cabernet: Although 1995 started like 2011 (rain, cool temps, and more rain), it ended up 100 Growing Degree Days (GDD) above average. The nose was one of cherry (kirsch), and dried fruit like figs and raisins. This wine is still very youthful and fruit forward, and has a fair bit of potential left in the aging process.

1996 was de-classified as the crop did not meet standards required, and 1997 was very similar to 1994.

1998 Cabernet (er, Equuleus): 1998 had a very early spring, with lots of heat units early in the season. They had decided that they wanted a proprietary name for their signature red and decided on the name Equuleus (latin for “Little Horse”, it is also the name of a constellation only seen in the northern hemisphere in the fall time). This release was originally not labelled Equuleus because the labels were ordered incorrectly as Cabernet. Not all of it got labelled though so new labels were ordered with the Equuleus branding. These were some of the last bottles in existence (assuming Toronto also had the same). This wine was incredible – with a port-like nose with tons of dried fruit. And with the alcohol present, it was almost a bit reminiscent of cough syrup at first. The Tannis are mellowing out but lots of fruit still present. Nicest one so far, and a showcase 13 year-old red blend by any global standards.

1999 and 2000 were declassified.

2001 produced an Equuleus but it sold out.

2002 Equuleus

2002 Equuleus: 2002 was a very good year. They also introduced a new policy/standard that each varietal making up the blend had to have a Brix level of 23.5. About 1000 cases were made of this beauty. At 13.8% ABV, they set the recipe at 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Cabernet Franc, and 25% Merlot. This one has a jammy fruit nose and tons of fruit on the palate perfectly balanced with the tannins. Drinking beautifully now, it likely has several years to go. This was now the best wine of the night so far. This was also the year that the horse head appeared on the label.

2005 Equuleus:
2005 started with cold temperatures of -25/-26C which devasted the wine industry in Niagara. The Merlot was wiped out and Chateau Des Charmes saw their harves drop from 55K tons to 18K tons. They had been able to keep it at -10C using their fans (not a lot of wineries had them at the time). Yet the season ended really well, and the wine came in at 13.5-14% ABV. Only 880 cases were produced this year and despite the rough start, this wine was named on of Canada’s “Iconic Wines” by Vines Magazine (only 5-6 wines were listed as “Iconic”). This is a full structured red wine that can go 10-15 years of cellaring. The nose on this wine was one of massive fruit (think plums and figs even) balanced against tobacco leaf and earthy spices.

2007 Equuleus: At the time of the tasting (early June) this wine was about 80% sold. They harvested 1019 cases and the wine was 26 Brix at harvest. Niagara had an earlier harvest than Napa in 2007, and the wines had higher Brix levels. This wine just breathe beautiful fruit on the huge nose – raspberry, cassis, blackberry and secondary of smoked meat and kirsch even. The wine is just full of fruit and tannins and the finish just keeps on reminding you what you are drinking – another “Iconic Wine” from a great producer!

2008 was wet and cool, and 2009 was also too cool to produce this wine.

Lots still to sample

2010 Equuleus: The Brix of the component wines was 25 on average and has spent 1 year in French oak. It will be released in holiday season 2012 or spring of 2013, so it has a long time to spend with its oak yet. We were allowed to sample three different versions (just like at Tastecamp) with the difference being the toast and age of the barrels being used. Paul is collecting data from different events on the preferred toast and will help determine the final blend when this wine releases.

Following the vertical tasting Paul hosted a fantastic four-course winemaker’s dinner  with wine pairings chosen by Hy’s Sommelier Rob Nellis. With a salad, oysters (sourced form 3 different regions), steak, and a massive creme brule, we were rewarded with several different wines including the just-released 2010 Sauvignon Blanc, from Paul Bosc Estate Vineyard.

In the end, these were great examples of Ontario red wine that has been aged 10, 15, and even 20 years. So to those of you who think Ontario cannot produce stellar (or Iconic!) wines, you just aren’t looking in the right places!

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